kosher bookworm

Reading and owning Jewish books


Rabbi Alex Israel, the author of this week’s essay, teaches Bible at Pardes in Jerusalem and is the director of its Community Education Programs. Born and raised in London, he holds degrees from the London School of Economics, the Institute of Education, and Bar Ilan University. In addition, he studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion under Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Yehudah Amital, zt”l. He earned his rabbinical ordination from the Israeli rabbinate. For over 20 years, he has taught in many Jerusalem yeshivot and midrashot. He is also a volunteer for Tzohar, a group that seeks to bridge the gaps between religious and secular communities in Israel. He lives with his wife and four children in Gush Etzion.

This essay excerpt by Rabbi Israel is an excellent presentation of one scholar’s love for the Jewish book, a sentiment shared by all readers of the Kosher Bookworm.

What books are on your bookshelf? Is it worthwhile owning books in a digital age? … Should we own books? Maybe it is just a waste of space! What does Judaism have to say?

Parashat Vayalekh contains the final mitzvah in the Torah, which is the instruction to write a book … every Jewish man should write a Sefer Torah: “We have been commanded that each male must write a Sefer Torah for himself … and if he cannot write it himself, he should commission a person to write it for him” (Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, positive command 18).

The Sefer Hachinuch disagrees and thinks that it is about having a scroll at hand to study with … For the Sefer HaChinuch, essentially the emphasis is that owning this text affords each person a constant opportunity to study Torah (hence the male is obligated — because halakha mandates men to learn Torah and not women)…

Can you imagine the emotional contrast of a person who wrote the Torah scroll — every letter by hand — and a person who simply owns it? Try to articulate why that would be so different…

When my eldest son was approaching his bar mitzvah, I took him to the Jewish bookshop … to make a bar mitzvah list — a wish list of books guests could buy for him. … I asked him what he wanted. He didn’t really know, so I suggested that we buy the basic books that a person who wants to learn Torah should have. We chose a Mikraot Gedolot, several legal texts on Shabbat and Jewish life, a set of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Hirsch and Nechama Leibowitz on Chumash, a set of Mishnah, Sefer Hachinuch, and much more. His grandfather was buying him a full set of Talmud.

My son asked me why I was selecting these specific books, and I answered that these are fundamental … As the list grew in length, my son was appearing nervous, and he challenged me: “Are you saying that all these, I have to know?”

… It was a formidable legacy for a thirteen year-old to absorb. But what is the basic Jewish bookshelf? and what is basic Jewish literacy? and why is it important?

In every culture there is a corpus of knowledge. There are the Great Books, the intellectual and cultural works that form the bedrock of each and every civilisation, and that in order to function successfully, to become productive, or to play a central role - to lead, one must have absorbed something of that bookshelf…

And now to Judaism. What is literacy for us? … A person who lives with consciousness of religious sensitivities and priorities, a person who doesn’t merely follow a robotic or inherited set of ordinances and prescriptions, but has agency in understanding and shaping our Jewish experiences … It is from within the traditional bookshelf that we obtain that literacy.

… And it might be precisely this principle that underpins the mitzvah of Talmud Torah — daily Torah study. We need to refresh our knowledge base, to encounter new ideas with regularity. We need to be conversant with our Torah texts and concepts in the same manner that we check our emails ... These are the experiences that give substance and perspective to our fleeting experiential reality

… When my father ensured that I would have a Torah library for my bar mitzvah, and when I did the same for my son, we were putting the books on the bookshelf as an aspiration, as a goal and hope for the type of adult Jew that this boy should become. 

My son has [since] graduated school and progressed to several years of study at a yeshiva; he loves Torah study and is himself a committed, ideological, thoughtful Jew.

One day he looked at his bookshelf and said to me: “Wow! Thank you for making sure I had all these!”