Netivat Sofrut: diary of a Soferet

Adventures of a female sofer learning to heal the world by doing Holy Work...writing a Sefer Torah

נחזיר את השכינה למקומה בצייון ובתבל כלה

"Let us restore the Divine In-Dwelling to Her Place in Zion & infuse Her spirit throughout the whole inhabited world."

So wherever we are, let us bring the Peace of G@d's Presence.

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Location: Vancouver/London, British Columbia/UK, Canada

SCRIBAL EVANGELIST As the only living certified Soferet (סופרת - female Jewish ritual scribe) & the first woman to practice sofrut (creation of sacred Hebrew texts) in over 200 years, I feel an obligation to blog about my experiences of The Work. I am also currently researching the foundation of a lost tradtion of women practicing this holy craft. For more on the services I provide, please see; Sofrut Nation. I am now available to engage with students, male or female, wishing to enter into the preliminary stage of learning sofrut. You are welcome to join me on this path. "Tzedeq, tzedeq tir'dof - Justice, justice you shall pursue." Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:20.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


12 Av

I found this tonight, while Google-stalking myself. Trackback on BlogWog.

soferet & reb aryeh
That's me & R' Aryeh Hirschfield. He's wonderful. Ah, how I miss my old laptop...

By Anne Koppel Conway
Special to the Jewish Review

SOFERET AND RABBI--Aviel Barclay, right, and Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield of P'nai Or examine a Torah for flaws and other distinguishing characteristics June 20.


Aviel Barclay is not the first woman sofer, Jewish ritual Torah scribe. You haven't heard of any others? No names of soferets popped up at dinner parties? That's because the last time a woman – prior to Aviel Barclay – had a profession of writing sefer Torahs was 200 years ago, said Barclay, a soferet from Vancouver, B.C.

According to her research, at least 10 Jewish women have used a feather quill or bamboo or a reed to calligraph aleph-bets on parchment before this 21st century female scribe entered the scene.

Certified in 2003, Barclay believes she is the only certified soferet alive today.

She said she's perfectly happy not being "the vanguard. … It's better for everyone if I'm not the first. Halakhah depends so much on precedent."

Barclay, 37, was at P'nai Or to check the congregation's Torah.

Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield said, "We don't have a resident sofer in our community, so it's a big deal to have one come. It's our intention to raise money for needed repairs." He encourages people to sponsor letters requiring repair.

Mateh Esther/Linda Brownstein said P'nai Or hopes to have Barclay return to do repairs at the end of August. "We would love to have other communities, who need their Torahs repaired, to split the cost of bringing her down here." Brownstein can be contacted by e-mail,

Totally at ease with the Torah, Barclay multitasked. She scrutinized each section of the Torah, consulted with the rabbi, typed notes on her laptop, offered suggestions, answered a barrage of questions and interspersed all that with a running commentary about the Torah.

It doesn't take much to have a Torah declared passul, invalid.

"If just a single letter has a tiny crack in the ink, it's enough to make a sefer Torah not kosher," Barclay said.

"I love doing this, because every time I see something new in a sefer Torah," she said. "Maybe part of the Torah was written by a different sofer later on," though having one scribe write an entire Torah "is more common."

She also has seen beloved Torahs that had been damaged and pieced together with other Torahs to make one kosher one.

"There's a big black-market for stolen Torahs," she cautioned. Barclay has seen them posted on eBay. "For a Torah this size, the materials alone would run $4,000, if it had to be replaced."

Barclay's interest in becoming a scribe began at age 3, when watching "Fiddler on the Roof" "a 100 times" at her father's theatre in Victoria, B.C. "It was the first time I saw the letters of the Aleph-Bet; they stayed with me."

Male sofers simply purchase their supplies from sofer supply outlets. Since these stores will not sell to women, her mentor ships her the needed materials. And she is learning to make those supplies herself, "So, if God forbid" her supply is cut off, she will be able to create her own materials to continue her work.

She has learned how to make the special Torah ink. "There are a few recipes in the Talmud. You first have to boil the ingredients and then let the mixture steep like tea for six months to a year."

She is also trying her hand at making parchment. Since scraping deerskin gets "gory," she wears "industrial strength gloves and large garbage bags."

Getting turkey feathers to make quills is an easier task.

It has not been easy for the 21st century woman scribe. Barclay was a gemologist, when God "sent me a message." Her hand had been badly crushed in a bike accident. Someone opened a car door without looking, jamming her writing hand between the door and her handlebars. She called it "a door-prize. I knew I wasn't following the right path then. I'm stubborn. Sometimes God has to yell at me."

After regaining use of her hand, at age 26, she began her studies with two soferim in Jerusalem. One was Dov Laimon, a Bostoner Chasidic Rabbi, now deceased. The other sofer chooses to remain anonymous – and for good reason.

During this time she also was studying at a yeshiva. When the school found out she was learning sofrut, school officials demanded to know the name of the sofer who dared to instruct a woman, where he lived and what car he drove. She refused to reveal that information and was summarily shown the door to the yeshiva.

"It was creepy," she said. "The school wasn't right for me anyway. After that I went to others that were good."

One piece of advice from her mentor sofer: "Don't make skinny strokes." In the long term the thin strokes will crack faster. "Be kind to your clients so they won't have to make repairs again in five years," is the lesson he taught her.

The certified soferet continues to get hate e-mail. "It's mostly boring." Some tell her she will go to hell if she continues to practice sofrut. "It's just cursing; something Jerry Falwell could have written. You can't engage them in [intelligent] dialog."

On the Jewish continuum,"I'm user-friendly Orthodox," she quipped. Actually, she sees herself as centrist Orthodox. "The only thing weird about me is that I'm doing sofrut."

Rabbi Tzvi Fischer, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, who is the director of the Kollel Jewish educational learning center in Portland, said that whether a woman can be a sofer, according to Halakhah, is discussed in Shulhan Arukh (Set Table) law codifier, written by Rabbi Joseph Caro in 17th century Israel, which states women cannot write Torah. This opinion is followed by the "standard Orthodox community" today, Fischer said, and most, therefore, would not use the services of a soferet. However, he continued, this opinion "is not absolute." In Rabbi Falk Katz's responsum he disagrees with Rabbi Caro saying that it's OK, no problem for a woman to write Torah. "Both [positions] are standard Halakhic codifiers," Fischer said.

A few comments/corrections I'd like to make on the above article:

- I must say that Anne, the journalist who wrote this article, was very nice

- My name is Avielah

- the theatre which my Dad managed where I saw "Fiddler on the Roof" so many times all those years ago was the Fiesta Twin in Nanaimo, BC

- As my reputation has grown for doing good work, I'm finding it easier & easier to purchase my materials in more locations, barukh Ha-Shem (however, if you want to check me out making kosher deer skins into parchment, click here)

- Rabbi Dov Laimon - my sofer #2 who doesn't mind being publicly named - is very much alive & well, thank G@d. I saw him last week & he looked quite good

- the R' Falk Katz who R'Tzvi Fischer refers to above is none other than the Drisha, R’ Yehoshua Falk ben Alexander Katz. He lived in the late 1500’s – early 1600’s in Lublin, Poland. He also studied with the two most prominent Polish rabbis of the previous generation, R’ Solomon Luria and R’ Moses Isserles.
The Drisha, in his commentaries on the Tur*, had two possible explanations as to why the Tur omitted women from his list of those who, if they wrote a Sefer Torah, it would not be kosher. He said it could be that the Tur thinks women are not kasherot to write a Sefer Torah for public use. Men could use it for study or women for women's tefilah, for example, therefore we wouldn’t have to geniza it (store it away because it's no good - there's an explanation in this post).
Now the Drisha himself says that this reason is "dachuk" - not a very good explanation, so he goes on to say that the Tur's omission is more likely because he actually believes that women are kasherot to write a kosher Sefer Torah for public kria.
The Drisha then goes on to say “…& I have written at length about this matter in my earlier responsa.” – sadly, we have never found this volume. It may not have survived. He spent early life composing extensive analytical commentaries on the Talmud, which were later lost in a fire.

Also, a note on his reference to Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De'ah Reysh-Peh"Alef Hilkhot Sefer Torah pasuq Gimel is one famous for being used to prohibit women from writing Sifrei Torah. It reads, "A Sefer Torah which has been written by a Masur (Jew who has turned away from Judaism to atheism), Eved (slave), Ishah (woman), Qatan (minor), Kuti (someone who is of doubltful Jewish status, like a Samaritan), or Yisra'el Momar (a converted Jew who has re-converted back to their birth-religion) - pasulin (these Sifrei Torah are disqualified from/unfit for use in public kria).” Very simple & straightforward, no?
NO! If you just look at the *footnote* made by the Be'er Heytav, he speaks in the name of the Drisha (an Acharon/later commentator mentioned above), who spoke in the name of the Tur, the Ro"sh & the Ri"f (all Rishonim/early commentators). He writes that the above pasuq, these aforementioned great Rabbis understood to mean the prohibition extended only to Tefilin.

* the Tur (or Ba’al HaTurim) was R’ Ya'aqov ben Rabbeynu Asher ben Yehiel (the ROSH). He lived in late 1200’s – mid 1300’s in Germany & in Toledo, Spain.
In his volume "Arba’a Turim - Yoreh De’ah" (Four Pillars - Teach Knowledge) lists those who, if they wrote a Sefer Torah, we would have to geniza it:
Idolaters, Non-Jews, Slaves, Minors
Who’s missing?
He left women off his list of those who are pesulim from writing a Sefer Torah.

...& the beat goes on. Shavu'ah tov - a good week to everyone, & may we reach a fair & just peaful agreement this week!

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Blogger Poor Mad Peter said...

As a journalist, I have to comment that the headline isn't really accurate in terms of the gist of the article. Oh well, we get it wrong more than we get it right...:)

2:15 p.m.  
Blogger Soferet said...

Hi there, Peter - I was just thinking about you & how I've missed reading your comments on my blog :)

Welcome back!

Yeah, I agree with you that there's very little in the article that directly correlates to the title, but perhaps that's because the headline is meant to catch people's attention...

...I have to admit that I'm guilty of that myself, just in my own amateur writing here.

& I imagine that she confused R' Dov with R' Dr Eric Ray, alav ha-shalom/may peace be upon him, who was something of a teacher of mine over the phone conversations we had. He wasn't one of my two main mentors, tho'...

2:31 p.m.  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Wow, who knew the justification for women writing Torahs could be so simple?

3:36 a.m.  
Blogger Soferet said...

I know, Steg, totally...
...makes me wonder what the brou-hah-ah has been all about, with me then Jen then Shoshannah writing. Especially since so many women proceeded me. & here we have reliable, widely respected rabbinic authorities holding this minority-opinion for centuries.

4:33 a.m.  
Anonymous Shawn Anthony said...

Wow. Awesome. The photo of you over the scroll is wonderful. Keep up the fantastic work.

6:21 p.m.  
Blogger Soferet said...

Aw, thanks, Shawn. That's really kind of you to say. Will do :)

11:30 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Wow, who knew the justification for women writing Torahs could be so simple?"

"makes me wonder what the brou-hah-ah has been all about"

Don't get me wrong - I'm sympathetic to what you're doing. But, you have to understand the legitimate reasons for the "brou-hah-hah". The Drisha and the Be'er Hetev don't create a halachic reality - they only create a halachic possibility. The reality is that halacha wasn't decided according to the Drisha's minority opinion, and the Shulchan Aruch's ruling was the accepted law for hundreds of years. Turning back the clock to reconsider a halachic possibility is not "simple" at all - it happens occasionally (e.g., married women wearing wigs), but only with a whole lot of "brou-hah-hah".

A technical question: In general, the laws of Sefer Torah are much stricter than the laws of tefillin, no? If so, how could the Be'er Hetev claim that these restrictions apply only to tefillin, but not to a Sefer Torah?

Kol Tuv,
Moshe Kranc
(hope to get to your shiur this evening after an early wedding)

12:54 a.m.  
Blogger Soferet said...

Hi, Moshe. What you're saying is basically my own understanding of where we are Halakhically with women & sofrut, based on what I've learned from the Orthodox rabbis I study with.

The possibility has existed for some time that women do this work, as I write here.
I'm not the first soferet, just the first one in a long time.

In answer to your question, well, I can't answer it. I don't know about tefilin as I couldn't find any Halakhic justification for me to make them to bring to my teachers.

Also, not being a rabbi, I hesitate to try to explain why the Be'er Heytev wrote what he did & why.

What do you think?

3:37 a.m.  
Blogger Soferet said...

ps - mazal tov on this wedding you're attending today! Enjoy!

4:41 a.m.  
Blogger בטל בששים said...

Thanks. As for the Beer Hetev, I'll have a look at it and let you know what I don't know :-)

7:43 a.m.  

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