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I think this question might be best answered by a professional sofer or someone who has written a Torah even once.

There is a fairly "strong" minhag to place the verse of Ma Tovu at the top of the column. Actually, there are 6 verses that start at the top of the column, though the 1st one, is the first verse of the Torah, so that's easy to do. I learned last week that a Torah need not be written in sequential order.

I'm curious what sofrim do to assure that verses like these happen this way. Do they begin writing each of the 6 verses first at the top of a column, perhaps at the start of a new piece of parchment, and then write the rest of the Torah to "fit in" to these verses? How do they accomplish this "feat"?

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    I assume you refer to ווי העמודים and בי-ה שמו, wherein all columns but five begin with a ו? The five exceptions are בראשית, יהודה אתה יודוך, הבאים אחריהם, מה טבו, and one of שמר לך, שני השיעירים, or שופטים ושוטרים. While the other columns can be any ו, the Minhag is that ואעידה בם is specifically at the top of the column. Is this the practice to which you refer? – DonielF Jun 27 '18 at 2:19
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    @DonielF Some say the Mem is מוצא שפתיך תשמור ועשית, and there's a debate which of יהודה or יודוך it is. – Double AA Jun 27 '18 at 2:22
  • @DonielF I learned that only two columns in a sefer Torah begin with not-vov: B'reishis and Mah Tovu. Do you know if anyone has such a custom (i.e., to begin all but two with vov), or was my teacher wrong? – SAH Jun 27 '18 at 8:18
  • @SAH I've never heard of such a custom and I highly doubt its existence – Double AA Jun 27 '18 at 11:28
  • @DonielF Correct. While ווי העמודים has become a standard, one could make one non ווי העמודים while still following בי-ה שמו. My shul has several repaired Sifrei Torah that was "pieced together". I know that the main one that I use during the week is not ווי העמודים . However, it's probably בי-ה שמו. Certainly 3 of the 6 (Bet, Heh and Vav are at the top.) I'll try to check about Ma Tovu when I read Balak tomorrow morning. – DanF Jun 27 '18 at 14:03
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Everyone nowadays uses a pre-printed layout of the whole Torah where whoever designed that PDF thought it through on the computer and made it work.

Historically, you could copy from a Torah scroll that had it worked out if you were lucky enough to have one, stretch/shrink letters and/or column widths to get it to work out, or skip out on this custom.

Many, many Poskim opposed the second method (see Rama YD 273:6) though it was still quite commonly practiced.

R. Menachem Di Lonzano in his Or Torah cautions:

משעה שהסופר עומד וכותב בפר׳ בא אל פרעה או לפחות מריש פרשת בשלח למרחוק עיניו יביטו לראות לצמצם ולכוין שיבא לו בסוף הדף מלת פרעה אשר בפסוק וישובו המים ויכסו את הרכב וגו׳ כדי שיבא מלת הבאים בראש הדף כהלכה...
From the time the scribe writes Parshat Bo or at least from the start of Parshat Beshalach, from afar his eyes should gaze to see to be precise and to intend... so that the word הבאים comes at the top of a column...

See here for a survey of ancient codices and how they dealt with this issue.

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1 - As @DoubleAA writes in the comments on the question, Sofrim write from a Tikun nowadays. These Tikun Sofrim were arranged by expert sofrim to conform with many rules, not just the ב*"ה שמ"ו rule mentioned in the question. They"ve been around for many years,even before the computer age.

2 - Each column has 60 "spaces" per line. A space would be the size of a Yud, so an Alef would take up three spaces. At the beginning of each line there two letters, indicating how many "letters" are actually written on that line. י"ג would mean יתר ג, there are three extra spaces needed for all these letters, so squeeze the letters a little. ח"ב would mean חסר ב, there are two letter spaces that are actually not needed, so space out the letters more. ש"ת means that there are exactly 60 letters. Spaces between words count as a "letter". [See attached Megillas Esther.]

3 - I know of an old Sefer Torah (written without a tikun), where the sofer "messed up", and realized he needed to get הבאים before אז ישיר as the first word on the column a little too late. He stretched out the letters להאדר"ת in the column before אז ישיר to get הבאים in the correct place. It is kosher, however nowadays many would question any sofer that writes without a tikun.

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  • Not all Tikkunim use 60 Yud columns and not all count letters only as 1 or 3 Yudin. You're right that these existed before computers but now it's all done on computers. I was just talking about nowadays. – Double AA Jun 26 '18 at 23:41
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    @DoubleAA - You"re correct. – פרי זהב Jun 26 '18 at 23:44

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