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Can the People of the Book Become the People of the iPad?

by Rabbi Charles Simon

The earliest known writing surfaces were stone, papyrus and animal hides. The papyrus reed, cultivated from the earliest times, was a major resource of ancient Egypt. It was also found in Israel in the Hula swamp and in Transjordan. The earliest reference to papyrus in Canaan is found in an Egyptian text called “The Journey of Wen-Amon to Phoenicia” (1090 BCE). The text tells the story of how 500 rolls of papyrus were sent from Lower Egypt to the king of Byblos. Byblos, a city on the Mediterranean coast in Northern Lebanon, became the agent for the export of papyrus throughout the Mediterranean lands, so much so that it gave its name to the product: in Greek, biblos came to mean “book” or “papyrus” and from this word, the word “bible” was derived.

In 1436, Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany, borrowed money and invented a technology that transformed the world of printing. He invented a printing press with replaceable/ moveable wooden or metal letters. This method of printing can be credited not only for a revolution in the production of books, but also for fostering rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion.

In antiquity, all books, Jewish and non- Jewish, were scrolls. The Talmud and Midrash speak mainly of scroll-books. The first mention of the printing of Jewish books occurred in Avignon, France, in 1444 and the first Hebrew books of which we are aware were printed, at most, 30 years following Gutenberg’s discovery. The first dated Hebrew book was Rashi’s commentary on the Torah in 1475.

The Jewish community understood printing as a means of realizing Isaiah’s prediction that “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (11:9). Of course there were some interested parties, like copyists, who feared for their livelihood and opposed this innovation. They described printing as the “work of the devil.” Innovations are always challenged. When the printing of Bibles and prayer books began to take place it raised some interesting legal (halakhic) questions – the major ones being whether the laws and care concerning the writing of sacred books would apply to printed books as well and whether particular items, like a Torah, tefillin, mezuzot, or bills of divorce could be printed and still be considered valid or if they would be required to remain in handwritten form.

I think it is important to understand that the people who wrestled with this new innovation from a Jewish legal perspective were able to harmonize the two. As a result, it is our custom today to read from the Torah in its scroll form and to treat it with the utmost respect. At the same time, prayer books and chumashim (Five Books of Moses) have less sanctity than a Torah scroll, but are still treated with special care.

We take for granted the innovations that are a result of printing. Prior to the acceptance of the printing press the order and division of the books of the Bible and its division into chapters, as well as the standardization of pagination, did not exist.

My research failed to produce any record of people who actually opposed the printing of prayer books and chumashim because they feared that the owning of actual books might result in people carrying them on Shabbat or violating a current religious practice. However, I imagine that objections did occur; after all, the introduction of printed prayer books clearly transformed the culture of the synagogue and the culture of the Jewish community.

The creation of the printing press was perhaps the most dramatic innovation to promote literacy up until the invention of e-readers. E-readers, like the printing press, are transforming our culture. The quantity of printed magazines, newspapers and books is dramatically diminishing and being replaced by easier to read electronic material. I suspect that within a decade the only books emerging adults will ever see will be in their grandparents’ homes, occasional libraries and, perhaps, in their synagogues. This concerns me.

My phone has an app which contains a siddur. Clear, easily readable representations of the Torah complete with commentaries are available on iPads. I wonder what future generations will think when they enter a synagogue and see books made out of paper in the pews. Will they naturally gravitate toward them or will they view them as just one more artifact to which they cannot relate?

The question of whether or not e-books should be permissible on Shabbat according to Jewish law was recently raised in a legal paper (teshuvah) devoted to the permissibility of electrical appliances on Shabbat. The paper was presented to and accepted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. It clearly stated that the only deterrent for not using an electronic reader on Shabbat was that it could (under certain conditions) violate the spirit of Shabbat. Conversely, under other conditions one assumes it could enhance it.

If we desire future generations of modern Jews to attend and become more learned and comfortable on Shabbat and holiday in our sanctuaries we need to recognize that the definition of a book is changing from one which is printed on paper to one composed of pixels, and we need to respond proactively. We have to figure out how we can incorporate this technology and at the same time maintain a sense of the holy. The culture of the Jewish community is changing. Our challenge is to learn how to retain our core values and, at the same time, make this technology work in a Jewish context.

Rabbi Charles Simon is executive director of FJMC.

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