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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Relationships Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    British relationship expert Andrew Wallas said Kaballah practitioners are likely to be less satisfied in their personal relationships than other couples, Britain’s Daily Mail reported Wednesday. “All the research is that individuals who have an interest in psychology or spirituality or who practice something like Kaballah (the branch of Jewish mysticism popularized by Madonna) are less likely to have satisfactory relationships,” he said. “A lifetime spent doing self-improvement workshops can just be a case of someone running away from reality.” [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Meet New York’s 6’7″ Jew Who Will Rap for You (VIDEO)

    Meet New York’s 6’7″ Jew Who Will Rap for You (VIDEO)

    He’s a 6’7″ Jewish freestyle rapper who roams the streets of New York delivering his rhymes to unsuspecting passersby. Te’Devan, who calls himself the “6’7″ Jew who will rap for you” was recently profiled by the Gothamist blog. In a video posted Monday on YouTube, as part of the website’s No Your City eight-part series created by Nicolas Heller, Te’Devan is seen rapping about “not trying to conform to the status quo” and his mission to “be what I’m supposed to be.” [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.