Page 14 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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e w i s h
o o k
n n u a l
eousness, whereas I could never have enough of David. But some-
body at some time or another must have borrowed these fascinat-
ing books and, as borrowers will, disappeared with them into
oblivion. What says Ben Sirach? “Many persons, when a thing is
lent them, reckon it to be something they found" (Ecclesiasticus
Yet, despite the depredations of borrowers, books multiplied
and libraries grew. Koheleth has an immortal word on this pro-
liferation: “of making many books there is no end.” Probably
the speediest and most copious output in the annals of the ancient
publication trade is recorded in the Second Book of Esdras (14:
44); in forty days five men under the dictation of Ezra wrote down
ninety-four different books composed on the spot. The last
seventy of them, incidentally, were placed under what librarians
today call restricted circulation; in this instance they were issued
only to such readers “as be wise among the people.” But the ac-
count, I confess, smacks more of Talmudic midrash than of fact.
On Talking Books
In the period when the Talmud was in the process of composi-
tion—let us say, during the first two centuries before and after
the start of the Common Era—the rabbinical schools had at their
command, among more conventional library material, what might
be termed a talking book. For a long while the rabbis were loath
to commit to writing their prime source material, the Mishnah
or Oral Law, which was the basic subject of their studies, com-
mentaries, opinions, and arguments. Writing down the Oral Law,
they felt, might impair the authoritative quality which derived
from its being
par excellence
the “unwritten” Law. They were
also afraid that scribes, who could not be checked up on the spot
and at once, might be led into making editorial changes or else
what we know as typographical errors. So they trained a band of
young men, usually not bright enough to think of anything
novel, to learn the Mishnah by heart; and when an assembly
of scholars wished to refer to this or that original Mishnah text,
about which there might be some dispute as to how it ran,
one of these young men would reel it off
As I have
remarked, these human parrots had powerful, well-developed
memories and not too much intelligence; they would have made
admirable contestants on a quiz show. Curiously enough, our
ultra-modern libraries are resorting to this old Talmudic method,
though for a different purpose; we have transformed the young
men into robots known as tape-recordings.
Independent of the scholarly or literary merit of their con-
tents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from just before the dawn of
the Common Era, have a dramatic interest which has captured
our imagination. The drama is multiple. The discovery and sub­