What’s the difference between a calligrapher and a scribe?

by Ariela

I began studying to be a scribe last summer. This statement surprises a lot of people because they know that I have been a professional calligrapher for a lot longer than that.

It’s true that in general English usage, there’s not much to choose between the words ‘calligrapher’ and ‘scribe.’ As with so many synonyms in English, the two derive from different languages of origin – Greek and Latin respectively, here – and they can be used pretty much interchangeably. When Jews say ‘scribe,’ though, we tend to mean one very specific thing: someone who knows the Jewish law pertaining to the writing of certain sacred texts and has the technical skill to write them. Each of these requirements can take years of study to meet.

Scribes generally write five classes of documents. The Big Three are the Torah, Tefilin, and Mezuzot.

Images not to scale at all

Images not to scale at all

Well, that’s what the eastern European versions look like from the outside. Their insides consist of parchment of various sizes all rolled up like this:


And this is what their contents actually look like.


These are so associated with the work of a scribe that the acronym STa”M (Sefer torah, Tefillin, Mezuzah) is used in the job title.

In addition, there are two other classes of documents that scribes tend to write: The Book of Esther and Gittin (divorce documents). A scribe can also write other books of the bible, but they are far less common. Notice that Jewish marriage documents, which I have been writing for a long time, are not on this list.

So what goes into writing a sacred text? Jewish law is very specific about the requirements to make an acceptable text. (We call texts that are acceptable kosher, just like food that is permitted is kosher.) They must all be written on parchment that comes from a kosher animal. The ink must be black, and there are requirements for how it must be made. It is customary not to use a metal nib to write these texts, so most of us learn to cut our own pens out of quills or reeds. The ink also literally eats metal, so there’s a practical element to that custom, too. There are legal discussions about what constitutes each letter and what kind of mistakes still fall within the range of acceptable vs which render the letter totally unkosher. There are laws and conventions about layout, and many of the texts scribes write are forbidden to have any sort of additional decoration. If you make a mistake, there are laws about how you can correct it. There are some situations in which the mistake is deemed completely uncorrectable and the entire work is rendered unkosher, and they can be as small as making a line a little bit too long, the Hebrew equivalent of making an ‘l’ instead of an ‘i.’ If the text is a lost cause, you can’t just throw it away, you have to bury it in the ground. (This is true of all Jewish texts containing the name of G-d that are no longer usable. As a mark of respect we bury them, same as a person. This can come in very handy later on, as it can preserve them well, as in the case of the Cairo Geniza.) 

Calligraphers, by contrast, don’t have to abide by any of these rules. At the end of the day, the requirements we have to meet are aesthetic; the letters must be legible and the result has to meet the expectations of the client (or the artist, if it’s not being written to spec). Calligraphers can write with whatever ink works for us, in any color, on any surface that will take the ink. We write using whatever implements we enjoy. We can make fun shapes with our writing. We can illuminate or not as we choose. When we make an error, we correct it as best we can and if it’s too egregious, we toss the piece. Most of us lay out a text in pencil first (penciling) and then go over it in ink (inking). Those of us who are punctilious get it proofread by someone else between penciling and inking – Terri does that. If it is convenient, sometimes we write backward, in order to make sure that the text will fit in the space.

Calligraphers are something of an endangered species. Printing technology is rendering us a luxury rather than a necessity. It means that clients seek us out less for the repetitive tasks that printers are great at and more for things that technology cannot provide: for creativity, for something unusual. I can’t say I am so sorry about that; addressing 500 envelopes for a wedding is one of the most mind-numbingly boring things I have ever done. It also means competition is fiercer, and those who survive at the professional level tend to have a great degree of technical competence and artistic skill.

Scribes of Jewish texts, on the other hand, aren’t feeling much competition from printers. Well, not now at any rate; that competition for market share started in the 1500s, so by now we’ve pretty much reached equilibrium in the places where we can compete. But for the objects listed above, printed materials are not kosher. So I see a lot more variation in the level of technical skills in scribal work. You see the same thing in old manuscripts; some of the people writing were clearly more experienced or just better than others.

I’ve been working as a professional calligrapher since 2003, but I have only just begun to learn how to be a scribe. Some of the technical skills transfer, but not all of them. I’ve never worked on parchment or with quills before. And this particular body of Jewish law is completely new to me.

They say it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to achieve expertise. So I think I had better get back to my practicing.