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What does Jewish law say?

Yad by Laurel Robinson
Yad, by Laurel Robinson

What does Jewish law say about women becoming a Torah scribe?

As Rabbi Harry Zeitlin says, "The real question isn't 'Can a woman write a kosher Sefer Torah?', but rather, "Why has it taken so long for this new era to begin?" As with many things Jewish, there are many differing opinions and interpretations. Maimonides, a great sage of the 12th century, states that the purpose of writing a Torah is to study from it, and then pardons women from the obligation of regular Torah study. Some have taken that pardon from obligation to be a prohibition. Rabbi Zeitlin and others disagree, since women today, even in the Orthodox community, are allowed, if not encouraged, to study Torah.

If women are seen as obligated to study Torah, then they might also be seen as obligated to write a Torah. However, even some sages who don't believe women are obligated to Torah study believe women can, or must, write a Torah, because some believe the obligation to write a Torah is independent of the obligation to study Torah. The mitzvot are given separately in the Torah itself. If the two mitzvot are separate, then women would be equally obligated to write a Torah.

A number of sages base their understanding of the issue of women writing a Sefer Torah on a passage in the Talmud, which contains a discussion about the status of a Torah scribed by a polytheist, and quotes three opinions:

  1. It should be burnt.
  2. It should be stored away.
  3. It can be read from publicly, if it was written with the intention of making a Torah

The second opinion quotes a teaching which mentions a number of other categories of people, including women; if these people wrote certain ritual objects, the object would need to be stored away. This teaching is based upon the juxtaposition in the Torah itself of "You shall bind them [tefillin]" and "You shall write them [these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates]." The Talmudic opinion therefore states that only one who binds tefillin can write. The question is, write what? The Talmud appears to be saying that the binding of tefillin is a prerequisite not only for writing tefillin parchments, but also for Sifrei Torah and mezuzot. Some commentators have interpreted it in this way.

However, the Tur, a major codifier of Jewish law, leaves women off his list of people whose Torah would have to be stored away. The Drisha, one of the main commentators on the Tur, states that he believes the Tur left women off the list because he interpreted the Talmud to mean only that one must bind tefillin if one is to write tefillin, but not Sifrei Torah. This opinion leaves a clear halachic opening for women (even those who do not bind tefillin) to write Sifrei Torah.

Some lay people argue that a woman cannot write a Sefer Torah because women are ritually impure due to menstruation. There are many arguments against this concern. The greatest is that everyone in post-Temple times is ritually impure because we don't have the ashes of the red heifer to purify us from contact with corpses, or people who have touched corpses. In addition, the Torah cannot receive ritual impurity.

What's included the course of study?

Approximately 4,000 rules must be learned, memorized, and practiced to demonstrate that one is proficient in performing this holy process. Of these 4,000 rules, there are on average 20 rules pertaining to the formation of each letter of the Hebrew alefbet (so, 540), as well as an entire chapter on how to write G-d's names, and if one has made an error, in which cases one can repair that error or whether one must begin that sheet of parchment anew, burying the first one (as G-d's names must never be destroyed). Special attention is given also to not only the letterforms, but also to the "white space" around and within each one. There are strict laws about how to cut one's quills, how to score the parchment to prepare it to be written upon, how to recognize whether the ink is kosher (written according to Jewish law), how to sew the sheets together, and how to attach them to the eitzei chayim (the rods upon which the scrolls are wound). There are also several places within the Sefer Torah where letters appear that must be written very large, very small, or backwards in relation to the normative letters, as well as some dot patterns, without which the Sefer Torah is considered invalid. Throughout the scribing process, one's intention, purpose, and focus must be high and unwavering—otherwise the Sefer Torah is not kosher.

What is needed to scribe and make a Sefer Torah?

The mechanical process of writing and putting together a Sefer Torah requires 62 prepared pieces of parchment; one roll of sinew, for sewing together the parchment pages; 20 turkey-feather quill pens; about 3 bottles of special ink; and two eitzei chayim. Each of these ingredients must be prepared according to the relevant Jewish laws and with the declared intention that the material will be used to write Sifrei Torah, tefillin, or mezuzot.

Before starting to write each day, the scribe must set her intention and love of Torah through prayer and meditation. The actual writing process is painstaking. Before beginning to write, the soferet must declare aloud that she is writing this Sefer Torah for the sake of Heaven. Each page of parchment must start and end with the same words as every other Torah; the columns and spacing must all be the same. The scribe must not write any word from memory, rather she must look to her Tikkun l'Sofrim for each letter, say the letter aloud, draw that letter, then look back at her pattern, and continue, letter by letter. Special measures must be taken to verbally sanctify each name of G-d written in the Sefer Torah.

Why does a Torah have to be scribed by someone who is qualified?

A Sefer Torah, by definition, is a Torah scribed by someone who has been qualified to do this work. Generally, qualification allows the individual to scribe, within the context of Jewish law, Sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot. All of the scribes associated with the Women's Torah Project have been deemed qualified by their mentors; Rachel Reichhardt is certified as a soferet by the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer in Buenos Aires.

In the Fall of 2006, the Kadima community used the Values-Based Decision-Making model to consider how to incorporate additional scribes, looking at issues of training and practice. The result of that process is described in our Winter 2007 Update. With regard to training, Kadima revised its position to require documentation by a sofer or soferet ST"M or S"M, stating something to the effect that the individual has studied the laws and practical craft of writing sifrei Torah and is well-qualified to write all of the letters according to the halachic demands regarding the proper shapes of the letters, as well as being well-versed in the halachot, history and practicalities that govern writing in a more general manner.

It is significant that, within the Reconstructionist presentation of Values-Based Decision-Making, the “final” decision is made with the understanding that it may change in the future. We look forward to continued dialogue about this issue within our own community, the community of the Women's Torah Project, and the wider community.

Jewish artists or calligraphers can and do, of course, make beautiful scribal arts such as ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) or other certificates. It's just the scribing of Sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot that must be completed by a qualified scribe in order to be considered kosher, because they all involve the scribing of the Torah, which is the history and written law of the Jewish people and is used for the ritual fulfillment of mitzvot.

Why haven't other women trained to become Sofrot?

Because the halachic issues involved are complex, and the traditional sages vary in their opinions on whether women are halachically permitted to be scribes, many people believe that women are not permitted. This, combined with sexism, has led to women not being allowed to attend the traditional training institutions for sofrim. It has also contributed to most sofrim being unwilling to train a woman privately. In addition, many Jews have very emotional feelings about the Torah in particular.

The scribing of a Torah may be the last area of Jewish ritual practice that has not yet been accessible to women. Since the process of training to be a sofer is so involved and time-consuming, most women who might have wanted to do it have chosen other paths—it takes a lot to be willing to be trained for a position that, up until very recently, no one will hire you for.

How do we know that this is the first Torah commissioned from a woman and the first Torah scribed by a group of women?

Jewish history books mention women who have scribed Bibles and segments of Talmud, but not any ritual objects, including the Torah scroll. In modern times, there is also no evidence of a Torah scroll having been written by a woman before scribing on the Women's Torah commenced.

There are Biblical references to "HaSoferet" in Ezra and Nehemiya, which means a female scribe. The commentary on that reference by Rashi concludes that the person so described was not Jewish, but was rather one of the many devoted descendants of servants to King Solomon who helped the Jews return to the land of Israel. In all likelihood, this person was a scribe as we more generally consider the term, that is, someone who wrote letters and other documents for the illiterate.

What if people don't want to read from a Torah scribed by a woman?

We will include documentation with this Torah so that future generations understand its provenance. However, it is Jewish practice to assume the best about Torah scrolls; that is, to assume that they are kosher unless specifically proven otherwise. That is why congregations can read from scrolls that are centuries old and without historical documentation.

For more resources and teachings regarding the writing of a Sefer Torah, see our resources section.

A woman-scribed Sefer Torah: is it kosher?

As with most things Jewish, there are differing opinions and interpretations. The crux of the halachic (Jewish legal) question has to do with a passage in the Talmud—the encyclopedic redaction of commentary and argument among the early founders of rabbinic discourse—which debates the status of a Sefer Torah scribed by a heretic, and then goes on to address other scribal sources deemed to have been questionable, including women. The true teaching of these founding sages, and its proper application in our Jewish world, is an important discussion not often raised before now. Consequently, precedence in traditional Jewish scholarship is relatively scant. What sources there are bear scintillating difference and dispute. The great 13th century halachic codifier, the Tur, (Ba'al HaTurim), R' Ya'akov ben Rabbeynu Asher ben Yehiel, left women off of his list of those who are pesulim (unkosher) from writing a Sefer Torah. The 16th century commentator the Drisha, R. Yehoshua Falk, wrote that the mostly likely explanation as to why the Tur omitted women from this list is that he actually believes that women are kasherot to write a Sefer Torah for public use.

On the other hand, Maimonides (RaMBaM), the great 12th-century authority on Jewish law, argues that the purpose of writing a Torah is to study from it; and he pardons women from the obligation of regular Torah study. This has generally been construed by later authorities to constitute a prohibition against women writing Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). But there is also a view held by many, within and outside Orthodoxy and the Rabbinate, that women in our time have a heightened role in the study of Torah. Indeed most Jewish women, even in the Orthodox community, are today encouraged and expected to study Torah. This could affect the import of RaMBaM's ruling.

Furthermore, the great 18th century Torah scholar Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ben Asher Ginzburg wrote in the Sha'agat Aryeh that women are involved in the mitzvah of learning Torah and should be mandated to write a Sefer Torah. In addition, he stated that the mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah is not connected to the mitzvah of learning Torah, as the point of writing a Sefer Torah is to teach Torah and every Jew is a potential teacher of Torah.

Like other issues of gender roles, differences, and equity, the prospect of women in sofrut (ritual scribal arts) is a vital discussion that must be pursued with open eyes and good faith. We believe that there is sufficient basis for our scribes' work. If we didn't, it would not be happening. But we also believe that this work must inspire and coincide with a serious effort to explore the questions it raises in our beloved and holy tradition. Many rabbis have already begun this journey with us. Your support of the Women's Torah Project is needed for their crucial effort, as well.

Historical material adapted from another source.

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