People of the Library

Jewish bookshelf
Part of my library

We Jews are often called the people of the book, but one could easily argue that we are really the people of the library. A Bible, after all, is not a single book: it is a collection of books, each separate and distinct. Even our Sefer Torah, our Torah scroll, is not a single book but a collection of five books in a single scroll.

The holy books, the s’forim, don’t stop with the Tanakh (Bible.) We have collections of midrash, sermons and stories that launch from verses in the Tanakh. We have the process of Mishnah and Gemara, in which centuries of rabbis clarify the ways in which actual lives of Torah might proceed from the document, Torah. We have mystical literature, and poetry, and law codes, on and on.

We love our books. We write books about our books, and notes within our books. If you look in a used book store or library for old Jewish books, often you will find neatly pencilled notes in the margins, references to the words of our teachers or to other books. I assembled much of my library at used book stores and sales, and I especially value the books with marginalia that came from the hands of other rabbis.

Of course, nowadays all of these books are available in electronic formats, many of them online. I suspect the ancient rabbis would have loved this technology, books that can be searched and indexed in a zillion different ways, all at the touch of a few buttons. Many different writers have pointed out that Talmud was an early precursor to hypertext, so the ancient rabbis might have felt right at home with it!

An observant Jew says the words of the Shema several times a day. It is a set of verses from Torah which we repeat many, many times over the course of a lifetime. The Shema is central to Judaism; it proclaims not only our monotheism but also our reverence for words, the words in our most beloved books:

And these words that I give you today will be upon your hearts.   Teach them to your children. Speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.   Bind them as symbols on your hands and tie them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:6-9

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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