26 August, 2007

Scribal law and children as judges

Filed under: Halakha,Hebrew,Paleography by Joel @ 12:01 pm, 26 August 2007.

I’ve been reading the Laws of Tefillin in the Mishna Berura, particularly its descriptions of the laws for scribes. It gives incessant detail for what makes a particular letter valid and what doesn’t. And then it prescribes that in cases of doubt, one should ask a “תינוק שאינו לא חכם ולא טיפש” (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 32:16), a child that is neither clever nor stupid, to attempt to identify the letter.

In modern Hebrew, a תינוק is a baby (and etymologically is implied, deriving from ינק, to suckle). But in order to read, it obviously needs to be older than that. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (24:5) writes that such a child is one “שאין מבין את העניין, אבל יודע ומבין את האותיות”—he doesn’t understand the issue, but knows and understands the letters. Similarly, the Mishna Berura (32:49) explains that such a child-decisor is too clever if he understands the issues of when letters need to be fixed, but not too clever if he knows the letters well and can’t read the words. On the other hand, one too stupid cannot read the letters; all-in-all one who can read the letters, even if not proficient or expert in them, may judge in such a case (32:50).

Final Nun and Kaf in modern and scribal print So here comes the issue. Most children nowadays are not taught scribal letters first-off. Most would be taught the alphabets of modern printed Hebrews: either what we find in our siddurim, or in Modern Israeli printed texts. And these are all significantly different from the prescribed scribal art. Even I, for instance, might initially read a valid but thin scribal ך (final kaf) as a ן (final nun), because although the nun of the scribe is very different to their kaf, I am more familiar with a printed nun.

How is a child raised on one script meant to identify letters in another?

Is there a halakhic solution to this problem?

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