Sofrut calligraphy (Jewish scribal practice)
A sofer is a Jewish scribe who writes and restores the kitvey hakodesh (holy writing) using quills and parchment and special ink, following detailed sets of rules. The full title is a sofer STa”M from the initials S (samech) for Sefer Torah, T (tav) for Tefillin and M (mem) for Mezuzah and these are the three main activities.
It is distinct from Hebrew calligraphy as you need a detailed knowledge of the halakha (Jewish Law) and a level of observance, being yirat shamayim (in awe of heaven).
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised||London|
|Origin in the UK||Ever since there have been Jews in the UK. The first written record of Jewish settlement in England dates from 1070. They were then expelled in 1290 but resettlement appears to have been from 1656. Jewish communities would likely have had a sofer in their midst.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||11-20|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1-5|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
||You cannot be an amateur sofer. You can be an Hebrew Calligrapher, of which there are a number in the UK.|
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
The craft accompanies the writing of the Jewish Holy Scriptures (mainstream orthodoxy says this goes back to Moses in c. 1500 BCE but the majority of Biblical scholars believe that the written books were a product of the Babylonian captivity c. 6th century BCE but likely preserving oral and written materials from much earlier). The earliest existing examples of the craft are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest of which is c. 400 BCE. From the time of the rabbis (c. Roman time) the rules of how the writing should be done were written down and subsequently codified (Maseckhet Sofrim – tractate containing some core rules is likely 8th Century but has material from a lot earlier) and then have developed since.
The way parchment is made, used, ink recipes, writing styles, writing implements how repairs can be made etc. have developed over time and varied by country depending on local customs and availability of materials (e.g. reeds vs quills).
- Hebrew calligraphy
- Parchment making
- Ink making
- Quill cutting
- Sewing with animal sinews
- Restoration and repairs
- Practical application of the rules
Askenazi scribes traditionally use quills from a bird feather. Sefardim use reeds. The writing forms are different from different communities.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Demand: The small number of Jews and Jewish organsiations in the UK, lack of funds for repairs or new works for many synagogues.
COVID-9: Impact of COVID on synagogues and attendance.
Lack of raw materials: Materials have to come from Israel, there are no kosher parchment makers left in the UK.
Craftspeople currently known
- Marc Michaels/Mordechai Pinchas
- Avielah Barclay-Michaels
- Bernard Benarroch
- Tuvya Cohen
- Rabbi David Singer
- Rabbi S Z Unsdorfer
Businesses employing two or more makers: