Encyclopedic Wisdom: Britannica and the Talmud
by Erica Brown / JNS.org
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 .