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Hebrew Calligraphy

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Calligraphy is an important part of the culture of those peoples having a specific type of writing. This is the case of the Hebrew calligraphy, where the letters are in fact symbols with specific meanings, which makes the culture even more enticing. However, when analyzing Hebrew calligraphy, one needs to focus not only on the symbolism of the calligraphy, but also on the job of the Jewish scribe, in charge with employing this calligraphy and perpetuating it as an art.

While Hebrew calligraphy has its origins in the scribal traditions in the ancient days, it also experienced a revival as an art in the 1960s.

As far as the art of calligraphy is concerned, one needs to draw a clear distinction between the scribe and the calligrapher. These are two different professions and they need to be treated as such. The “scribe”, also known as the “sofer” used to be a man (never a woman) of piety who was in charge with adorning the tefillin (the small bands of leather worn by men during their prayers, inscribed with passages from the Torah). In the Middle Ages, the scribes were also in charge with transcribing the Torah scrolls and codices which would be used for private or public study. While these religious transcriptions were not signed, it was customary for these scribes to sign with their names whenever they wrote books, starting with the 15th century. The printing of books reduced the demand for scribes to work on these scrolls, but even so, their skills would still be used on ritual and religious writing pieces.

As far as calligraphy is concerned, this is an art in itself, or the art of writing in an artistic manner. Before the printing of books, many of the above-mentioned scribes trained and specialized in calligraphy, meaning that their work would be commissioned in the writing of specific books or shorter texts. After the Renaissance, the calligraphers would be trained to have the skills of a sofer, but they would be instead used to decorate and embellish Torah scrolls, codices, prayer books, or even the Ketubbot (the marriage contract) and the Haggahot (the book read at home by the family before the Passover). They would often use all sorts of techniques such as illuminations, large decorated letters, geometrical and vegetal shapes, micrography, etc., in order to embellish their work. The micrography was used in order to create the so-called “carpet pages” which were pages inserted in the books they worked on, resembling the drawing of oriental carpets – such works date back to the 9th until the 15th century, depending on the area where they were executed and could be found in Egypt, Yemen and Spain. In the medieval days in Egypt, even the Ketubbot would be decorated through the employment of micrography. Again, depending on the area where they were found, the carpet pages would depict various motifs – in Spain they would include geometric forms and interwoven palmettes, as well as Jewish symbols, as was the case of a Barcelona book illustration. In Germany, for instance, the micrography employed shapes and figures of animals which were very popular in the German Gothic style, as well as larger depictions of Hebrew letters where they would add zoomorphic figures. In the case of Ashkenazi Jews, specific letters varied in size, so they would be embellished with a rosette or a different ornament suitable to the respective letter.

Naturally, depending on the country where the calligraphers worked and the time period, their efforts focused on a specific type of document. For instance, in Italy, after the Renaissance, calligraphers focused on the decorating of Ketubbots, while during the 17th and 18th centuries, in Bohemia, Holland and Moravia and even Italy, the focus of these calligraphers was on writing, transcribing and decorating the Haggadot that families read before Passover. Some of these scribes and calligraphers became quite renowned for their talent and skills. Such an example is the case of Jehuda Machabeu, who worked massively in Amsterdam and Brazil during the first half of the 17th century. His most important work is the penning of a Latin calligraphy book, containing 4 types of the Hebrew alphabet. The book is currently in a private collection in Florida.

The two professions survived until present, as there is still a need to have scribes and calligraphers. However, while in the past, such professions employed even a spiritual preparation, nowadays, those aspiring to become either a scribe or a calligrapher have to learn the main aspects of the profession from a master. For instance, in the case of a scribe, he has to follow the style of writing of the master scribe and thus learn just a traditional script. The study course in this regard lasts for around 4 months, and it is within this time that students also deal with the hallakhah, which is the traditional law regulating the writing of religious texts from several perspectives: the materials to be used (parchment or vellum), the pens to be used (reed or quill – the first is used in the Sephardi community, while the latter in the Ashkenazi one), the ink to be applied, the proper rolling of the parchments. Also, hese days, the ethnic origin of the scribe is less important in impregnating the script style. Thus, it is common to embrace a certain style of writing, which is more popular, and therefore, more resourceful in orders, and it becomes easy to perfect it. It is also important to highlight the fact that those living in Israel and looking forward to becoming scribes are to enjoy subsidies for these courses, offered by the Ministry of Religion, and when taking the final exam, the awarded certification would be granted by the Office of the Chief Rabbinate.

As far as calligraphy is concerned, this profession enjoys a larger percentage of freedom and creativity. While the scribal art was destined only to men, calligraphy can be embraced both by men and women. Despite the available courses, the printed materials and the possibility to study with a tutor, calligraphy is mostly a self-taught art, with the calligrapher having the possibility to constantly update, improve or alter the calligraphic style he/she uses.

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