The Craft of the Sofer

By Theodore McEvoy
Date Added: 17/07/2009


For those partial to serendipity, the Society for Italic Handwriting offers happy opportunities for finding things they are not looking for. To a philistine like me, it has opened doors to paths I might never have trod: handwriting having aroused interest in lettering, typography, heraldry and history. Now it has allowed me an insight into the craft of the sofer.

Dr. Heinrich Lamm, a member who lives in Harllngen, Texas, suggested recently that it might be of interest to study the techniques used by the soferim, the Jewish scribes who have maintained the tradition of calligraphy with the edged pen uninterruptedly for many centuries. In a letter to me, he wrote:-

". . . There live among us (i.e. within Western civilization) a small group of professional scribes who carry on not only medieval but even antique and biblical techniques of writing and who, by the nature of their work, are extremely unlikely to have changed techniques much over the centuries: I refer to the soferim, the Jewish Scribes who write essentially three pieces of writing (I) the Thorah, i.e. the scroll. of the Pentateuch used many times throughout the year in orthodox-Jewish services, (2) the Book of Esther (Megillah) used once on the Feast of Purim, (3) the small sections of Scripture fastened to doors (mezuzah) and used in the phylacteries. All of these are still today written by hand with a goose-quill, a special very black ink and on parchment, following rules which are centuries (perhaps millennia) old, clearly codified in Jewish "law" books, and which the Faithful consider God's word. Therefore they aren't likely to be modified easily. Probably the same technique was used for the Qumran Scrolls as for a modern piece of writing by a sofer."

The Court of the Chief Rabbi in London very kindly arranged for a parry of students to watch a sofer at work. Although, owing to their special sanctity, we were not allowed to see the scrolls being written, we saw the writing of a bill of divorcement. It was interesting to note the similarities and the differences between the techniques of the sofer and modern English scribes, which might be summarised briefly as follows:-

Pen: A goose-quill, cut very quickly using a pocket-knife and no other equipment. The angle of the edge was very acute (what we should call "ultra left-hand. oblique") so that the horizontal strokes would be the thickest.

Pen hold: The sofer held his quill between the index and second fingers of his right hand, but I gathered that this was not necessarily a standard practice.

Ruling the paper: Done with a metal stylus (like a knitting-needle) and an ordinary wooden foot-rule. No dividers were used for spacing, nor T-square for parallels; both were adequately achieved by eye. The paper was then turned over so that tlle scribed "ridges" were uppermost.

Angle of slope of writing surface: Nil. The sofer laid his paper upon an ordinary blotting-pad on a flat dining-table, (quite unlike the sloping desk of the scriptoria). This seemed to cause no undue ink-flow from his quill, which he occasionally replenished by plunging it deep into his ink bottle. The ink, which is made from a traditional herbal recipe, seemed more viscous than ordinary ink and this quality may account for the success of writing on a level surface.

Writing: Although each line is begun on the right, each individual letter is written from left to right, so that all pen-strokes are "pulled" and none "pushed". (This solved a problem which had long exercised my mind about Hebrew and Arabic scripts). The writing "hangs" from the ruled lines and does not stand upon them as is normal in English practice. The height (or perhaps one should say the depth) of the letters is judged by eye.

Spacing of words: The bill of divorcement has to be written in exactly twelve lines, and the name of each party to the divorce must not occupy more than" one line. To achieve these ends, it is legitimate practice to squeeze words and letters, or to stretch them out, using long horizontal lines, where necessary.

Simplicity of equipment: The simplicity of the whole thing was impressive. The sofer carried all the tools of his trade in his roll of paper. He shook it and out fell a ruler and a shower of goose-quills. He peered through it from one end as if it were a telescope and gave it another shake and out came another flight of feathers. It seemed a sort of cornucopia. No nonsense with desks, drawing-boards, T-squares, set-squares or dividers; just a sixpenny ruler, a bottle of ink, a stylus, a pen-knife and some goose-quills. But the final result was a beautiful piece of calligraphy.