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
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
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
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.