The skin upon which one writes
It is written “In order that God’s Torah shall be in your mouth” (Exod. 13:9), and we explain that one may only write sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot on skins from ritually pure animals and birds (hairs and sinews are also only fit if they come from these species) which are permitted for food. They are fit even if they weren’t killed in a ritually acceptable manner, and even if they were perforated or mutilated, because when we say “permitted for food” we mean in terms of the species, to exclude the various kinds of ritually impure species. Although fish-skin is ritually pure, we don’t write on it, because of the filth, which does not come away during processing. The skin of an embryo counts as skin for this purpose, and we may write sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot on it. This is the best kind of skin. After that, bird skin, and after that the skin of wild animals, the skin of domesticated beasts, and animals which died naturally.
2. The skins must be processed lishmah; that is, when one places them in the lime,
which is the start of the process, he says “I am processing these skins for the sake of a sefer Torah (see below, para. 4), and to this end I am putting these skins in lime,” and immediately places the skins into the lime. Since the start of the process was performed lishmah, all the other parts of the processing, like the splitting and the scraping, follow after it. Even so, it is proper to repeat, at each subsequent stage, that he is doing it lishmah (Benei Yonah), and he should also say it right at the beginning when he puts the skins into water, to soften them and make them fit for processing [conceptually this is the beginning of the process, although halakhically it doesn’t start until they are put into the lime]. Post facto, none of these are absolutely essential, if the beginning of the process was performed lishmah. However, if the processing was not started lishmah (the putting into the lime), finishing it lishmah does not make them permitted for use. (Melekhet ha-Shamayim, in the name of a few posekim, but not like the Taz).
3. Some say that he must actually verbalise his intent to process the skins lishmah, and it is proper so to do, because one cannot impart sanctity merely by thinking about it; he must speak, since speaking makes a greater impression (Birkei Yosef in the name of the Radba”z). Post facto, one may rely on those who hold that thought alone is sufficient.
4.Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot have different levels of sanctity. The sanctity of a sefer Torah is greatest, then tefillin, then mezuzot. Lishmah for something of lesser sanctity is not sufficient for something of greater sanctity – that is, if one processed parchment for the sake of tefillin, he may not then write a sefer Torah upon it. If he wanted to write a mezuzah upon it, which has less sanctity, some say that this is quite all right, since lishmah for something of high sanctity is sufficient as lishmah for something of lesser sanctity, but some differ and say that perhaps everything must be done for its own specific purpose. Some doubt this, because we may not lower something from high sanctity to lower sanctity, and some doubt that it may be done conditionally. Therefore, ideally one processes specific skins for specific purposes – that intended for a sefer Torah “for the sake of a sefer Torah,” that intended for tefillin “for the sake of tefillin,” that intended for mezuzah “for the sake of mezuzah.” However, in pressing circumstances, if this is not possible, he may rely on those who say that it’s sufficient to say, when starting the processing, “for the sake of sifrei Torah, tefillin, mezuzot, and tefillin housings.” Alternatively, he may say it conditionally: “I am processing this for the sake of a sefer Torah, but I stipulate that if I should wish to change it to tefillin, mezuzot, or tefillin housings, I may do this” (see Excursus 1 sec. 28) (and see 25:1 and 22).
5. It is proper, when processing lishmah, to take pains that as much of the work as
possible be done by Jews rather than non-Jews, even when the Jew’s work is of lesser quality (Benei Yonah), so as to meet the concern of the Rambam and his sources, which invalidate the work of a non-Jew even if a Jew stood over him and and told him that the work was to be lishmah; it does not have the same significance to a non-Jew and he cannot do it lishmah. But if Jewish tanners are scarce, we may rely on those who permit it if a Jew stood over him and said “Process these skins for me so that I can write a sefer Torah on them” – the presumption is that the non-Jew does the work as the Jew would have him do it. This applies only if he specifically instructed the non-Jew thus, and he heard his words. If the Jew just thought it, this is not sufficient. This must happen very soon after he puts the skins into the lime; it does not suffice for him to give the instructions before this (Noda be-Yehuda tenina 175). If the non-Jew has non-Jewish workers, those non-Jewish workers must also be present when he is issuing his instructions that it be processed lishmah (Benei Yonah, Melekhet ha-Shamayim). However, if possible the Jew should help him a bit at the beginning of the work, when he puts it into the lime, and say that he is doing it for the sake of a sefer Torah &c. This is the practice. It is also good if the Jew is able to help a bit with all the parts of the work – stretching, scraping, squeezing out the water, and so on. Post facto, even if he didn’t help at all, it is valid provided he gave the directions at the start (but if the processing was not started lishmah, it doesn’t become valid even if a Jew completes the processing lishmah; see para. 2).
6. If one is having the processing done by a non-Jew he should mark his skins, using an awl to make a pattern of letters in the skin. He need not worry that the skins will be exchanged and the marks forged, because the non-Jew knows that the Jew will spot the forgery, or will see that the forged marks are too fresh. There is an opinion which says that one should not mark it with an awl, but should cut letters at the head, inside (Barukh She-amar). One should also monitor it after the processing, because sometimes a non-Jew may put a patch on the holes which are in the skin, and these patches are generally not from skin which was processed lishmah (and perhaps even from ritually impure animals). They may be detected with difficulty by holding it up to the light (Mahatzit ha-Shekel, 32:11).
7. It must be processed in gall-nut juice [tannic acid] or in lime, or similar substances which shrink the skin and strengthen it. One must also take care to leave the skins in the lime until the hairs come out of themselves – not by scraping. If he takes them out before this, he should not write on it, because it is diftera (Barukh She-amar).
8. There are three kinds of hide: gevil, klaf, and duchsustos. Unsplit hide, after processing, is called gevil. In earlier times, after the hairs had come off and before the rest of the processing, they used to split the hide into two layers. One is thin, on the hair side, and is klaf; one is thick, on the flesh side, and is called duchsustos. It is halakha from Moshe at Sinai that we write sifrei Torah on gevil, on the hair side; tefillin on klaf on the flesh side; and mezuzot on duchsustos on the hair side. Even though this is halakha from Moshe at Sinai, a sefer Torah written on klaf is valid, and we use the term gevil in the sense of not duchsustos. So too if one wrote a mezuzah on klaf or on gevil it is valid, and we only say duchsustos because that is technically the mitzvah.
9. Our parchments, which we do not split, are in the category of klaf, and we write on the flesh side. This is because when we scrape off the upper layer, the hair part, this is a separation which is part of the processing – even if the skin is split into two parts, they have to scrape it thus – and they scrape a lot from the flesh side, until only the klaf is left. This klaf is preferable to gevil, and one may write a sefer Torah on it lekhathilah. We don’t write on gevil nowadays. This is also valid for mezuzot. Certainly one must take care to scrape the flesh side very well, so that no thin layer remains on the writing side; this layer is duchsustos, and if even one letter is written on it, whether sefer Torah, tefillin or mezuzot, it is pasul. One identifies duchsustos thus: anything which can be peeled off and separated with a scraper, even of a hair’s thickness, is duchsustos (thus the Netia’ shel Simhah and Ma-on Arayot).
10. If one changed things, and wrote on this klaf on the hair side – tefillin, sefer Torah or mezuzot – they are pasul (see the Beurei ha-Gra).
11. If one wrote part of a sefer Torah on klaf and part on gevil, it is pasul, since it is like two books. But if he made half on gevil and half on tzvaim – that is, the skin of a deer or other wild animal – even though this isn’t the nicest way of doing it, it is valid.
12. After the processing with lime is finished, some scribes have the custom to coat the klaf with a white paint, called log, which makes the klaf smooth and very white. Some permit this, and some forbid it because it constitutes a separation between the writing and the klaf; it is proper to be stringent.
This translation copyright 2006 Jen Taylor Friedman