Rabbi Levi Potash putting the finishing touches on a Torah scroll.
Rabbi Levi Potash putting the finishing touches on a Torah scroll.

Redwood City rabbi’s new role as ritual scribe fits him to a ‘tav’

One Bay Area rabbi now considers quills, ink and parchment as essential tools of the trade.

Rabbi Levi Potash, 41, is a London native who moved to the U.S. with his wife, Ella Potash, 13 years ago to open Chabad MidPen in Redwood City. He added the title “sofer,” Hebrew for scribe, in 2020 and filled a longstanding void for Chabadniks and other observant Jews in the region.

Scribes write Torahs, megillahs and the prayers found inside mezuzahs and tefillin. They check such objects to ensure they meet halachic requirements or, in shorthand, are “kosher.” Scribes also make repairs when these holy items become damaged, whether that’s due to an accident or regular wear and tear.

It’s more than just a convenience to have a scribe handy to check and repair a mezuzah, for example, Potash said.

“The Torah clearly tells us that it brings us long life,” he said, “and commentaries expand this to general blessing, health and protection.”

Potash also makes presentations to mostly Jewish schools and camps that express an interest in this ancient profession. It is believed that the first Hebrew scribe may be found in the story of Ezra the Scribe, which goes back about 23 centuries, according to Chabad.org.

Until Potash became certified as a scribe, it had been several years since Chabad could turn to someone local to perform this important function, according to several area rabbis

“We’ve been having to send things to L.A., New York,” Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said. “And we’ve had occasional visiting scribes, but they never had time to finish everything. Having a local scribe is wonderful. It’s a real contribution to the community.”

Rabbi Yosef Langer, who has led Chabad of SF for 50 years, calls Potash an “excellent scribe.”

“A scribe’s work is so important for physical and spiritual protection. It is great to have someone local. It’s a wonderful thing,” Langer said. “Having to ship things out is costly and time consuming, taking weeks instead of a few hours.”

Rabbi Dovid Labkowski of Chabad of Oakland said the convenience of having a local scribe is significant.

“For Jewish life you need a scribe so you know items needed for Jewish life are kosher,” he said. “If you have to send out your tefillin for repair, for instance, you will be without tefillin for at least a week.”

Labkowski said that to live a “Jewish life” there are several necessities. Those include a mikvah (ritual bath), a kosher butcher, a kosher market, a mohel for circumcisions and a synagogue. “A scribe is one of those things,” he said.

“It’s like a doctor,” Chabad of Solano County Rabbi Chaim Zaklos added. “If something goes wrong, it’s critical to have someone local.”

Potash said he decided to enter the field after a conversation with Zaklos.

“We were talking about Jewish life in the Bay Area, and it came up that one thing that was missing was a sofer,” he said. “So I took it upon myself to find and take the course to get certified.”

The coursework required an intense amount of study and practice over two years. It included learning specific ways to form Hebrew letters and the myriad laws that cover the work of scribes.

His new role is meaningful for another reason, too.

Potash’s brother, Rabbi Shimon Potash, who died two years ago at age 42, had practiced the skillset as a hobby. Potash said he considers his decision to take up the profession as a way to carry on his brother’s legacy.

He primarily focuses on checking mezuzahs, tefillin and Torah scrolls because buying new ones is fairly straightforward.

“New are easier to find in Israel, but mezuzahs are supposed to be checked twice every seven years. Tefillin, also,” he said. “When you had to send things out, this discouraged many people from having them checked.”

In doing his rounds locally, Potash said he’s seen a variety of issues among the items he inspects.

“We’re finding many are kosher, but also that many are not,” he said, adding that “many things” can render such items not kosher.

“The ink and parchment are both made from organic material, and so they are sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. The ink fades and cracks over time, the parchment can get damaged from water, heat or the sun,” he said. “Sometimes, unfortunately, the mezuzah was never kosher, due to being written [or] printed on paper or the letters not being written properly.”

If it can be repaired, Potash said he usually fixes it for no extra charge. Some tefillin fixes do cost extra, he noted. In any case, repair is much quicker than the alternative.

Potash said he also sells Torahs and megillahs.

“It’s a one-stop shop for kosher scribing,” he said. “I like working with my hands, so this is a great opportunity to use my talents to help others do mitzvot in a proper way.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.