May 24, 2013
Sofrim Unite In Online Forum
Sofrim - scribes from around the world have been coming together via an online forum developed by Melbourne sofer Rabbi Eli Gutnick.
It is no secret that sofrim (and others in the field of STa"M) often lack the necessary level of organized support and rabbinical guidance available to assist them in their holy task.
This is mainly due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of communal rabbanim and poskim are not comfortable ruling on matters of STa"M, which requires years of shimush (specialized training) to master.
Most of the expert poskim are found only in big Jewish cities like Yerushalayim, Benai Brak and New York. Sofrim operating outside of these cities are essentially on their own, lacking fundamental support and guidance.
As a community sofer living in Melbourne, Australia, Rabbi Eli Gutnick felt this phenomenon more than others.
"When examining or repairing stam, I often encounter shailos such as incorrectly formed letters that are not clear cut in terms of their halachic status," he explains. “Many of these require a shalas chacham, an official ruling from a rav who is knowledgeable in the intricacies of these laws."
With scarce local resources, Rabbi Gutnick became accustomed to scanning or photographing his shailos in high resolution and emailing them to expert rabannim overseas. Upon receiving a psak he would often share it with other interested sofrim on his email list. They would likewise share their emails and answers with him.
Over the years Rabbi Gutnick amassed thousands of such emails. Then, about two years ago, Rabbi Gutnick created an online forum, www.stamforum.com, where sofrim could post shailos directly onto a website which could be publicly viewed. Subscribers could then discuss and comment on the items posted on the forum.
"We started with a handful of members and a received a few dozen hits a day," says Rabbi Gutnick. It was the first such public forum focusing exclusively on Stam. Since then then membership has steadily grown to include a long list of sofrim, magihim (examiners) and resellers of STa"M, from a wide range of backgrounds and locations.
"There are sofrim from Lakewood discussing shailos with sofrim from Crown Heights," he marvels. "We have members from South America, South Africa, Russia...virtually every place where there is Yiddishkeit."
Many of the shailos are answered by other members, some who are qualified to pasken (give a ruling). Sometimes shailos are downloaded and printed by members living in Israel who then show them to local poskim and share the answers they receive.
For example, one very active member in Israel often takes printouts of the shailos to Rav Shammai Gross shlitah, one of the leading poskim of STa"M in Israel. Rav Gross has answered many shailos posted on the forum.
Today the STa"M Forum is viewed by hundreds of sofrim daily and is constantly updated with new posts and comments by members. The questions do not always pertain to matters of halacha, but also include practical guidance, advice and support. Many members have a heter for the internet (because they use it for the business aspect of their profession, and maintain their own websites). Others subscribe by email only and can read the posts without accessing the internet.
About ten months ago the forum hit the headlines when one of its members, Rabbi Shmuel Traube from Boro Park, discovered the problem of peeling retzuos - a controversy which later erupted in the Jewish media. Upon discovering the problem, the first thing rabbi Traube did was post his concerns on the forum (which led to much discussion and several halachic verdicts). Subsequent reports in the mainstream Jewish media attributed the STa”M Forum for being the first to bring this issue to the public's attention.
The forum is strictly non profit and non commercial. It currently operates on BlogSpot, a simple but easy to use model. In the future Rabbi Gutnick hopes to change it to a more sophisticated design, with a better index system for the vast amount of information it now contains.