Sefer Torah Layout

The beginning

It is customary to arrange the layout of a Sefer Torah with several of the columns starting with specific words. The acronym בי״ה שמ״ו is used as a mnemonic for this custom, but there are disagreements regarding some of the words referenced by the acronym. These are the words which appear at the top of the columns in contemporary Sifrei Torah:1

  • בראשית ברא (בראשית 1:1)
  • יהודה אתה יודוך (ויחי 49:8)
  • הבאים אחריהם (בשלח 14:28)
  • שמר לך (כי תשא 34:11)
  • שני השעירם (אחרי מות 16:8)
  • מה טבו (בלק 24:5)
  • ואעידה בם (וילך 31:28)

There is no record of this custom in the ancient masora, but it was already well established during the time of the Rishonim. A Sefer Torah that does not incorporate this custom is still kosher bidi’eved.

note: For the other columns in a Sefer Torah, the current practice is to start them with a word that begins with the letter vav. This convention – called ווי העמודים – has no authoritative source, and is not required.

It is not unusual for older Sifrei Torah to have unique layouts. They usually follow the custom of בי״ה שמ״ו, but the arrangement of the rest of the text can be inconsistent from one Sefer to the next. Since the early 1970’s, nearly all Sifrei Torah are written using either the 245-column layout developed by R. Menachem Davidovitch, or the newer 248-column layout developed by R. Ya’akov Schenagel.2

-= 8 =-

  1. This list includes two of the opinions for the word that begins with the letter shin. There are other opinions not in common use: For the letter shinשמר ושמעת (in פרשת ראה); and for the letter memמוצא שפתיך (in פרשת כי תצא). ↩

  2. The 248-column layout is less prevalent, but it is preferred by some sofrim because it has less need for cramped (compressed) writing. ↩