Recently I attended a governors training day at Clore Tikva school, where we were studying Talmud with the American educator Joel Lurie Grishaver. In the roundabout way that Talmud works, though we were learning about leadership we were focusing on what one can or can’t do in a public courtyard (all those where an improper thought just crossed their mind go to the back of the class).
But why am I telling you this? Apart from the fact that study is very important in sofrut, it transpires that according to an un-attributed baraita (a statement from mishnaic times which isn’t in the Mishna) in Bava Batra 21a that ‘if a person has a room in a courtyard, he must not rent it to a mohel, a blood-letter, a weaver, a SOFER or a non-Jewish teacher’.
Now I know a mohel - we often go to the cinema together - and I suspect he would be fairly surprised to be classed alongside a blood-letter (though this is presumably where his main profession as a doctor started), however as we passed through the text, I suddenly got a bit miffed. Why shouldn’t a sofer be allowed to work in a room in a courtyard? It was Rashi who first leapt to my defence. According to him, sofer in this context doesn’t mean scribe, as is usual, but refers to a Jewish teacher. Rava says it’s actually the head teacher and the prohibition is to prevent staff meetings, which would have too many teachers coming and going and so annoy the residents.
‘Wrong!’ says Tosfot (a motley collection of Rashi’s descendants who enjoyed nothing better than proving their ancestor wrong) ‘sofer does mean the town scribe who would have lots of visitors’ making orders and bringing scrolls, mezuzot and tefillin for repair, so I was banned again!
But it was Rabbi Gershom who turned out to be the hero of the day. ‘Wrong!’ he says, ‘here the word is actually SAPAR (same consonants, different vowels) a barber, not a scribe!’
It was more or less at this point that I started giggling - probably not the done thing with Talmud study. Joel looked at me strangely. You see, I explained, my grandfather had been a barber. Within a couple of sentences a scribe had become a barber, and, as my father then piped up, within a couple of generations, a barber had become a scribe!