Kezayit: Micrography

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.


Waugh_FullBrooklyn-based artist Michael Waugh is best known for producing large-scale, ink-on-mylar drawings, but with a twist. From the artist's website:

"For the past few years, my drawings have utilized an ancient Hebrew form of calligraphy called micrography, in which minute words are written out so that when you stand far away, you see an image. Those ancient drawings typically employed a sacred text; the purpose of the drawings was either devotional or magical. The texts used in my drawings are neither sacred nor magical, and it is doubtful that they deserve any form of devotion. The text used in these drawings comes from government reports commissioned or headed by US presidents (i.e. presidential commission reports)."

Waugh_Detail2The image you see above is Waugh's The Grace Commission, part n, a 2007 work measuring 36 x 78 inches. Just to the left, we've included a detail of the work, which shows the handwritten script that forms the greyhound's head and the background landscape. As the title of the work suggests, this image was created using the federal report about President Ronald Reagan's Grace Commission, a 1982 investigation into governmental "waste and inefficiency."

Whereas Waugh uses micrography for conceptual reasons -- the imagery in his drawings is a comment on the texts he uses -- its invention was precipitated by a very different need. The second commandment, read strictly, prohibits religious Jews from creating artwork that may be deemed idolatrous and blasphemous. Although Jewish tradition has proven generally amenable to visual art, micrography ensured that Jewish artists wouldn't need to worry -- the potentially dangerous image was rendered harmless because it was formed by written sacred text that formed it.

Micrography arose as an art form sometime in 10th century Egypt and Eretz Israel. Although most scholars attribute its invention to Jews, it was heavily influenced by the surrounding Islamic culture and calligrams. From the catalog essay for Micrography: The Hebrew Word as Art, an exhibit at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

"Hebrew micrography was the creation of the Masorah scribes of Tiberias in the production of Bible codices (the book form of the Tanach that included marginal notes of the masorah and nikudot). The Leningrad Codice from 1009 written in Cairo, has sixteen diverse carpet pages presenting the small but fully legible masorah text in architectural and abstract designs surrounded by beautiful gold and red illuminations reminiscent of Middle Eastern carpets. This art form spread throughout the Levant, with Yemen as an especially important center, and then to north into medieval Europe. The Sephardic scribes of Spain utilized micrography, especially in some of the Catalonian Haggadot. The Ashkenazi scribes, with their micrographic specialty of medieval grotesques and bestiaries decorating the margins and front pages of luxury Bibles, and Haggadot also flourished from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. After the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, the use of micrography expanded to ketubbot, omer counters, amulets, and other independent works on paper, eventually to its use in portraits and secular Jewish illustrations. Throughout the centuries it has remained a predominately Jewish art form."

Rabbi Levi Selwyn: Our Sofer On Site

SoferAtWork3_CongregationBethSholom_October2015The week before last, CBS hosted Rabbi Levi Selwyn. Shortly after he arrived, every Torah scroll in the CBS collection was gathered in the Sanctuary so that Rabbi Selwyn could "undress"(1) and unroll them.

Outside of religious services, visitors to Beth Sholom aren't generally encouraged to handle our sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), but Rabbi Selwyn wasn't a typical visitor. He's a sofer, or Jewish scribe, who works for Sofer On Site, a team of sofrim based in Miami, Florida, that offers scribal services to synagogues and other Jewish communities worldwide.RabbiLeviSelwyn7_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 The name sofer comes from the Hebrew root "to count." It's a fitting appellation; one of the principal halachic (Jewish legal) specifications governing a Torah scroll is that it consists of exactly 304,805 letters, and soferim must count each letter to ensure a scroll is kosher. Soferim do a lot more than count letters, though, and their training usually requires a period of shimush (apprenticeship) with an expert. The calligraphy skills needed to write or repair a sefer Torah take time to master, but the bulk of the training is dedicated to learning the thousands of laws that apply to sifrei Torah, tefillin, mezuzot, megillot, and any other religious text written on parchment.

Although now based in Miami, Rabbi Selwyn is originally from London, England, and he served as the Chief Rabbi of the Newtown Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, before he and his family settled in the United States, first in southern California, where Rabbi Selwyn directed youth programs, and then Florida, where he trained as a sofer.

Rabbi Selwyn spent his two days at CBS pouring over our sifrei Torah, inspecting, cleaning, and repairing them (or detailing what repairs still need to be made before they can be deemed kosher). Because some sifrei UnrolledTorah_CongregationBethSholom_October2015Torah are quite old, their parchment is affected by temporal and environmental factors, often breaking down and becoming discolored, and the letters of a scroll can crack. Rabbi Selwyn's assessments of our Torah scrolls make for a fascinating read, as the selections below attest.

"In Bamidbar and Naso, there is a very fatty part of the parchment where [it] is partially transparent. / There seems to have been a different scribe writing from the area of the Shema till the end of the Sefer." (These two observations were made about an approximately 130-year-old sefer Torah from Bohemia.)

"This Torah has a mix of thin and thick letters, presumably from someone that repaired it but did not manage to keep letters the same size as the original writing." (This note pertains to a 60-year-old Russian sefer Torah in our collection.)RabbiLeviSelwyn&RabbiGlazer_CongregationBethSholom_October2015Rabbi Selwyn was most excited about our 169-year-old, German sefer Torah. In his notes, he wrote,

"Besides telling from the type of font about the age and place of the Torah -- this Torah has the original Etz Chaim which has the year that the Torah was dedicated written on them. In Hebrew, it says Tav-Resh-Zayin."

In his note, etz chaim (literally, "tree of life") refers to the wooden poles that the sefer Torah is mounted on. The numerical values of the Hebrew letters Rabbi Selwyn spotted on these poles are 400 (Tav), 200 (Resh), and 7 (Zayin). Added together, that makes 607. Hebrew years are often written with an implied addition of 5,000, which would make the year in question 5,000 + 607, or 5607. Because we're currently in the early weeks of year 5776, Rabbi Selwyn deduced that the German sefer Torah was 169 years old!
RabbiGlazer&RabbiLeviSelwyn_CongregationBethSholom_October2015RabbiLeviSelwyn3_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 SoferTools_CongregationBethSholom_October2015Rabbi Selwyn chatted amiably with anyone who cared to pop in on him, and he also met with several CBS Preschool and Shabbat School groups, teaching them about a sofer's responsibilities and showcasing his tools, the special ink (the recipe of which is guarded by a handful of families who supply it to soferim worldwide), animal sinew (used to sew together different sections of a scroll), a writing quill from a domesticated turkey, and less novel items like a small bottle of Elmer's glue. His enthusiasm and dedication to the craft was palpable, and it was a treat to watch him work, whether he was carefully repairing the Hebrew script on our scrolls or replacing a section of binding.

We look forward to having him back in the future!

(1) When not in use, a Torah remains "dressed" in a cloth covering called a mantle, and is often topped with ornate finials or draped with a breastplate, or shield. RabbiLeviSelwyn2_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 CBSPreschoolStudents&RabbiLeviSelwyn4_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 CBSPreschoolStudents&RabbiLeviSelwyn3_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 DressedTorahScrolls_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 RabbiLeviSelwyn4_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 SoferAtWork_CongregationBethSholom_October2015