Page 13 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

Basic HTML Version

L o w e n t h a l —
C o m m u n i t y L i b r a r i e s
to Debir, itself perhaps related to the Hebrew term for “word.”
When some three thousand years ago and more, the prophet
Samuel wrote a book on the character of the kingdom which
the Israelites insisted on adopting, he “laid” the book “up before
the Lord”—that is to say, he put it into the safekeeping of a
sacred, priestly library—possibly at Shiloh. To put a book in
a sacred shrine-library was a way of preserving not only the
document itself but the integrity of its text. The Greeks often
employed the same safeguards; it was the ancient equivalent of
taking out a copyright.
There must have been a library, a collection of archives at
least, in the celebrated First Temple at Jerusalem. I t was not
any too well run—or so circumstantial evidence would imply.
During the eighteenth year of his reign (621 B.C.E.) King Josiah
ordered the Temple to undergo necessary repairs. While the
repairs were in progress, probably in the stack room, a book was
discovered which had long been lost to sight and mind. Tradition
holds that it was the Book of the Law, or the Torah; modern
scholarship identifies it as the presumably newly-written Book
of Deuteronomy—in any case, either carelessness or a pious fraud,
which one way or another speaks ill of the librarian, had been at
The first individual Jew credited with the creation of a public
library was Nehemiah, one of the happy few who led in the
restoration of Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian
captivity. The Second Book of the Maccabees tells how Nehemiah,
“founding a library, gathered together the acts of the kings, and
the prophets, and of David, and the epistles of the kings concern-
ing the holy gifts” (2:13). Certainly the compilers of the two
Books of Chronicles, the last historical writings included in the
canonical Hebrew Scriptures, had at their disposal a rather ex-
tensive library, possibly the one founded by Nehemiah. The con-
tents of its cupboards and shelves included all of the books now
contained in the Hebrew Bible, except of course for such mis-
cellaneous works as were not yet written. It also included a goodly
number of books cited and sometimes tantalizingly described in
Kings and Chronicles, but which—a sad testimony to the care-
lessness of the public—are lost forever. I may have overlooked a
title or two, but I count twenty-one of these vanished treasures.
Frankly, I would give the whole of Chronicles itself for the
Thousand and Five Songs reputedly composed by Solomon, or
for his Three Thousand Proverbs—not to mention what he had
to say on trees, plants, beasts, birds, fishes, and “creeping things.”
And I would give all the Dead Sea Scrolls, with their enigmas
wrapped in riddles, for the perished first-hand, contemporary
account of “the acts of David the king, first and last . . . with all
his reign and his might, and the times that went over him and
over Israel, and over the kingdoms of the countries” (1 Chronicles
29:29-30); 1 have had my fill of the wearisome Teacher of Right­