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Books and Discs
by Rabbi Berel Wein

I recently received a flyer advertising a new set of CD-Rom discs that contain 15,000 scholarly Torah-oriented books on its shiny small surfaces. I have a decent library of books in my home, but not by any stretch of exaggeration can my library be said to contain 15,000 books. In order to house the books that I do own I have had numerous bookshelves and bookcases built in various areas of our home, and not at any small expense either, I may add. But now, with the appearance of a few little disks, my entire library has been rendered obsolete and unnecessary. The disks and the computer to run them on will cost approximately $2500 dollars. 15,000 actual books can cost close to a half million dollars! So why do people like me continue to buy good old-fashioned books instead of going digital and modern, freeing up tons of former book shelf space for knickknacks and other such decorative items?

I have struggled with this problem many times over the past few years; especially every time I buy a book that is usually at an exorbitant price. But, I personally find it hard to read and certainly to study without a real book in my hands and before my eyes. There is an indescribable holiness to a book, something that a CD-Rom as of yet does not possess, at least as far as I am concerned. Books have been the treasured items in the Jewish home for millennia. Even before the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, hand-written bound books were in wide circulation in the Jewish world. These books, when taken together with the vast amount of rolled manuscripts also used by Jewish scholars, formed the basis for all Torah scholarship and for the transmission of Jewish tradition throughout the ages.

Books were treasures then as paper was expensive and scarce. And books many times contained more than one book within its pages. The margins of the pages were used by later scholars to comment upon the earlier work found on the pages of the book itself. Thus the commentary to Choshen Mishpat (the section of Jewish law dealing with commerce and monetary issues) written by Rabbi Shatai Cohen known as Shach (17th century Poland/Lithuania) was written in an interlineal fashion on the margins of the pages and within the lines of the original book itself. There are tens of commentaries to the Talmud that were written in the margins of the tractates of the Talmud (these were usually called gilyon - notes, notebook sheets) before being extracted by printers and publishers and issued as independent books.

Rabbi Avraham Gumbiner known as Magen Avraham (seventeenth century Poland) possessed little paper and therefore his famous commentary to Orach Chayim (the section of Jewish law dealing with the daily, Sabbath and holiday ritual) is written in a cryptic and most concise style. This difficult writing style of Rabbi Gumbiner naturally spawned dozens of commentaries to Rabbi Gumbiner's original commentary. And this process of commentary to commentaries has become pretty much de rigeur in the world of Torah and Talmudic scholarship until today.

The traditional Jewish attitude towards holy books on Torah subjects is illustrated in the following anecdote attributed to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan - known as Chafetz Chayim (19th-20th century Poland/Lithuania.) He once visited a very wealthy Jew to ask for funds for a capital construction project atYeshivat Radin. The wealthy man was a book fancier and had a large collection of fine books in his palatial home. The great rabbi admired the book collection but persisted in asking for a large donation for the building project. The wealthy man demurred but said: "Don't worry, rabbi. I will put the yeshiva in my will." A few years later, the wealthy man made the mistake of dying. Rabbi Kagan received a notice that under the terms of the will, the man had bequeathed his monetary wealth to his children and his library of books to the yeshiva. Rabbi Kagan ruefully remarked: "The man made a grave error. He should have left his money to the yeshiva and his books to his children!"

Money is easily spent, squandered and even lost. Books are eternal. Books were passed on from generation to generation and family memories lived within the pages of every volume. I have a book in my library that my grandfather used to help him prepare his sermons. Though it is no longer mint, to me that book is the crown of my collection. Books live on in a way that almost nothing else can. I just don't have the same feeling regarding CD-Rom discs. They are too impersonal. They are great tools for research and scholarship, but they do not convey the fire and emotion of Jewish tradition, as do books. And knowledge without fire, enthusiasm, tradition and emotion becomes sterile and brittle. It is our love for books that has truly made us "The People of the Book."

Berel Wein

Reprinted with permission from RabbiWein.com

 






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