In honor of National Handwriting Day, Jewish Treats explores the unique calligraphy practiced by a Jewish sofer (scribe). The Hebrew letters used in a Torah scroll, as well as on other sacred parchment scrolls such as those in mezuzot and tefillin, look different than the letters in printed Hebrew texts, even though both are the block letters known as ktav Ashuri. The differences are in the extra flourishes on top of certain letters. These ornaments or crowns, called taggin in Hebrew, are as much a part of the mesorah (tradition) as the pronunciation of the unvowelled words.
Not all letters receive crowns. “Raba said there are seven letters which require three strokes,* and these are shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimmel and tzadi” (Talmud Menachot 29b). Other letters, the bet, daled, hey, chet, yud and kuf, have one tag.
According to tradition, the taggin represent kabbalistic (mystic) concepts that provide another dimension of meaning to the words of the Torah. Tradition further attributes the knowledge of taggin to a manuscript, Sefer Hataggin, that is reputed to have been transcribed by Joshua the son of Nun and passed down throughout the generations.
Many of the interpretations of the taggin were brought to light by Rabbi Akiva – a fact highlighted by a beautiful Midrash in the Talmud that states: “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, ‘When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Your hand? [What the point? No one will understand their meaning!]’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle, heaps and heaps of laws’” (ibid).
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