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.

Monday, February 28, 2005



I decided to experiment with the hazardous occupation of self-promotion, just to see how this animal works. It's untamed, this I understand, but I'm still curious. To this end, I have included some links to the right side-bar under the category "SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION" to various press articles about me & my work...

...or are they? Each time a new piece comes out, sometimes without my being interviewed or even knowing about it, I am fascinated by what spin the journalist chooses to give it. I am also occasionally alarmed by some of the errors. This is one of the reasons why I keep a blog - to make statements in my own voice that I can take responsibility for - unless somebody quotes me out of context, of course ;+>

I have noticed, for example, that every *single* writer I have ever spoken to has written without any hesitation that I am the first soferet in the history of the world, that I am the first woman to write a Sefer Torah. I assure all you readers out there, that I have never made that claim. In the beginning of the press attention, I simply said that I didn't know, that I couldn't be sure, that I didn't want to make a claim that I couldn't prove. But the following week, there I was, The First. The Only.

Now as time has worn on, I'm becoming more & more convinced that a woman *must* have written a Sefer Torah before, based on what I am learning & reading in my "spare" time & recording in this blog. Each time I speak to a journalist I say, "You know, I don't think I *am* the first, but I don't know who was. Someone other than myself should be researching this."

Now, I think that being unusual (very few women have been sofrot) rather than unique (there has never been any sofrot) is still a good, newsworthy story. But I don't have to sell papers. & yes, I do realise that this image the press is constructing of me will lead to more press & maybe more gigs & jobs & all that. But I don't actually want to be famous. Fame is false & ugly & just ask any famous people about having no privacy & people gossipping about them all the time. I DON'T WANT THAT!

All I want is to have a steady amount of work that I enjoy & feel priviledged to execute so that Joel & I can have a nice little life where we focus on G@d & each other & Torah & our families & friends...just enough so that we don't have to struggle financially. But I'm not interested in celebrity. How could I market myself effectively, anyway? Being Orthodox, I'm not available to participate in the provocative behaviour of, say, oh, pick any pop star you see on TV. & that seems to be the only way to make a buck these days, by selling out.

Or of course if G@d sends you the brakhah of parnasa :)
Then you're set.
As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, in response to Perchik's comment that "Money is the World's curse":
"May the good L@rd smite me with it! And may I never recover!"

Please feel free to comment (constructively, please) on the content of any of the articles I have included in my new experiment.

Sunday, February 27, 2005



This site is my new favourite obssession. Way to go, Shanna, for inspiring my latent OCD. Thanks a lot.

Friday, February 25, 2005



This appeared in the Bay area Jewish newspaper this morning. My corrections appear in bold throughout the article.

First female Torah scribe forging ahead with breakthrough project

by dan pine
staff writer

In the history of the Jewish people, there is no record of any woman ever having written a Torah scroll.
[Actually, it's possible that a woman has written a Torah scroll before, so I have never made the claim that I may be the first - that has been Kadima's doing]

But history is about to change.

Aviel Barclay, a Vancouver, B.C.-based artist, has become the first known certified soferet, or female Torah scribe. Not only that: She’s landed her first commission and is now completing a Torah for Kadima, a Seattle-based Jewish community.
[I'm not near completing it at this time, & do not know when that will be as they have stopped paying me.]

The project has generated excitement across the country. Several women artists have asked to contribute, with San Francisco artist Aimee Golant pegged to create two silver Torah crowns and Berkeley poet Marcia Falk signed up to write a blessing for the yad (pointer).

“I fell off my chair I was so excited,” says Golant from her studio. “That these woman had the chutzpah to make this happen is so special. It adds another dimension.”

Other female artists will be creating a mantle, a breastplate and the etz chaim (the wooden spools). And when it’s finally unveiled sometime in the fall, Kadima will likely throw a Simchat Torah party for the ages.

“This was done through force of will,” says Wendy Graff, chair of the Woman’s Torah Project. “It wasn’t an easy sell. But so far we’ve received donations from 300 donors in 30 states.”
[Many Canadian donors have also supported this project.]

Graff, who grew up in San Mateo and attended Peninsula Temple Beth El, says the project evolved out of real need.

“We don’t have our own Torah,” she says of her 80-family congregation. “We borrowed Torahs from other synagogues, like neighbors asking for a cup of sugar. We even had one that had all these yellow Post-it notes inside.”

Kadima launched a Torah fund that grew slowly. Finally Rabbi D’rorah O’Donnell Sete of Kadima asked Graff, “Why don’t you commission a Torah scribed by a woman?”

The answer: because no one ever had.
[Please see my comment above - there is, in fact, what may be a woman-written Torah in an Israeli museum.]

Jewish law does not forbid women to become scribes, but it is a role that traditionally has been filled by men.
[That is not true - there are both opinions within Halakhah, including those who prohibit women from acting as scribes for Sifrei Torah]

That is, until Aviel Barclay came along.

She remembers being drawn to Hebrew letters as a child. She taught herself the alef-bet at 10, and starting taking Hebrew seriously at the same time.
[I did not formally begin learning Hebrew until my early 20's]

She went on to attend art school and became a gemologist. But a cycling accident changed everything.

“I was off work for six months,” she recalls. “Doing calligraphy was much easier on my hands. I remembered my Hebrew calligraphy and put two and two together. Then I asked, ‘Do women do this?’”

She didn’t wait around for an answer, and instead began contacting soferim around the world. “One told me it would be better if I got married and had children, “ she remembers. “He said that was a better way to serve the Jewish people. But I didn’t give up.”

She finally found a teacher in Israel willing to take her on. She moved to Jerusalem and attended yeshiva. The process took years and involved a good deal of scorn and abuse, but Barclay persevered.
[I lived in Israel for a year, but did not move there. While there, I attended 4 different yeshivot. The scorn & abuse part is true, though.]

Once back home, Barclay heard from Kadima about writing a Torah. Now the project is a mission.
[I had been back from Israel & continuing to learn sofrut long distance with my sofer for over 5 years.]

“We could have gotten a Torah for less money,” says Graff of the $60,000 project, “but once we realized that a woman had never scribed a Torah, I knew I could never look at one the same way again.”
[For a brand-new Sefer Torah, the cost can range from $30,000 USD to $75,000 USD. Kadima paid approximately $4,000 USD for the materials & will only pay me $24,000 USD; I don't know where the rest of the $32,000 will go.]

Graff is openly appealing for donations to speed completion of the project. Most of the costs relate to Barclay’s fee, but all the women artists involved will be paid.
[As I mentioned above, I will only be paid $24,000 USD, so, "Most of the costs relate to Barclay’s fee" is incorrect.]

Meanwhile, Barclay toils on, up to six hours a day, one letter at a time. “I’m pleased with the work I’m doing,” she says. “I feel in awe.” But she’s more excited about creating a Torah than being some sort of feminist pioneer.

Says Barclay: “I don’t have to be Yentl.”

Thursday, February 24, 2005




I did a presentation at the Westcoast Calligraphy Society last night, & it was such fun!

Kasandra picked me up & we went to Sabra's for their to-die-for chicken shwarma. Then off to Kitsilano for the meeting. They were a very friendly bunch & I enjoyed meeting them all. They wrapped up their business part of the meeting within half an hour & then we had some goodies during the break (mine came from Sabra's) & I did a mini-demo of some Hebrew letters, their stroke order & some of the midrash connected to them with the overhead projector.

They were all quite silent. I wasn't sure at first whether I was putting them all to sleep, as sharing even the basics about Hebrew & how to write it can be overwhelming. But the nice thing about giving a talk to a non-Jewish group who are artists & calligraphers is that I can nerd out with them about nib-widths, proportion, kerning, pitch & yaw. I was in heaven!

So I taught them to write the word "shalom". I explained that although this word meant "hello" & "goodbye" & "peace", that "peace" in Hebrew was different than "peace" in English.
In English, what does the word "peace" mean? It means "quiet", "calm", "an absence of war", in other words it indicates a lack of disorder. There is no conflict. "Peace" features nothingness.
In Hebrew, what does the word "shalom" mean? The shoresh/root of "shalom" is Shin-Lamed-Mem Sofit and this combination of letters gives us words like "rest", "reward", "completion", "accomplishment", "wholeness", "perfection", "renewal"...there is an entirety in "shalom", an infinite totality.
I think they appreciated that.

After the initial speaks about the letters & sharing a bit about my journey to become a soferet, I showed them my tools & brought the Megilah so I could write in it in front of them. They were full of questions & I really had a good time chatting with them all, fellow calligraphers.

I felt like one of the group, so I think I'll join :)

I belonged to the Fairbank Calligraphy Society years ago when I lived in Victoria, so it's been a long time since I felt I had a peer group. I certainly don't have many colleagues in sofrut. Outside of the two sofrim who taught me, there are only, I think 4 non-Orthodox Jewish scribes (all men) who will even talk to me. They're great, tho' - we share about technique & the joys & perils of writing The Holy Names, but they're all so far away...3 in the eastern USA & one in London.

Anyway, last night was terrific & I hope to make the next metting in a month where Barbara Hodgson, a local artist/author, will be presenting her latest book.

'Til then!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005



Aviel's Megilat Esther qlaf.jpg

Winter 2003: I raise a piece of blank Megilat Esther qlaf up to the lamp to examine the patterns in the skin. (photo credit: Chana Joffe-Walt)
I am looking back on this now, over a year ago, & am seeing how much I have learned in that time. I am still not expert; I have only been certified for 16 months, however all the writing & learning in process has been invaluable & I am truly grateful to G@d for these opportunities. I am now writing my second Megilat Esther, this one illustrated, & I am enjoying this endeavour very much.
I am still struck by the mysterious patterns & randomness of each skin I contact.
If you look closely at this picture, you can see the mark of the calf's spine left in the hide (& you can see that I was not married yet, which is why my head is uncovered in this photo).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005




I made this protection qame'a (amulet) over 5 years ago, when I was studying Sefer Razi'el ha-Malakh. It is the outline of my own right hand, crushed from the accident 14 years ago. In, on & around it are letters which are the first otiyot of each line of a protection Psalm. It seemed fitting to use the silouette of my own broken & disabled hand which I write with to beg for cessation of pain & damage & the birth of healing in this work, rather than an idealised form of "nobody's" hand. A conceptual hand. A symbolic hand.

Instead, I used a *real* hand.
& the permanent injuries G@d gave me as the korban.

Monday, February 21, 2005



"Black Berry Sheet"© copyright A. Barclay


B'REYSHIT- "In the beginning" or "With beginning-ness"...
The OT Rishon, first letter of BREYSHIT is Bet - House, a vessel defined by a floor, a roof and a wall with an open side. This is similar to our universe which provides us with a floor, a roof, and a wall allowing for verticality and an open future. That which is next in time is open; is ours to fill. Bet is the first of the seven double letters, those letters that can be pronounced both hard and soft. As seven they each represent a day of the week and reflect the duality of our daily experience.
Bet corresponds with the first day; Sunday. The quality of chachmah (wisdom) or its transposition íavlat (folly).
Its numerical value is 2 - representing the first emergence of two, the Creator and the Created. Bet only appears to tell you that there is a relationship before you. One plus one is just one & one, but TWO means each one is bound to the other by a relationship. this is what Bet teaches us. A home, a Bayit, is a place where relationships form & grow & experience & strengthen & dwell together. The prefix "b'---" in Hebrew always tells us that there is something in or with another, two things which have a connexion. It begins the Torah because before Creation existed only the undifferentiated Oneness of G@D, but with that first utterance of The Holy One "speaking" Creation into existence, from then there existed something differentiated from G@d & yet still a part of G@d, in relationship. Its Sefira Correspondence is Chesed, Loving Kindness. This is also why a ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract establishing a home, a bayit, for a new twoness-becoming-oneness, begins with a large Bet.
Bet carries the divine creative mother-father energy within it, beginning the whole universe.

The first letter of the Torah, Bet, is written larger than the rest! Why was the world created with the letter Bet [the first letter in B'reyshit, “In the beginning” or “With beginning-ness”: Genesis 1:1]? Just as Bet is closed on three sides and open only in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above (the heavens) and what is below (the deep), what is before (the six days of creation) and what is (to happen) after (the world’s existence) - you are permitted only from the time the world was created and thereafter (the world we live in) [Genesis Rabbah 1:10. This may refer either to space or to time, or to both space and time. See Tosafot on Talmud Bavli Hag 11b, s.v. yakhol].

Reish Lakish taught that The Holy One made a deal with the rest of Creation, that if Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will return you to nothingness (Shabbos 88a). How do we know this? Because the first word in the Torah is an acronym: "Barishonah Ra'ah Elohim Shey'qab'lu Yisra'el Torah" - "From the start, G@D saw that Israel would accept the Torah" (Baal HaTurim).

We read in the first line of the Sh'ma: "V'ahavta eyt Adonai Elohekha b'khol l'vavkha..." - "You shall love HaShem, your G@D, with all your heart" (Deuteronomy 6:5). Why is there a double Vet in the word "l'vavkha"? Rashi tells us this is to show us that we are to use both our inclinations, both drives, both "hearts" to do so. How? If we indulge our bodies sufficiently to feel content, allow ourselves adequate rest and gratification that our minds operate well, we can strike a balance in our lives, thus directing both our pleasures and our pieties toward G@D.

Great care must be taken with the shape and the length of the Bet. If it appears more round than square, then it could be mistaken for a Khaf. If it is narrower than it is tall it may look like a Nun.

Sunday, February 20, 2005




My friend Kyla, a Master's candidate in Religious Studies, ICQ'ed this to Joel the other day:

"I got to talk to my class about Aviel today, using her work as an example of being a radical figure in an orthodox tradition while exemplifying the orthodox tradition and so dismantling both the liberal feminist model of "working within the system" meaning "adopting a male gender role" and the radical feminist model of "damn it all, I'm going to worship a tree" (nauzubillah). :) They were sort of buggy eyed, I really enjoyed that."

I had never thought of my work & life & choices in this way. & had I, I certainly could not have expressed them so succinctly. Never having attended university, I can think, but I cannot always write those thoughts eloquently. Perhaps that is why I became a copyist of the words of others...

Friday, February 11, 2005



Rabbi Fern Feldman wrote to me & the Women's Torah Project committee last week, with the following:

"Hi all,
Just returned from a training where I met a rabbi who is training to be a sofer, and he told me that his sofer told him a story that he says is in the rabbinic literature, but he (my acquaintance) is not sure where, that there was a rebbetzin who scribed a Torah, to prove that it could be done.  The rabbis had said that it wasn't acceptable, but when they saw how beautiful it was once it was done, they said that this one was acceptable, because it was so beautiful. 
I asked him to track down the story for me, and just emailed him a reminder.  Will keep y'all posted if I hear back from him.
shabbat shaom, Fern"

To which my reply was:

"WOw - that's really something. I'm dying to know more about this mysterious woman, so definitely keep me posted! I have all sorts of detailed questions about this situation, too.
Thanks for letting us all know,

So exciting that sofrot are coming out of the woodwork! Because of this, women who wich to act a Jewish ritual scribes will not necessarily have to rely on a Halakhic minority opinion (albeit from some broadly accepted Rishonim & Acharonim), they could also rely on precedent! The quest to expand women's roles continues...

Friday, February 04, 2005



Aviel's Torah

January 2005: I write the word meaning "one" in Hebrew. The number of G@d. One, United, Singular, Unique, Joint existence & reality for all. There is no other but G@d & there is no-thing else but G@d.

Value: 1
Alef is the first letter. It has no sound of its own. Only the sound made when you begin to make every sound. Open your mouth and begin to make a sound. STOP! That is Alef. (courtesy R' Lawrence Kushner from his "Book of Letters")

Drash:The mystery of G@D's unified multiplicity is alluded to in the word "alef" ("one"), which spelled backwards is "pele" ("mystery" or "wonder").

There is a tiny Alef written at the end of the first word in Leviticus. "Vayiqra El Moshe..." - "He (G@D) called to Moshe..." Why? The Midrash tells us that when G@D was dictating the Torah to Moshe on Mount Sinai, He chose the word "vayiqra" to show what an intimate relationship they possessed. Moshe, being so modest, was reluctant, wishing to write instead "vayiqar" - "He happened by" - to indicate coincidence in his relationship to G@D rather than chosen-ness. They came to a compromise, thus the small Alef.
Each Holy Letter of the Alef-Bet serves as a channel, connecting heaven and earth. Alef is a ladder. The upper Yud denotes the celestial while the lower Yud represents the mundane. Linking the two Yuds is a Vav, who connects our physical and spiritual inclinations. Alef teaches us that by infusing our everyday lives with holiness, we may ascend to the Divine.

Kavanah: Alef is most easily recognizable by its diagonal stroke. The spot where the left leg meets this diagonal must be above where the right arm intersects it.

The next letter - Chet:
Value: 8
The number eight has great significance in Judaism: boys are circumcised on their eighth day of life; Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly, ends the holiday of Sukot; there are eight days of Chanukah; tzitzits are made up of eight threads...

Going beyond seven, the number eight represents our ability to transcend our physical limitations. Eight symbolizes the metaphysical, the Divine.
When Chet is written in an Ashkenazi (European) Sefer Torah, it consists of two Zayins joined by a peaked roof. This is where Chet gets its name, from "chat" - "distorted". Our Sages draw a lesson from this construction; when one observes two people fighting, whether using verbal or actual weapons (zayins) against each other, spare no effort to built a bridge and bring them together so they may join once again in friendship (Krias HaTorah).

Make sure the left leg of your Chet stretches from the baseline all the way to the roof, otherwise he could resemble a Hey. Also be careful to not make that leg too long so he isn’t mistaken for a Tav.

Final letter - Dalet:
Value: 4
Drash: Dalet is a door (delet). An open door. A door through which we can experience G@D. Why? Because The Holy One took the Four-Letter-Name, Y-H-V-H, and added a metaphysical open delet to give us a name: Yehudah. Jew.
Dalet is used as an abbreviation of Y-H-V-H, indicating the Four-Letter-Name. The same way Alef stands for Eloqim and Hey for HaShem.
Dalet also represents the poor among us, the dal. The dal is anyone in a state of lack, deprived not necessarily of money, but perhaps of health, strength or knowledge. When any of us are in need, we are the dal.
The top right hand corner of Dalet has a backwards-pointing protuberance like an ear, showing us that the dal pays close attention to the one following him, secretly hoping that help will be offered. Sometimes we are ashamed to ask for help, but would willingly accept it if it were given (Osios R' Akiva). In Torah script, Dalet's leg slants backwards toward Gimel's foot in the Alefbet, as though to teach us that the poor (dal) must make themselves available to the rich (gamol), as they can help each other (Shabbos 104a).

Kavanah: The Dalet has a long roof and a short foot, so it won't be confused with the Khaf Sofit (Final Khaf), whose foot drops below the line. It is also important that the back of the Dalet's head - the upper right hand corner - be clearly squared off so it doesn't resemble a Reysh.

"Echad" has the numerical value of 13, which is also the number of "ahavah", love. Thus we are shown that G@d's love is assured through the universal unity with which Creation was birthed. If we add "echad" to "ahavah", we get the number 26, which is the number of G@d's supreme, 4-letter name, Y-H-V-H.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 03, 2005



How could I have left Mordecai Richler off my list of heroes? I cried when I read Rex Murphy's farewell to him, written the day Richler died. You can watch it in RealTime as well...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005



...who I mentioned earlier in my blog during my stay in Israel, was recently interviewed for NPR & I also caught him a while back on PBS. I just read this article of his. I'm still chewing it over. That's what I appreciate about him - processing his words requires time & thought.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005



(maybe or maybe not in order of heroness...herocity...whatever)

1. my Sofer - a True Teacher
2. Mohandas K. Gandhi - Ahimsa, man
3. Mowlana Jalaludin Rumi - Sufi mystic, poet & ecstatic lover of G@d
4. Ofra Chaza - unbelieveable Yemenite-Israeli songstress
5. Norman Jewison - greatest film director of all time
6. The Maid of Ludomir (Chanah Rachel Werbermacher) - a woman who was called "rebbe" in the 19th century
7. Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein - my first rabbi, now striking out on his own
8. Timothy Findlay - stunning author of unusually human stories
9. RambaN - need I say more?
10. Shel Silverstein - I'll let you Google him yourself...

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