Purchasing STAM: Part 3

Proofreading & Psak

This series of blog posts can be downloaded as a free ebook.1

For a brief overview of the complete series, including links to all the posts, see Purchasing STAM: Index & Summary.

The previous post in this series discussed the sofer and some attributes to look for when shopping for STAM. After finding a sofer that meets those criteria, it is still necessary to get additional information from him about the STAM-production workflow. This post will focus on the end of the writing process.

Before a written STAM product can be used, it must go through two different types of rigorous examinations:

  1. To ensure that all the letters have the correct shape and are spaced correctly;
  2. To make sure there are no missing, extra or substituted letters or words.

Everything in the preceding chapter regarding the qualities of a sofer applies to a magi’ah as well. In addition, the certification exam for a magi’ah covers a wider range of halachic sources, and he also must go though a period of apprenticeship with an expert magi’ah or posek to get real-world experience with the variety of questions that come up. Every item of STAM must be checked by a magi’ah. If at all feasible, examination by two different Magihim is preferred — everyone has a unique way of seeing things and one magi’ah might catch a problem that another missed.

note: A sofer should not check STAM without receiving additional certification as a magi’ah. The two jobs require very different sets of skills and knowledge.

In addition to being checked manually, all STAM should go through a computer scan: A digital image of the mezuza, tefilin parsha or column (of a Sefer Torah, navi or megila) is analyzed by an OCR program that compares the image to the correct text. The program is not sophisticated enough to entirely replace the magi’ah (and probably never will be), but it excels in the one area that people are most fallible — finding missing, extra and transposed letters.

There are many stories of STAM being used for years without being checked properly, and upon examination they were found to be obviously pasul — often irreparably so:

  • A man puts on tefilin for 20 years, not knowing that two letters are touching each-other, changing the word “מזזות” into “מחות”, which makes the tefilin pasul. He never once fulfilled the mitzva of tefilin, not to mention that he made a beracha levatala every day…
  • A community reads from a pasul Sefer Torah every week for years without realizing it, until one day a sharp-eyed bar mitzva boy gets up to read and notices a word is missing…
  • A landlord buys the cheapest mezuzos he can find for his rental apartment. The “sofer” who wrote them worked very quickly and was not careful with the shapes or spacing of the letters. Every single mezuza is pasul. The tenants don’t bother to check the mezuzos, assuming their “religious” landlord took care of it already…

Stories like these happen every day, and they can be avoided altogether if every article of STAM was checked properly — by a magi’ah and by computer — before being brought to market.

note: Even the best magi’ah in the world can only check for certain types of problems — those that are apparent in the final product. Many of the issues that can come up in STAM have to do with how an event took place, or the exact order of a sequence of events. These issues are just as serious — and can be just as pasul — as a missing word. For this reason, you can’t just rely on the magi’ah; the sofer needs to be reliable too.

Rav Mordechai Friedlander

Even though the magi’ah has broader experience and training than a sofer, it often happens that a question is too delicate for the magi’ah to decide on his own and he must bring it to a posek who is a specialist in STAM. Most rabbis — even well-regarded rabbis who routinely decide all kinds of weighty issues — are not qualified to render a decision on many of the finer points of the laws of STAM. To make a comparison to another field of halacha: Although most rabbis would be comfortable officiating at a wedding, many would not feel qualified to preside over the giving of a get. Fewer still have the requisite experience and knowledge to deal with issues of chalitza and yibum.

As mentioned in the previous post, it is recommended that the buyer knows which poskim the sofer and magi’ah use. If a sofer or magi’ah claims that he doesn’t need a posek because he doesn’t ever have any questions, then the buyer should take his business elsewhere. Even the most experienced sofer has questions, and even the most expert magi’ah comes across new situations in which he requires guidance.

The sofer, the magi’ah and the posek are all involved in but one aspect of the creation of STAM — the writing itself. The next couple of posts in this series will take a look at some of the other pieces of the STAM puzzle and the people who make it happen.

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  1. The blog posts have been revised to reflect edits and corrections made when preparing the ebook edition.