by Phyllis Shapiro
A megillat Esther written by women is an idea whose time has come. The experience of a group of women in St. Louis, Missouri, who completed a megillah in 2012 may serve to encourage other Orthodox women to come together to learn to be scribes and to write a megillah. This is an incredible opportunity for Orthodox women to access, within halakhah, a mitzvah and ritual that has until now remained untapped.
Traditionally, the image of a sofer (scribe) has been that of a man. However, sofrut, which by definition requires a combination of calligraphic skill and halakhic knowledge, has a creative and artistic aspect that is undeniably feminine. When I came to write on the klaf, the parchment—after months and months of learning the halakhot and practicing formation of the letters—I felt a tactile connection to the text that is hard to parallel. The other three writers and I were often overwhelmed by the knowledge that we were doing something in the same way in which it has been done for hundreds of years by our people—using the same materials, forming the letters of our sacred alphabet in the same way—and yet, at the same time, doing something revolutionary.
Steps in the Project
There were eight steps to our project:
(1) learning the halakhot of writing a megillah (which took several months)
(2) purchasing the materials
(3) finding a sofer who would teach us how to write sta’m, the special script used to write a sefer Torah, tefillin, a mezuzah, and a megillah
(4) classes with the sofer
(5) practice, practice, practice
(6) the actual writing on the klaf
(7) sewing the pieces of the klaf together
(8) and the illumination.
Finally, we added a ninth step—a community-wide celebration of our siyum megillah (completion of the megillah).
I documented our group’s experience each step of the way through a blog, womensmegillah.blogspot.com. The site also contains links to other sites explaining the halakhot involved in each step, including the overarching halakhah of women writing a megillah.1
All the materials are easy enough to obtain. You must first acquire a klaf—or, to be more precise, pieces of parchment that will later be sewn together. One of the fortunate halakhot is that the klaf must be scored with the lines for writing, much as in old mahbarot, Hebrew notebooks—a preparatory step that makes things a lot easier. A special black ink made for this very purpose must be used. Nibs or pen points are required. Halakhah requires that the writing tool not be made of metal, as that is a material of warfare. Nibs made of resin that fit over a holder (such as a pencil) are widely used, although an actual quill cut to form a pen can also be used. Thread for sewing the megillah––again, special for the task— must be made from the sinew of a kosher animal. And finally, if illumination is added, then inks and brushes for illuminating will be needed.2
Finding a sofer to teach the skills was a challenge in St. Louis, as none of the three sofrim in the Orthodox world there would teach us. By luck, we discovered that the rabbi of a local Conservative shul, Rabbi Mark Fasman, was a skilled sofer––and was happy to teach us, for which we will always be grateful. We spent hours and hours, months and months, learning from him how to form each letter. The alef, for example, is formed with nine strokes. One of the scribes in the group, Aviva Buck-Yael, created an invaluable resource for us (which is available to all3 ), a step-by-step guide to forming each letter, including the tagim, the little crowns that top some letters. Aviva also created practice sheets that helped us immeasurably, again made available to others undertaking the task.
Taking pen to klaf was an awesome experience for us all. One of the interesting halakhot of writing a megillah is that the intention––the kavannah––must be to write each section for the sake of the mitzvah. Therefore, before each session of writing on the klaf, we would say the time-honored pasuk, “Hareini kotevet leshem kiddushat megillah” (“Behold, I am writing for the sake of the sanctity of the megillah”). Actually, using the feminine form of the verb, kotevet, in the sentence is not so timehonored—it’s groundbreaking!
Once we overcame our trepidation, our years of preparations showed and the writing flowed. We progressed quickly and smoothly, with each of the four writers writing three amudim (columns). We had a few “guest sofrot”––including the daughter of our own Judy Heicklen, Ricki, who happened to be in St. Louis during the summer of the writing. She was at our house for a Shabbat meal and saw my writing desk set up and got excited about the project. One evening that week I taught her how to hold the pen and form a yud and a resh, and she wrote a few letters in the section I was writing.
Another member of the group sewed the four pieces of klaf together (with the stitches on the underside), after repeatedly watching a YouTube video on how to do so.4 Here was another traditional feminine skill being put to nontraditional use.
With regard to illumination, many of us have admired gorgeous megillot from the past with elaborate pictures depicting the story of Purim interspersed between the columns of writing. However, the halakhic preference is for no or little illumination, lest it interfere with the reader’s concentration. We decided to add illumination only to the opening and closing panels, and to add only the most traditional form of illumination for a megillah— the little crowns over the word hamelekh, which begins each column.5 We had several local women artists do each one. Of course, there are also halakhot about the colored inks and the brushes, rather than metal pens, to be used.
I would encourage Jewish women who have done calligraphy or have a steady hand and artistic flair to get together with other Orthodox women and turn your skills into creating a new sacred text for your community and for the Jewish people. At the same time, you will be expanding Orthodox women’s accessibility to Jewish ritual and tradition.
Phyllis Shapiro, a lawyer, is the immediate past president of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis and a member of the JOFA Board.
2 For supplies, go to http://merkazhasofrim.com/sofrus.html.
5 Some say that the word hamelekh at the top of the column is a reference to God, who is not mentioned directly in the megillah.