David Jacobson
David Jacobson

The Battle of the Pen and Scissors

The town of Carrion de los Condes is located along an ancient Roman highway known today as the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. A thriving, well-integrated Jewish community lived in Carrion since its foundation by the Romans. The local economy is based on cereals and livestock, being in the heart of the Meseta plain, Spain’s grain basket since Roman times.

Carrion’s most famous native was Rabbi Shem Tov ben Isaac Ardutiel, who lived in the 14th century. Rabbi Shem Tov is noteworthy for his witty, humoristic style of writing, most of which is of religious nature. He composed the Viduy (prayer of atonement) “”ריבונו של עולם בראותי בחורותי, which can be found in Sephardic prayer books for Yom Kippur. It emphasizes the sin of לשון הרע (gossip) followed by the traditional alphabetic viduy based on אשמנו, בגדנו (listing of common human sins). It ends with doubts on the effectiveness of verbal confession as means of spiritual redemption for the sinful human.

Other religious poems by Rabbi Shem Tov are still in manuscript and have not yet been printed. Noteworthy among them is the Maqama יה קהלת.

Rabbi Shem Tov mastered the Castilian- Spanish language, as evidenced in his philosophical essay “Proverbios Morales “(Moral proverbs) written for the Castilian King Pedro (whom he served as financial advisor) in honor of his son and heir Prince Juan. This first-ever philosophical essay in Spanish ranks Rabbi Shem Tov in the first row of honor among Spanish writers. The essay deals with basic human condition and behavior – loneliness, friendship, truth and lies, diligence and laziness, loyalty and betrayal. The essay uses nature and agricultural objects – roses, wine, spring, water, crops, cattle etc. Climatic elements such as clouds, sun, frost, drought, also appear often in the essay. Rabbi Shem Tov used many Biblical phrases in his proverbs as well as Talmudic quotations.

My favorite among Rabbi Shem Tov’s writings is the Hebrew satire “Battle of the Pen and Scissors” (מלחמת העט והמספרים). This humoristic essay was written in 1345. The satire is rich in its use of Biblical and Talmudic expressions and wordplay. It describes an argument between pen and scissors on who is better suited and more effective in performing the art of writing.

The poet begins by telling of the writer’s difficulties in writing on a frosty winter. His ink froze and the reed pen proved useless. In desperation, the writer resorts to using his scissors as writing instrument by cutting colorful paper in the shape of letters.

The pen protests that its role was assumed by another. It begins a speech of self-praise of its importance as being created specifically as a tool of a highly spiritual occupation expressing elevated ideas. It ridicules the slow speed of the scissors’ writings. The scissors then counter the argument declaring that being independent of external conditions such as weather, they are well suited to writing by cutting letters and no tool has a monopoly. In addition, they argue, scissors are not dependent on other instruments (the pen depends on ink) in performing the art of writing. On the issue of speed, they counter that writing the most important text, the ten commandments, took Moshe forty days and no pen was used in carving them. The scissors further argue that although created for cutting and shearing, one tool can perform multiple tasks.

After back-and-forth arguments, the two rivals submit their dispute to an arbitrator. The arbitrator’s practical choice of instruments leads all witnesses to declare that each tool should perform its intended purpose, essentially giving the victory to the pen. Still, the writer warns the pen to be humble and recognize that it is not the originator of the written ideas. The pen celebrates its victory. The scissors get comfort in the recognition of their importance as a cutting tool.

Some 30 years after Rabbi Shem Tov’s death, during the countrywide anti-Jewish riots of 1391, many of the Jews of Carrion were murdered by Christian neighbors, incited by local priests. The survivors escaped to nearby Fromista and their 12th century “Ohel Yaakov” Synagogue, named after Yaakov our Patriarch, was converted into a church named “Ermita de la Vera Cruz” to this day.

Rabbi Shem Tov is recognized and admired nowadays in Spain and in his town. A college and a square in the town bear his name.

The picture shows the engraving above the 12th century “Ohel Yaakov” synagogue’s window in Carrion. (The stone façade was cleaned by sandblasting in 2018. The bell tower was added in the 16th century). The engravings describe symbols from the life of Yaakov Avinu.

About the Author
David Jacobson is a native of Beer Sheva, married with six married children and 15 grandchildren. David lives in Elazar, Gush Etzion. He holds a PhD in History from the Hebrew University, and leads Jewish History Tours in Europe. He served as Israel's Consul in Boston, an investment banker at Bank Leumi, and a lecturer of finance at Johns Hopkins and Graz Universities. Dr. Jacobson currently teaches corporate finance and innovations at the Gallillee Institute
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