The Tisch: The reliability of messy writing
By LEVI COOPER
Jewish law proscribes the use of a scroll written by a gentile or by a nonbeliever.
The tale is told that a Torah scroll was once
found abandoned in a field and a question arose as to whether this scroll was
kosher; perhaps it was discarded because it was not written by a reliable
scribe. Indeed, Jewish law proscribes the use of a scroll written by a gentile
or by a nonbeliever (Shulhan Aruch YD 241). How should this scroll be treated?
The question was brought to the great talmudic scholar and respected leader of
European Jewry, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761- 1837). Rabbi Eiger noted that it was
common Jewish practice for many people to participate in the writing of a Torah
scroll. To be sure, there is often a principal donor who employs a qualified
scribe, but everyone is invited to purchase a letter and to take part in the
writing of the final lines of the scroll. The scribe generally outlines the
letters of the final lines, but leaves them to be filled in or completed by
others; thus allowing everyone to participate in the fulfillment of the
commandment to write a Torah scroll without incurring the appreciable expense of
writing an entire scroll. The result of this custom is that the final lines of
the scroll may not be in the same professional script as the rest of the
With this in mind, Rabbi Akiva Eiger ruled that the reliability
of the scroll could be determined by the final lines of the Torah.
they were noticeably less professional than the other letters in the scroll, and
perhaps even a mixture of scripts – we can surmise that these final lines were
written in accordance with the accepted custom. Furthermore, we can assume that
the scribe was a reliable person, for he sought to comply with this communal
norm; ergo the scroll can be assumed to be valid. If, however, the final lines
showed no signs of a different scribe and the final column of the scroll was
presented in a uniform – perhaps even aesthetically beautiful – script, we have
no choice but to question the scroll's reliability. In such a case, the scroll
should not be pressed into communal service.
Fast-forwarding to the 20th
century: Rabbi Yitzhak Weiss (1870-died in the Holocaust 1942) was a Hungarian
rabbi who recorded many anecdotes from chance meetings and interactions with a
wide variety of rabbis and hassidic masters. Citing the exact date of the
meeting, 20 Adar II, 5687 (March 24, 1927), Rabbi Weiss recorded the reaction of
the previous leader of the Boyan Hassidim, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman
(1891- 1971), to Rabbi Eiger’s famed decision.
The Boyaner Rebbe
explained that Eiger’s ruling could be found in the very words that express the
commandment to write a Torah scroll. The verse says: “And now write for
yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their
mouths so that this song will be for Me as a witness regarding the children of
Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). The Boyaner Rebbe explained that the directive to
“write for yourselves” indicates that each person should actively take part in
the writing of the Torah scroll. Jewish law further requires that whoever is
writing a Torah scroll should enunciate the words about to be
This is indicated in the continuation of the verse: “put it in
their mouths.” The conclusion of the verse teaches us about Rabbi Eiger’s
ruling: “so that it will be for Me as a witness regarding the children of
Israel.” The fact that people are invited to take part in the writing of a Torah
scroll means that different scripts can serve as a “witness” that testifies to
the scroll's veracity.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute
of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.