Jews revere the written word. This is an attitude that stems from the holiness that Jews have always attached to the Bible, the Talmud and to other holy books, especially those that contain the name of God within them.
This reverence for holy books was exemplified by a statement made by Henry Austrin Wolfson, the yeshiva student who became professor of Semitics at Harvard University in the early 20th century. Once, when queried by a not-too-friendly colleague as to why Jews consider themselves to be the "People of the Book," Wolfson answered: "Because we are the only people who upon dropping a book to the floor will pick it up and kiss it."
This reverential treatment of the written word extended itself to non-holy books as well. Even newspapers were given almost blanket full credence because they were printed on paper. King Solomon already bemoaned the fact that "to the making of books there is no end." But that statement of his has done little to stem the tide of Jewish books over the ages.
Respect for the written word is almost a genetic trait of Jews. I remember that someone once told me a wildly fanciful story. When I expressed my doubt as to the veracity of the story, the person responded to me incredulously: "But I read it in the paper!" Only a people conditioned over the ages to respect and love the written word can have such an attitude toward anything that is printed and published.
This written word syndrome allows many Jews to be almost na ve regarding what is written and published in today's world. I think that this is responsible for the enormous influence that the printed media have upon current Jewish life. Whether this is good or bad is a matter of differing opinions. But it is clear that the written word plays an important if not even decisive role in Jewish life.
In the world of Torah scholarship, the number of books published every year continues to grow. There has been an explosion in the Jewish book market, especially in the area of Torah and talmudic studies. The increasing popularization of Jewish studies in certain sections of Jewish society, the wide availability of books on Jewish subjects in many languages and the vast increase in publishers of books for the Jewish market has further spurred the importance of the written word in our society.
Books, the printed word, were always welcome and treasured members of Jewish households. My father-in-law left Lithuania two years before World War II to come to the United States. After a year in America alone, he was able to bring his wife and their four small children across to safe haven as well.
My mother-in-law, traveling alone across Germany to reach the port of Le Havre in France and the ship that would ferry the family to America, took with her a number of heavy and large bundles of my father-in-law's books. How she managed to accomplish that with the small children in tow, and with all of the other necessary luggage that accompanied her, was always a wonder to me.
When visiting their home, my father-in-law always took me into his study where those precious books resided and told me that the books were to him a tangible symbol of the love that he and my mother-in-law shared for each other. He was eternally grateful to her for bringing his books across the ocean. I learned that books can be objects of love and that they are also symbolic of otherwise intangible expressions of love. The Jewish people and the printed word have had a centuries-long love affair with each other.
One of the interesting features about religious Jewish life is that great authors and scholars often lose their personal identity to the titles of their works. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan is known as the Hafetz Haim; Rabbi Yehiel Michal Halevi Epstein is known as the Aruch Hashulhan; Rabbi Arye Leib Alter, the rebbe of Gur, was called Sfat Emet - all after the names of books they wrote and published. Their private persona was subsumed, so to speak, in their printed word.
The love of the Jewish people for books and the printed word overwhelmed even personal identities. So much so that in the yeshiva world today many students know the names of the books they are studying, but relatively few are aware of the names of their authors. But perhaps that is the greatest compliment to those authors, for in Judaism books and the printed word remain eternal.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com)
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