Erica Brown

The Art Of Sacred Writing

Editor’s Note: A version of this essay appeared in The Jewish Week Gala Journal in December.

Rabbi Judah, a Talmud scholar and scribe was once asked by Rabbi Yishmael to name his profession. Rabbi Judah told him that he was a scribe. Rabbi Yishmael responded: “Son, be careful in your work for it is the work of Heaven. If you omit a single letter or add a letter, you destroy the whole world.”

When you believe your work is the work of heaven itself, then every word, indeed every letter, counts. Together those letters — all 304,805 in the Torah, to be precise — create a spiritual universe whose very fabric serves as the foundation for our lives and our people. Letters are the basis of words. Words are the basis of sentences. Sentences are the basis of narratives. Narratives are the basis of identity.

Where does Jewish news fit into this picture of eternity? Words with staying power are not what we usually associate with a daily or weekly newspaper. When it’s read, if it’s read. Thoreau advised, “Read not the Times, read the Eternities.” Forget the paper. Stick with the sacred and enduring.

In the spirit of enduring words, there are detailed Jewish laws surrounding the ink and parchment used to write a Torah scroll.

In the writing of the Torah’s letters, only black, permanent — non-erasable — ink is permitted. If any other ink is used, the scroll is not kosher. How this ink was made was also the subject of lengthy Talmudic discussion — oils, tar and waxes were burned and combined with sap. The liquid was then dried out. When the ink was to be used, it was mixed with the juice of gallnuts. In other words, if your goal is permanence, then what you used to create “forever” documents matters.

A quill or reed was dipped into this into this complex mixture. Any metal writing instrument was banned for fear it would puncture the parchment. Since metals were used for weaponry, use of a quill was required to obviate the association of the Torah with unnecessary violence. When you are after the transcendent, everything must come together to create it: form, substance, method.

All permanence, however, is an illusion. No ink lasts forever, even if some inks are more durable than others. Parchment is surely sturdier than paper, narrative more sturdy than news. But even they will one day disintegrate. Ultimately, what is sacred is how we stitch together the moments in time that will transcend the ordinary, often not knowing what those moments are when we live through them. Even God had to command Moses to write it all down. Moses may have not realized that some of our sadder stories, our complaints and difficulties were worth the memories.

We count on those who give us the news and their analysis of it to do the stitching for us, to offer us order and coherence in times of uncertainty and pain. They record our joys, too, and, when we look back, they present us with an album of our lives. We may not look at the work of journalists as anything more than what the Talmud calls “hayei sha’a,” the work of the moment, rather than “hayei olam,” the work of eternity. But we do not know what moments will remain embedded within: the times, seasons and events that will shape and transform us. Sometimes we realize we are living through a moment of history. Sometimes we will not know that for a long time. Often we don’t realize what the factors are that have influenced us until we look back on the record.

Journalists — responsible, hard-working writers who have stuck to it over decades — are among those we count on to create that record for us. They understand that words can, as Rabbi Yishmael said, create and destroy worlds. The writers whose bylines you read each week in this newspaper stitch our Jewish lives together one week at a time, one word at a time, helping us make sense of our Jewish lives now, as we live them. Our ink is more easily spilled today. Our “parchment” gets dropped into recycling, but words still have the power to shape us. These dedicated journalists deserve our heartfelt appreciation. They have brought so many of those words into existence.

Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her latest book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).