Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Encyclopedic Wisdom: Britannica and the Talmud

March 21, 2012 5:25 pm 0 comments

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Photo: wiki commons.

Many of us marked with sadness the recent news that after 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be available in hard copy. It will only be accessible online. Its last printing was a 32-volume work in 2010 that included an article on global warming and the human genome project.

The company’s president said that it signaled the rite of passage into a new era, and it gave me pause to think about the era we are ending.

The computer holds so much: music, news, our writings and e-mails, movies and a font of information. But when I turn to look at my monitor, I don’t see what I saw growing up on our shelves. The proud volumes of our Britannica, standing like soldiers of knowledge: stable, proud, and solid. They were the sign in many middle-class homes like ours that the family had “arrived.”

Having a Britannica was the visual equivalent in a home of saying, “All of my children will go to college.” Wisdom matters. Truthfully, I don’t remember opening it a great deal, but that was almost beside the point. It meant something just to own one or aspire to owning one.

And the pause that I took to contemplate this new era also made me marvel all the more at our Jewish equivalent of the encyclopaedia: the Talmud. Produced over several countries and four centuries, the Talmud has outlived the Britannica almost ten times over, at least from its humble beginnings as passages of Mishnah. Many Jewish books have gone into hundreds of printings, but the Talmud has outlived them all as our staple of rabbinic information.

From the first Bomberg printing of the Talmud once owned by King Henry the VIII when he searched for a solution to divorce his wives to the contemporary Schottenstein Talmud, a translation from Aramaic to English produced over 15 years at roughly one volume every 9 weeks, the Talmud’s lasting impact is hard to fathom.

In 2010, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who translated the Talmud from Aramaic to English, added punctuation and divisions and commentary, completed his entire 45-year project.

Why wasn’t there some announcement centuries ago that “the era has changed” and the Talmud would no longer be reprinted? How can it be that when the Talmud was put on trial in 1240 by the Pope and then 24 cartloads of Talmudic volumes were burned in Paris in 1242 that European Jews made sure to replace them, as did so many other scholars and students after subsequent burnings?

It is only because the Talmud, unlike my old Britannica, was and is studied every day. This August tens of thousands of people will mark the completion of the seven year cycle—daf yomi—of Talmud study, one page a day. You can download it onto your iPOD and study it in a class on the Long Island Railroad and in synagogues early morning all around the world. We have never stopped learning it. It has always needed to be reprinted, even during our darkest hours.

To me, the most remarkable printing of the Talmud took place in Munich-Heidelberg in 1948, despite a shortage of paper and the lack of a complete Talmud in Germany. Two sets of Talmud were brought to Germany from New York, and a printing plant that had formerly printed Nazi propaganda printed its first Talmud, the only instance of a national government publishing the Talmud.

It was done at the request of a delegation of rabbis all of whom were survivors and is referred to today as the “Survivor’s Talmud”; its frontispiece has a picture of Jerusalem on the top, underlined by the words: “From slavery to redemption, from darkness to great light”; it almost distracts the eye from the barbed wire fencing that decorates the bottom third of the page.

The Survivor’s Talmud was dedicated to the United States Army: “The Jewish DPs will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American forces, to whom they owe so much.”

But more remarkable still is the way the introduction described the printing itself: “This special edition of the Talmud published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah.”

Most Jews today do not own a Talmud. They are distant from its incredible history. Even if you never open a page, the volumes would sit on your shelves like the Jewish soldiers that they are, making a statement of pride and indestructibility by their very existence. As we say a sentimental farewell to the Britannica, we as Jews know that words can live on shelves forever, but only if they also live within us.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list .

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features Has Shia LaBeouf Reached the End of the Line?

    Has Shia LaBeouf Reached the End of the Line?

    Was Shia LaBeouf’s performance art piece at Manhattan’s Angelica Film Center (where he spent three days watching his own films) a sign of madness or genius? Judging from the lines and the fans, it was the latter. Shortly before 6 a.m. on Thursday, approximately 140 people were on line for the last day of the live-streamed event at Angelica Film Center. Fans who waited were happy to give their opinions. “I don’t think he’s crazy,” said Elliot Quartz, an 18-year-old student at the New School, who waited […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Jewish Artists From New York Release New Rap Album in English, Hebrew, Aramaic

    Jewish Artists From New York Release New Rap Album in English, Hebrew, Aramaic

    Eden Pearlstein freely admits that he has an addiction. But his brings people up instead of bringing them down. “I am a chronic collaborator,” says Pearlstein, a 35-year-old rapper who goes by the moniker of Eprhyme, and has released several solo albums. “Deeper and Higher” — his new album — is a collaboration with Shir Yakov Feit, who co-writes the songs and music. The friends and fellow artists both explore the relationship between man and God, and the benefit and emotional weight of introspection. With lyrics in English, Hebrew, and Aramaic, the artists stress […]

    Read more →