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The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | Problems Problems, Part 2

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, In Eight Parts

By Mark L. Berch


To err is Human” certainly applies to making a Sefer Torah, pretty much regardless of what precautions are taken.

Certain types of scribal errors have turned up occasionally.  One is a “dittographic” error.  This consists of an erroneous repeat of a letter or word.  Rabbi Seidel  found one of these in 1995 while reading Torah Shabbat morning.  The word “ben” (son of) appeared at the end of one line, and again at the start of the next.  The reverse of this is a “haplographic” error where a word or letter is supposed to be repeated, but isn’t.  Then there are Homoioteleutonic errors.  This largely unpronounceable circumstance arises when several words or whole lines of text are omitted or repeated.  If a word appears twice in nearby locations, the scribe is at the first one, but then when his eyes return to the tikkun from which he works, he “returns” to the second one.  Errors can also arise in spacing.  Letters cannot touch each other, lest the reader misread.  Similarly, too much space between letters is also wrong, as the reader may think one word is really two.   Some authorities are not that strict on these latter two issues.

Inevitably, there are gray areas as to what is wrong and right.  How much curvature is really needed on that za’yin so it won’t be confused with a vav?  How short can a vav be before it starts to look like a yod, anyway?  There was a custom in which a child was called up and asked to read, to see if he would get it right.  This practice is no longer in use, despite the fact that many children would consider the task of passing judgment on the work of their elders to be deeply satisfying.

Fixing simple errors is straightforward: The defective text is scraped from the parchment with a sharp blade (typically made from glass, as metals are not to be used) or pumice stone, and the correct lettering is done.  Indeed, some errors don’t even require that.  A thin letter, especially a vav or a yod can be often be slipped in without having to redo other letters.  A wider letter, such as an aleph, is a problem because it could squeeze too many letters trying to fit it in.  An improperly formed letter, such as a resh which is too short, or a nun missing its bottom bar, can usually be fixed with touchup.  Special care is needed to avoid confusing the two most similar letters, the dalet and resh.  Letters which are blurred, smudged, or cracked must be repaired.

Errors involving the seven names for God are very problematic.  You cannot erase God’s name.  There’s even a proof text for this rule. Deuteronomy 12:1-3 commands the ancient Hebrews to obliterate the names of all the local gods of Canaan, so scraping out one of God’s seven names would carry an infelicitous implication.  Instead, the entire sheet must be placed in a geniza, eventually to be buried.  Thus, special concentration is mandated for these writings.  Of course some other types of error especially a Homoioteleutonic error, could cause the same problem.

The most common type of problem needing fixing, however, is not really the scribe’s fault.  Ink flakes off the scroll and the letter becomes flawed.  Obviously, this is the easiest to fix.

If a major error is discovered, the Torah is set aside for repairs (which must be done in 30 days).  Authorities, shall we say, differ, on whether the reading must begin all over again.  The majority view is that the Torah was just fine until the error was discovered, and only became invalid (or “possel”) upon discovery of the error (a touch of logical positivism there).  Anyhow, traditionally the wempel is wrapped around the outside of the flawed Torah so that it will not be mistakenly used.  

But if the error is minor, reading may proceed.  For example, oddly enough, some words are supposed to have a missing or extra letter.  The lack of such an “error” is not enough to interrupt a reading, since one cannot be certain that there is an error.  But if a second error is discovered in the same column, a fresh problem arises.  Three errors in one column (some say four) will mean that the Torah is supposed to be buried.  Cries of “Blindfold the gabbi!” will arise from the congregation at this point.

Other problems can arise.  A tear through two lines of text can be repaired; through three, and the segment of parchment must be replaced.

You would not believe some of the technicalities that are involved in this business.  My favorite is a rule saying that a Sefer Torah containing fewer than 85 correct letters (out of 304,805) must be discarded.  Imagine how often that rule is invoked!  Why?  Because Numbers 10:35-36 is considered as a separate book of the Bible.  It has 85 letters.

You will doubtless be offended to learn that a woman is not supposed to write a Torah, and that if one is written, it may not be read publicly.  This arises from the general dictum that a Torah cannot be written by one who cannot publicly read it.  Given that non-Orthodox women do read, there presumably will be, or are, women-written Torot, which hopefully will cause conniptions in certain quarters.

Once a Torah is deemed beyond repair, it cannot be read from, but can still be marched with at Simchat Torah.  It is eventually buried in an urn, and there was a custom to do this alongside a famous rabbi.

Finally, a scroll written by a heretic is to be burned.  The heretic may have malevolently changed the text.  Remember, when it comes to the mitzvah of hearing the Torah read, no chances may be taken.  It must be right.

Next: Why you should never, ever try to run the Torah through a spell checker.