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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Origin and Meaning.

  1. Body of teachers whose office was to interpret the Law to the people, their organization beginning with Ezra, who was their chief, and terminating with Simeon the Just. The original meaning of the Hebrew word "soferim" was "people who know how to write"; and therefore the royal officials who were occupied in recording in the archives the proceedings of each day were called scribes (comp. 2 Samuel 8:17; 2 Kings 19:2, passim); but as the art of writing was known only to the intelligent, the term "scribe" became synonymous with "wise man" (1 Chronicles 27:32). Later, in the time of Ezra, the designation was applied to the body of teachers who, as stated above, interpreted the Law to the people. Ezra himself is styled "a ready scribe in the law of Moses" (Ezra 7:6). Indeed, he might be correctly so called for two reasons, inasmuch as he could write or copy the Law and at the same time was an able interpreter of it. The Rabbis, however, deriving from (= "to count"), interpret the term "soferim" to mean those who count the letters of the Torah or those who classify its contents and recount the number of laws or objects belonging in each group; e.g., five classes of people that are exempt from the heave-offering, four chief causes of damages, thirty-nine chief works which are forbidden on the Sabbath, etc. (Yer. Sheḳ. 5:1; Ḥag. 15b; Ḳid. 30a; Sanh. 106b). While this may be only a haggadic interpretation of the term "soferim," it is evident that these scribes were the first teachers of the Torah and the founders of the oral law.

Range of Activity.

The activity of the scribes began with the cessation of that of the Prophets. In fact, after the Israelites who came back from Babylon had turned their hearts to God, there was greater need of men to instruct the people, and to assist them in obtaining a clear understanding of the Law. This body of teachers is identified by Zacharias Frankel ("Darke ha-Mishnah," p. 8) and Nachman Krochmal Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," ch. ) with the "men of the see See GREAT SYNAGOGUE" (comp. the expression συναγωγὴ γραμματέων in I Macc. 7:12), of which Simeon the Just was the last member (comp. Ab. 1:2). If this identification is correct, the organization of the scribes lasted from the time of Ezra till the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great, a period of about 200 years. It must be said, however, that the term "soferim" was sometimes used, particularly in the post-Maccabean time, to designate teachers generally. Thus Moses and Aaron are styled the "soferim of Israel" (Targ. of pseudo-Jonathan to Numbers 21:19; Targ. to Song of Solomon 1:2). Besides, in certain passages it is quite evident that "soferim" refers to Talmudists of a later period, as, for instance, in Yer. Ber. 1:7 and R. H. 19a, where the expression "dibre soferim" (= "the words of the scribes") seems to refer to the school of Hillel. But as a general rule the term refers to the body of teachers the first of whom was Ezra and the last Simeon the Just. It seems that after Simeon the teachers were more generally styled "elders" ("zeḳenim"), and later "the wise ones" ("ḥakamim"; Shab. 64b; Suk. 46a), while "soferim" was sometimes used as an honorific appellation (Soṭah 15a). In still later times "soferim" became synonymous with "teachers of little children" (ib. 49a).

Although, as will be shown later, the activity of the scribes was manifold, yet their main object was to teach the Torah to the Jewish masses, and to the Jewish youth in particular. It was they who established schools, and they were particularly enjoined to increase the number of their pupils (Ab. 1:1). Their mode of teaching is indicated in Nehemiah 8:8: "So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading." This passage is explained by the Rabbis as meaning that they first read the Hebrew text and then translated it into the vernacular, elucidating it still further by dividing it into passages ("pesuḳim"; Meg. 3a; Ned. 37b). Moreover, the scribes always connected with the text the laws which they deduced from the Biblical passages; that is, they read the passage, explained it, and then deduced the law contained in it; they did not in general formulate abstract halakot apart from the Biblical text. The halakot were the work of (1) the "Zugot" (duumvirates), who immediately followed the scribes, and (2) the Tannaim, who treated the law independently of the Biblical text. There are, however, some mishnayot which, from their style, seem to have emanated directly from the scribes (comp. Neg. 2:5-7). The latter seem not to have departed from the literal interpretation of the text, although they adapted the laws to the requirements of the times, sometimes instituting by-laws ("seyagim"), this, according to Abot (c.), being one of the three main duties of their office (comp. R. H. 34a; Yeb. 2:4; Sanh. 12:3).

Used Square Hebrew Characters.

From the time of Ezra, however, the scribes occupied themselves also with plans for raising Judaism to a higher intellectual plane. They were, consequently, active in reviving the use of Hebrew, which had been to a great extent forgotten during the exile in Babylon, and in giving it a more graceful and suitable script. As to the latter, it is stated that the Torah had first been written in Hebrew characters; then, in the time of Ezra, in characters called "ketab ashshuri" (probably = "ketab suri" = Syrian or Aramean script; comp. Kohut, "Aruch Completum," s. ), the present square type, the former script being left to the "Hedyoá¹­ot," that is, the Cutheans or Samaritans (Sanh. 21b-22a). It is evident that the scribes, in making this change, wished to give the Torah a particularly sacred character in distinction to the Samaritan Pentateuch. The term "ketab ashshuri" is explained by one authority as meaning "the even writing" (Yer. Meg. 1:71b), as contrasted with the forms of the ancient Hebrew or Samaritan characters.

The scribes are still better known for their work in connection with the liturgy and in the field of Bible emendation; for, besides the many benedictions and prayers which are ascribed to them, they revised the Hebrew text of the Scriptures, their revisions being called "tiḳḳune soferim." The number of these scribal emendations is given as eighteen (in Mek., Beshallaḥ Shirah, 6, and in Tan., Yelammedenu Beshallaḥ, ed. Vienna, 1863, p. 82b), of which the following may be cited: "but Abraham stood yet before the Lord" (Genesis 18:22), substituted for the original text, "but the Lord stood yet before Abraham" (see Gen. R. 49:12); "and let me not see my wretchedness" (Numbers 11:15), an emendation of the original text, "and let me not see thy wretchedness"; "to your tents . . . unto their tents" (1 Kings 12:16), instead of "to your gods . . . unto their gods." Other traces of the scribes' revision of the text are dots above certain words the meaning of which seemed doubtful to them, the original marks being ascribed to Ezra (Ab. R. N., ed. Schechter, pp. 97-98; Num. R. 3:13). For the "tiḳḳune soferim" see Masorah, and for the institutions ("taḳḳanot") established by the scribes, Synagogue, Great; TAḲḲANAH.

  • Bacher, Ag. Tan. Index, s. Lehrer;
  • J. Brüll, Mebo ha-Mishnah, pp. 7-9, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1876;
  • Z. Frankel, Darke ha-Mishnah, pp. 3 et seq.;
  • Grätz, Gesch. 1st ed., , part 2, p. 125; 4th ed., 3:86 et seq.;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. , s. Sopherim;
  • Jost, in Zeit. für Historische Theologie, 1850, pp. 351 et seq.;
  • Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., 2:313 et seq.;
  • Weiss, Dor, 1:50 et seq.

M. Sel.
  1. The professional scribes, known also as "liblarin" ("liblar" = "libellarius"). There were two kinds of professional scribes: (a) one who was engaged in the transcription of the Pentateuch scroll, phylacteries, and mezuzot, and who was called "sofer STaM" (= , the initials of "Sefer Torah," "Tefillin," and "Mezuzah"); (b) one who acted as notary public and court secretary.(a) The productions of the sofer being the principal religious paraphernalia, he was a necessity in a Jewish community. A learned man was prohibited from residing in a town in which there was no scribe (Sanh. 17b). The sofer was so indispensable that, according to R. Joshua b. Levi, the men of the Great Assembly observed twenty-four fast-days on which they prayed that the soferim might not become rich and therefore unwilling to write. A baraita confirms the statement that writers of the Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot, and those that deal or trade in them are not blessed with riches (Pes. 50b; Tosef., Bik. , end). Even to this day the vocation of the sofer is the worst paid of all Jewish professions.

Artistic Work.

The Talmud, quoting the passage "This is my God, and I will beautify Him" (Exodus 15:2, Hebr.), says: "Serve Him in a beautiful manner . . . prepare a beautiful Sefer Torah, written in good ink with a fine pen by an expert sofer" (Shab. 133b). The ink must be indelible, and the parchment specially prepared; the lines, traced and squared so that the writing may be straight and uniform. The Talmud declares that the rule regarding lines must be observed, in the case of the mezuzah, which is written on one roll, but does not apply in the case of the tefillin-rolls. Both, however, may be copied from memory, the wording being familiar to the sofer (Meg. 18b). The tracing is done with a ruler and a style (comp. Giá¹­. 6b; Tosef., Giá¹­. s. ).

There were artists among the soferim. The Alexandrian scribes especially were noted for their skill in illumination. They used to gild the names of God found in the Pentateuch; but the rabbis of Jerusalem prohibited reading from such scrolls and ordered them to be placed in the genizah (Masseket Soferim i; Shab. 103b).

The utmost care and attention were bestowed upon spelling, crowning certain letters (Taggin), dotting others, copying abnormalities, and upon the regulations as to spacing for parashiyyot and sections. Some soferim were careful to begin the columns of the Sefer Torah with a word commencing with a "waw," allowing an equal number of lines to every column. Such columns were known as "wawe ha'ammudim" or "waw-columns." The preparation of phylacteries and mezuzot required a similar exercise of watchfulness. R. Ishmael said to a sofer: "My son, be careful in thy work, as it is a heavenly work, lest thou err in omitting or adding one iota, and so cause the destruction of the whole world" ('Er. 13a). The sofer was required to copy the text from a model form made by an expert, and was not permitted to rely on his memory. "Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee" (Proverbs 4:25) is the advice given to a sofer. R. Ḥisda, finding R. Hananeel writing a Sefer Torah from memory, said to him: "Indeed thou art able to write the whole Torah by heart; but our sages have forbidden the writing of even one letter without an exemplar" (Meg. 18b).

"TiḲḲun Soferim."

The model from which the sofer copied the Pentateuch was called "tiḳḳun soferim" (which must not be confounded with tiḳḳune soferim = "changes in the text"). An ancient fine copy of a tiḳḳun soferim, written on vellum, and vocalized and accented, with "waw-columns" of sixty lines each, was found in the old synagogue of Cracow ("Ha-Maggid," 12:6, Feb. 5, 1868). Among the printed model forms are: "Tiḳḳun Soferim," by Solomon de Oliveyra, Amsterdam, 1666; "'Ezrat ha-Sofer," with wawe ha-'ammnudim, edited by Judah Piza, ib. 1769; "'En ha-Sofer," with wawe ha-'ammudim, by W. Heidenheim, 10 parts, Rödelheim, 1818-1821. The modern "Tiḳḳun Soferim," without vowels or accents, was first published in Wilna, in 1874, with wawe ha-'ammudim in two half-columns of forty-two lines. This edition has been reprinted several times and is now the standard copy.

Moses Ḥagiz, in his "Mishnat Ḥakamim" (§§ 227-228, Wandsbeck, 1733), urges scrupulous carefulness as to the qualification of the sofer, and refers to Moses Zacuto, who complained of the malpractises of the soferim in their work. He refers also to Zacuto's letter enumerating ten rules for the guidance of the sofer and addressed to the rabbis of Cracow, who had requested the information. A copy of this letter is among the manuscripts of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It contains cabalistic rules by Moses Zacuto for the writing of a Pentateuch roll according to Luria; but it is addressed to Isaac, rabbi of Posen, and includes Isaac's answer copied in the year 5438 = 1678 (Neubauer, "Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS." cols. 1871, 2, and 1890).


The ordinary Bible for study was usually vocalized, accented, and sometimes illuminated (BIBLE MANUSCRIPTS). In most cases the sofer would only write upon the order of a patron; and he would append his signature at the end of his work as a guaranty of its correctness, with the date, place of production, and sometimes the name of his patron also, as an identification in case of loss. These colophons are interesting from an antiquarian and historical point of view. Probably the earliest is that of Moses ben Asher's Bible, which was ordered by Jabez b. Solomon and given to the Karaite congregation in Jerusalem, and of which Jacob Saphir saw the Prophets in the possession of the Karaite congregation at Cairo ("Eben Sappir," 1:14b, Lyck, 1868). It was written in Tiberias and dated in the year 827 from the destruction of the Second Temple (= 896 C. E.); the colophonic matter appearing at the end of the Minor Prophets. Some colophons are written in letters of gold with an illuminated border, giving the date according to the era of the Creation, the Seleucidan era, and that of the destruction of the Temple; a blessing for the patron follows; and the closing words are: "May salvation [or "the redeemer"] speedily come." In rare instances the scribe acknowledges the receipt of his compensation in full; in others he apologizes for any error or shortcoming and pleads for God's forgiveness.

Expertness in writing was highly developed during the existence of the Second Temple. Ben Ḳamẓar was able to manipulate four pens between his five fingers and to write a four-lettered word at one stroke. He was blamed for not teaching his art to others (Yoma 38b). The vocation of the sofer was a regular profession; and many Talmudists were known by the appellation "Safra." The scribe was recognized in the street by the pen behind his ear (Shab. 1:3; 11a).

Notary and Secretary.

  1. The other kind of sofer was employed in the preparation of bills of divorce requiring special care. He acted also in the capacity of a public notary, and as a recording clerk in the court-house ("bet din"). There were two clerks: one recording the charge of the accuser; the other, the answer of the accused (Sanh. 17b). The sofer was, moreover, the public secretary. It is stated that the nasi Rabban Gamaliel in his official seat on the Temple site had before him Johanan the sofer, to whom he dictated three letters: (1) "To our brethren residing in upper and lower Galilee"; (2) "To our brethren in the South"; and (3) "To our brethren in exile in Babylon and Media and other exilic countries of Israel. Peace with you shall ever increase. We inform you," etc. (Sanh. 11b). In later times the scribe of the community (= "sofer haḳahal") was the recording; secretary of the Pinḳes, and acted as notary as far as legal documents were concerned. The community had the power to consider as valueless all contracts not written by the appointed sofer (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 61, 1).The sofer's fee was not fixed, nor might he make any charge except for loss of time. It was advisable therefore to make a bargain with him before-hand (ib. Eben ha-'Ezer, 154, 4). The question by whom the sofer shall be paid is settled for almost every possible case. The underlying principle is that the one who is in duty bound to give the document, or who receives the most benefit from the transaction, shall pay the scribe; otherwise the parties share the expense. Those responsible for the sofer'sfee are enumerated thus: (1) The purchaser of property (Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 238, 1). (2) The borrower of money; but if the lender loses the note and desires a duplicate, he must pay for it. The lender pays for writing the receipt against a note; but when there is no note, and the borrower wishes to have a receipt, he must pay for it (ib. 39, 14; 54, 1). (3) The bridegroom, for the betrothal contract; but if the bride desires a duplicate, she must pay for it. The groom pays for the ketubah (Eben ha-'Ezer, 51, 1). (4) The husband, for a bill of divorce and the receipt for the dowry (ib. 110, 1; 120, 1). (5) Both parties, for writing arbitration papers (Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 13, 6). The plaintiff and defendant share alike the cost of writing their pleas and briefs for submission to a higher court (ib. 13, 3; 14, 2). The person who is in contempt of court must pay the expense incurred in issuing the summons (ib. 11, 4).


  • Masseket Soferim. ed. Joel Müller, Leipsic, 1878;
  • Sheba' Masseketot, Sefer Torah, ed. Raphael Kirchhelm, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1851;
  • Ginze Miẓrayim, Sefer Torah (credited to Judah Barcelona), ed. E. N. Adler, Oxford, 1897;
  • Vitry Maḥzor, pp. 686 et seq.;
  • Aaron Mirels, Bet Aharon, Berlin, 1829;
  • Samuel ha-Levi, Naḥalat Shibe'ah, No. 1, Amsterdam, 1667;
  • Joseph Ganzfried, Ḳeset ha-Sofer, Ofen, 1835;
  • Samson b. Eliezer, Baruk She-Amar, with appendix by Lipmann-Mülhausen, Shklov, 1804;
  • Abraham b. Isaac of Narbonne, Sefer ha-Eshkol, ed. Abraham Auerbach, vol. , Halberstadt, 1868;
  • Löw, Graphische Requisiten;
  • C. D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, pp. 241 et seq., London, 1897;
  • Hartwig, Beihefte zum Centralblatt für Bibliothekswesens, 1897. No. 19;
  • Ludwig Blau, Studien zum Althebräischen Buchwesen, , Strasburg, 1902;
  • Louis H. Levin, The Sopher, in Jewish Comment, 1903, 17:5.
W. B.
J. D. E.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Scribes'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​s/scribes.html. 1901.
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