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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Article on the new robotic device that writes Stam

I recently wrote an article in a communal publication on the new robotic device that writes Stam. Since everyone is talking about it, I felt it was appropriate to address this, as well as use is at an opportunity to address other Sta"m related matters. I include the article below in case it is useful to anyone or if they have any feedback.




Robotic STa"M and other issues pertaining to STa"M not written by a human sofer.
By Rabbi Eli Gutnick


Recently there has been a big fuss in the media about a novelty invention, namely a Torah writing robot. The robot, which looks like a giant bionic arm,  was developed for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where it is on display actively "writing" Torah scrolls.


This concept has everyone asking if STa"M (Sifrei Torah, Tefillin or Mezuzos) written by a robot is kosher. The simple answer is that it is not. By all three of the STa"M commandments, the Torah specifically uses the word "Uchsavtem" and "Kisvu" - that one should write them -  clearly dictating that one needs to write these scrolls by hand, the way one writes a hand written letter or document. Printing, or the use of device that can form text but not through the act of normal writing is simply a breach of this biblical instruction.


Furthermore,  there is the "Lishmosh" aspect - that these scrolls must be written with the specific and holy intention that only a human sofer is capable of. Even if one argues that when turning on an electric device one can do so with intention, the fact is that the writing of G-d's names needs verbal proclamation and mental intent that a name of G-d is being written. How can a machine do that?


Some years ago , another controversy erupted when a Rabbi in Lakewood ruled that is was kosher to print STa"M by using a method known as silk screening.  His argument is that the ink is applied onto the screen buy hand, which is a physical, manual act done by a person, and therefore it should be considered a form of handwriting.  Furthermore, when one applies the ink he can do so "lishmosh , with all the correct intentions.  No rabbi of note agrees with him, and this method is today considered largely fraudulent and prohibited.


Other halchically dubious techniques include "ksav al gabei ksav" and "the half printed, half written" method. In both, writing is printed on parchment and finished by hand. Ksav al gabei ksav means that STa"M item is printed and the sofer writes over it. This is much easier and quicker than writing from scratch. The halachic loophole is that only the second, upper layer counts, since it was written on top, and therefore the scroll is considered handwritten and not printed. (This method could only be applied Torah scrolls - where the letters do not have to be written in order (kesidran).


Yet the "half printed half written" technique can be argued to be acceptable for all STa"M. In this scam, a scroll is printed with incomplete letters. The sofer then completes the letters - in order and lishmah (with intention). It takes less than half the amount of time and far less skill to produce such products. This was the modus operandi of the recently publicized forger's ring from Ashkelon in Israel that were caught by the Israeli Rabbanut Police. (They were subsequently released after arguing that their method was not against halacha.)


This leads to the other concern over the robotic scribe -  that it may be used for fraud. This means to say that unscrupulous vendors of  STa"M  may use it to replicate properly written items and sell it to unsuspecting consumers.


Frankly, I do not see this as being a problem. If one is looking to fraudulently produce STa"M,  there are cheaper and easier ways than investing in the substantial cost of developing, building, or buying a robot. A simple printing press is able to produce high quality STa"M on parchment, and the en product will not look inferior to that which is written by a robotic device. There is no advantage to using this device from a practical or monetary perspective.


Modern technology has also brought with it devices and gadgets which are permissible to use in STa"M production. These include electric or foot pumps that allow regular flow of ink to a quill (so time is not wasted dipping the quill manually into ink) and light tables that allow a sofer to trace from a stencil under the parchment. These devices are generally permitted because the end product is still 100% hand written and these devices merely assist the sofer.


In conclusion, if there would be a halachic grounds allowing the use of a robot, there would be a much grater concern. People may be tempted to use and sell this type of device on the basis of a minority opinion such as the abovementioned Rabbi who permits silk screening in Lakewood. It could then possibly infiltrate the mass market. However as it stands, the robotic scribe in Berlin remains a one off novelty invention and poses no threat to the kosher STa"M industry.







1 comment:

  1. I've been answering similar questions from people about this Robot 'writing' a 'Torah'. From what I can see from the video as well as all the objections above, particularly the lishmah and u'kt'avtem aspects, the Robot looked like it was writing on a continuous roll of paper, so not kosher k'laf and not in yeriot of less than 8 amudim (Rambam HST 9:12) and the apparatus looked like some kind of continuous ink jet supply going through a kind of quill shape, so not even sure it would be writing by even robot standards. Difficult to judge from the video though. I think I would have preferred it had the article made it very clear that it wasn't kasher and that it wasn't actually a Torah - only having the status a chumash. Certainly would have saved me some time answering friends :)

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