Hebrew inscription translation
January 14, 2010 8:13 AM   Subscribe

What does this Hebrew inscription on the handle of a Torah scroll mean?

It appears to be mem-yod-zayin-beth, although the yod might be a gimel with a worn-off leg, or maybe a kaf.

The letters have dots above them, which leads us to believe it's either representing a number or an abbreviation. We couldn't make any sense out of numbers, though, so perhaps an abbreviation.

The best we can come up with is perhaps mi-yad Z.B., with Z.B. being the initials of the scribe.

Photos here; #

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!
posted by greenmagnet to Writing & Language (9 answers total)
It looks like the first letter could actually be two letters, a kaf and a final kaf?

Probably a dedication of some sort, or the initials of the scribe.
posted by j1950 at 8:46 AM on January 14, 2010

the second letter looks a lot more like a gimmel than a yud to me.
posted by milestogo at 9:42 AM on January 14, 2010

It's definitely roshei teivot, though a brief search didn't come up with anything good. Possibly a section from an amulet - other Jewish items often come with their own abbreviated phrases that have a similar look, gravestones for example. Origin of the scroll would be helpful to know - which country is it from? Time period?
posted by awenner at 10:11 AM on January 14, 2010

Update: this question originally comes from my brother who's trying to figure it out for his university library. It's in their collection. Unfortunately, we don't really know anything about the time period or place it came from. He says he would guess maybe 1800s based on the age of other things in the collection, but that's really speculation.

To him, the thing that looks like it could make the second letter into a gimel looks more like wood grain, but we're not sure. The first "letter" could be two letters; that's an interesting suggestion and it does look like that stroke goes too far down for a mem. However, in that case, shouldn't there be two dots above? Also, the spacing would be weird. So perhaps that just comes from being hand carved.

If nothing else, at least the term "roshei teivot" gives us something else to use in our searches, so that's helpful....
posted by greenmagnet at 10:44 AM on January 14, 2010

There is quite a good dictionary of rashei teivot here, and looking through it raises a few very interesting possibilities.

First is that if the third letter is in fact a dalet (which looks possible from the photos), the abbreviation could be something like "Migdal David b'...," where "Migdal David" is the name of a synagogue or yeshiva.

Second, are we certain this is a Torah scroll and not another scroll? There is also the possibility that the mem stands for megillat, and the inscription is a label indicating the scroll's content. (The tough part about this possibility is that none of the Hebrew names of the megillot begin with yod or zayin.)

The final possibility is that it is some kind of scribal motto or signature, like (assuming the letters are mem-gimmel-zayin-vet) "mi-g'zeirah tichtov": "You shall write it in accordance with the [religious] decree."

What do you think? Any help?
posted by AngerBoy at 7:38 PM on January 14, 2010

It's not any roshei teivot that I'm familiar with, and I think I would recognise any common one. Given that it's on one of the rollers of a sefer torah, I'd assume that it was the initials of the owner or an institution. But I'm only saying that because I can't think of anything else that might be on the rollers - generally they're either plain, or have a fancy inscription. Sifrei Torah are distinct enough that you don't need them to be "signed": the inscriptions are there to commemorate the donor, but four initials aren't much of a dedication. And as for a mark of ownership - there's not much point in having it on the rollers, which are easily replaced, but anyone who can afford to purchase a sefer torah could also afford a better inscription.

The other thing is, that roshei teivot are generally indicated by the presence of an apostrophe, like so: TIA'A = This Is An Abbreviation. I've only seen letters with dots on the top when the letters were meant to be numbers, like so: Hey Tav Shin Ayin = 5770. But these letters don't look like they're meant to be numbers, because come from the wrong parts of the alphabet. So I'm stumped.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:01 PM on January 14, 2010

AngerBoy: it is definitely a Torah scroll. It's open to Vayikra, and goes back to Bereshit. My brother knows Hebrew well enough to figure that part out, but the inscription is beyond us.

This is all very helpful information, thanks. My brother is asking some other possible sources, and I'll update back here if we figure out anything fairly definitive.
posted by greenmagnet at 6:58 AM on January 15, 2010

To me, that text looks like 'Magazov' (with all its variant transliterated spellings), which turns out to be a Ukranian surname, so perhaps it is indeed the scribe's mark.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:03 PM on January 15, 2010

One other thing - a good sofer can probably date the scroll and identify its origin. There are slightly different ways to write letters used by different groups, and the parchment itself deteriorates with age and use. I'm not saying that he could say "this was made in 1856, in Minsk", but he could probably say "this was written around 100 years ago, for a Hasidic group in Poland."
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:16 AM on January 16, 2010

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