Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Recent Mesorah of NakhScroll Publication; a guest post by Gabriel Wasserman

Thank you, Gabriel, for a fascinating post! - S.
For several years now, I have been doing research on the phenomenon of the writing of the books of Nakh -- Nevi'im and Kethuvim -- by scribes, on kosher scrolls. This research started as a hobby, but it became clear, about two years ago, that eventually I would have enough material for a book. In a shameless bit of self-promotion, I mention here that I'm going to be speaking about the topic at the World Congress of Jewish Studies this summer, and you are all invited to attend. (The lecture will be in Hebrew; I believe that entry is free of charge.)

By way of background: Although the books of Scripture were written this way in ancient times (Qumran Scrolls, anybody?), and in Talmudic times (see Bava Bathra 13b ff.), the practice disappeared in later times, with the adoption of the codex, a form of book that is more convenient with regard to searching. (The one famous exception, of course, is the Book of Esther.) We have a fragment of a scroll of Melakhim from the 8th or 9th century, and then nothing, until Early Modern posqim start to express their anxieties about the fact that we're Doin' Things Wrong.

Finally, R. Elijah the Gaon of Vilna decided, in late 1782 or early 1783, that he was going to hire an army of scribes, to write out all of Tanakh. The festive siyyum was on 7 Adar, 1783 (the traditional yortzait of Moses), and was attended by Solomon Dubno, who wrote up a whole pamphlet, in poetry and prose, inspired by the event, where he waxes philosophical about the matter. Here is a page from Birkhath Yosef, this pamphlet:

In following years, the idea spread among various Litvaks, both in Lithuania and, later on, in Palestine. However, most of these Litvaks were interesting only in writing the 5 megilloth, for public reading in synagogue on the various holidays, and the Nevi'im, for use in public reading of the Haftaroth. Nonetheless, there were some exceedingly inspired individuals who wrote out scrolls of the not-usually-liturgical books of Nakh. This is mentioned in writings by R' Shemuel Shelomo Boyarski (link), who writes about the scrolls that he himself has written, and Akiva Yosef Schlesinger (link), who writes about the scrolls written by a certain Barukh Shelomo.

Her is the title page of Boyarski's Amudei Sheish:

Moreover, I have held in my hands a scroll of Iyyov, written in 19th-century Lithuania or (most probably) Palestine, and a scroll of Divre Ha-yamim was sold at Kedem Auction House a few years ago (link). (It was sold for only $2000. If I had known at the time, I would have bid more than that. And now it's in private hands, and I can't even see it or access it. Grrr.) Moreover, Yossi Ofer has blogged about a scroll of Mishle that was found in the National Library of Israel earlier this year (link). He writes that this scroll was probably the very one written by Boyarski, because he knows of nobody else who was writing scrolls of Kethuvim (besides megilloth) at the time -- but in fact, the phenomenon was more widespread than just Boyarski.

In fact, here's a fascinating advertisement from 1912:

Neviim, Kesuvim, Megilles, Tefillin, Mezuzes, Atzei Chayyim, Rimmonim, Plates, Torah-Pointers, Battim, Parshiyes, Tefillin-straps, Megille-containers, mezuze-boxes, parchment
New and Used
Possible to Order in Jerusalem from the Adresse (אדריסה) listed Below
"Perfect"/"Plain" lettering [=Beis Yôsef, presumably], and Vellish lettering
small and large
written by reliable, expert scribes
Neviim (and Kesuvim): "Perfect"/"Plain" lettering, and Vellish lettering, small and large, written by reliable, expert scribes, with the פתוחות וסתומות וחסר ויתר written according to the "Keter" of Ben-Asher, and other reliable sources
Megilles: Small and large, "Perfect" lettering and Vellish lettering
11, 14, 42, and line, with or without boxes
Megille boxes: Of polished or sanded olive-wood, or of silver
Tefillin: Polished (=smooth), of one piece of leather, or one piece plus the מעברתא, Dakkes and Gasses, Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam
Battim: Square, Peshutim, of One Piece of Leather, or one piece plus the מעברתא, Dakkes and Gasses
Retzues: Wide or narrow, מעובד לשמן or Al Tenai
for Dakkes and Gasses
Mezuzes: Small or large,
"Perfect" lettering or Vellish lettering, with cases or without cases
Mezuze-cases: Made of olive-wood. Closed or open, round or rectangular.
Atzei Chayyim: of plain wood, or olive wood
simple, complex, or inset
with silver, with [צרף -- some cheaper form of silver??], or with bone
Rimmônim and Plates: Of silver or English Silver
(what's "English Silver"?)
Torah-pointers: Of silver, English Silver, or olive-wood
Parchment: Of all types
Addresse: Isaac Iacob Jellin Jerusalem Palestina [in Latin characters]

Especially interesting is that you can order Nakh scrolls in Vellish, i.e. Sephardic script! (The word "vell[i]sh" is a somewhat dismissive expression to refer to Sephardim, or speakers of Romance languages in general.) What Sephardim are ordering Nakh scrolls? (Weird Jerusalem ones, presumably.) Or, alternatively, what Ashkenazim in Jerusalem are using Vellish? The current Vellish script is more-or-less identical to the old medieval Ashkenazic script, but what Ashkenazim were still writing in it in the 19th century? Bohemian ones, apparently, but were there a lot of them in Jerusalem, and would they have been interested in the nouveau Litvishe shtick of writing Nakh-scrolls? Anyway, "Vellish" script is much easier to write than current Ashkenazic script, and therefore is significantly cheaper, as anyone who has shopped around for tefillin knows. Perhaps this is why a Litvak might want to order Nakh scrolls in Vellishe script?

(And note also that R' Chayim Volozhiner owned a scroll of Shir Ha-shirim in Vellishe script. How did it come into his possession? What Sephardim were writing Shir Ha-shirim on scrolls before or during the time of the Gaon? So many unanswered questions....)

This post deals only with the material culture aspect of the scrolls of Nakh, and does not deal with the halakhic or philosophical rationales behind why someone might want to produce them. Also, it does not deal with the question of how these scrolls might have been used, in ritual or non-ritual contexts. As such, it only scratches the surface of the issue, and there remains a whole book to be written about the topic. If any readers of this post know any information about any scrolls of Kethuvim (besides the megilloth) from the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries, information that is not covered in this post, we will be delighted to hear from you in the comments, whether here or on Facebook.


Here is the ad, as it appeared in the original publication; Moria, November 20, 1912.


  1. In the side room of the Kotel, there's a modern Tehillim scroll- it's under glass with its handles sticking out so you can turn it and read it. Also, I see lots of Sepharadim reading Shir HaShirim from a klaf on Friday afternoon.

    I've heard of other Litvish Charedim, like R' Kanievsky, in Israel writing out and/or using the rest, which would be Mishlei, Iyov, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemia, Chronicles.

    Can you discuss the origin of "Haftorah scrolls," which are klafim with just the haftarot on them?

    By the way, it seems it isn't free. :-(

  2. Yossel Hoizman9:38 AM, May 22, 2013

    ר' נחום
    עיין גיטין ס. בנוגע לספרא דאפטרתא

  3. I hope we will be notified on this blog when the book is published.

  4. According to Geni (http://www.geni.com/people/Yitzchok-Yellin/6000000013650992171), the advertiser, Yitzchok Yaakov Yellin, was a grandson of R' Shalom Shachne Yellin, and lived from 1885 from 1964. You might be able to track down one of his living descendants (there are 69 descendants just in Geni) and learn more about whether any of these scrolls ever actually got written.

  5. Complicated. The "Sifra De'Aftarta" is mentioned in the Gemara, where
    Yossel cited. (The Amoraim forbid producing or using such a scroll,
    because it is not a full book, but the Stamma Di-gemara reluctantly
    permits, because of ‘Eth La‘asoth.) In Rabbenu Gershom's time, they are
    still being used in Ashkenaz. However, by the time of the Shibbolé
    Ha-leqet, he writes:

    "Now, in all the communities in the Maghreb [or
    “in the west”], and the areas of the Arabs, and Oskilia [apparently
    Sicily], they read out of books of Haftaroth in scroll-form – but we [in
    Germany?? Italy??] read the Haftaroth from [books] which are just like
    our other ḥumashim [i.e., codices], and we recite berakhoth over them,
    and nobody objects to our practice."

    Nobody, objected, that is,
    until the Levush (1530-1609); after his day, some Ashkenazim in Bohemia
    and Germany began producing Sifra De'Aftarta scrolls. Incidentally, some
    North African Sephardim had never stopped in the first place, as
    attested by R' Avraham Abulafia in his note on that passage in the

  6. Or rather, specifically the city of Fez; I don't think it was much more widespread than that. But I don't know.

  7. Our shul in Rochester had Nach scrolls until about 10 years ago, when they were sold to raise much-needed cash. They had been seldom if ever used, except to be carried around by the less strong on Simchas Torah. I'm also not sure how complete a set they were. But I recently learned, to my surprise, that the 5 megillos were kept. Just this past Shavuos, an exceptionally talent baal korei read Ruth from the klaf, and even recited a bracha over it, which I gather is not a universal custom but was the Vilna Gaon's.

  8. Are you sure that they had scrolls not just for נביאים (which can be used for הפטרות) but for all of כתובים as well?

  9. JudaicaUsed.com3:23 PM, May 23, 2013

    About a year ago, I bought a scroll containing Nevi'im Rishonim from a defunct rural Long Island synagogue. It was about 100 years old and the Ktav was Beis Yosef. I imagine someone brought it over from Europe at some point, it looked rather well used.

  10. Probably not כתובים.

  11. Gabriel Wasserman6:12 AM, May 24, 2013

    The entire Nevi'im Rishonim, Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings, on a single scroll? Nice. Are you selling it?

  12. JudaicaUsed.com4:19 PM, May 26, 2013

    yes, the entire Nevi'im Rishonim. I unfortunately sold it since.

  13. JudaicaUsed.com5:58 PM, June 30, 2013

    According to Wikipedia, the entire Yellin family including his grandfather and great grandfather were Sofrim and Magihim, see the entry for יצחק יעקב ילין

    the advertiser, יצחק יעקב ילין wrote a few works as well, one was published posthumously by Mossad Harav Kook titled אבותינו on the history of the Old Yishuv.



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