IS KSAV CHABAD KOSHER? A response to the disturbing audio clip of a renowned expert saying that the "Alter Rebbe" script - used by many Chabad sofrim - is basically not kosher.




I have received the above recording from several people over the past few months and I probably should have responded to this earlier. It is indeed disturbing to hear such a distinguished personality in the STa"M world speak with such obvious exaggeration and overt bias against Ksav Chabad* (the Alter Rebbe's Ksav).  Before I respond, here is the background to the recording.

The person speaking is Rabbi Reuvain Mendlowitz. He is a popular American sofer and posek residing in Israel who wrote a very well-received  book called "Inside STa"M", available in both English and Hebrew. On the whole, he seems to be quite a learned and sensible person, and I often refer people to his book.  This recording was taken from a talk he gave to a group of Rabbis at Yeshivah University on the topic of "Basics of Hilchos Sta"M For Rabbis", (as a guest of Rabbi Arieh Lebovits). The entire lecture is available online at YUTorah.org.

About 15 minutes into his talk he discusses the concept of the different types of ksav (writing styles) available today.  Ksav Beis Yosef is used by Asheknazim/ Litvish,  Ksav Arizal is used by Chassidim/Nusach S'fard, Ksav Velish is used by Sephardim, and ksav Chabad (the "Alter Rebbe's Ksav") is used by many Lubavitchers. He goes on to explain that it's better to use a Beis Yosef sefer in a Litvish shul, rather than Arizal or Velish. 

This makes perfect sense. In a similar vein, a Chabad Shul, for example, would prefer an Arizal Or Alter Rebbe ksav to a Beis Yosef ksav. It is not their minhag, and likewise a Sephardic shul would want none of the above. A responsible seller of Sifrei Torah, who has customers from different backgrounds, would first need to ask what type of Shul the Sefer is going to. He should then offer options only with the appropriate ksav - for the simple reason that the receiving shul would rather not use something that is not their custom. 

However what Rabbi Mendlowitz says next is nothing short of shocking. He says that (unless you are Chabad) the Alter Rebbe ksav is basically not acceptably kosher. He describes the ksav as "spidery" and brings examples of letters which are "extremely problematic". 

What is even more puzzling is that Rabbi Mendlowitz is a long standing talmid of Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander Z''L of the Vaad Mishmeres Stam. I also received my ordination as a sofer from Rabbi Freidlander and we often discussed the Alter Rebbe's Kasv (as I have with other mainstream poskim) and no such sentiment was ever expressed. On the contrary, I find that many outside Chabad often marvel at it's hiddur and aesthetic beauty.

Of course, just like any ksav, the Alter Rebbe Ksav can have problems and shailos. It is a very difficult ksav to write, and should only be written by a mumche (expert). This is  why (on average) it is more expensive than other writing styles. There are plenty of competent sofrim in Chabad who are able to write it in a beautiful and punctilious halachic manner. 

Yet, Rabbi Mendlowitz doesn't say that. He asserts that the ksav is inherently problematic - for anyone outside Chabad. It seems that he is saying that even a top level Alter Rebbe Ksav would (often) be problematic and the only reason why one could make a bracha on such a sefer Torah is by relying on the leniency of the Rambam . (The Rambam maintains that one may make a brocha (bedieved) on a possul sefer Torah). Furthermore, by saying that it's only kosher for Chabad insinuates that somehow Chabad does not follow Shulchan Aruch - and that  Ksav Chabad is based on some odd, unacceptable tradition. 

As a matter of fact, The Alter Rebbe ksav is almost identical to the typical Russian ksav that was written by everybody  in the times of the Alter Rebbe (and even much later). This is well established, and even today, many used Torah vendors attempt to sell old Russian Arizal sifrei Torah as "The Alter Rebbe Ksav"  because it is practically the same. (It is accepted that certain small nuances were specified by the Alter Rebbe to his sofer Reb Reuvain, but these are not what Mendlowitz is concerned about). 

Moreover, many of the Beis Yosef Ashkenaz STa"M being written at that time had a similar style, not just in Russia but all over Europe. (The most noticeable differences between the Alter Rebbe Ksav and the mainstream style of ksav today are the pay, shin, beis**, as well as the pointy "diamond" shaped style of the "feet", and overall ornate, thick style of lettering. This was all considered mainstream -  up until the early part of last century.  

Would Rabbi Mendlowitz say that all the tefillin, mezuzos and Sifrei Torah  written in those days and used by vast segments of Klal Yisroel, (including Great tzadikim and gedolim) are also a problem?!?

Perhaps we should look at the two examples  he mentions that he considers to be "extremely problematic letters", namely the yud and the beis (the beis being the "biggest problem"). I apologise if these paragraphs get a bit technical , but I will explain as best as I can. Let's look at what he says:

Regarding the yud  he says "Very often the kotzoi shel yud will be going to the left instead of going down", sometimes the kotz on top of the yud will be going in wacky directions and sometimes can be very tall, and sometimes the regel  will be very short."  I'm not going to get into the technicalities of all this because I don't think he is implying that these are so problematic, only a little different to how the yud is normally written today. Furthermore, I rarely see the kotzo shel yud going completely sideways (if usually goes both down and out which is no problem whatsoever). Nor have I ever seen a yud with a foot so short that it is considered a problem. 

With regards to his complaint of the  "tall, wacky kotz on top" , most  Alter Rebbe sofrim simply do not make the kotz "tall and wacky", and even if they do make it a bit taller than usual, it is rarely a halachic problem, only a nuance which is slightly different to the typical yud in other writing styles. 

Now let's look at what he says about the beis, which he says is the "biggest problem". 

We all know that the main difference between a chof and a beis, is that a chof is round on the lower right side, and a beis  has a (square) "eikev"  or "okev" (heel)  that protrudes out of the lower right side. In the Alter Rebbe Ksav, this is an eikev "ov" - a thick heel, which is thicker (taller) than the regular eikev written today, and is slightly angular. (Many consider this to be the original eikev ov mentioned in the Alpha Beita, which explains its popularity in centuries gone by.) 

Yet even in Ksav Chabad, this "eikev" is supposed to protrude clearly and has sharp corners. As said previously, this is how virtually all the Russian sofrim wrote the letter beis in that time, (and even older Ksav Beis Yosef originating from Ashkenaz as far back as  400 plus years ago had a similar "eikev ov"). Below is a picture of a random Alter Rebbe beis that I cropped from a standard set of Alter Rebbe parshiyos I had handy.  Such a beis is  perfectly kosher lechatchilah and has all the necessary halachic requirements even according to the Mishnah Berurah***. 



Rabbi Mendlowitz correctly says that in Ksav Chabad this eikev is thick, as explained above. But then he says  "very often mamash looks like chof, it is indistinguishable to a chof".  Now if a beis  presents as a chof (or is indistinguishable to a chof), it is outright possul!  No one would argue with that, Chabad or otherwise. It would be possul according the Shulchan Aruch Harav, the same way it would be possul according to the Mishnah Berurah. Does he really believe that professional, ordained sofrim in Chabad are writing letters which are not kosher according to Shulchan Aruch?

Sometimes, in poorly written ksav Alter Rebbe, the eikev can be a bit round-ish. But it still has a pronounced eikev and is still kosher. Of course this is not ideal and it's not how one is supposed to lechatchilah write a beis according to the Alter Rebbe. But are these really indistinguishable to a chof??  It almost always will still be considered an eikev, and even if  somewhat rounded, it will still pass as a kosher beis.

This leads me to my next point. In every ksav you have sofrim who write more perfectly and  and sofrim who write more poorly. And then, sadly, you have sofrim that write so poorly and they mis-form letters so badly, it is hard to pass their writing as kosher. This happens in all styles of writing, be it Beis Yosef, Velish, Arizal and yes, even Chabad. Over the years I have put many Beis Yosef Mezuzos and Tefillin into genizah because the writing is so poor I could not pass it as kosher. Does this mean Beis Yosef Ksav is a problematic ksav in general?!?  And that one can only make a bracha on a Beis Yosef sefer Torah because the Rambam allows one to make a bracha on a Possul sefer Torah?!? Of course not!

In conclusion, Rabbi Mendlowitz is not the first one to pick on the Alter Rebbe's ksav, and probably won't be the last.  I think it is time for the official Safrus establishment to come out once and for all to put these misconceptions to rest. The Alter Rebbe ksav is a beautiful, halchadik and unique ksav with a strong tradition dating back hundreds of years. 

___________
Footnotes:

* Ksav Chabad has become a common name for what is known as "Ksav Hameyuches" or "The Alter Rebbe's ksav". This is an ornate, older style ksav which originated centuries ago in Russia, and was said to have been taught by the Alter Rebbe himself to his sofer Reb Reuvain.  In this article I refer to this ksav mainly as the "Alter Rebbe's Ksav". (Chabad also use Ksav Arizal, which is considered more mainstream in the sofrus world.)

** While the style of today's Alter Rebbe beis was common for centuries in Ksav Arizal, particularly in Russia, it was also prevalent in older Ashkenazic STa"M from in Germany 400 plus years ago.

***See Minchas Soles (Footnote 49) who explains the definition of the Eikev Av (as brought down in the Alfa Beita, Beis Yosef and Mishnah Berurah to be one of three shapes, with the most likely being his middle description of the eikev going up 1.5 kulmosim in the back, similar to the manner in which the eikev is done on the Alter Rebbe beis.

Comments

  1. Thank you Rabbi Gutnik for this very important article.
    I would like to just mention two short points:

    1) When I brought my mezuzah book, "Mezuzah: Divine Protection and Blessing" to Rav Friedlander A"H to give a haskama on it (found on page VII). I have on page 59-60 pictures and some details of Ksav Chabad. Rav Friedlander wrote beautiful words on the Sefer and words of praise on Chabad in general " וגם הכניס הפסקים שמקובל אצל קהילה הק' של חסידי חב"ד....

    2) I will choose not to elaborate on the disturbing talk from the speaker which there is much what to respond וד"ל.
    I will note that the Ksav Chabad is most likely the most difficult ksav to perfect. I in general advise that (to my opinion) it is best to get Ksav Chabad only when it is of higher quality style writing, where the fine intended details are strictly followed.

    This recording just reiterates what I wrote elsewhere, namely - one should have ksav Chabad checked by one who is expert in that ksav. The following is a quote:

    My tefillin need to be checked, the ksav (script) is Admur Hazaken, can I bring it to any magiah (sta”m checker) to check them?
    The ksav of Admur Hazaken has a very unique style of tzuros haosiyos (letter shapes). Therefore, one should only get the tefillin checked by a magiah who is an expert in this ksav. Indeed, a magiah who is not well versed in ksav Admur Hazaken could possibly make corrections in the parshiyos which could lower their quality

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  2. Anyone who has ever worked with old sifrei torah knows that the STaM in Lithuainia was written in a style of Ksav that shared most of the elements of Ksav Chabad. Among them it had the same Bet and Yud as Ktav Chabad, the same 'broken' legs for most letters, the same heads to the Lamed and the same 'broken' Peh.
    These elements are common how all of our Lithuanian and Russian ancestors wrote whether Chassidim or Misnagdim. They are not unique to Ksav Chabad.
    In modern times, its become almost universal practice to follow the style of writing invented by R. Netanel Tefilinsky. Because of this, many of the elements of Ksav Chabad which were once universal to Russian and Lithuanian Jews now strike those who are unfamiliar with them as strange.
    But to start to say they are passul is not only Mozei Laaz on an entire Kehillah in Am Yisroel, but it's Motzeil Laaz al harishonim, including the Torah greats of Lithuania who used this type of Stam without any question.

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  3. I took the time to listen to the shiur by Rabbi Mendlowitz. My conclusion after taking into account where the shiur was delivered is that the message he wanted to give was not that ksav alter rebbi is posul.
    I first would like to point to the first שערי תשובה in siman לו
    כתב מהר"ם בן חביב בתשובותיו כתב יד "תפילין מכתב אשכנזי דיש שינוי בצורת אותיות באשורית בין בני אשכנז לבני ספרד
    תפילין מכתב האשכנזים פסולים לספרדים!
    Shocking
    However this tshuva from ksav yad was later printed in kol gadol סימן עח where he explains that a nun with a tiny kotz is a gimel for sfardim but ashkenazim will still consider it a nun.
    I have heard from my rebbis that all ksavim written properly are kosher for all. However if written sloppy then only use your minhag since which imperfection to let pass varies and there are different psakim and minhagim.
    Today even chabad is not somech on tzemach tzedek with קו משוך בשוה however it is surely taken into account when deciding a shaila and a chabad rav will give it more weight.
    A ב ksav chabad written properly is round on bottom but has an eikev-which is kosher according to all. However in Chabad they are meikal even when the eikav is very slight. I have a feeling that Rav Friedlander in his haskama on Rabbi Bressmans book meant precisely this.
    I will never forget how in my first year of haga I went to my Rebbi when I got a pair of chabad tefilin to check. I WAS WORRIED ABOUT THE BEIS!
    He looked me in the eye and asked "have you never seen ksav chabad? We reviewed the rishonim and I knew its Mehudar.
    I will try to reach out to Rabbi Mendlowitz and ask him to clarify.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for this Reb Shmuel, but in actual fact the eikev of beis written properly in ksav Chabad is NOT round. it is thick and slightly angled, but both corners of the eikev, - in particular the lower one - are squared off.

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    2. I will review perhaps I am wrong.
      The lashon is
      עקב עב למטה כי תמונתה כמו ד בתוך גרון של ו וכו' ועקב טוב למטה שיהא במקום ראשו של ו

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  4. Rabbi Gutnick is correct. In ksav chabad it is not round it is supposed to be sharp.
    Also see rav stern that according to gra"z ליזהר בתג שאחוריה ולרבעה
    1. בתג שאחוריה =עקב
    2. ולרבעה= שיהיה מרובע

    HoweverI saw in ksav from Reb Efrayim Sofer
    מחכמי בראד לפני הבעש"ט
    I did see an eikev with arounded bottom-perhaps to resemble the vav

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    Replies
    1. Reb Efraim Sofer, on whom it was said between Ezra Hasofer and Efraim Sofer there was no such sofer, is a perfect example of the strong mesorah of this style of eikev av, which is basically how it is in ksav Chabad.

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