The day they burned the books

World War I began on Tisha Be'av in 1914, as Britain and Russia declared war on Germany.

By DAVID SHAMAH
September 17, 2005 02:00

The ninth of Av, known as the fast of Tisha Be'av, has been, historically, a bad day for the Jews. Tisha Be'av, of course, commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples, and presaged our loss of national independence and descent into exile. Tisha Be'av got its bad rep way back when the Jews cried over the report of the spies who had gone to check out the Land of Israel. Ever since, the day has been appointed by history as a day when bad things happen. For example, the final edict expelling the Jews of Spain in 1492 took effect on Tisha Be'av. Whether Ferdinand and Isabella knew the significance of this is not clear, but those who still lived as open Jews at the time were certainly not surprised that they were to be expelled on the ninth of Av. Many people also know that World War I began on Tisha Be'av in 1914, as Britain and Russia declared war on Germany. That war, many historians argue, led directly to Hitler's rise to power, since the future mastermind of the Holocaust was able to take advantage of the miserable economic condition of the German people, due to the onerous Versailles Treaty reparation payments Germany had been forced to pay after World War I. But there have been other lesser known events that have occurred throughout the centuries on Tisha Be'av. Along with the better and lesser known tragedies listed at http://ohr.edu/yhiy/article.php/1088, on Tisha Be'av in 1242 there was a mass burning of the Talmud and other Jewish books. This event occurred in Paris, and was ordered directly by Pope Gregory IX and King Louis, who were responding to the Jews' refusal to convert. And it wasn't the first, nor the last, time Jewish books were burned. From Cairo in 1190 until the Nazi era, book burning was a common practice for anti-Semites who thought that if they could destroy the word, they would be able to destroy the Jew. Traditional rabbinic literature from the Middle Ages and beyond often refers to other works that are no longer available, only a few copies having been published. Even today, editions of books are often published in as few as 100 copies, usually to be distributed in the writer's community. Until now, making them available to a wider audience has been an insurmountable challenge but thanks to the Internet, Jews around the world can read a wide body of literature that not too long ago would never have gone beyond the writer's immediate circle. The basic books in the Jewish library are, of course, the Bible, the Mishna and the Talmud. Then come the commentaries, compendia of the law, rabbinic answers to halachic problems and midrash. Almost all the basic (and many not so basic) Jewish writings are available free on the Internet. You can find the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation of the 24 books of the Bible at http://www.davening.net/jpstanach.html. An on-line Hebrew edition of the Bible is available at http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il, which also has on-line copies of the Mishna, Tosefta, Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds and Maimonides' Mishne Torah. There are several English translations of the Talmud, which is written in Aramaic, most notably the Artscroll series, which was completed this year. For a taste of Talmud on-line, try the original English translation by Michael Rodkinson, available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/talmud.htm. Rodkinson translated about one-third of the Talmud. Then there are the later works that provide commentaries to the Torah and Talmud, discuss a specific point of law or other subject, or contain stories about great rabbis or midrashim about events in Jewish history. Hundreds of these books from diverse authors spanning 1,000 years are available to read on-line or download in PDF form at http://www.seforimonline.org, where a dedicated staff spent years gathering and scanning original works; in some cases, the print version the scan was made from is one of only a few copies of that book still in existence. Almost all the works are in Hebrew (with a smattering of Aramaic, Arabic and Yiddish), but each entry has an English description. At http://www.hebrewbooks.org there are 1,200-plus books on-line, many of them published in America and a special link that lets you see how Coca-Cola got its kosher certification (in Hebrew and English). The American Jewish Archives (http://www.americanjewisharchives.org) has a huge collection of papers, rabbinical speeches, studies, etc. in English from individuals and groups. While much of the material is not on-line, there are interesting descriptions of life, people, communities and background to much of the archive. The site http://www.publishersrow.com provides free previews of dozens of books on Jewish topics, and many of them are available to download as PDFs for a fee. And http://www.jbooks.com has excerpts, reviews, talkbacks with modern authors and lots of other treats for Jewish bibliophiles. After you're done with all that reading, head for the movies. For a truly unique Jewish film experience, head over to the virtual cinema of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive. There are now over 300 films on-line, that can be viewed directly in your Web browser. The archive is a fantastic collection of films made by Jewish organizations, promotional material for Israel, films about Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East, films about the Holocaust, and even cartoons, newsreels and shorts shown in theaters in pre-state Israel. While some of the footage is obviously low budget, some of them look like Hollywood productions like The Big Moment (1954), a promotional film for the United Jewish Appeal, with an all-star cast, including Robert Young, Donna Reed, John Derek and Forrest Tucker. The Big Moment is a half-hour dramatization of three vignettes of how the UJA helps immigrants, local communities and Jews in Israel. Watch out for an especially good line that could come right out of today's headlines, where John Derek tells Donna Reed "Dammit, Debbie, I'm a settler. This country doesn't need lawyers." ds@newzgeek.org


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