Page 15 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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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
sequent adventures of the Scrolls is exciting enough, but it is more
than matched by what must have been the dramatic scene and
circumstance of their original entombment in the remote caves
above the Wadi Qumran. Facing dire peril and perhaps ex-
termination, the devout
or brotherhood, being a Jewish
community, wrapped, double-wrapped, sealed in jars and hid
away their most precious possession—their library. They showed
in this a true and enviable sense of community values.
By its very nature, traditional Judaism is a religion, a view of
life and a way of life, inextricably dependent upon books. With
the passage of time and with the many varied and changing
worlds to which the Jews found they had to adapt themselves, the
necessary books grew more numerous and the dependence upon
them more imperative. Mohammed called the Jews “the people
of the book,” meaning of course the Hebrew Bible, but “the
people of books” would be more accurate. Besides the Bible, an
adequate Jewish library had to possess the many-volumed Tal-
mud, a whole arsenal of later digests, commentaries and case-
books, an array of prayer-books and other devotional literature,
and, by the early Middle Ages, shelves of philosophic specula-
tions, mystical and cabbalistic works, anthologies of fables, para-
bles, and anecdotes (the
moral disquisitions, as well
as grammars, dictionaries, geographies, astronomies, travel ac-
counts, and medical treatises.
Every Jewish community in the Middle Ages—which for most
Jews lasted well into the 18th century—possessed a library, large
or small, of this nature. I t was usually housed in the synagogue,
which was literally the community center, or else in the
Bet ha-
or House of Study. The community was dependent upon
this library not only for recreation and for a fruitful way of in-
vesting one’s time, but for the proper exercise of Judaism itself,
for the maintenance of economic and social justice within the
community’s gates, for the adjustment of a thousand private, con-
flicting interests, and for the true worship of God.
Study, for
the Jew, is also prayer.
May I quote you no less an authority than
Hillel, in words you will find in your Sabbath prayer-book? “Do
not say, When I have leisure I will study; perhaps you will have
no leisure. An empty-headed man cannot be a sin-fearing man,
nor can an ignorant person be pious, nor can a shamefaced man
learn, nor a passionate man teach, nor anyone who is overmuch
engaged in business grow wise.” For centuries the Jews trans-
ferred these words from prayer-book precepts into daily practice
in the synagogue library or at home by a book-laden, candle-lit
Besides the community libraries there were naturally certain
fortunate individuals possessed of well-stocked book shelves.
Lists and catalogues have survived of private medieval collec-
tions. Judah ben Saul Ibn Tibbon, a famous 12th century scholar