“It should be perfect writing with no mistakes, and clear writing.”
Today’s Daf Yomi continues the discussion of labors with an in-depth examination of writing. We are told that one who writes two individual letters on Shabbat is liable if he does so with his dominant hand, depending on whether he is left or right-handed. If he is ambidextrous, he is liable regardless of what hand he uses to write those two letters. This is disputed, however, and we are told that writing more than two letters with either hand regardless of orientation results in being found liable. He is liable if he wrote the same letter twice or two distinct letters or used two different inks. He is liable if the letters are written in different languages or if he doesn’t write letters at all, but scribbles down symbols. A comparison is made with making marks for the beams that constructed the tabernacle as our ancestors built and tore down the massive structure as they moved through the dessert. Marks would be placed on the beams so that one would know what parts should be pieced together at the next location.
We were told earlier in the text that one must complete an act in order to be found liable for violating the prohibition against labor on Shabbat. The text tells us that one is liable of the transgression of writing on Shabbat even if he abbreviates a person’s name or uses acronyms. Writing is essentially different from other forms of labor. We can write two letters, or the portion of someone’s name – the text provides the example of “Dan” for “Daniel” and “Gad” for “Gaddiel – and we can fill in what is missing with our intellect If I write down the three letters D-A-N on a piece of people, I am reminded of all the Daniels I have known and the special one who was once part of my life. We learned from Rabbi Akiva at the end of his life, that repeating the three letters o-n-e can evoke the Shema from deep within us.
We are provided with a lesson in the importance of legible handwriting that is “clear” and “perfect.” One should not write bent letters with straight lines, and straight letters with curves. This passage brings me back to my childhood when I first learned how to write script. It was a huge achievement to progress from block printed letters to producing cursive script through the flow of my hand. I would write a word and hold the paper before my eyes and scrutinize the loops of each letter in an attempt to make the word more perfect. It wasn’t just about the meaning of the word and how it could be used to express myself. There was poetry in the very physical act of writing script on paper.
I studied with the poet Galway Kinnell when I was a graduate student in the Creative Writing department at New York University. I have letters saved from him that were written with a pen that was dipped into an ink jar, with the revealing little spots of blue ink on the paper where he must have rested his pen. He said that creating poetry was a physical act that started with writing words down on paper.
Galway died about six year ago when computers were prevalent, but I cannot imagine him creating his poems on a digital screen. He was a big hulk of a man who won my heart the first time I saw him enter a classroom and throw down his Irish fisherman sweater to the university’s dirty floor. His hair was always a little bit wild and as he read poetry, he would swing his large head from side to side with his hair never quite following. His poetry was never clever or cerebral, but honest, at times brutal, and connected to his physicality and the act of writing down on paper each and every letter.