Jesse Hefter

Tikkun Seforim – giving new life to sacred books

The Hebrew word “Tikkun” means to repair or restore. The popular term “Tikkun Olam” (found in the 2nd paragraph of the Aleynu prayer), refers to repairing that which is broken in our world, to look for opportunities to utilize our resources to make the world more peaceful, more tolerant. The term “Tikkun Hammidot” refers to efforts one expends with the purpose of  improving one’s character.

Tikkun Chatzot refers to a ritual prayer recited each night after midnight that seeks to express our continued mourning for the destruction of the Beit Hamiqdash in Jerusalem and, through this prayer, to hope for the rebuilding of the Temple when the darkness of exile and destruction will once again be brightened and restored to a new level of splendor.

The term “Tikkun” is also found in the phrase “Tikkun Sofrim” (literally translated as Corrections of the Scribes) which refers to a collection of specific changes made to the text of the Bible by ancient scribes to address wordings that might have been misinterpreted as dishonoring God.

There is another kind of Tikkun that I describe as “Tikkun Seforim” – loosely translated as “Repairing Jewish Sacred Books” and, in particular, siddurim and chumashim.  Especially in an era of mass market printing, the prevalence of prayer books and bibles in shuls that have torn covers, ripped bindings, loose pages, and the like is prevalent.  When faced with a siddur or chumash that is “coming apart at the seams”, what are your options?

Cover-less book, clamped between two wooden strips, and ready for drilling (Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter)

There are a number of possibilities:

  • One could opt to put the used sefer in a box or pile somewhere in the synagogue and relegate it to a forgotten corner
  • One could leave it on a bookshelf and purchase newer copies for regular use
  • One could repair the sefer, if possible, and return it to regular use in the synagogue or at home.

Why might one, choosing the third option, make the effort to resew a binding, tape torn pages together, or reinforce the book end and the corners of the covers?

Holding a siddur in my hands that has worn out to the point where the pages are falling out, the covers are loose, and the backstrip (the part covering the spine of the book) is torn or missing sends a powerful message to me. This book has passed through many hands before me. This book has history. This book has been open to hear the Chazan/Leader of the congregation repeat the Shmoneh Esray or participated in the responsive recitation of Anim Zmirot or Avinu Malkenu.

Drilled, resewn, and ready for covers and spine (Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter)

The words on the pages of this particular volume have been viewed by the eyes of pray-ers and these individuals have turned the pages of this book, by hand, hundreds if not thousands of times. This book has a story. This book has had relationships with people in need, people in search, people looking for restoration, for “Tikkun Ha-nefesh“/restoration of their inner wellness.

So I enjoy taking the sefer segments apart and repairing them, section by section. It may only require taping a cover back to the main orinted-pages section. It may require fabricating a new cover of similar cardboard material to give the book back its covers. It may require drilling through the entire set of pages to resew the binding to properly and securely keep all the pages together. It may require taping tears of individual pages one-by-one. However, with each step in the process, the book gets healthier and stronger. The book prepares to serve its user again.

A new cover ready to be attached to an old Siddur (Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter)

Not only is the book restored but the fixer of the book feels the portion of the book’s journey that he or she has had the privilege to share. Rather than the hand of the book reader during prayer or Bible study, the sefer feels the hand of the fixer, the restorer, bringing new life to it.

And, sometimes, you might find that the book was repaired by someone else, years before you have chosen to restore it.  You might see a name written in an inside cover and a date or a label explaining who repaired the sefer and when.  Imagine, that earlier individual saw the value in repairing what was worn out or broken at that time and, very possibly, shared many of the same thoughts as I do, restoring the sefer after its many more years of use.

Label inside sefer cover placed by the binder (Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter)

Oscar Wilde, in the ‘Beauties of Bookbinding’, Pall Mall Gazette (November 23, 1888), observed that “Bookbinding is essentially decorative, and good decoration is far more often suggested by material and mode of work than by any desire on the part of the designer to tell us of his joy in the world”…”The beauty of bookbinding is abstract decorative beauty”… “The purpose of the two covers is to protect the ‘world’s written wealth’.”

Perhaps, for books of holy and spiritual use, the rebinding of a Sefer is far more than decorative and the efforts of the binder become a portion of the history of the Sefer.  Restoring the Sefer is not abstract but rather concrete and real. The restoration extends the history of that Sefer, thereby allowing the book to continue its goal of affecting pray-ers and students.  For books used for spiritual purposes, perhaps those same covers protect and preserve the “word’s sacred wealth”.

About the Author
Jesse, a Ph.D. chemist/materials scientist, originally from Elizabeth, NJ, completed a 35-year career as a technologist at Verizon Communications where he retired as an Associate Fellow. He lives in Brookline, MA , where he attends the Maimonides Kehillah, built and manages the Boston Eruv, teaches a weekly Daf Yomi shiur, serves as the High Holiday Baal Tefilah at Congregation Kadimah Toras-Moshe, and is actively working to complete Semicha through Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim. He and his wife, Brenda, are parents to three and grandparents to twelve. He enjoys Torah study, radio-control modeling, skiing, sailing, tennis, woodworking, writing, and volunteering.
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