Page 20 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 19

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e w i s h
o o k
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Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kanah used to pray a short prayer
when he entered the House of Study and when he came
forth. They said to him, “W ha t occasion is there fo r this
prayer?” He replied, “When 1 enter I pray that no offense
be caused by me, and when I come forth I give thanks fo r
my lo t.”
The Magnet of the Title Page
When Kohelet complained that “of making many books there
is no end,” he did not realize the whole story. W hen education
was the privilege of the few, writing materials were both lim ited
and costly and copying was a slow and tedious process. The
production of books was, therefore, necessarily a luxury. Fust
or Schoeffer or Gutenberg—we still do not know for certain who
deserves the laurel wreath for the introduction of printing in to
the western hemisphere—unleashed a tornado of ink-stained paper
which draws almost everyone into its vortex. There is a magnetic
attraction in seeing one’s name on the title page of a book. I f it
be true, as M ilton wrote, that “a good book is the precious life ­
blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose
to a life beyond life,” the thirst for immortality is unslaked.
Nothing seems to stifle this urge. People have paid to have
their books published; they have subsidized ghost writers; have
even founded their own presses in order to have their books
printed. Books have been w ritten in trenches, in prisons, in
hospitals. Authors have had their manuscripts lost, stolen or
burned, and then have proceeded patiently to w rite everything
all over again. The Holy One Himself said to Moses, after he
had broken the tablets of the Law, “Hew thee two tablets of
stone like unto the first; and I w ill w rite upon the tablets the
words that were on the first tablets, which thou didst break.”
The same compulsion—lehabdil elef habdalot—to rew rite a
lost or destroyed MS drove John Stuart M ill, the English ph i­
losopher and economist, to rewrite his chef-d’oeuvre from begin­
ning to end after the original manuscript had been accidentally
fed to the flames by his servant girl. Losses of MSS were frequent
among Jewish authors because of the enforced wanderings and
expulsions that befell our ancestors. Particu larly numerous were
the losses after the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions at the
end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries.
Among the better-known authors of that period who were com­
pelled to rewrite their books was Don Isaac Abarbanel, whose
wanderings included Spain, Portugal and the various city-states
of Italy.
Even imprisonment has had no harm ful effect on the w riting
of books; the human spirit soars beyond the confines of stone
and brick. The classic example of its power is the prophet
Jerem iah: “The word . . . came to Jerem iah from the Lord . . .