Rosenfeld writing
Shmuel Rosenfeld has been crafting Biblical passages with Hebrew letters for nearly 30 years in the precise hand-written tradition practiced by Jews for centuries. Photo by Emil Salman
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Emil Salman
'I could say this mezuzah was written by HP or Dell, and just press a button,' says Jerusalem-based sofer Shmuel Rosenfeld. 'That's not a mitzvah.' Photo by Emil Salman

Shmuel Rosenfeld is a man of letters.

With his white quill, this 59 year-old Jerusalem sofer, or religious scribe, has been crafting Biblical passages with Hebrew letters for nearly 30 years. It's precision work, he says, requiring intense concentration in the fulfillment of a Divine commandment that mandates the writing and dissemination of God's law.

"You have to be careful about its order, size and sequence,” says Rosenfeld, an ordained rabbi, of the letters on the large parchment sheets. “The intent is three-quarters of what makes it a kosher product."

When complete, he will sew together the sheets to ultimately form Torah scrolls. The smaller slips of parchment on Rosenfeld's worktable will be inserted into tefillin, or phylacteries, or rolled up into a mezuzah, the ritual case placed on the doorposts of Jewish households.

For much of the last decade, Rosenfeld has concentrated more on his role as a certified bodek, or examiner, who evaluates the ritual worthiness of religious articles such as the quality of parchment scrolls and the structural integrity of its letters – particularly after time and the elements have taken their toll.  A cracked letter or a simple misspelling can render an entire parchment ritually unfit for use.

Rosenfeld's travels abroad and his interaction with Jewish communities who lack their own sofers have revealed to him a fundamental misunderstanding about religious articles and their contents. Some people, he noted, think a mezuzah can be hung from a car’s rearview mirror, or worn as jewelry for good luck.

"Mezuzahs are for doorposts," said Rosenfeld, citing Scripture.

Others think that the mezuzah – traditionally kissed when entering and exiting a room – is holy only for its case, unaware that it contains anything inside, let alone passages from the Book of Deuteronomy.

When a Texas man recently thanked Rosenfeld for sending him a mezuzah with the parchment scroll already inserted, Rosenfeld was a bit taken aback, though not entirely surprised.

"He thought I included the instructions," said Rosenfeld, who is originally from Chicago but grew up in Brooklyn.

A father of six and grandfather of eight, Rosenfeld studied at yeshivas in Brooklyn and Baltimore, Maryland. He earned a master's degree in business administration from Long Island University before immigrating to Israel in 1980.

In the early '80s, when a random inspection of his tefillin revealed a flaw that rendered the boxes unfit for use, Rosenfeld developed an interest in the production of tefillin, which is made from processed leather. One of only a few English speakers living in a caravan in the West Bank community of Beit El at the time, Rosenfeld quickly found a place in the local tefillin factory, giving tours to groups of visitors. Eventually, he studied to become a scribe.

Soon after earning his certification in 1984, he opened a Judaica store in Jerusalem, cleverly named "Min Hastam," which means “apparently” or “obviously” in colloquial Hebrew but also refers to the abbreviation for a sofer who deals with "STAM" – sifrei torah (books of the Torah), tefilin, and mezuzahs.

Though mezuzahs and tefilin are supposed to be checked twice every seven years to ensure their integrity, many ask Rosenfeld to check their mezuzah, which they believe to spiritually safeguard their home, when life has thrown them a curveball.

"Everybody starts telling you their problems," he said. "'Oh, Rabbi, you have no idea what's going on. You've got to check my mezuzah. I'm having all sorts of problems.'

"I check the mezuzahs but I also tell them, 'Don't put all your tzuris [troubles] into the mezuzah. There are other issues that probably should be looked at as well," said Rosenfeld, who urges some of his panicked clients "not to play the role of God."

When asked whether the vocation of the scribe has been rendered obsolete in an era of desktop publishing and 3-D printing, Rosenfeld says he believes there is one frontier that is mightier than the font and pixel.

"I could say this mezuzah was written by HP or Dell, and just press a button," he said, explaining that religious articles must be written by man, not machine. "That's not a mitzvah. That's not connecting myself and Hashem [God]. There has to be a lot more to that.

"How did my father write? How did his father write a mezuzah?" Rosenfeld asked. "We follow our tradition of what was done then… and still put it into practice today. That linkage between where we are today and what was of yesteryear – that is what keeps the Jewish people different."