Supple as a Reed
When we conjure up an image of a sofer plying his craft, we usually envisage a wizardly grey-beard with furrowed brows hunching over a scroll, writing cautiously with a graceful feather quill by candlelight. So it has been from time immemorial…
What’s wrong with this picture? The quill. In Biblical and Talmudic times, mezuzot, Torah scrolls and other holy works were written using a reed pen. Even in our time, the reed pen remains the instrument of choice for many Sephardic scribes. In a fascinating passage, the Sages assert that the supple nature of the reed makes it the perfect match for the Torah:
“A man should always be flexible as the reed, and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah, tefillin and mezuzot.”
Some authorities rule that the “merit” derived from this consonance is an actual entitlement, allowing the reed to assert its moral rights over the quill. Nevertheless, the practical advantages of the quill, such as its ability to be carved with fine precision and retain its shape, have led to its acceptance in halacha and tradition. A well-made quill will create sharp, fine lines; bold, flat strokes; and clean, rounded corners. The softer reed requires constant sharpening. This time-consuming task decreases the sofer’s productivity, and also makes it more difficult to achieve uniform consistency of letter formation from the manually reshaped nib. Because Sephardic scrolls are often written with reed pens, their letters are noticeably thicker, and a specialist scribe is engaged to attach the spindly crowns (tagim) at their top.
Because all of the processes in the production of mezuzot and other scrolls must be done with kosher materials, the plume of the graceful goose was used for centuries but was later ousted by the hardier nib of the decidedly ungraceful turkey.
One might wonder why the turkey has merited that its quill should be the obvious choice of the stainless-steel pen. Some authorities assert that just as the Torah does not allow the use of iron instruments used in war to sculpt the stones of the holy altar which brings peace, so too iron and steel pens should not be used to inscribe the holy words of Torah. In deference to this concern there are those who allow casing the quill nib in gold, which has no military association.
Plastic pens write quickly and precisely and are used by some scribes. But they tend to wear out quickly and are expensive to keep on replacing. More recently, the ceramic never-needs-sharpening “Kulmus Shamir” has come onto the market and has been adopted by some sofrim. But these options are not accepted universally, and there are those who insist on obtaining scrolls inscribed with traditional instruments. Nevertheless, it should be noted that many authorities do not agree that the “war” analogy is applicable to scribal writing and would allow using a steel nib. Indeed, for precision touch-up work and minor repairs, many sofrim commonly use a metal-tipped rapidograph filled with traditionally made ink.
- Sources: Ta’anit 20a; Rema Y.D. 271:7; Keses Hasofer 3:16