Examples of Safrut from the Penn Libraries Manuscript Collections

October 15, 2019
Louis Meiselman

A Sofer is a Jewish ritual scribe, and Safrut is the ritual writing penned by a Sofer. Ritual writing follows a strict set of rules, and very small details can disqualify the item from ritual use. A misspelled word, certain misshapen letters, disorderliness, and even beginning certain columns with the wrong word can sometimes disqualify an entire scroll. Disqualified Torah scroll fragments, for example, are permitted for study purposes only, but not for ritual contexts.

Maimonides (b. Cordoba 1135 – d. Fustat (Old Cairo) 1204), an eminent medieval Jewish legal authority, writes: “[A Sefer Torah which is] invalid, and does not have the holiness of a Sefer Torah in any way, only that of a bible [text] like any other used to teach schoolchildren” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefilin, Mezuzah, and Sefer Torah, chapter 7 law 11).

Examples of disqualified items include these two fragments from a collection owned by Canadian collector Casey Albert Wood (1856–1942), now Miscellaneous Manuscripts (Large) Box 3 Folder 13, items 1 & 2. They have a script which places them in Eastern Europe, circa 1850, but also can be 20th century (before World War II).

Fragment 1. The extant text is Genesis 48:7-49:8, and ends before the traditional column finishes, at a sof parashah setumah, or end of paragraph. Since this was discarded as a pesul, or invalid, the following paragraph wasn’t begun.
Fragment 2 finishes abruptly mid-word; it was decided then to cut the fragment from the membrane and discard it. The entire column of text was then rewritten and this fragment was meant to be buried; instead, it was sold as a collector’s item.

This is an abridged version of a blog post that appeared on Penn's Special Collections blog as part of a series on Safrut. Click here to read the original version


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Louis Meiselman

Louis Meiselman

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