“Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel who quoted Rabbi Meir: When I was learning from Rabbi Akiva, I used to add vitriol to the ink [used to write a Torah scroll] and he said nothing to me. When I came to Rabbi Ishmael he said to me: Son, what is your profession? I said to him: I am a scribe. He said: Son, be careful in your work, for your work is the work of Heaven. If you leave out a single letter or add in an extra letter — you destroy the entire world. I said to him: I have something called vitriol, which I put into the ink. He said to me: Do they place vitriol into their ink? Did not the Torah say (Numbers 5:23): ‘And wrote and erased’ — writing which can be erased” (Eiruvin 13a).
In this article we will show and prove that the laws of which ink is appropriate for the writing of a Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzot were not handled down in their present form from generation to generation. We will prove that all the Sages’ knowledge on writing and ink is based on their own acquaintance with the process of writing in their time, and, as we showed in the article on thepublic domain, that generations come and go and the definition of a public domain changes, so too about the process of ink making.
And you, student who seeks knowledge, look with your own eyes and see something amazing — all the ink used nowadays to write Torah scrolls is invalid according to the opinion of the majority of the great Rishonim and in opposition to their rulings. Later on in this essay you will see these things with your own eyes.
This is how the essay is organized: First we will clarify what kinds of “writing” the Torah requires, and under which circumstances. Then we will see what types of ink existed in the times of Chazal and the Rishonim, and we will explain the terminology (“gallnuts,” “vitriol,” etc.) of making ink. Then we will examine the disagreements between our rabbis the Tannaim and the Rishonim on these matters and their rulings regarding the question “Which ink was given as tradition to Moses at Sinai?” Finally, we will see how the ink used by modern scribes is made and how it controverts explicit Halachic rulings!
Matters of “Writing” Required by the Torah
The Torah demands the writing of a Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzot, but does not specify how they should be written–with any writing instrument and any material? Is the color of the writing to be black, red, or green? Perhaps the Torah demands special writing instruments and materials? But the Torah only said “write.” We have already explained, in the portion of Pekudey, that this is the manner of the Torah: to be brief about the crucial issues and to go on at length with stories and unimportant matters, as they said in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, section 60: “Rabbi Acha said, ‘the foot-washing of the servants in our Fathers’ houses is more dear than the Torah of the sons, for even the washing of the feet had to be written, while the swarming insect, which is part of the main body of the instruction, that its blood does not defile as does its body [is not written]’.”
These are the places where the Torah demands “writing”:
Woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:23): “The priest shall put down these curses in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness.”
Torah scroll (Deuteronomy 31:19): “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel.”
Bill of Divorcement (Deuteronomy 24:1): “A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.”
Mezuzah (Deuteronomy 6:9): “Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Tefillin–The Torah never specified that writing is required. It uses the terms “remembrance,” “tie them,” “for a sign,” and “symbol.” (On this matter, see what we have written on the portion of Bo.)
About writing with ink, know that in all the Holy Writ there is no mention of writing with ink aside from in the book Jeremiah (36:18) “He answered them, ‘He himself recited all those words to me, and I would write them down in the scroll in ink.”
Writing a bill of divorcement — The Torah commands a man who wishes to divorce his wife to give her a “text of divorce” and to write “You are now permitted to all men.” Chazal explained that the writing may be done with any material (Gittin 19a): “We may write with anything — with ink, yellow die, red lead, gum, vitriol, or any die that lasts.” Thus Maimonides ruled (Laws of Divorcement chapter four, halacha one): “We do not write bills of divorcement except in something whose inscription lasts, like ink, red lead, gum, vitriol, etc. But if it is written in something which does not last, like drinks or fruit juice, etc., it is not a [valid] bill of divorcement.”
Tefillin, mezuzah, and a Torah scroll — These must be written in black ink only. It is learned from tradition to Moses at Sinai that one needs ink, as Maimonides wrote in the Laws of Tefillin chapter one, halacha three: “There are ten demands about tefillin which are tradition given to Moses at Sinai and are obligatory under all circumstances; therefore if one deviates from any of them, the tefillin are invalid…that they be written in ink….that is, the ink with which it is the choicest to fulfill the commandment of writing [Torah] scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot. But if one wrote those three with gallnut water and vitriol which lasts and is not rubbed out, they are kosher. If so, why does the halacha specify that, according to a tradition given to Moses at Sinai, they are to be written in ink? To eliminate all other kinds of colors, such as red, green, etc., for if one wrote as much as a letter of a [Torah] scroll, tefillin or mezuzah with one of the other kinds of color or with gold, it is invalid.”
We learn that the Torah’s demands about writing differ from instance to instance according to Chazal’s interpretation: the scroll of a woman accused of adultery is valid only when it can be rubbed out in water. A bill of divorcement is valid only when it will last. The writing of tefillin, mezuzot, and Torah scrolls must be done only in black ink.
Making the ink in ancient days
What is “ink” and what are the ingredients added to it?
“Black ink in ancient days — ink was a solution or suspension of solid ingredients in a liquid environment which served for writing. …and contained at least three ingredients: the pigment — which gives the ink its color, the binder — which binds the pigment to the writing surface, and the carrier — the liquid in which the pigment and the binder are suspended….The ink used for ancient writing was black and of two kinds, according to the sort of pigment used:carbon-based and iron-based.
“Carbon-based ink was made from soot or charcoal dust…soot was gathered from burning vegetable or animal fats. Charcoal dust was produced by burning vegetable matter such as beech trees or cedars…Carbon-based ink was first developed, it seems, in China or other countries in the Far East circa 2500 BCE…
Note, student who seeks knowledge, that the three types of ink which have existed since ancient times are:
Thus wrote Dr. Nir-El in the Sinai journal: “The ink used by Jewish scribes until the second century CE was carbon-based. The Dead Sea scrolls were also written in carbon-based ink, as seen by chemical analyses recently performed (published by Dr. Yoram Nir-El in his article “The Black Ink of the Qumran Scrolls,” Dead Sea Discoveries 3.2  pp. 157-167).
The Dispute over the Ingredients Used for Ink
The ingredients used for ink are mentioned several times in the Mishnah. Our rabbis each identified them according to his own understanding and personal knowledge, so they were divided over this issue. There is no mention that any of them received information on ink as a tradition given to Moses at Sinai, about which there can be no dispute!
The Mishnah in Shabbat chapter twelve, mishnah four: “One who writes two letters…[on the Sabbath] is culpable; whether he wrote in ink, orpiment, minium, gum, vitriol or anything which inscribes…he is culpable.” You will also find these writing materials mentioned in the Mishnah Megillah chapter two,mishnah two, Sotah chapter two mishnah four, Gittin chapter two mishnah three, Parah chapter nine, mishnah one, and Yadayim chapter one, mishnah three.
Ink — The sages of the Talmud (Shabbat 104b) said: “ink — d’yota,” and Rashi (Chulin 47b): “like d’yota — a drop of dry ink which is black.”
Vitriol — The Gemara clarifies (Shabbat 104b): “Kankantom: Rabbah the son of Bar Hannah quote Samuel–charta d’ushkefei.” Rashi explained: “Charta d’ushkfei: orpiment used to blacken shoes (Megillah 19b)” It seems that this is the proper translation of the words, for ushkefei is a cobbler, as brought (Shabbat 112a): “And the straps of a shoe and sandal…the ties the Arab cobblers make…” Rashi ad loc.: “The ties the Arab cobblers make — sandals of the Arab merchants, in which the cobblers tie the straps.” Thus, ushkefei are cobblers.
Kumus — The Gemara says (Shabbat 104b): “Komos — kuma,” and Rashi explains: “Kuma — gum, the sap of trees.” Similarly (Sotah 17b): “Kumus — the sap of trees mixed into water to write with,” and this is how most of the Rishonim interpret it. Thus wrote Prof. Yehuda Felix in his book, Olam HaTzomeach haMiqra’i, page 98: “Some types of tropical acacia trees gave off a sap known as Gumi Arabicum. Gum is originally Egyptian: kumi, kami, which means acacia sap. From there the word passed into Latin as Kommos, and in the language of the Mishnah komos, in Aramaic kuma. It was used for writing and coloration.”
Apatzim — Rashi (Gittin 19a) explained: “apatzim are galsh in [Old] French.” Adin Steinsaltz writes: “Galsh is from the Old French gales, gallnuts, particularly oak gallnuts.” He refers to “a swelling of plant tissue due to quick and unusual growth of plant limbs as a result of insect bites, virii, germs, parasites, or other pests” (Hebrew Encyclopedia, entry apatzim, page 47). They are mainly found on oak and Pistachia trees. Most of the gallnuts used for ink are cooked oak gallnuts.
Saraf — another name for the komos written about above. The Gemara (Shabbat 23a): “All gums are suitable for ink, and the sap of the balsam tree is the best.” Rashi explains: “Saraf — gum, saraf katef — proniel [from the Old French prunelier, the wild plum — see Steinsaltz Tractate Shabbat page 94] of the forest, of which we make sap.”
We have written all this to show you who checks and examines that our rabbis disagree on the identification of the ingredients themselves which constitute ink and they did not receive this matter from Moses through Joshua, but made rulings and judgements based on their own understanding. Some tested and examined the facts, and some merely learned from texts with no examination and testing.
Two Main Disagreements
In the Gemara we brought at the start of the essay it is explained that in the time of the Tanaaim, in the first and second centuries CE, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael disagreed about whether one was allowed to add vitriol to the ink. The greatest Tanaaim disagreed about a very basic thing: Is one allowed to add something to ink which will change the ink from carbon-based to iron-based (and, of course, will change the basic properties of the ink)? We have seen that Rabbi Akiva permits this and Rabbi Ishmael forbids it. From Rabbi Ishmael’s answer to Rabbi Meir you discover that he learned this rule from his own understanding: “[Rabbi Ishmael] said to [Rabbi Meir]: Do you add vitriol to the ink? Does the Torah not say (Numbers 5:23): ‘write and rub out’ — writing which can be rubbed out” (Eiruvin 13a). Rabbi Ishmael did not say: “This have I received from my teacher, who received it from his teacher as tradition given to Moses at Sinai.”
Our rabbis the Rishonim, from the 11th and 12th centuries, were also divided on two important things about the ink used for writing STaM. The first disagreement was whether it is a tradition given to Moses at Sinai that ink must be used, or whether any other material may be used as well, as long as it is black in color.
The first disagreement is more a matter of principle: Is it a tradition given to Moses at Sinai that the Torah scroll must be written only in ink, or might the law be that it must be written in black, with no implications about the ingredients are, be they carbon-based or iron-based ink? Then the writing of a Torah scroll or tefillin would be valid even were it written using artists’ charcoal or using the black markers found in any stationery store.
Thus, too, it is wrin Sefer HaTerumah, Laws of a Torah scroll : “Rabbenu Tam says that since a Torah scroll must be written in ink, then gallnut water is forbidden for writing, for that is not called ink.” It is clear that this is also the opinion of most Rishonim who discussed and examined the making of ink, such as Nachmanides and the Rosh.
The Disagreement About How to Make Ink
Now we will clarify the views of our rabbis the Rishonim on the second disagreement, how ink is made and what its ingredients are. The reader will wonder at how our rabbis disagreed about this issue, too, which would seem to be tradition given to Moses at Sinai, for this should have been passed down from generation to generation with no confusion or doubt. How much more so is it when we speak of writing STaM, for the scribes who write Torah scrolls do naught but this work and they are expert and precise. They should have handed down to their students how ink is made, as a holy tradition from generation to generation, with no change or doubt.
Maimonides’s opinion (Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah, and Torah scroll, chapter one, halacha four): “How is ink made? They gather the smoke of fats or tar or wax, etc. [this is the pigment] and blend it with tree sap and some honey [this is the binder] and thoroughly moisten it and grind it until it is wafers. They dried it and jar it, and before writing they soak it in gallnut water, etc. [this is the carrier] and write with it so if they erase it, it will erase. This is the ink which it is best to write Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot with.”
The Meiri’s opinion is like Maimonides’s opinion, that ink is made from the soot of fat. The Meiri on Tractate Shabbat 23a: “…They would fill glass vessels with smoke from fat until it blackened and they would scrape off the lamp-black. They would mix it with olive oil or with tree sap and a little honey and dry it. When he wanted to write he would dilute it with gallnut water and add vitriol.”
The opinion of Rabbeynu Tam, the Terumah and the Yeraim (Tosafot Shabbat 23a, s.v. kol haserafim yafim l’dio): “Rashi explained: saraf — gum; but this did not seem likely, for ink is not gum [tree sap] and ink is not gallnut water [made from the gallnuts of trees]…And in the kol hayad chapter (Niddah 20) it is said that one peels a little ink and checks, which means that our ink is hard and not made with gallnuts. There is no way to introduce gum into our ink, so thesaraf [spoken of here] is moisture from trees [extracted through cooking], as we make our ink…Because saraf is moisture, Rabbenu Tam would invalidate a Torah scroll written with ink other than ours, for all the rest are not ink. They said in the ha-boneh chapter (ibid, 23): ‘If it was written in other than ink, it is disposed of,’ and in ha-kometz rabah (Menachot 34) they interpreted it to refer to a Torah scroll.”
In Sefer HaTerumah, Laws of a Torah Scroll , the author details how they made the ink in France: “This is about our ink: they seep the bark of a tree called prunelier [wild plum, see above] or another tree in water on a fire. They boil it and the moisture from the bark comes out in the water. They then coagulate the water and dry it until it becomes ink.”
According to Sefer HaTerumah and Sefer Yeraim the ink used for writing STaM should be carbon-based, from trees or thorns (there is no mention of soot from fats).
According to Nachmanides (Novellae on Tractate Gittin 19a): “Rabbenu Tam OBM used to say that gallnut ink is invalid for writing Torah scrolls…and there are those who say that ordinary ink is gallnut, after tree gum, called tzagal in Arabic, has been seeped in it, but anything with gallnuts in it is not true ink. I say that gallnut ink is ordinary ink after cooking, but gallnut water which has not been cooked, in which the gallnuts have been seeped in water is that which is stronger and lasts longer. From the water which is cooked a pinch can be taken, and in the Jerusalem Talmud they spoke of one who takes ink without gallnuts, which means that ordinary ink does have gallnuts and it is mixed with things like tree gum and fat and other necessary things, as written in the bameh madlikin chapter: ‘All gums are good for ink, and the gum of the kataf is best’. They said there that all smokes are good for ink, which is true of gallnut ink; and R’ Hananel OBM explained dio as madad or chaver. Chaver is the gallnut ink I mentioned above, but madad is made from grapevine soot.”
According to the Rosh (Minor Laws, Laws of a Torah Scroll, section six): “…Gallnut water alone is not called ink, but when it is mixed with kumus which is called guma [the gum which comes from trees] it is called ink and may be written with.”
After these words, you see that our rabbis conceptualized the making of ink from their understanding of the Talmudic text and they did not receive anything from their rabbis or from the copyists and scribes who received it from Sinai. We find that according to Maimonides and the Meiri the ink mentioned in the Talmud is one made from fat-soot, while the rest of the Rishonim had divergent opinions: the ink was thought to be made either from cooking gallnuts or trees with soot (of trees or of fat), and they were divided on which materials were permitted or required as additions so that the mixture would be called “ink.” Rabbenu Tam, the Terumah, and the Rosh forbade adding kankantom to the ink used for a Torah scroll.
How is the ink of scribes made today?
This is how the ink for Torah scrolls is made in our day, according to Likutei Sofrei STaM, part four: “I will write of how ink is made, as I received it from an elder expert from Jerusalem, Rabbi Y.S. Kastelnitz shlita, which he received from the Jews of Yemen. I have tried this myself, and this is how it is generally made in the Holy City.
See for yourself that the making of ink in our days is not like it was in the days of Rabbenu Tam, who cooked the wood alone, nor as it was according to Maimonides, who made it from the soot of fats, or as according to Rabbenu Tam, the Rosh, the Yeraim, and the Terumah, who forbade adding vitriol.
To show you how generations come and go and the work of making ink changes with the generations, see the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah paragraph 271, section 6, where it is written: “A Torah scroll must be written in ink made from the soot of fat seeped in gallnut water. [The Rama states: It is best to be careful and only make ink from things which come from trees.] If one wrote with gallnut water and vitriol, it is valid.” It is clear that the Rama’s intent was that it may indeed be valid, but it is best to take care not to use gallnut water. In Maimonides’ responsa, paragraph 136 it is written about one who writes in ink (as quoted by the Rama) “And if he took madad [ink made from the soot of fats, and seeped it] in water and with it wrote a Torah scroll, I find this to be a great error and comparable to one who writes with drinks or fruit juice, which is in no way lasting; the scroll cannot be rolled once or twice from beginning to end and end to beginning without being all or mostly rubbed out. I wonder: if this were the ink Moses our teacher OBM used to write the scrolls, how the Torah could write (Deuteronomy 31:36) ‘Take this book of the law and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your G-d, that it may be there for a witness against you’? How can something meant to last thousands of years be written with that stuff? What should be done is that the madad should be seeped in gallnut water and written with, and then a cloth should be wiped over it after the writing to make the writing more beautiful and more lasting. This way it will last and not fade or be rubbed out, and if he wishes to erase it, he should erase it completely from the parchment and leave no mark at all. This is what we do.” First Maimonides requires the use of gallnut water, as opposed to the Rama, who states “It is best to be careful and only make ink from things which come from trees.” Second, we see Maimonides ruling the laws of making ink based on his own judgement and reasoning (to ensure the longevity of the writing), and there is no mention that the making of ink is “a tradition given to Moses at Sinai,” passing from generation to generation; it is only practical logic. This is also the method of the Birkei Yosef by Rabbi Chaim Yosef Azulai (on Yoreh Deah 271 6, section 7): “Now the scribes do not write with this ink [made of trees alone, as according to the Rama] because it spoils and is rubbed out easily.”
This is what we say: generations come and go and the making of ink changes from generation to generation. You, student who seeks the truth, think about it: If laws which are tradition given to Moses at Sinai (especially a matter handed down from generation to generation within an elite group of professionals who do the work of Heaven) did not manage to pass from scribe to scribe, from copyist to students, what can we say about laws upon which we have a weak hold, such as the 39 categories of labor forbidden on the Sabbath?
See something amazing: the ink which scribes now use in writing STaM contains vitriol. Therefore, according to Rabbenu Tam and the other French rabbis, and according to the Rosh, the ink is invalid. Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot written with invalid ink are also invalid! There are those religious Jews who wish to fulfill the commandment the choicest way by donning two sets of tefillin, both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam (based on a dispute about the order of the sections in the tefillin worn on the head). You, wise student, come see how ridiculous it is: How do these scrupulous people not notice that the Rabbenu Tam tefillin they so righteously wear are ruled invalid by Rabbenu Tam himself! Is there no end to nonsense?
Words of True Knowledge