Why your $1,000 megillah is not kosher

Megillah written and illuminated by Rachel Jackson
Megillah written and illuminated by Rachel Jackson

Every year as Purim rolls around, communities and individuals begin searching for megillot. And, every year the temptation arises, to go for a “bargain,” and settle on the cheapest scroll you can find.

The purchase and commission (and ultimately the reading of) a megillah fulfill a mitzvah, and connect to an embodied and sacred part of our tradition. Prioritizing a “bargain basement” price for your megillah, compromises your ethical obligations. You risk undoing the fulfillment of the mitzvah, and unravelling the fabric of your community.

It’s a matter of Jewish law that a community pays its clergy and educators fairly, and the same applies to scribes. A megillah takes an experienced sofer/et from a minimum of two weeks to write. Then, the materials alone cost around $300. If your community buys a $1,000 megillah, the sofer/et is making $700 (assuming you buy it directly from the sofer/et). Over the course of a year, that works out to be an annual salary of just under $17K (before taxes, without benefits). Under the current circumstances, working as sofer/et full time in the United States is nearly untenable.

If we rely on people working below minimum wage in order to have holy objects, are we really fulfilling the mitzvah? Just as a stolen lulav invalidates the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, so too a megillah purchased at an exploitatively low price compromises the mitzvah of hearing the megillah (see Mesilat Yesharim 11:14 “וגזל זמן גזל | stealing time is theft”).

The link between the divine and the material informs the relationship between the community and the sofer/et who produces the megillah (or Torah) itself. Behind the quill, is a sofer/et whose role is as integral (though less visible) to our modern communities, as that of a rabbi or cantor. Traditionally, a community (or group of smaller communities) would employ a sofer/et just as “they appoint butchers” (Shlomo Gantzfried, Keset 1:1), mohels, teachers, and gabba’im among a wide range of Jewish professionals.  Now we employ accountants and marketing consultants.

And what happened to the scribes? We’re still here. And we are devotedly continuing the ancient traditions.

When your community chooses to spend its finite resources on a megillah, at a bare minimum, don’t you want the writing itself to be kosher? Paying an unrealistic price exposes you to the risk that not only the process, but also the finished product will fail to reach the appropriate standard of kashrut according to any halachic authority. Many of the megillot, mezuzot and tefillin we check are manifestly not kosher according to basic halachic standards, because the writing is done improperly.

While there are strict halachic standards for what is considered kosher lettering, these do include a wide range of different regional styles as articulated by different halachic traditions (note the difference between a German style Torah and a Yemenite Torah). The drive to reduce financial cost, results in the mass ‘standardization’ of sofrut objects and the loss of rich regional traditions.

None of us want Jewish observant life to be prohibitively expensive (as it already often is for many). We need to find options that don’t exploit either the scribes or the communities or individuals who commission them. Among suggestions that we have heard are that federations or synagogues could underwrite tefillin and mezuzot for individuals who cannot comfortably afford them; larger communities could hire salaried scribes, or smaller communities could group together collectively to hire salaried scribes. These solutions may not be perfect, but they are a start.

In writing this article, we hope to inspire a wider discussion of the ethics, principles and practice that might inform our future relationships between communities, scribes and scrolls, so that we can indeed “sanctify ourselves” through this sacred work.

Co-authored with Linda Kaye. Kaye was raised Orthodox in an era when scribing was an exclusively male profession. Having somewhat belatedly become a soferet sta’m, she is now writing mezuzot, completing a Megillat Esther, and looking forward to writing a Torah. She is a radical feminist and has been involved in Jewish education for several decades. Linda lives in the idyllic far north of Aotearoa New Zealand. She has contributed two daughters and four grandchildren to the sum of beautiful people inhabiting the planet.

We acknowledge Julie Seltzer and Jen Taylor Friedman for pre-publication reading of this article.

About the Author
Rachel Jackson, owner of Binah Design, is an artist, graphic designer, bookbinder and scribe. She is an ardent feminist and passionate about craft. She recently founded Hiddur Mitzvah, a small Judaica company with her partner, Jackson Mercer. She has a degree in visual art from the University of Chicago and a certificate in bookbinding from the North Bennet Street School in Boston. She lives in Cambridge, MA.
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