by Gil Student
The future of the Sefer, the Jewish book, is currently uncertain, but not for the reasons you might think. Jews have been traditionally called the “People of the Book.” We maintained a culture of literacy even before public education became a societal goal. My non-Jewish business colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that my children learn to read Hebrew before English. Reading, particularly religious texts, is in our blood and our culture. In contrast to the Catholic Church’s pursuit of heresy among early translators of the Bible into English, Jews have generally treasured translations into the common language. We are commanded to read the weekly Torah portion with a translation, and we have an ancient tradition, albeit largely abandoned today, of reading the Bible in synagogue each week accompanied by a translation of each verse.1 Everyone, not just rabbis, must be well versed in the Torah.
The Talmud (Gittin 60b) says that, originally, only the Bible was allowed to be written. We must retain the oral nature of our other traditions. However, due to the danger of forgetting these sacred ideas, the Sages eventually permitted us to write them down. This led to the publication of the Mishnah and Gemara, Midrashim, and all subsequent Torah books. While there is a dispute today whether someone who publishes an unnecessary book violates this prohibition, everyone agrees with the vital importance, the national necessity, of publishing original Torah insights.2 So important is the publication of Torah books that we are told to set aside this prohibition rather than risk losing these ideas.
But Jewish book sales are down. On its own, this is unsurprising during a devastating economic downturn. When unemployment approaches 10 percent, it is hard to take a complaint about sagging book sales seriously. Financial difficulties do not restrain people from buying the must-have new book, the publication that excites their imaginations and draws them to bookstores, but such exceptions only prove the rule. Most books today languish on store shelves as cautious consumers spread their limited discretionary income ever more thinly. However, I think that something larger than penny-pinching is occurring. Even when the economy improves, there is a larger trend that may remain and jeopardize the future of the Sefer.
A Tale of Revolutions
A brief history of publishing revolutions can help us see what lies in the future. For centuries, publishing was largely a matter of hand copying manuscripts. During the Second Temple era, scribes gathered in the Temple in Jerusalem and copied books from a primary manuscript. These copies were then distributed and sold.3 This tedious process continued in varying forms, among Greeks, Christians, Muslims and Jews, until the fifteenth century when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press changed the world. Books could be produced en masse and sold at more reasonable prices. Those who could read had access to a much larger library of knowledge.
This technological revolution was the third in a series that changed humanity. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in an impassioned argument for educating the third world, describes the dramatic effects of these three innovations.4 Writing, initially with pictograms, created civilization. It enabled the permanent transfer of information from one person to another. However, reading and writing were limited to the few who mastered the complex written language, who studied as many as twenty years to acquire these skills. The development of alphabets, which encapsulate entire languages in only twenty to thirty characters, opened information to wider classes of people. The alphabet broke down barriers of society. It created the possibility that anyone could acquire the knowledge that allowed for exercising societal power.
The printing press brought literacy to the masses. Within fifty years of its invention, readers had access to more than fifteen million copies of over 35,000 titles across Europe. This spreading of knowledge eventually led to political and religious revolutions. The newfound wisdom empowered the public and gave people the ability to disagree with and overturn the ruling classes. Five centuries later, publishing has experienced another revolution.
The Internet As a Game-Changer
Writing created information. The alphabet spread it. Printing democratized it. The Internet is Continue reading “Is the Sefer History?” →