Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

After Deborah and Barak led the Jewish People to a miraculous victory against the Canaanite general Sisera, Deborah sang an epic song that praised the Jewish tribes who aided their efforts and criticized those who failed to contribute. In her song, Deborah lauded the tribe of Zebulun with the words “…and from Zebulun, those who pull the quill of the sofer (scribe)” (Judges 5:14). The word sofer appears more than fifty times throughout the Bible, often in the context of royal scribes who wrote down the king’s decisions for dissemination to the masses. In later Hebrew, however, a different word is also used for scribe: lavlar. Are these two words synonymous, or is there some difference between them? This essay explores that question.

In the Bible, the word sofer is sometimes used as a common noun to refer in general to a scribe (e.g., Psalms 45:2, Jeremiah 8:8, Ezekiel 9:2-3). It also appears as an appellation with the definite article (“the scribe”) and applies to a specific person, like Seraya the Scribe (II Samuel 8:17), Shemaiah the Scribe (I Chronicles 24:6), Shwa the Scribe (II Samuel 2:25, see also I Chronicles 18:16), Shebna the Scribe (II Kings 18:18, 18:37, 19:2, Isaiah 36:3, 37:2), Shaphan the Scribe (II Kings 22:3, 22:8-10, 22:12, Jeremiah 36:10, II Chronicles 34:15, 34:18, 34:20), Elishama the Scribe (Jeremiah 36:12, 36:20-21), Baruch the Scribe (Jeremiah 36:26), Jonathan the Scribe (Jeremiah. 36:15, 36:20), Ezra the Scribe (Ezra 7:6, 7:11, Neh. 8:1-13, 12:26, 12:36), Tzadok the Scribe (Nehemia 13:13), and Jeiel the Scribe (II Chronicles 26:11).


In the Mishna, the word sofer means “scribe” (Shabbat 12:5, Pesachim 3:1, Gittin 3:1, 7:2, 8:8, 9:8, Bava Metzia 5:11, Sanhedrin 4:3, 5:5, Keilim 24:6, see also Nedarim 9:2), but the plural form sofrim is often used to refer to earlier rabbinic sages (see Orlah 3:9, Yevamot 2:4, 9:3, Sotah 9:15, Kiddushin 4:13, Sanhedrin 11:3, Keilim 13:7, Parah 11:5-6, Taharot 4:7, 4:11, Tevol Yom 4:6, and Yadayim 3:2). One particular Tannaitic sage given the appellation sofer – Rabbi Yeshevav HaSofer – although this appellation is not appended to his name in the Babylonian or Jerusalemic Talmuds, only in later sources (like Midrash Shocher Tov Ps. 9, Iggeret Rabbi Sherirah Gaon, and the Eleh Ezkarah elegy that immortalizes the Ten Martyrs).

The etymology of the word sofer lies in the triliteral root samech-peh-reish. This root bears a wide range of meanings, including “book,” “story,” “to tell,” “number,” “to count,” “sapphire,” “spherical,” “haircut,” “border,” and more. On the simplest level, sofer relates to the first meaning listed, because a “scribe” is one who produces a “book” (a book).

Why were the early rabbinic sages called sofrim? The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30a, Chagigah 15b, Jerusalemic Talmud Brachot 1:4) explains that the word sofer literally means “one who counts.” This term is appropriate for the early rabbinic sages because they were said to “count” the letters of the Torah. This may perhaps be an allusion to a scribal practice attested to amongst the later Masoretes, who used numbers to help establish the most accurate text of the Bible and correct their work. Perhaps the early rabbinic sages did something similar in their role as the guardians of the Written Torah.

Alternatively, the Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 5:1) explains that the “counting” aspect of the term sofrim refers to the fact that the sages formulated numbered lists as mnemonic devices for remembering complicated halachot. Examples of such lists mentioned in the Talmud all come from the Mishna. They include the five people who cannot tithe (Terumot 1:1); the five grains obligated in challah (Challah 1:1); the 15 women who are exempt and exempt their co-wives from yibbum (Yevamot 1:1); the 36 sins for which one may be punished with karet (Keritut 1:1); 13 special rules about an unslaughtered kosher bird (Taharot 1:1); the four categories of torts (Bava Kamma 1:1); and the 39 forms of forbidden labor on Shabbat (Shabbat 7:2). In all of these cases, the sages “counted” the necessary bullet points needed to summarize the relevant rules and provided lists. In this way, the sages applied scribal practices to the realm of the Oral Torah.

Let us now turn our attention to the word lavlar. This word does not appear in the Bible, but it does appear three times in the Mishna: once in the name Nachum HaLavlar (“Nachum the Lavlar“), who was apparently a scribe (Peah 2:6); once in relating the rule that a lavlar may not go outside with his writing quill close to the onset of Shabbat (Shabbat 1:3); and once when describing a man contracting a lavlar to write a gett (bill of Divorce) for his wife (Gittin 3:1).

Rashi uses the words sofer and lavlar interchangeably in multiple places, using one to define the other (Rashi to Sotah 20a, Gittin 67a, Bava Batra 21b). Similarly, the Mishna (Bava Metzia 5:11) states that a sofer who aids in documenting a loan whereby a Jew illegally lent another Jew with interest is himself in violation of the prohibition of lending with interest. When the Tosefta (Bava Metzia 6:17) repeats this rule, it uses the word lavlar instead of sofer. Although the Targumim typically translate the Hebrew word sofer into the Aramaic safra (essentially an Aramaicized form of the Hebrew word), Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) points out in Meturgaman that in one instance, Targum (to Est. 3:12) actually translates sofer as lavlar.

Scholars agree that the word lavlar actually derives from the late Latin word libellarius (“scribe”), which, in turn, is derived from the Latin word libellus. That word libellus is itself a diminutive of the Latin word liber/libri (“book”). It could very well be that the rabbis borrowed the term through its Greek version, liblarios (also spelled libellavrio or liblavrio) as opposed to directly from Latin.

These words have etymological relatives in English that are still familiar to us nowadays. For instance, the word libel originally meant “small book” before it eventually came to mean a libelous or accusatory statement. Additionally, the English word library derives from the Latin librarius, which itself is a derivative of liber. Finally, the English usage of the word leaf for a page of a book also relates to these Greek and Latin words. According to modern linguists, all of these words derive from the Pro-Indo-European root leup/leub/leubh.

All of this leads to a fairly obvious question, though: How did libellarius become lavlar?

It seems that the pronunciation lavlar – although quite popular and used in various prominent works – is actually a mispronunciation. In fact, the famous Kaufmann Manuscript of the Mishna, which is the earliest manuscript of the Mishna that has vowelization, actually vowelizes the word as livlar, not lavlar. Moreover, in the Jerusalemic Talmud (see Gittin 3:1 and Bava Metziah 1:4), the word lavlar is spelled with a yod after the initial lammed, thus suggesting that the lammed should be vowelized with a chirik and not a patach. This is somewhat similar to the Biblical names Bitya (I Chronicles 4:18) and Milka (Genesis 11:29, 22:20, 22:23, 24:15, 24:24, 24:47, Numbers 26:33, 27:1, 36:11), which are vowelized in the Bible with a chirik under the initial consonant, yet somehow morphed into Batya and Malka, with a patach under the initial consonant. It is also possible that when the rabbis adopted the word from Greek or Latin into Rabbinic Hebrew, they slightly altered its pronunciation on purpose to render it lavlar instead of libler (or something more similar to the original foreign word).

Until now, we have seen that there is a clear etymological difference between sofer and lavlar, with sofer/safra being clearly a Hebrew/Aramaic word, making it of Semitic stock, while lavlar is a borrowed from Latin and Greek, making it of Indo-European stock. But is there a difference in the meanings of these two words in how they are used in Rabbinic Hebrew?

The earliest sources that I have found that discuss this question are two Hungarian rabbinic scholars from the previous century, Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Aryeh Blau (1861-1936) and Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Krauss (1866-1948). Blau in his German work Studien zum althebräischen Buchwesen und zur Biblischen Litteratur- und Textgeschichte (“Studies on Ancient Hebrew Books and on the History of Biblical Literature and Texts”) argues that sofer and lavlar refer to two distinct groups. The way he explains it, sofer implies an official scribe who held a specific bureaucratic post, while lavlar is a general term that includes even a regular run-of-the-mill scribe who functioned as sort of freelance clerk. Blau thus contends that every sofer is a lavlar, but not every lavlar is a sofer. On the other hand, Krauss in Talmudische Archäologie cites and disagrees with Blau’s assessment, arguing that the two terms are effectively synonymous, but that the loanword lavlar may have carried a somewhat more formal connotation.

Either way, the Hebrew and Latin terms for “scribe” are similar to each other in that both are cognate with the word for “book” in their respective languages (sofer and sefer, libellarius and liber). This stands in contrast to the words for “scribe” in Germanic languages, which are cognate with the verb “to write” as opposed to the word for “book.” For example, in English a “scribe” is called a scribe, whilst in Yiddish/German a “scribe” is called a schreiber. These words are not cognate with the word for “book” in those respective languages. I will, however, note that those Germanic words are related to a bevy of English words including: scrivener, scribble, describe, transcribe, prescribe, subscribe, ascribe, inscribe, proscribe, serif, script, and manuscript.

Those with an interest in Jewish genealogy might already know that of the countless descendants of Rabbi Moshe Sofer – also known by the name of his work, the Chatam Sofer – some branches of the family use the surname Sofer while others use the surname Schreiber. In fact, both of those family names mean the exact same thing; one is just in Hebrew and one is in Yiddish/German.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.