Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

Basic HTML Version

biblical text said—it was then that collections of Jewish writings
began to make their appearance. Since these writtings in scroll
or codex (book) form were not mass produced bu t handwritten
individually, it was synagogues and houses o f study, along w ith
interested men of wealth, that acquired and became the reposi­
tories of these writings. Naturally the writings revo lved about
the Bible and what came to be designated as the Talmud, and
such other religious literature as piyyut, liturgy. In time, in such
countries as Spain, Italy, and Egypt—where the great sophisticat­
ed culture o f the Moslems dominated—the writings embraced
philosophy, mathematics, the natural sciences, and the like; in
the Jewish centers of France and Germany, on the other hand,
where the Christian Middle or Dark Ages occurred, i t was essen­
tially writings that revolved about the Talmud that dominated
in the collections.
A revolutionary change came with the invention o f printing.
For the first time, books were produced in relatively large num­
bers, each the exact duplicate of its fellow. Individuals, patrons
of learning, and various kinds of institutions could readily ac­
quire writings that were scarcely accessible previously, no matter
what the cost. A whole new world of knowledge and inqu iry
had opened up. W hat was the reaction to this unprecedented
opportunity and challenge?
Thomas Moore, the Irish poet and satirist, pu t i t this way:
“Though an angel should write, still ’tis devils must p rin t.” In
those days, the Roman Catholic Church was not interested in
making available to the public the Bible in its original languages,
the Hebrew-Aramaic of the Old Testament and the Greek of the
New. The official text of the whole Bible was the Latin Vulgate,
and the official representatives of the Church constituted the
authoritative interpreters of what the Vulgate text meant. But
the Jewish community of Europe manifested exactly the opposite
attitude toward printing. The invention of printing was described
in one Jewish source as “the crown of all wisdom”; the act of
printing a sacred text, exactly like that of copying it by hand,
was called “a sacred craft” (melekheth ha-qodesh) or “a divine
craft” (melekheth shamayim) ; and the invention of printing
was hailed as one more and the latest means by which to fu lfill
the prediction made by the prophet Isaiah two thousand years