A New Mode of Learning: Scribal Arts
Being Jewish is a full-time, full-life experience. Jewish texts cover every aspect of life from birth, marriage and death to cooking, eating and even how to use the bathroom: Rabbi Akiva justified following Rabbi Yehoshua into the bathroom by saying, “It is Torah, and I need to learn” (Brachot 62a).
At school we focus on making texts accessible to students, and text study may, indeed, be necessary and essential in order to live a Jewish life. For some it is a gateway into their Jewish heritage. But I often wonder what other entrance points might engage and excite students into the rich tapestry of Jewish life.
For the past five years, I have taught a semester-long class called Scribal Arts that teaches the traditional way Jewish letters are written in sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot (called by the acronym Stam). We use the kulmus (quill), klaf (parchment), and dyo (ink) that sofrim (scribes) use. Students learn how to write the letters, while also studying the basic laws of Stam.
Once students gain rudimentary skills, we explore the deeper meaning behind the shape and form of the letters. Why is the bet, closed on three sides and open on one side, shaped the way it is? Why is there a hidden bet inside of the peh? In one class project, each student chooses their favorite letter, does research, and presents to the class their findings. This semester, one student discussed how the letter kuf stands for kedushah (holiness), but kuf literally means “monkey.” She explained the letter teaches that holiness is not inherent in humans, but we have to live properly in order to become holy; if not, we are just monkeys. This was a valuable learning experience for the whole class.
Once students complete learning the scribal forms of the alephbet, we look at variations in the different scripts that sofrim use (Beit Yosef, Sephardi, Chabad) and compare the different sifrei Torah and megillot we have in our school, observing nuances and stylistic differences. For final projects, they make a Shiviti, a menorah formed out of the words of Psalm 67, and other creative scribal works of art.
For many students, this is a novel approach to Jewish learning. It is definitely all about the text, but from another angle—a refreshing way to engage in Jewish life. Some students carry on scribing into college and come back to show me their work. One student even opened up an online Etsy shop selling her own original scribal art.
Jewish life is so rich and diverse, and I wonder in what other ways we can open up this abundance to our students. Do students know how to make a Shabbat meal or make matzah? Do they know how to dance at a wedding or simchah? What other inroads to our vast and multifaceted traditions can we create for our students?