One of the great social inventions of the past few centuries has been the public lending library. Although conventional wisdom assigns this innovation to the creative genius of Benjamin Franklin, the idea undoubtedly has much earlier antecedents. There were great research libraries functioning in the ancient world in Alexandria as well as in Greece and in Rome. From the Talmud it seems apparent that there were libraries of manuscripts - megillot starim, "hidden or secret manuscripts" - that served as the research materials of the great men of the Mishna. Individuals also had their own private libraries and collections of manuscripts and books.
The Talmud in Baba Metzia discusses the liability potential for one who borrows books and returns them in a worse condition than when they were originally borrowed. Even though the Oral Law was not written down in book form until the time of the Mishna of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, there were many previous notebooks and copied lectures on all of the halachic topics covered in the Mishna that were used by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi in compiling the final edition of the Mishna.
From all indications in the Talmud and in Gaonic literature, borrowing books for studious use was very commonplace in Jewish life. In fact, the rabbis spoke out against those who refused to lend their books to others, seeing in this protectiveness of ownership a hindrance to the spread of the study and knowledge of Torah. Rabbinic responsa literature is replete with issues and liabilities regarding borrowing books and the problems that surely emanate from such a policy of liberal lending of books to others. Who has not felt the pang of disappointment when a book that was borrowed in all good conscience somehow never makes its way back to its original place on one's bookshelf? These are the inherent casualties of a liberal book lending policy.
The greatest book borrowers from the Jewish people have been the two other major monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam. Christianity borrowed the so-called "Old Testament" whole cloth from the Jews. It is ironic in the extreme that the gratitude shown by the borrower to the lender of this basis of monotheistic belief and worldview has been expressed in centuries of enmity, discrimination and persecution.
While Islam never borrowed our book in toto, it certainly borrowed its contents. The Koran and Muslim beliefs generally - as distinct from practices and rituals - are based almost entirely on the values and ideas of the Torah. Islam has also over the centuries shown a great reluctance to acknowledge that a large part of its library consists of borrowed books.
In fact, this is true about a great many of the principles of Western civilization. There is nothing wrong in borrowing books, ideas, culture and knowledge. The wrong comes when the borrowing is not acknowledged, recognized and/or appreciated. It is reminiscent of the Jewish anecdote about a man who owned a large number of books. A friend of his asked to borrow one of the volumes. He was rebuffed by the owner of the library. The amazed friend asked him why he refused to lend out his books. The cynical answer was: "How do you think I was able to acquire this library?" Apparently borrowers of books are loath to easily reciprocate the goodness that was once extended to them.
There are magnificent libraries and collections of books relating to Judaica and Hebraica in today's Jewish and non-Jewish world. With the technological advances of digitalization and DVDs, plus the Internet, most of the great libraries and their massive collections are available to almost everyone today. These technological advances have made present-day book borrowing simple, efficient and secure.
But I don't feel that anything can really replace having the hard copy of the bound book in one's hands. Perhaps a later generation, exposed almost exclusively to its technologically wondrous toys, will feel differently about the old-fashioned, printed on paper, hard copy bound book. But I, who still remember the thrill I experienced when my parents took me to the library every week to borrow books to take home and read, am convinced that the printed word will never suffer demise, especially in the Jewish world and in Torah scholarship. The Jewish idiom otiot mahkimot - seeing the actual letters and words on the printed page helps make us wiser - continues to influence us in our relationship with books. Books are not guests in a Jewish home. They are part of the family.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com)