White Klaf

People looking to buy a megila or Sefer Torah often ask for “white klaf”.1 It may seem like a simple enough request, but it actually introduces many complications, and even when it’s possible, it can often result in an inferior end-product.

klaf samples

There are three basic ways to get white klaf: Paint the klaf white, bleach the klaf white and make klaf from the skin of a white cow.

Painted klaf — called “klaf mashu’ach” — was actually in widespread use about 100 years ago. The parchment would be coated on both sides with whitewash (a lime based paint), which besides making the kalf white, had the added benefit of making it easier to write on poor-quality klaf. However, there are several serious downsides to this practice. From a halachic perspective, the majority of Poskim hold that klaf mashu’ach is unfit for use because the paint is a barrier between the ink and the parchment. From a practical perspective, the paint adds weight. On Tefilin and Mezuzos you won’t notice this, but a Sefer Torah made from klaf mashu’ach is significantly heavier than a similarly sized Sefer Torah made from unpainted klaf. An additional problem is that the paint on the back of the klaf rubs against the writing when the klaf is rolled, which causes damage to the letters over time. Finally, whitewash is not very flexible, and it can crack when the klaf is rolled or folded — causing the ink to crack as well. This is less of an issue with a Sefer Torah, but mezuzos and tefilin parshi’os made from klaf mashu’ach usually become pasul the moment they are rolled up.

Bleaching the klaf may be possible in theory, but in practice it doesn’t appear to be a viable option for most klaf factories — probably because a bleaching agent would adversely affect the rest of the chemistry used in the tanning process. In fact, the tanning process sometimes has the opposite effect on the klaf — adding a color tint to otherwise white parchment. The different klaf manufacturers all use slightly different mixes of chemicals to tan the hides (due to fierce competition, the exact recipes are closely guarded trade secrets). Each unique process has a distinct signature and gives the klaf a characteristic texture and color.2 Most Sofrim have a preference for specific klaf factories and have difficulty writing on klaf with very different properties than what they are used to. That being the case, depending on the particular klaf factory preferred by a given sofer, the klaf may have an overall gray or yellow or brownish tint. This tint would be present in any klaf from that factory, irrespective of any natural color variations that the skin may have otherwise had.

Which brings us to the last and presumably most practical option, writing on klaf that is naturally white. We’re going to assume in this case that the tanning process didn’t alter the color too much, or that the buyer would be satisfied as long as the klaf was a uniform light color. Even with these assumptions, there is still good reason to discourage using only white klaf.

Mezuza klafKlaf comes in many colors — primarily white, brown and black — in various shades and tones. Sometimes the skin is one uniform color, but more often it is spotted or striped. Besides the color, klaf has many other properties that also vary widely from one piece to the next: Klaf can be thick or thin, soft or hard, smooth or textured, translucent or opaque, dry or damp or oily… The fibers that make up the klaf can be dense or sparse, long or short, elastic or brittle, wide or narrow… Every single one of these additional characteristics has a direct impact on the ease of writing. The easier it is to write, the nicer the writing will look and the faster it will be completed. These qualities also determine how forgiving the klaf will be when it comes to erasing and correcting mistakes. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the variable with the smallest impact on the final product is the color of the klaf. That being the case, color should usually be the last consideration.

note: See the follow-up post for a few specific situations where there might be justification for preferring white klaf.

A 28-line megila is written on four sheets of klaf. It is not uncommon for a sofer to sort through 50 or 100 sheets of klaf to find the four “best” ones.3 To require white klaf is to severely limit the choices available. Only 5 or 10 yeri’os out of 100 will be totally white. The sofer will be forced to compromise on many of the more important qualities in order to give the client a white megila, and in doing so will deliver a product that is not as good as it could have been.

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  1. For an introduction to klaf see STAM bits: Klaf and More About Klaf. To learn what to look for (and what to avoid) when choosing a klaf factory see Purchasing STAM Part 4.

  2. Many expert Sofrim can identify which factory produced a given piece of klaf by the way it looks and feels (and sometimes even by the smell!).

  3. Some of the characteristics of “the best klaf” are objective — soft klaf is objectively better than hard klaf. Some characteristics are subjective — some Sofrim prefer smooth klaf and some prefer a more velvety finish.