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Even though Pessah cleaning is behind us and we are now in the midst of celebrating this most glorious of holidays, I wish to reminisce regarding my special pre-Pessah task - dealing with my library and the many books that it contains.
I have a considerable number of books in my home, graciously spread over three rooms. In my previous life in the United States I had quite a large library, but due to the constraints of having to move from a very spacious single family home to a much smaller apartment here in Israel, I distributed over a thousand books to my descendants, students, friends and schools in the area. At that time, I felt very sad that these books would not accompany me to the new home in Jerusalem. However, in the midst of my pre-Pessah cleaning of my library and its books, I felt less sad that those thousands of books were not present.
There is great discussion in rabbinic responsa as to the lengths necessary for one to go to regarding pre-Pessah inspection of books to make certain no crumbs of hametz are to be found within them. To spare myself this difficult chore, I follow the rabbinic advice never to eat while perusing any of my books. Yet I find myself dusting my books individually and examining them carefully. I am hooked on books, and if I had unlimited space in my home and unlimited shekels in my bank account, I know my library would at least triple in size on an annual basis.
Cleaning my books brings back memories for me, many of which are bittersweet. I have a number of my father's books on my shelves. These are much more well-worn from use than are mine. I have a book of my grandfather's with his signature and rabbinic stamp on the flyleaf. I have a number of very old books - 17th and 18th century editions of rabbinic works - that are not very valuable monetarily but certainly are dear to me.
When I was a rabbi in Miami Beach many decades ago, people would come to the synagogue and leave all of the Hebrew books that were in their parents' home after the death of the parents. I would rummage through those abandoned books and that is how I often found very old books that I would then purchase from the synagogue. I had a great feeling of sadness that no one in those families wanted to keep the books of their ancestors; when I hold my father's or grandfather's book in my hand, open it and see their written comments in the margins of the pages, I have a great feeling of warmth and continuity. If I have their books, I somehow still feel that I have my father and grandfather with me, and I am strengthened in my Jewish faith and comforted thereby. For me, books are the link to the great Jewish past and to the even greater destiny and future that we all long for.
A story is told regarding a sainted Jewish sage who embarked upon a building fund campaign on behalf of his yeshiva. He visited the home of a very wealthy man who had a large library of books in a magnificent study room in his house. The sage explained his fundraising mission to the wealthy man, who respectfully and patiently heard out the presentation of the old rabbi. The wealthy man then told the rabbi that he was going to contact his lawyer that very day and make arrangements for the yeshiva to be included in his will for a substantial bequest.
In due time, the wealthy man passed away, and the rabbi received a message from the wealthy man's attorney telling him that the wealthy man had left all of his money and physical assets to his children but that he had bequeathed his library of books to the yeshiva. The sage sighed and turned to his wife and said: "The wealthy man did not behave wisely. He should have bequeathed his money to the yeshiva and his books to his children!"
In Jewish life and tradition, books are not inanimate and disposable objects; they are rather the lifeline to Sinai and Jewish greatness. Books are not just guests in our house, they are our house - "our lives and the length of our days, for in them shall we dwell day and night." I find that cleaning my books before Pessah is a spiritual experience; it reinforces all of the nobility and inspiration of this great holiday of redemption and freedom and national purpose.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).