Sunday 30 April 2023

427) Keset haSofer: The story behind the guide to writing a Sefer Torah


A manuscript on Bava Batra in the handwriting of R. Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886)

I came across a fascinating piece of little-known Halachic history uncovered by Hadassah Wendl who is a PhD researcher on Halakhic history at the Free University of Berlin. It’s about how a now well-known guide to writing a Sefer Torah, entitled Keset haSofer (The Scribe's Inkwell), came to be. 

Before R. Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886) became the famous author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged Code of Jewish Law) he was a businessman in Eastern Hungary, selling wines. One day, while looking at some books in a Jewish bookshop in Debrecen, in Hungary’s Northern Great Plain region, he chanced upon a book entitled Bnei Yona. 

Bnei Yona was a rather unclear collection of ninety pages of writings by R. Yona Landsofer (1678-1712), a descendant of the Maharal of Prague, elaborating on sections taken from the Shulchan Aruch dealing with the laws of writing a Sefer Torah. It was only first published in R. Landsofer’s hometown of Prague in 1803, almost a century after he had passed away, but it was the only available practical guide to writing a Sefer Torah. R. Landsofer’s original family name seems to have been Bunzlau, which was the name of a town in Poland,[1] where his family originally came from. "Landsofer" seems to have been an adopted name after the occupation of his father and grandfather who were all sofrim (scribes). In his book, he writes about the importance of producing an elegantly written Sefer Torah. R. Landsofer was both a Talmudist as well as a Kabbalist, and he had an additional interest in secular wisdom particularly the writings of Euclid.  He also was an outspoken opponent of the Sabbatian movement (comprising the followers of the false Messiah, Shabatai Tzvi), taking part in disputations against them in Vienna. He was sent to the debate by his teacher R. Avraham Broda, who was a student of the Chacham Tzvi (another well-known opponent of Sabbatianism). 

Benei Yona by R. Yona Landsofer (1678-1712)

R. Ganzfried was intrigued by this early guide and decided to write a new, clearer and better-structured version to be of practical use to future Torah scribes. Although a businessman, having previously studied under R. Zwi Hirsch Heller (1776-1834) he felt competent enough to attempt such a mission. R. Heller was not just his teacher, but he became his legal guardian when the young Shlomo's father passed away when he was only eight years old. 

Wendl writes: 

“He set out to study the laws of writing Torah scrolls, Tefillin, Mezuzot and Megillot Esther; summarising them in an accessible way for the budding scribe of the 19th century. Keset HaSofer, his very first book on Halakha published in 1835 in Ofen (Budapest), concisely and systematically presents these laws.” 

R. Ganzfried produced such a professional scribal guide that he managed to secure the Haskama (approbation - endorsement) of R. Moshe Schreiber, a leading Hungarian rabbi, also known as the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839). The Chatam Sofer writes that from the time that this book was published, he would not allow anyone to become a scribe unless he became an expert in the work Keset haSofer. The work was so successful and in great demand that R. Ganzfried published a more elaborate edition of Keset HaSofer in 1871 in Ungvar (present-day Ukraine).

Keset haSofer by R. Shlomo Ganzfried

R. Ganzfried was quite a promoter of his product (possibly a throwback to his merchant years) because as soon as the work was printed, he put an advertisement in the haMaggid newspaper offering one free copy for every ten copies bought. 

“R. Ganzfried became an influential rabbinic scholar and Dayan in Ungvar and beyond. In his Keset HaSofer, he engages with a vast array of rabbinic literature, rearranges, and summarises scribal laws for educational purposes. Quoting both Mitnagdic and Hasidic sources, he aptly balances rational and mystical ideas concerning the writing of Torah scrolls and its letters" (Wendl). 

R. Ganzfried writes in his Introduction that he worked on his book at night while devoting his working day to his wine business. He also mentions that he felt compelled to produce this book because, surprisingly, no such guides existed for such an important task as writing a Sefer Torah. He writes that he was astounded by the widespread ignorance regarding the practical details of scribal writing. To this day, Keset haSofer has been published in over twenty editions and is still considered an essential guide for scribes. 

R. Ganzfried’s success in writing a Halachic guide for scribes may have inspired him to produce his magnum opus – the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Ungvar, 1864). 

Interestingly, just like the author of the main Shulchan Aruch compiled by R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575) – who relied on three main Halachic predecessors, R. Yitzchak Alfasi (Rif), Maimonides (Rambam) and R. Asher ben Jechiel (Rosh), to determine a ruling – R. Ganzfried also based himself on three authorities: R. Yakov Lorberbaum, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, (the first rebbe of Chabad), and R. Abraham Danzig (Chayei Adam). Where there was uncertainty or disagreement between the sources, R. Ganzfried would take the majority view.  

R. Ganzfried’s speciality in producing practical guides seems to run into his extended family as well. The late R. Aharon Feuffer, who wrote probably one of the best practical guides to keeping kosher, entitled Basar beChalav (Milk and Meat), was always concerned that one understands exactly why one does what one does in practical Halacha. This was certainly the case in my interaction with him. He married the granddaughter of R. Shlomo Gantzfried. 

“Surprisingly, though, both R. Ganzfried as a rabbinic scholar and, more specifically, his book Keset HaSofer have barely received attention from academia so far. It remains unclear how R. Ganzfried set out to write Keset HaSofer and in which ways he engages with both previous and contemporary discourse. As part of the interdisciplinary project ‘Materialized Holiness – Torah scrolls as a codicological, theological, and sociological phenomenon of Jewish scribal culture in the Diaspora’, I want to find out how R. Ganzfried engages with rabbinic literature on Jewish scribal law. A critical edition and a comparative analysis of other halakhic scribal guides will shed light on the making of Keset HaSofer and the development of these laws in the 19th century” (Wendl). 

I look forward to seeing how this research progresses.

[1] There is also a town called Jungbunzlau in the Czech Republic.

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