Become a Sofer
By Eric Hammer
Flickr Photo by Chajm
One of the more unusual careers you may wish to consider if
you happen to be Jewish is to become a sofer stam. A sofer, which
is Hebrew for scribe writes ritual books and other objects completely
by hand. The work is considered largely a calling for people
who do it as it is often a rather tedious kind of job. Here's
what you need to know:
Under Jewish law, the Jewish bible (i.e. Torah), megillah
(book of Esther), mezuzah (a small piece of parchment affixed
to the doorways of Jewish homes) and teffilin (leather boxes
with bits of parchment with parts of the Hebrew bible mentioned
on them) must all be written by hand. They must also be copies
directly from an existing copy of the item in question. This
means that a torah for example must be written painstakingly
letter for letter by a trained scribe who understands how to
manipulate the quill.
A sofer stam (stam is a Hebrew acronym which stands for Sefer
Torah [Hebrew bible], Teffilin and Megillah/Mezuzah) must also
understand how to create the quills, which are made exclusively
from chicken feathers (metal quills may not be used for this
purpose under Jewish law). There are also a number of ritual
laws one must learn in order to become a sofer.
How Much Can You Make?
A sofer can make a decent living doing what he does (it's
almost exclusively a male dominated profession with women sofers
welcomed only by the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism
- Orthodox Jews insist on men only), however he needs to be fast
and accurate. Talented sofers are able to write two-three torah
scrolls per year for example and can earn as much as $20,000-$30,000
for each one after the cost of raw materials (ink, quills and
parchment) are taken out.
The most talented sofers are also in high demand to write
teffiilin and mezuzahs and can easily command thousands of dollars
for a pair of teffilin or hundreds of dollars for a mezuzah.
Ways to Make More | Related Opportunities
Keep in mind that this is not a creative job at all. It's
quite similar to calligraphy in that you must learn a stylized
way of writing, however, unlike calligraphy, you will not be
expected to add your own flare to your work. The sofer's job
is it copy the material he sees as accurately as he possibly
Generally, this work is done exclusively by Orthodox Jewish
men, though a handful of women have become sofers under the auspices
of the Conservative or Reform movements of Judaism. These women
sofers are often in high demand by communities wishing to have
a torah written by a woman rather than a man as a kind of affirmative
action sort of effort.
It is also possible to make money checking all manner of ritual
objects for mistakes and or damage. Since each object is written
by hand, ink sometimes can flake off and will need to be repaired.
It is important however to realize that with certain objects,
such as a mezuzah, when the ink flakes off, they cannot be repaired
since the mezuzah must be written in order (i.e. you must write
the mezuzah from the first word to the last word and not go back
and make corrections in the middle. The only way to correct something
in the middle would be to scratch out everything you've written
and start over, however it is also forbidden to scratch out the
name of God).
Qualifications / Requirements
While there are no licensing requirements to become a sofer,
generally you will need to take a class from a qualified sofer
who will teach you both the technique required for writing the
ritual objects as well as the Jewish laws associated with creating
these objects. The course of study usually takes around six months
or so and culminates with a project to write a Book of Esther
(this is considered the easiest project for a Sofer because the
Book of Esther doesn't have to be written in order and is significantly
shorter than a Torah).
Start by finding a sofer class in your area. You'll find them
offered in most major metropolitan areas with a significant Jewish
population. If you cannot find one, contact your local rabbi
for information on where to find one.
of a Sofer - A personal blog from a professional sofer about
life as a sofer.