The Hebrew word Sofer refers to a professional scribe who can transcribe the Torah scrolls used during synagogue services and other religious texts that must be handwritten, such as tefillin and mezuzas. Many scribes also function as calligraphers—writing functional documents such as ketubas (marriage contracts). It is a responsible and highly respected job. A sofer must be religiously observant, of good character, and knowledgeable about the laws concerning the practice of scribal arts. Sofer must be a master of Hebrew calligraphy, because the slightest mistake makes the sacred text non-kosher – it cannot be used during the service
In order for a Torah scroll to be kosher, all writing and arranging the text on the sheets must be done exactly according to strict rules. There are 600,000 letters in the Torah, and even one mistake or a blot made by the sofer means that all the work has to be started all over again. Writing the Torah is a religious act. The sofer may only use goose feathers, specially cut and modelled at the end. The parchment on which the text is written must be from a kosher animal. Before writing the Tetragrammaton YHWH, which signifies the unspeakable name of God, the sofer must undergo a ritual bath in the mikveh.
Before starting work on a new scroll, the sofer recites a text expressing his intention – that is, to write the scroll for a sacred and just purpose. Then he checks carefully whether his tools, i.e. pen and ink, are suitable for work and writes the word “Amalek” on a scrap of parchment. He then repeatedly crosses the word out to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to erase the name of Amalek, the biblical enemy of the Jewish people. The Scribe cannot write a Torah scroll from memory. For this purpose, there is a special Tikkun book that serves as a model text and contains additional information of use for scribes, such as directions concerning writing particular words, traditions of calligraphic ornamentation, and information about spacing and justification.
After the writing is completed, all parts of the parchment are sewn together. The finished scroll is attached to wooden handles.
Ketubah is a legal marriage contract signed by engaged couples before marriage.
Tefillin are the two small leather boxes containing the texts of four key Torah passages that are worn by men during weekday morning prayers. Each box has long leather straps to fix them in place, one on the forehead and one on the left arm near the heart. Both boxes contain the same text, except that it is written on one piece of parchment in the tefillin worn on the arm, and on four pieces in the tefillin worn on the head. The Torah fragments are written on parchment made of the skin of a kosher animal. They are Exodus 13, 1–10 and 11–16 and Deuteronomy 6, 4–9 and 11, 13–21. They contain the commandments to wear tefillin, to say the Shema prayer, and to nail a mezuzah to the door frame of the house. The Torah fragments written in tefillin also contain the Shema prayer and the mezuzah text. The tefillin are to serve Jews as a reminder of God’s intervention at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
Mezuzah is a piece of parchment with two handwritten fragments of the Torah placed in a container made of wood, metal, bone or glass. Mezuzas are put on the doorposts of all Jewish houses; they include a text from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our
God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.(Deuteronomy 6, 4-9)
According to the tradition cultivated in Jewish homes, a person crossing the front door should touch the mezuzah with their hand. It is also practiced placing a kiss on the hand which has touched the mezuzah or kissing the fingers with which you are about to touch it.
Krosno-born Eliezer Herbstman was a sofer (or “writer of the 10 commandments” as his profession was defined in vital records) in Brzesko. He came from a rabbinical family and moved to Brzesko after marrying Laje Templer, whose ancestors were also rabbis. The couple had eleven children. We don’t have any texts transcribed by Eliezer Herbstman. There remain only a moving epitaph on his grave and a few traces of mezuzahs on Brzesko tenement houses.
Eliezer died on January 6, 1930 at the age of 70. Most of his children and grandchildren were murdered in the Holocaust.
Part of the inscription on the matzeva of Eliezer Herbstman:
Crown of good name
The wise and famous man Rabbi Eliezer
Son of our teacher Rabbi Naftali Tzvi
His hands were occupied in the wondrous art of writing
Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzas
All of the great scholars of Israel learned from him…”
© Anna Brzyska, 2022