Page 12 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 22

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6
J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
Now comes the final action. What has happened is a
simhah
calling for a celebration. But it must be neither strident nor
hilarious. The parents prepare a dinner for the poor in honor
of their child’s initiation into the ranks of religious education,
and they distribute appropriate gifts among the poor.
This idyllic picture is intended as a backdrop for my subject,
“Heartbeats of Books.” We Jews have been the most literate
group in history, not excepting the Greeks with their rich cul­
tural heritage. Indeed, Judaism has translated religious educa­
tion into an article of faith. In assessing the relative worth of
the
mitzvot
our sages taught, “The study of Torah is equal in
importance to all the other commandments combined.”
Maimonides paraphrased it succinctly, “The advancement of
learning is the highest commandment.”
It has rightly been said, “The centuries of Jewish history are
centuries of study—millennia of study.” I do not know of any
other people in the annals of history whose religious calendar
includes a festival like
Simhat Torah,
rejoicing over the Book.
Jews the world over exult in their cherished religious and
literary treasure, “the inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob.”
The sixth chapter in
Pirke Abot
is a paean of praise for the
Torah and its study. There is a distillation of tenderness in the
practice of reciting a blessing when the Torah is read.
The Book of Judges (1.11) speaks of a city in Judah which
Joshua called
Kiryat Sefer,
Book Town. The library in the
Hebrew University in Jerusalem today may well be called a
modern
Kiryat Sefer.
In addition to its 1,000,000 volumes and
more than 10,000 different periodicals, there are many collec­
tions catalogued separately; also incunabula, microfilms, manu­
scripts, and the like. I know of no other geographical spot in
the world whose map listed a
Kiryat Sefer.
Jewish history texts written for children regale them with
the fascinating story of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai who, after
the destruction by the Romans of Jewish national independence
in 70 C. E., gained permission from Emperor Vespasian to
found the school in Jabneh. Not so well known, however, even
to adults, is the fact that in 1942, almost nineteen centuries
later, one of the first acts of the Jews in the Jewish ghetto set
apart in Shanghai by the Japanese was to establish a yeshiva
and to reprint a full set of scholarly classics.
Reverence for study is paralleled in Judaism by reverence for
books. When books were written the authors intended them
not only for their contemporaries, but for future generations
as well. They were contemplated hopefully as bequests to pos­
terity. The ultimate hope was that the books might become
uninterrupted carriers of the Hebrew religious and literary heri­