Page 9 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 19

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An Essay in Hebrew Book Lore
e ffer
HE word sefer
meaning “book,” is derived from one of
the most important roots in the Hebrew language. The
letters samek, pe, resh spell out not only the word w ith which
the Jewish people is identified pa r excellence, but also a long
list including the verbs to count, to recount, to relate, to reckon,
to take account, and the nouns enumerator, muster-officer, sec­
retary, scribe, copyist, member of the class of men learned in
the Law, enumeration, census, number, tale, and letter. In later
and modern Hebrew these three meaningful and pregnant letters
beget, in addition, to cut, to shear, to speak, to have one’s hair
cut, to shave, barber, B ible teacher, as well as mark, boundary,
border district, document, library, shears, scissors, barber shop
and, in mystical literature, the ten degrees that emanate from the
D ivinity. W ha t new words may be created between the w riting
of this paper and its printing is anybody’s guess. The permuta­
tions and combinations of these three modest letters are almost
It is natural, therefore, that in the Book of Books words
deriving from sefer occur with great frequency and that forms
of the word “book” are mentioned in it no fewer than 182 times.
Indeed, the author of Ecclesiastes remarks, “And furthermore,
my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no
end . . . ” I f this was true of the period when the Sacred Scriptures
were composed—a time that did not encourage the facile m u lti­
plication of the written word—how much truer was this of the
Talmudic era when the copyist’s art became a recognized occu­
pation, since books which hitherto were not permitted to be
w ritten now passed from the oral into the w ritten stage.
It was at this time that precise regulations were formulated
for the copying of the Holy Scriptures. These rules, which are
collected in the twenty-one chapters of the apocryphal Talmudic
treatise Masseket Soferim, serve as a guide to every scribe who
makes a copy of the Bible, either for his own or for public
reading. The scribe must be a learned man, able to comprehend
and follow the many detailed instructions, and his work should
be performed in a spirit o f holiness. He must ru le the parchment
w ith a special reed so that the letters w ill form straight lines and