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Q&A Wednesday: The special letters of Sefer Tagin, with Marc Michaels

T-S Misc. 9.94
T-S Misc. 9.94 (recto)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Marc Michaels
Wed 1 Sep 2021

Marc, what are you working on today?

Today I'm actually writing a couple of gittin (divorce documents), but I'm also working on two articles, one specifically related to my PhD (on Sefer Tagin) and one looking at special scribal practices in Megillat Esther. The first article deals with transmission of the text, and includes a new Genizah fragment that is a further part of the fragments I covered in my recent book Sefer Tagin Fragments from the Cairo Genizah A Critical Edition, Commentary and Reconstruction – T-S Misc. 9.94.

T-S Misc. 9.94 is a parchment fragment. How old do you think it is?

In my book I spent time doing some comparative paleography looking at the script of this particular version of Sefer Tagin (pp. 24–26) and concluded that these joined fragments were probably from Eretz Israel, possibly Jerusalem, dated to the 11th century.

How does this fragment fit with the other fragments edited in your book? Does it shed any new light? Was the text previously unknown?

Sefer Tagin is a manual for scribes to write certainly letters (just under 2,000 of them) in the Torah with special decorations, variances of form or with additional tagin. There’s a fairly limited corpus of core manuscripts and compiled versions of Sefer Tagin, so the fragments found in the Genizah are crucial evidence in reconstructing the text’s history. The new fragment along with others belongs to what is possibly the oldest witness we have of Sefer Tagin. Fortunately, it’s another full leaf with two sides of text, so there was no need for me to painstakingly piece together sections as I did with some of the fragments in the book and work out what might be missing. This new fragment covers the letters nun, nun sofit, samekh, the three ayin forms, the first pe and part of the second pe. It is now forming part of my ongoing PhD research. So far it isn't yielding anything particularly special over and above what I reconstructed in the book from the comparison of the different manuscripts from the corpus of Sefer Tagin, but it's great to have another witness. One new element is the second and third forms of ayin and pe, which I didn't cover in the book.

Do you think Sefer Tagin was a book widely read by scribes, or was it more at the esoteric end of the spectrum?

Now that is a big question. It certainly has been used by scribes through the centuries as I've collected up well over a hundred different manuscripts where is has been near fully or partially employed and I'm aware there are many more out there. However, it has fallen into disuse today. A lot of posqim (religious authorities/deciders) would consider many of the forms pasul (invalid). Indeed, as a practicing scribe I have seen other scribes 'fix' these anomalies. So, I fix them back. For example, there is a pe melufefet (spiral pe) that some scribes will correct by putting a big blob of ink over the spiral. I'll put it back to the original if I am repairing that scroll.

Is it a manual still used by some scribes today? You're a scribe – is it something you would consult if you weren't also working on it for your PhD?

Unfortunately, all extant versions of Sefer Tagin (core or compiled) are corrupt, so it is quite hard for a scribe to use it practically, even if they wanted to.

Can you tell us more about this spiral pe? Where does it appear in the Torah?

It is supposed to appear in around 194 times (pe and pe sofit) in a Torah, though the Yemenite count varies and there is additional confusion by scribes mixing up the two different pe forms. I have seen it used in some megillot and I've used it as well when I want to make a point. For example, I used it in my new tiqqun for Megillat B'ney Chashmonay (also known as Megillat Antiochus) to represent an elephant's trunk and also in the scroll I was commissioned to write for Megillat Hashoah to commemorate Yom haShoah.

Are these special letter forms found in any Genizah fragments?

I have not come across any being used in the Genizah Torah manuscripts – so far.

What are the second and third forms of ayin mentioned in T-S Misc. 9.94?

The first ayin is understood to be an ayin that has an extended long arm on the left, but the second and third aren't always ordered the same. One is described as raising its tail behind it and one bends its head backwards. Also, different scribes over time have interpreted the Aramaic descriptions in different ways and some get very confused and mix up the different versions of the letters.

Arms, tails and heads? These ayin forms sound quite lively. How much more of this particular manuscript remains to be found?

The introduction is still missing, as well as alef through to most of he, and part of pe to shin. I’ve been combing through the Misc. part of the T-S Collection since a different version of a compiled Sefer Tagin turned up there, and hope to find more pieces of both. But the missing parts may not necessarily exist, if the book was badly damaged when it was deposited in the Genizah. If anyone sees a fragment related to Sefer Tagin or other scribal oddities (large, small, dotted, reversed letters etc.) please let me know!

Thanks for your time, Marc!

Marc Michaels is a Hebrew scribe (Sofer ST”aM) and a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. 

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