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The Hebrew term for "scribe" is sofer, a participle form of the root spr, meaning "to count." It is a Canaanite word, appearing in Ugarit (rb spr, "chief scribe") as well as a loanword in an Egyptian text – sofer yodeʿa, i.e., "wise scribe" (Papyrus Anastasi I; late 13th century B.C.E.). It may be a cognate to Akkadian šāpiru, "secretary, official." The first biblical reference to sofer is found in the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5:14). Another term used frequently in the Hexateuch is shoṭer, which probably meant "recorder." This functionary is associated with food rationing (Num. 11:16; Josh. 1:10; cf. Prov. 6:7), raising the levy (Ex. 5:6, et al.; Deut. 20:5; cf. II Chron. 26:11), and the law courts (Deut. 1:15; 16:18). The root of shoṭer is derived from the cognate Akkadian šatāru, "to write," and reappears in later Aramaic and Hebrew in sheṭar, "a written document" (see also Job 38:33). The common Akkadian word for scribe was tupšarru which appears as ṭi/afsar in Nahum's prophesy of the destruction of Nineveh (3:17) and Jeremiah's words on Babylon's doom (51:27). The change from sh to s probably reflects Assyrian pronunciation.

As in neighboring lands, the Israelite scribe learned his profession in family-like guilds (cf. "the families of scribes who inhabited Jabez," I Chron. 2:5). A 15th century B.C.E. text does indicate the existence of scribal schools in Canaan proper. It is a letter written by a teacher to a student's father living in Shechem asking for the long overdue tuition fee that could be paid in kind. The teacher describes his relationship to his students as that of a parent. (For a more detailed description of the scribe studies see *Education .)

W.F. Albright reads this important text:

Unto Birashshena say:
Thus Baniti – [Ashirat (?)]:
From three years (ago) until now thou hast not caused me to be paid –
is there no grain nor oil nor wine (?)
which thou canst send?
What is my offense that thou has not paid [me]?
The children who are with me continue to learn–
their father and their mother every [day] alike am I…
Now [behold] whatever [there is] at the disposal of
[my lord let him send] unto me, and let him inform me!

During the time of David, a certain Seraiah (II Sam. 8:17; Sheva, II Sam. 20:25; Shisha, I Kings 4:3; Shabsha, I Chron. 18:16) was appointed royal scribe. Both his sons Elihoreph and Ahijah followed him in Solomon's court. R. de Vaux has argued that this post, like most of David's cabinet, was adopted from Egyptian models. Furthermore, A. Cody maintains that the name Shisha etc. is a barbarism of the Egyptian term ssh, meaning "scribe." B. Mazar argues for a Canaanite origin for David's officials and derives all the above forms from an original Hurrian name Šewe-šarri. Among the returnees to Judah in early Persian times were "the sons of Hassophereth" – perhaps "members of the scribal office" – listed among the descendants of Solomon's servants (Ezra. 2:55 = Neh. 7:57). The Judean monarchy produced a prominent scribal family that influenced the political scene for several generations (II Kings 22:3, 12, 14; 25:22; Jer. 26:24; 36:11, 12):


Scribes of various degrees of competence were attached to all government and temple offices. Apparently there were also independent scribes who either served the public or were in the employ of men of means. The highest scribal post was that of royal scribe. It is difficult to determine his exact position among the king's other ministers, even if it is assumed that the various biblical lists follow the principle of order of importance (see II Sam. 8:16–18 = I Chron. 18:15–17; II Sam. 20:23–26; I Kings 4:2–6). In the time of Hezekiah, the royal scribe seems to be of a lower rank than royal chamberlain (aʾsher ʿal ha-bayit) but higher than mazkir (Isa. 22:15–25; 36:3; II Kings 18:18, 37 and also II Chron. 34:8). Exactly what the duties of the royal scribe were is unknown. Besides fulfilling an advisory capacity (II Kings 18:18ff.; 22:14.; cf. I Chron. 27:32), he seems to have been in charge of financial matters (II Kings 12:1lff.; 22:3ff.). This function may underlie the original meaning of the title, which may have been "accountant." Quite likely, other ministries had their own scribal service. The priesthood definitely needed literati (I Chron. 24:6; II Chron. 34:13) and so did the chief of staff (II Chron. 26:11; II Kings 29:19 = Jer. 52:25). City governments, as well, required lists of prominent landowners for purposes of taxation and army service (Judg. 8:14). The public at large would also turn to a scribe to draw up documents of legal (Deut. 24:1; Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8; 32:11) or religious character (Deut. 6:9; 11:20). Wealthy gentry could afford a personal secretary for their business affairs (cf. the inscribed handles from Gibeon, late seventh century). Baruch son of Neriah served Jeremiah in this capacity, though the relationship may be better characterized as that of master and disciple (Jer. 32:12; 36:4, 18; 43:3; 45:1ff.). Several inscribed seals from the Monarchy period bearing the title sofer have been discovered in and around Palestine: ʾmẓ hspr (אמץ הספר), lkmshʿm/kmshʾl/hspr, (לכמשעם כמשאל הספר), lhwdw sprʾ (להודו ספרא). They are all probably non-Israelite in origin. The Persian Empire, consisting of many peoples and languages, is noted for its efficient civil service and far-flung system of communication (Esth. 3:12; 8:9). Each governor was assisted by his own scribe (Ezra 4:8, 9, 17, 23). The contemporary Aramaic papyri from Elephantine shed much light on scribal practice of that time. One of the prominent Jewish personalities of the period was Ezra the Scribe (BK 82a; Sanh. 21b). H.H. Schaeder suggested that Ezra's title (Ezra 7:6, 12) probably testifies to his high position in the Persian court, perhaps "secretary for Jewish affairs." During the Second Temple Period the word soferim had a special connotation.

[Aaron Demsky]

In Judaism

Later the scribe was a professional expert in the writing of Torah scrolls, *tefillin , *mezuzot , and bills of *divorce . Scribes are, therefore, known as sofer setam סוֹפֵר סְתָ״ם; setam סְת״ם being composed of the Hebrew initials of Sefer Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot. These have to be written with a feather quill in indelible ink, in straight lines, and on specially prepared parchment. It is inferred from the Bible that every Jew should write for himself a Torah scroll (see Deut. 31:19; see Sanh. 21b). Expertness, however, being required in writing a Torah scroll, the commandment can only be fulfilled by ordering it from a scribe. The profession of scribe was indispensable to the Jewish community, and according to the Talmud (Sanh. 17b) a scholar should not dwell in a town where there is no scribe. In the talmudic period, scribes were poorly paid lest they become rich and desert their vocations, leaving the community without their services. The scribe writing a Torah scroll must devote utmost attention and care to the writing; he is forbidden to rely on his memory and has to write from a model copy (Meg. 18b). His guide is the professional compendium for scribes, Tikkun Soferim, which contains the traditional text of the Torah, the specific rules concerning the decorative flourishes (tagin, "crowns") on certain letters, the regulations as to the spacing of certain Torah sections ("open" or "closed" pericopes), and the rules for writing Torah scrolls in which each column begins with the Hebrew letter vav (vavei ha-ammudim). Only the Scroll of Esther may be adorned with artistic illustrations but not the Torah scroll, although Alexandrian scribes are said to have gilded the name and appellations of God (Sof. 1:9). When writing a Torah scroll a scribe must especially prepare himself so that he writes the names of the Lord with proper devotion and in ritual purity. It is, therefore, customary that he immerse himself in a ritual bath (mikveh) before beginning his work. (The rules for the writing of Torah scrolls and other ritual texts are laid down in Sof. 1–10; Maim. Yad, Tefillin, Mezuzah, 1–10; Sh. Ar., YD 270ff.) Scribes also acted as recording clerks and court secretaries of the bet din and were, therefore, also called lavlar, from the Latin libellarius. They wrote legal documents such as bills of divorce (get) and contracts. In halakhah there are established rules as to who pays the scribe's fee. The general principle is that the person who receives the greater benefit from a transaction has to pay the scribe, e.g., the buyer of property and the borrower of money. In modern times printed forms are used for most legal transactions and the only document that has to be written by an expert scribe is the bill of divorce.


H.H. Schaeder, Esra der Schreiber (1930); R. de Vaux, in: RB, 48 (1939), 394–405; J. Begrich, in: ZAW, 58 (1940–41), 1–29; W.F. Albright, in: BASOR, 86 (1942), 28–31; B. Maisler (Mazar), in: BJPES, 13 (1947), 105–14; A.L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1964), 235–49; idem, in: AS, 16 (1965), 254; A. Cody, in: RB, 72 (1965), 381–93; A.F. Rainey, in: EM, 5 (1968), 1010–17; idem, in: PIASH, vol. 3, no. 4 (1969); idem, in: JNES, 26 (1967), 58–60; Pritchard, Texts, 432ff., 476, 490. IN JUDAISM: Eisenstein, Dinim, 287.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.