Last week Masorti Olami had the opportunity to interview Sebastian Grimberg, a native of Buenos Aires who is the only Sofer STAM (ritual scribe) from the Masorti movement currently dedicated to working as a professional sofer in Latin America.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how come you decided to become a sofer STAM?
The last mitzvah in the Torah instructs each of us to write a Sefer Torah, but it is said that one can do this mitzvah by writing even just one letter in a Torah scroll. I felt that the mitzvot regarding the sofer should be closer to the people, so I decided to start studying this field in order to bring these mitzvot closer to people’s hearts.
What was the training process like?
In the beginning it was very difficult to find a teacher who was willing to take on a Masorti student. When I was looking for a teacher I wrote to nearly every sofer in the world that I could find online. Finally, I found a teacher in Israel who was willing to take me on as a student.
We started lessons online while I was in Argentina and we studied the halachot and all the basics of STAM (the Hebrew acronym for Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzuot) and I purchased all the tools and materials needed. Typically, it is a one-year course, but by doing distance learning it took me three years. I would practice writing the letters and then scan my samples and send them to him by e-mail. At the end of this period once we decided that I was ready I went to Israel for a month-long intensive course with him.
After doing all this work there is still a lot of practice necessary before you can really write a single letter. It typically takes 1-3 years of practice before a person is actually ready to work as a sofer. There are many halachot regarding STAM and a sofer has to know all the laws behind his profession—not just the calligraphy. The sofer must know the laws of how to write, what is permissible and forbidden and what makes STAM Kasher and what is Pasul. Take the letter “yud” for example—the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. There are nearly 40 halachot that a sofer has to know in order to write a “yud” properly!
Do you do all aspects of STAM Writing?
Yes. I write scrolls for tefillin, mezuzot and sifrei torah. I have written ten Torah scrolls to date and I have orders to write three more over the next three years. Mezuzot are usually harder to write than Torah scrolls, but that really depends on size. The scrolls come in different sizes—6 cm, 7 cm, 12 cm, 15 cm and even 20 cm. They are harder the smaller they get. Typically, it takes me around an hour to write a Mezuzah, but you also need to proofread your work and also do a computerized proofreading. I have written some 2,500-3,000 mezuzot. I find Tefillin to be the hardest of all to write. Many soferim in Israel concentrate on a particular aspect of STAM writing, but I do it all.
How do you source materials in South America? Do you have to prepare the hide for the scrolls and the leather boxes for the Tefillin as well?
No, I buy the klaf (parchment) and the ink as well as the sinews from a distributor in Israel. Soferim just do the writing. They don’t make the boxes—there are other people who do that.
Do you know other Masorti Sofers?
Yes, I know of two others, including Rabbi Gustavo Surazski.
What are the requirements for the job?
First of all, a sofer must be completely religiously observant. However, beyond that, he must also really be “Yireh Shamayim”—a God-fearing person. Beyond his personal background, he must learn both the halacha as well as the calligraphy. The job is actually quite taxing on the body and especially on the eyes, and you must not have a tendency to do things quickly. It often takes a full minute to write out just one word.
Are your customers primarily Masorti Jews?
Yes. The Orthodox have their own scribes and the Reform movement does not have a very big presence in South America.
What does a typical day as a sofer look like?
I am not just a sofer—I am also a community manager at El Jai Bialik de Devoto and I study at the Seminario Rabinico as well, and also have three children. I split the week up and I usually write 20-25 hours per week, and I work 40-50 hours per week in the Kehillah. I typically write in the mornings and afternoon and I go to work in the communities during the first days of the week.
What is the hardest aspect of the job?
The amount of time that each project takes as well as the physical pain are the hardest parts of the job. I write for communities in Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina as well as countries from Panama on down to Chile. Each community wants me to come and do work there so that each member of the community can feel a part of the holiness. That demands a lot of work and a lot of time on my part.
I wrote a Torah scroll for the Tucuman community in honor of the 200th anniversary of Argentina’s independence—an initiative pioneered by Rabbi Salo Nussbaum. The community wanted the scroll to truly be a federal scroll, so I went to communities in each of Argentina’s provinces to write it. It was a very nice project and quite exciting, but I did not see very much of my family during that time.
What else would you like our readers to know?
There is a special Kavanah (concentration) of many thousands of years channeled through a Torah scroll and that is what I love most about my work. I pass on this Kavanah, this spirituality that is involved in the writing and the presentation of the Torah. It is a tradition passed on for thousands of years with every generation doing exactly the same thing as the generation before it. It is really wonderful in my eyes.
Sebastian Grimberg is an active sofer STAM. Click here to contact him or to place an order for Mezuzot, Tefillin of a Sefer Torah .