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The Box of Errors

Josh BaumFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

The box of errors came into being as an unconscious object. What started off as a sofer's tool box and a place to keep my mistakes, grew on its own into something quite different. Full of words and yet not exactly a book, the box was the by-product of writing a Torah scroll and of my particular capacity for distraction, because it was during distraction that I made most of the mistakes. Since then it has become symbolic to me of the magic and pleasure of making Hebrew letters and the endless possibilities of words.

UK based artist Josh Baum studied and worked in Israel for many years as a Hebrew scribe. A graduate from Central Saint Martins and award winning contemporary sculptor, his work seeks to bring together the worlds of the Hebrew scribe and the fine artist. Looking at themes of listening, transcription, the hidden mechanics of words, poetry and the ancient beauty of the Hebrew alphabet.

This talk is about the imagination.

The moment before you write and the moment before you light.

This is a space between the ink and the page, where anything could happen.

I always kept my inkwell quite far from the page which made me three times slower than your average scribe. And much as I love the moment of writing, the pleasure of the feather on the vellum, on the klaf, I always liked the time when the ink is in flight. It is still not a word, hasn’t been committed to action. And it takes many such scribal flights between the ink and the page to write a scroll. Much as a jar of honey will contain many miles of bee flights between the clover fields and the queen. Incidentally or perhaps inevitably, the Hebrew word for bees is dvorim, which means words. Heraclitus said, “you never stand in the same river twice”.  One, because it is always changing and two, because you are always changing as a person. And Borges said that you never read the same book twice, because each time you return to it, even if it is the same book, you are never quite the same reader. And same is true of the scribe. Even if you copy the same book, letter by letter identically, it’s a different book and I was a very different person when I wrote my scroll. And as the letter flies, even if you are copying the exact thing, it has to travel through your imagination as the scribe, before it reaches the page. And the scribe plays host to the agency of a strange bird. This is a place where you are open. You are open to inspiration, you are open to devotion, you are also open to destruction and you are vulnerable to the callings of art and of poetry. And this is the space where errors are made, and this is my box of errors.

The idea was it would contain all the many mistakes I made throughout my career as a scribe, plus the tools you need to make words. And it is the most beautiful, magical thing to make words. And in this space the scribe is free, free in the imagination to imbue the words with whatever it is that he thinks they mean. And what he actually meant when he hit the page he wrote is not something you can actually ever know. And so is true of the reader, what happens between the reader when they read and the page, is also a private moment when the letter is in flight, the words are in flight. And the same with the speaker and the listener when the words come to you, the words are in flight. And you are free to receive them and to understand them as you wish, as you desire. And this is the place of desire, because this is the desire for meaning. And we all have the desire for meaning when we read, when we listen. And really it is the space of listening because when you write the scroll you have to annunciate each word as you write it, so you have to listen to the whole thing. And listening, I would suggest, is a faculty of the soul. So the scroll that I copied letter by letter, word by word, meticulously, is finished. It’s no longer mine. And all the bottles of ink I drained, one drop at a time, are empty, but the box goes on. It originally started as the product of my fallible hand. It now speaks to me of the possibility of what could be written, my desire to make art, to write words of my own, with my own meaning. It speaks to me of freedom, the freedom to be me. Which I think is part of our search for meaning, and yet the letters demand to be copied. And if not by me they will find another scribe. Another man, another woman to copy them, and the scribe eventually realises when he is writing, when he is writing or she is writing, it is not for the reader or for the scholar, but he writes for it’s own sake, which means that he writes for the letters and the words themselves. There is a secret compulsion in the letters to be heard,  so he writes for you, the listener. And not everybody gets to touch the beautiful letters with the silver hand, but everybody is invited to hear.

The Kabbalists of Tsfat have explained that god had to train his light, because he wanted to be known, wanted to be heard and somehow I think it might be concealed in words, just like the light of meaning is concealed in words. That’s a way of understanding such an abstract and beautiful idea. Which brings me to the ink, and I love the idea that in any bottle of ink, many books could exist. So I have here the book of a man who dreams of a jewel buried beneath a lemon tree in a garden in Cairo. In here I have a list of the one thousand or so nucleotides needed to code for brown eyes in a woman. And here I have a poem about Venice. But the destination of the ink as it becomes the word on its way to you to be heard is the klaf, this is vellum, this is the page. And the Hebrew scribe is never encouraged to beautify the actual letters; we don’t have the flourishes of the Latin fonts or the fabulous tessellations of Arabic. We beautify our letters from within with meaning and with intention and every letter is actually made from other letters. Letters within letters within words made from letters within words. It’s an inward helix of meaning and of beauty. And every letter has strict instructions as to how it should be built, the architecture of each letter. And how does this work? Letters made from letters, how could this ever begin? It says in the Mishnah that there were ten things created at twilight on the sixth day, among them are the well, the mouth of the well, writing and the last of them its tongs which are made with tongs because without tongs the blacksmith can’t lift tongs from the fire. The same is true of letters. You can’t make a letter without a letter.

So I would like to recite for you the first few rules of the letter “alef”. It says that the alef should be made with a yud at its top and she to have a thorn on her head and her face should be inclined slightly upwards and the leg of the yud should be attached to the middle of the body where the body is inclined upwards and backwards to the right and the lower drop of the alef should be at a distance the measure of one quills width and a half. So that is what an alef sounds like and this is what an alef looks like. And the letters from which the alef is composed is an upside down daled and vav and a yud. And these letters spell the word “DIO” which means “ink”. And I think there is great poetry in this, that the very first letters who faces upwards and whose back is inclined towards the well from which it came, spells “ink”.  But the klaf, the vellum, the page has its own beauty. When I lived in Jerusalem I used to buy my klaf from the klaf shop in Meah Shaarim – the neighbourhood of a hundred gates. And the shop was hidden behind many letters plastered to the door announcing the deaths of the tzadikim, but once inside the shop it was completely empty and bare. Just a bright light and white floor but the scribes as they moved across the shop floor were always dressed in black. The Ger’s with their pointy, silky kippot and the Belz’s with their velvety boaters and the Toldot Aharon with the black slippers and the white stockings and I thought, “this is like an alphabet” between vellum and vellum, the scribes looking for their pages. And I wondered whether the whole copying industry isn’t in fact a ruse and that the sounds that heaven is really interested in are written in the journeys of scribes between words. And this, I think, is a sacred space between the ink and the page, between the text and the reader, between the speaker and the listener. It’s the space of the imagination and the space where thought can become action and it’s the space of becoming, where you can become yourself, you can imagine yourself and become yourself. And I think that when you don’t have this space it is even dangerous, you risk the unthinking, unimaginative transcription of fundamentalism. There is no space to interpret or to have your own personal understanding of it. It is the imagination which brings the light into the words. And so the scribe must play with fire but not as a game, because sometimes the word that you write, is the name.

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