The forms of the letters and their ornamentation
1. Ideally one’s writing should be attractive and even, precise and complete, according to the letter forms described in the Talmud and expounded by the rishonim. However, if he does it differently, it is not invalidated unless he departs from the letter forms, as will be explained.
2. These are the forms of the letters.
Aleph: The upper dot should be made to look like yud, ideally with a little prickle above. The prickle below on the right, touches the roof of the aleph, and if it does not it is invalid, as will be explained. Ideally the face of this yud with the prickle on top is turned to face slightly upwards. The Ḥasid [Shneur Zalman?] teaches that this yud should meet the roof just in its middle, and not part of the way along. Ideally there is a prickle facing upwards on the right-hand end of the roof. It should not be overly curved. The lower dot is sometimes shaped like a little upside-down dalet, and one must do this in tefillin according to the Arizal. Sometimes the lower dot is shaped like another yud suspended from the roof, and so it ought to have a prickle on its lower right. The Zohar says this prickle should be parallel to the upper prickle on the top yud. (If the yuds of the aleph touch the roof – that is, the middle line – more than they ought, see chapter 8.) If one wrote the upper yud backwards [image 1 – like the yud on an Ari tzaddi] he should fix it where possible (Ma-amar Mordekhai 82, and Noda be-Yehudah tinyana 171).
Beit: One should take care that the part which protrudes behind is square, so that it will not resemble khaf. If it resembles khaf, it is invalid, and if it is unclear, one shows it to a child (as explained in siman 6). Ideally the right-hand side of the roof has a little prickle pointing to the right and the left-hand side has a little prickle pointing upwards. According to the kabbalah [mysticism, or tradition] it has a thick heel at the bottom so that it resembles a dalet in the throat of a vav; if so, it must be squared at the top to resemble dalet, and have a substantial heel at the bottom which would be the head of the vav. Its height and width should both be three nib-widths, and the gap in the middle should be one nib-width wide (Darkhei Moshe).
Gimel: Its head should be thick, and its right leg is preferably thin, descending a little further than the left leg. The left leg should not be curved, but should be straight and lifted a little towards the dalet, ideally. It is received tradition that the body of gimel should resemble zayin in that the right leg comes out of the middle of the head, not from the side as with vav. This is the case with all the letters שעטנז גץ: they resemble zayin, and the taggin on them are accordingly called zayins, but the Arizal’s tradition is different, as I shall explain. The left leg should be short, so that another letter may be placed close to its head. Similarly, the Ḥasid wrote that if one wrote vav next to bent nun, he should write it inside the curve of the nun, so that their heads will be close together (and this is also so for gimel), and when one writes straight khaf next to bent tzaddi, he should bend the neck of the tzaddi a little to the right, so that the straight khaf can be closer to the tzaddi. But if there is no need, one should not bend any letter, as it was received from the rishonim that all the letters should stand straight, and not deviate either to the right or to the left.
Dalet: Its roof should be long and its head short, since if its leg is longer than its head it will appear like straight khaf, and it will be pasul if a child does not read it correctly. The leg should be straight, inclined a little to the right, and the roof should have a little tag on the left side of the roof. One must be careful with the tag on the back to make it squared, so that it will not appear like reish and be pasul if a child reads it incorrectly. There is one whose tradition says that it is not sufficient merely to make a squared corner on the back, but one must lekhatḥilah make a substantial heel, so that it will resemble two closed vavs, this heel corresponding to the head of the first vav. He should also make a little prickle sticking out of the right face, pointing upwards, and this prickle corresponds to the head of the second vav.
Hey: Lekhatḥilah one should make a tag on the top of the left side, and a prickle at the back so that it will be squared like a dalet and not rounded like a reish. The dot inside it should not be further than a quill’s width from the roof, nor should it be too close to the roof, but the division should be plainly visible to an ordinary person when he is reading from the Torah at the bima. If it actually touches the roof, even if the join is only of a hair’s thickness, it is pasul. The dot should not be under the middle of the roof, but under its end on the left side, and if one made it in the middle it is pasul and must be repaired, unless repair is impossible, in which case it may be permitted even lekhatḥilah (Magen Avraham 32:33, but it seems to me that in any case one should test it with a child). There is one whose tradition says that the dot should be thin at the top and a bit thicker at the bottom resembling an upside-down yud, as the hey is composed of dalet and yud (for all heys except those in the Tetragrammaton, which have a different tradition). The dot should be bent over a little to the right, and not to the left, so as not to resemble tav.
Vav: Its head should be short so as not to resemble reish, and its leg should be long so as not to resemble yud, on a child’s reading. Ideally its head is rounded on the right-hand side, so that it should not resemble zayin; one should take care lest a child may read it incorrectly and thus invalidate it even though the head of zayin protrudes on both sides. The Zohar says its leg should be straight and even, and its width should diminish gradually until it terminates in a point. The Arizal says that there should be a prickle on the left side of the head for vavs in tefillin, but not in sifrei Torah.
Zayin: One must take care that its leg not be overly long, lest it resemble straight nun and be invalidated by a child’s reading it as such. Its head must protrude on both sides so that it not resemble vav, and the Zohar says that the head must be squared.
Ḥet: Lekhatḥilah one makes it from two zayins (with the width of a quill between), the head of the first zayin being curved on the right, with a hump on their backs which joins them and a tag on the left head. The Arizal says that in tefillin, the right leg should be a vav and the line of the hump which comes out of the right leg should be thick, and the line which comes out of the left leg should be thin. One may not extend the roof at all. If one did, so that he made two zayins far apart from each other, and a long roof, it is pasul, because that is not a hump – and in tefillin and mezuzot there is no way to remedy this. However, if one made ḥet like Rashi, with no hump at all (as the Sephardim do, in veilish script), bedeavad it may be extended and remain valid, even if it is not squared (Magen Avraham 36:3). Likewise, if one made dalet and zayin with a hump between, it is invalid (see chapter 8:11 regarding ḥak tokhot and writing out of sequence), but if one found such a ḥet in a sefer Torah on Shabbat – or one made like two vavs with a hump – he need not take out another sefer Torah (Nodah be-Yehudah kamma, 74)
Tet: Its right head should be somewhat elongated, and rounded, with a prickle. This head should be bent below a little bit lekhatḥilah, but lekhatḥilah it should not be bent a great deal. It should also be made rounded below (Igur) (as its form is like khaf plus vav). Its left head is like zayin (according to those who require zayins in all the shaatnez gatz letters, but the Arizal says it should be a straight vav in tefillin) but its right head should be rounded lekhatḥilah, like we say: it shouldn’t be able to hold taggin, because if the first head was level and could hold taggin like the second head, we wouldn’t be able to skip over it to put the taggin on the second head, because we mayn’t pass up a chance to do mitzvot. For this reason, all the yuds in a sefer Torah which are on the right-hand side of ayin, tzaddi, and shin are all turned to face upwards, so that they will not be able to hold taggin.
Yud: It must have a little leg on the right side, and a small tag on its upper left side lekhatḥilah. One must make its head bent down a little on the left side, like a little prickle pointing downwards, and this prickle must be shorter than the leg on its right, lest it appear [like reish] or like vav and be invalidated by the reading of a child. It is correct for the leg to be a bit curved lekhatḥilah, to emphasise its form. If it lacks its left prickle – and all the more so its right leg – it is pasul (see above, 9:5).
Khaf, bent: The Ḥasid says that it must be rounded on all sides, and lekhatḥilah it should have no corners at all. If its back had a corner at the top, it is valid provided it is rounded at the bottom, but if there was a corner at the bottom it is like beit, and pasul. Some say that it is pasul whether there is a corner at the top or at the bottom. Its faces should be level top and bottom, and the empty space should be one quill-width wide.
Khaf, straight: Its roof should be short, so that it not appear like reish. Accordingly, one may not extend it at the end of a line. Most letters should not be extended, but are still valid bedeavad if they are extended, but this is pasul if a child doesn’t read it properly. Lekhatḥilah all the straight letters should be long enough that if they were bent round they would form the bent letters, and for this reason the top corner of straight khaf is not made squared, but rounded like reish, so that if it was bent round it would be bent khaf, with no difference between them except the part which makes it bent or straight. If one made it with a corner at the top like dalet, some say it is pasul and some say it is valid, and they may be relied upon bedeavad (Le-David Emet).
Lamed: Its neck should be long like vav, and its head rounded on the right side and squared on the left side, like the head of vav. The form of lamed is a bent khaf with a vav upon it, and therefore its tail should be thick and curved well round to the front, and rounded on the right side, at the back, like bent khaf. On the left, where the body joins to the neck, there should be a corner where the narrow end of the vav joins on, so as to be like khaf. All this is lekhatḥilah. The Zohar says that it should have two taggin on its head, the right one slightly enlarged and the left one smaller.
Mem, open: Open mem and closed mem are, lekhatḥilah, precisely similar in all salient features except that one is open and one closed. Therefore, one does not make open mem rounded on its right side at top and bottom, since if one made closed mem like that, it would look like samekh to a child (and anyway, letters must be recognisable instantly, not only upon examination); rather, there must be a corner on the bottom right lekhatḥilah, provided one does not make a heel there as for beit. The upper right is made rounded lekhatḥilah, so that it will look like bent khaf plus vav. This is why we don’t make the roof rounded, but extend it level with the base below to make it like bent khaf. The snout must join on level with the base below, so that it could be closed. Lekhatḥilah its form is like vav which leans over a bit, but not too much, and therefore the break between the roof and the top of the snout should not be too big, so that one doesn’t have to curve the vav away from it.
Mem, closed: We have already explained that one should lekhatḥilah make it curved on its upper right, but not the lower. There are those who make a corner on the upper right, but the [correct] idea is to do it the way first described. The roof should extend a quill’s breadth beyond the join, as this is how far it goes in open mem, and closed mem is also made of khaf and vav, it is just closed. If the top was extended more than is appropriate one should fix it if he can do so easily, but if it is in a Divine Name he should leave it be and it is valid (Noda be-Yehudah kamma 80, also see above in letter hey. Here too it seems he should test it with a child).
Nun, bent: Its head should be like a zayin, as it should lekhatḥilah be just like straight nun wherever possible – that is to say, they are both “nun” but one is bent and one is straight, and the straight one should be made such that if it were bent it would make the bent one, as we have explained. The head should be short, and the base it rests on should be extended well over to the left, further than the head so that it should not resemble beit. Its neck should be rather long, so that another letter can be placed close in to the head, as we have explained above, and its lower right side should be rounded. This holds for all the bent letters: their bottom right sides sbould be rounded, so that if they were unbent they would be the straight forms.
Nun, straight: Its form is that of a zayin, except longer, so that it would form bent nun if it was folded around, as we have explained above for straight khaf. If one made it shorter, it should be shown to a child, and if he read it as zayin, it is pasul. So too, if one made it like a long vav, it is similarly pasul.
Samekh: It should have a level roof on top, lekhatḥilah, because it is formed of two letters, bent khaf with a vav stuck to it. It must be rounded on three corners, and have a short base. Lekhatḥilah its roof should extend past the join as much as a quill’s width, being the size of the vav’s head.
Ayin: Its first head should have the form of a yud tilted upwards, as we explained for tet. Its body should stand up straight so that another letter may be fitted in close to it, and its second head is like a zayin standing upon it, also as explained above. However, according to the Arizal one should make both lines of the ayins in tefillin like straight vavs.
Peh, bent: According to the Ḥasid, its upper right corner should be squared both inside and out, but below it should be rounded on the outside like all the bent letters, which lekhatḥilah are rounded below. However, inside it should be squared, so that the white space inside will have the form of a beit; this is the kabbalah of the Ḥasid. One should make a prickle on its face on the left-hand side; this prickle extends downwards to the dot inside, so that the dot and the extended prickle have the form of vav, and accordingly the dot should be rounded on its lower left side. One must take care that the dot does not touch, even by the smallest amount, anything except the prickle from which it hangs.
Peh, straight: Lekhatḥilah it should be rounded on its upper right side, just as the bent form is below. But the Ḥasid says one should make it squared at the top like the bent form is at the top. Lekhatḥilah one should make it long enough that were it bent round it would have the form of bent peh. One must take care that the dot not turn outwards, lest it resemble tav (Beit Yosef in the name of the Rosh).
Tzaddik, bent: Its first head should be slightly bent upwards, as we have explained above, and its leg should stick on in the middle of the neck, not at the bottom, lest it resemble ayin. Its second head is like zayin, as explained above; its neck should be rather long, so as to be able to put a letter next to its head (as we said above in gimel); and its base should extend well over to the left, as its form is that of a bent nun with a yud on its back. Lekhatḥilah it should be rounded on its lower right, like all the bent letters. If one made the yud inverted, he should remedy this if he can do so easily. The Arizal says that all tzaddikim in tefillin should have the right head made of an inverted yud and the left head made of a bent nun.
Tzaddik, straight: Its heads should be as for the bent form. Lekhatḥilah its leg should extend downwards past the join such that one could make the bent form out of it.
Kuf: It must have a little tag on the left-hand side of its roof, leaning towards the reish. Its right leg must be well curved round towards the left leg, and the left leg must not touch either the right leg or the roof; if it touches it is pasul. One should not put it too far away from the roof; it should be as for hey. There are those who draw it slanting a bit to the right. If one extended the roof too far, so that the leg was in the middle, the rule is as for hey (Peri Megadim).
Reish: It must be distinctly curved above, so as not to appear like dalet, in which case a child’s reading [it as dalet] would invalidate it. Its roof should be long, so that it should not appear like vav, and its leg should be short, so as not to appear like straight khaf and be invalidated on a child’s reading.
Shin: its first head should be like a yud tilted upwards, and so too its second head, as we have explained. Its first head is also like a vav which extends diagonally to the end of the third leg. The second head is like yud, and it has a prickle on it from the left. The third head is like zayin, as we explained; the Arizal says that in tefillin, all the lines of the shins are made like straight vavs. One must stick the middle head on the left side, low down. Its base below should not be long, but should be a point on the left-hand side lekhatḥilah, and so all the three heads stand on one foot, like kuf and reish.
Tav: It is a tradition from the rishonim that its roof and right leg should have the form of dalet. Some make the left leg like an inverted vav, and some make it like a little inverted dalet. In cases like this, where both options have equal merit, one should follow his local custom – all this is lekhatḥilah. If one extends the roof of tav further than appropriate so that the leg is in the middle, the rule is as for hey and kuf (Peri Megadim).
3. Every letter must be a single object. For example, the yud of ayin – and peh, tzaddi, shin, tav – must touch the letter, and if even one part does not touch, it is pasul, as we have explained. Likewise, closed mem and samekh must be properly joined and closed; if there is a breach of even a hair’s breadth they are pasul, and so too with all the other letters, except for the legs of hey and kuf, which must not touch, and render it pasul if they do, as explained. Likewise one must take care with all the letters that they not touch, even within themselves, even by a tiny amount, in any place except where they are supposed to be joined.
4. All instances of the letters שעטנז גץ, which include straight nun and bent tzaddi, must be crowned with three tagin, which are like little zayins, as thin as a hair. The tagin must touch the body of the letter, and each must be separate from its fellow. If they do not touch the body of the letter, or if they touch each other, they are pasul, and must be fixed. We also require that each tag touch the body of the letter, and that each tag be separated from its fellow at the place where they join the letter, so that they will be specifically like zayins, and not like ayins or shins. One should not put them at the end of the letter, but in the middle. Bedeavad, they are valid if one did not make taggin at all. There are those who say that these letters are invalid without tagin, and one should be aware of this opinion by being stringent about tagin in Torah, and fixing them. One may also fix them in tefillin and mezuzot, and it does not count as writing out of order, since the letter has its form.
5. It is the custom of scribes to make tagin in various other places, and one does not need to worry about this provided that he is extremely careful, when making them on yud or vav, to make them very thin, so as not to alter the form of the letter.
6. There are those who forbid writing ordinary things with the Ashurit script which is used for writing Torah.