| On Site |

Man of Letters 

Artist Avraham Borshevsky didn't learn the Hebrew alphabet until he was in college. Now his life is filled with holy script

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Personal archives

IN the three months since the Simchas Torah war broke out, Reb Avraham Borshevsky, a calligraphy artist and sofer stam in Jerusalem, has witnessed a dramatic shift in his line of work.

“More and more Jews from the most religiously distant enclaves are discovering the power of sacred scripts,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a war to uncover those latent holy sparks.”

In addition to writing mehudar mezuzahs and megillos, Borshevsky specializes in designing and producing top-line calligraphy artwork, pieces of which have found their way to the president’s and prime minister’s residences and other significant places in Israel, and over 30 countries beyond the borders of the Holy Land. But today, he says, there’s an awakening to get back to the basics. Jews want tefillin, mezuzahs and sifrei Torah.

His studio in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood isn’t large, but it’s well-lit and organized, filled with Judaica creations depicting brachos, pesukim, and beautifully 24k gold-illuminated tefillos and megillos. There is an Eishes Chayil, adorned in a Persian style, and a stunning Bircas Kohanim. Each creation sits in its own unique frame and is sealed with museum-grade glass.

Hanging on the walls are also a selection of certificates, including two from the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest mezuzah, a meter-high scroll Borshevsky wrote in 2004. This mezuzah also set the record for the most expensive mezuzah sold in a private sale. The mezuzah opened a new chapter in Guinness (but that record was beaten in 2019, after a friendly conversation with Borshevsky, by the huge mezuzah that was presented on the roof of Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem).

“It’s not only the pieces themselves, it’s all that is concealed behind them,” says Borshevsky, who, while growing up in Leningrad, knew nothing about the Hebrew alphabet, although he’d been dreaming of creating art with letters since he was a child. And once Hebrew and Jewish tradition came into his life, he knew he’d found his treasure.

“The Hebrew alphabet has a spiritual depth that needs to be understood before work can begin. We learn in Maseches Avos that the ksav (letters) and the michtav (inscription) are listed among the ten things created on Erev Shabbos at twilight.

The Zeide’s Secret

Avraham Borshevsky’s accent gives away his country of origin and the long path that he traversed, both physically and spiritually, until he reached the place where he is now. While he’s not only licensed as a sofer stam but also as a bodek (a checker and proofreader) of holy scrolls, until age 18 he’d never even learned the letters of Lashon Kodesh.

He was born on Chanukah of 1970 in Korosten, a city in northern Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), but the family relocated to Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), where he grew up.

Like most Jews in the Soviet Union during the 70s and 80s, his family was not mitzvah observant. “I knew almost nothing about Shabbos or holidays, and I didn’t even have a bris,” he says. “But still, I was lucky, because during the summers, we would go back to Ukraine to be with our family. I’m the oldest grandchild and great-grandchild on both sides, and I had the privilege of knowing and remembering my great-grandparents, who were Torah-observant Jews. I even learned a little Yiddish from them.

“I was very little, but I remember how my two great-grandmothers lit Shabbos candles, and how they took me with them to the shochtim to slaughter the chickens they bought in the market. My grandfather, Shmiel Zayvil HaLevi Landman, told me how he’d learned in cheder as a child, before the government closed the Jewish institutions. My other grandfather, Tzvi Hersh Borshevsky, would tell me how they were so poor they had only one pair of boots between them, but how nevertheless, his father hired a melamed for him. But I have to admit that I didn’t really understand the significance of all those stories — I was very young, and it was all very far from my reality at the time.”

Korosten had a large Jewish population — about half the city — until World War II. Each year, the Jews of Korosten would travel to the ohel of Rav Yisrael Dov, the She’eris Yisrael, known as the Tzaddik of Vilednik zy”a. Today, Jews from around the world travel to his kever for his yahrtzeit on 21 Teves, and even many non-Jews come to pray at his gravesite in their times of need.

“But Korosten is known for another reason,” Borshevsky notes. “In 1926, there was a historical conference of rabbanim held there with more than 70 of Ukraine’s rabbanim in attendance, and hundreds of guests from the entire region. The convention was really the last desperate effort of the Jews of the Soviet Union to rally around the rabbanim in order to publicly come out against the government policy of religious suppression. The authorities were furious at the dozens of telegrams that arrived from around the world with blessings for the event, as well as the media coverage of it, and they responded with harsh measures and arrests, resulting in the Jewish community going underground.”


What the Letters Hold

Borshevsky had been captivated by art from an early age, and was always fascinated with ways to draw letters — but at the time he didn’t even know there was such an artistic profession as calligraphy.

His love for art and design is also what led him to eventually study architecture at the Leningrad Institute for Civil Engineering. This was the late 1980s, and the anti-religious strictures of Soviet Russia were on the verge of crumbling, as glasnost and perestroika were becoming the catchwords of the day. And so, he ventured into the one active shul in Leningrad and soon began attending Torah shiurim in a yeshivah that was part of the shul. That was his first serious encounter with the Hebrew alphabet, and he just knew that he wanted to dive into the shapes and intricate meanings of the letters.

With the wave of aliyah in 1990, Borshevsky moved to Eretz Yisrael together with his brother, parents, and grandparents. While his family members joined an ulpan in Tel Aviv, Avraham had his own clear goal — to continue learning in yeshivah. He joined the Shvut Ami yeshivah in Jerusalem, and in addition to Torah learning, he gained another bonus: At the time, the yeshivah offered a one-year course in safrus, given by a former refusenik Dr. Michael Khanin a”h, the last sofer stam in the Soviet Union.

Even in Israel, Dr. Khanin was considered one of the greatest experts in writing mehudar safrus. And for Borshevsky, he was not only a teacher, but also a chavrusa for the next four years. Borshevsky eventually qualified as both a sofer and later as a bodek (a checker), certified by Rav Mordechai Friedlander a”h, the head of the Machon Lehora’ah of the Vaad Mishmeres Stam.

“At that point, I knew I would be involved in safrus in some kind of professional capacity,” Borshevsky says. “It challenged me, and I felt like I was doing something very special that made a bridge between gashmiyus and ruchniyus. The dream of being an architect remained buried in the Soviet Union.”

Borshevsky continued to delve not only into the techniques of writing, but also the more esoteric study of the letters and the kabbalistic significance of their shapes. The study of mehudar writing gave him the confidence to write mezuzahs and tefillin on a very high level. He also opened a window into the world of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, which unleashed his natural artistic energy. Today, the combination of creativity and Hebrew artistic writing is the key to everything he does, but even as he first started out, it didn’t take long for orders to start pouring in — specially designed megillos, kesubos, and other specialty gifts on parchment.

“I discovered that I really loved creating new ideas,” Borshevsky says. “And with time, I transitioned from writing regular stam to producing more creative works that required not just skill but a lot of thought about the design and artistic elements. Although I get requests to write regular stam all the time, today I generally transfer those requests to students whom I’ve trained over the years.”

For the past five years, he’s also been writing certificates for the Righteous of the Nations department at Yad Vashem. “Although most of the heroes for whom the certificates are written are no longer among the living, Yad Vashem continues to research and document, because behind each certificate, there is a powerful story that should be preserved.”


Gifts from Above

Halachic issues notwithstanding, what does an art client get from calligraphy, when all those scripts and fonts can be computer-generated with the click of a button? “You know, calligraphy was once edged out by printing, and photography once made people pause to think about the meaning of painting,” he says. “I believe all the technology has actually made the true meaning of art even more burning and important. Technology helps us produce more and more things, but it cannot replace art, since art is an offshoot of the soul. And regarding sacred calligraphy of holy texts, it goes way beyond art. It brings the word of Hashem into our lives.”

Borshevsky’s unique designs have made his studio a go-to place when it comes to exclusive gifts for prominent people, and the price range is commensurate. Items start at a few hundred shekels, while the higher-end pieces can run tens of thousands of dollars. As most of his work is with sacred texts, every item is created within the boundaries of halachah.

“Each piece requires creativity and originality, and I rely on siyata d’Shmaya when I begin. Because so many of the commissioned gifts I design start with the refrain, ‘This person has everything, what can we give him?’ We sit together and think about how to surprise the person, how we can connect it to his name, or his gematria, or pesukim that are connected to the world in which he is involved,” Borshevsky explains. “Often, they’re wealthy people who aren’t easily impressed.

“Just recently, a couple came to me. I’d prepared a special gift for them 15 years earlier, and now they wanted me to create another gift for the birthday of a relative who was a successful businessman in the United States. They said that he was a tzaddik who donated generously to many institutions, but insisted that his name be kept off all donations or buildings. They imagined that he wouldn’t want his name written on the gift either. It was a challenging task, but in the end, I found a pasuk in Tanach that alludes to his name without stating it openly, and I realized that the story of this pasuk is the story of this person. They told me afterwards that he was very delighted, and very moved, by the gift.”

After Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, passed away, Borshevsky was commissioned by the Genesis Prize Foundation to design and produce a kosher Megillas Shir Hashirim in his memory. “In order to make it really special, I wrote it with a quill, and then using a nib and a paintbrush, I decorated it with a very intricate and delicate ornament. The scroll was cased in a magnificent megillah case in the form of a shofar, handcrafted of royal-blue glass and silver. It was presented as the prestigious Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award to the Chief Rabbi’s widow by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog and former UK prime minister Theresa May in a special ceremony at Whitehall Palace in London, accompanied by a warm and moving blessing by then-Prince Charles, a friend and admirer of Rabbi Sacks.”


For the Record

Needless to say, most of Borshevsky’s special pieces are no longer in his studio. Many are in collections or museums in dozens of countries around the world, and in the homes and offices of world officials (US’s George W. Bush, Russia’s Putin, England’s David Cameron, Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, to name some).

But the piece that tops them all is a unique mezuzah he wrote in 2004, which was entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest mezuzah in the world.

“It was a real project,” Borshevsky shares. “It all began when I was invited to write a few large yerios of klaf for shuls in America with Bircas Kohanim and Modim D’Rabbanan. The experience of writing such large letters gave me inspiration to write a special mezuzah on an entire yeriah of parchment. I thought the unusual size would attract people’s attention and would make them take an interest in the actual content of the mezuzah, because most people are only familiar with mezuzahs that are already rolled up.

“I decided to write a huge mezuzah parchment. To do that, I consulted with the director of Mishmeres Stam in Bnei Brak, Rav Shmuel Granatstein, who affirmed that there is no halachic problem with doing so. I needed to find a high-quality parchment that worked for the size and proportions of the mezuzah — 713 letters written on 22 lines. I was not looking for the longest parchment, because the long ones are usually narrow and that could distort the proportions of the mezuzah, making it less mehudar. I preferred a parchment whose form is closer to a square, which is also preferable for the shape of the letters.”

Borshevsky presented the mezuzah to Professor Malachi Beit Arié of Hebrew University, a world expert on ancient Jewish writings, who said it was the largest ksav ivri hashalem that he was aware of. Later, Borshevsky sent a message to the Guinness Book of World Records in an effort to register the mezuzah as a record, but Guinness replied that in order to consider it, the mezuzah had to be in an official mezuzah case. Borshevsky ordered a specially designed holder made of gold-leaf wood and glass.

“I took a photo with the mezuzah next to the Beit Knesset Hagadol in Jerusalem,” he says. “I sent the picture to Guinness, with the professional affirmation of the originality of the writing by Rav Yitzchak Steiner from Machon Os. About two months later, I received notice that not only had my mezuzah set a record, but in its merit, a new category in the Guinness Book was being opened.”

When cased, the mezuzah is one meter and ten centimeters height, while the klaf inside is 94 X 76 centimeters. This is about 20 times larger than a standard mezuzah.

Borshevsky says that the effects of the mezuzah resonated far beyond what he imagined. “As a result of halachic questions that arose, Rav Wosner ztz”l and Rav Moshe Shaul Klein of Bnei Brak made two precedent-setting halachic rulings. In addition, after ruling that there is a great hiddur in the size of the mezuzah, the demand for large mezuzahs rose in general. Since then, we have been seeing many more such mezuzahs in public places and private homes.”

The mezuzah set another record as well: the most expensive mezuzah sold in a private sale. “When I began to get offers to purchase the mezuzah, I realized that the price could also be a message. When a certain wealthy Russian Jew took an interest in it, I offered him a symbolic price for it, based on its gematria. I calculated the numerical value of all the letters in the mezuzah and reached the number 51,361 — and that’s what he paid, in dollars.”

The record-holding mezuzah has been exhibited as a highlight in the World Calligraphy Museum in Moscow since 2009 and at international calligraphy exhibitions.

Borshevsky says he’s not really looking to set more records in the field of safrus — he accomplished what he wanted.

“After I sold that mezuzah, other people began producing larger mezuzahs with even bigger parchments — today the new world record is held by a mezuzah at the Jewish Documentation and Research Center of Mexico. But I had one goal: to get a significant Jewish item into the Guinness Book. I’m not really looking for other ways to break records these days, but I’m happy to give others advice on how to set more Jewish records that not only bring us Jews sense of national pride, but help everyone in the world connect to authentic Divine, spiritual manifestations in our mundane and confusing realm.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 995)

Oops! We could not locate your form.