What is a “book”? Is a book merely a device for framing the travels of a text in material form from author to reader? Double this question for the “Jewish book.” Princeton’s Yaacob Dweck, in an essay with that very title (“What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review, November 2010), invokes none other than philosopher Immanuel Kant: “A book is a writing, which represents a discourse that someone delivers to the public by visible linguistic signs.” This most Kantian approach — there is a reality out there that is perceived, perhaps imperfectly, via language by humans — is exemplified for Dweck in Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Arukh, an authoritative halachic work and one of the most consequential in the Jewish corpus. Dweck notes that the Shulhan Arukh tells us about more than the religious and social history of Jews in the early modern era; it was paradigmatic for the modern Jewish book.
The Shulhan Arukh as a “writing” had a transformative impact on Jewish life. “One can speak of Karo’s work as a discourse, as an idea.” As a reference work for scholars and as a manual of Jewish normative practices, “the book stimulated commentary and controversy, resistance and cooptation,” says Dweck.
But the Shulhan Arukh was not a single book. Again, Kant: a book has a dual nature. Yes, a book is a vehicle for discourse, but it is also “a corporeal artifact that can be reproduced.” As such, the realities of producing the Shulhan Arukh — composition in Safed; printing in Venice; the crucial addition of the glosses of the Remah, the Ashkenazic sage Rabbi Moses Isserles — came together in developing the quintessential “Jewish book.”
“The book heralded the beginning of an extensive commentary tradition that would grow up around Karo’s code, radically transforming its purpose and its material form,” concludes Dweck. And the purposes and form, Journal Watcher might add, of every Jewish halachic book that followed.
The printing of the Shulhan Arukh in Venice in 1564-1565 was a watershed event, to be sure. Indeed, 17th- and 18th-century Italy was a center of publishing, and Bar-Ilan’s Jordan S. Penkower takes a canny look at the evolution of the publishing biz (“The First Printed Edition of Norzi’s Introduction to Minhat Shai, Pisa, 1839, ” Quntres, Winter 2009). Tracking down original texts of well-known books is the meat of the bibliographic scholar’s gig.
Thus, Penkower’s nimble detective work on the “Minhat Shai” — a work of critical Masoretic commentary, which became a standard in many editions of the Tanakh — teases out the answer to a small, but significant, bibliographic mystery: Where is the “Introduction” to Solomon Norzi’s celebrated 18th-century work? This “Introduction” was surely known to early readers, but — poof! — it disappeared in later editions.
The narrow, scholarly title of Penkower’s article masks a larger issue in the world of books: the decision-making in which authors, editors and publishers engaged in the production of books, in which parts of books are lost, sometimes irretrievably. In the case of the Minhat Shai, the “Introduction” was not merely “lost.” It did pop up in printed editions, in a somewhat serendipitous manner, here and there, but disappeared until the redoubtable Penkower tracked down three surviving copies of this precious work. Publishers and editors, take note!
To complete the picture, Journal Watcher — who has long agreed that the hardest thing to predict is the future — ponders in fact the future of the Jewish book. Rutgers University’s Jeffrey Shandler helps us ponder (“The Jewish Book and Beyond in Modern Times,” AJS Review, November 2010), and, in offering a neat conspectus of the present and future of the book, begins and ends with the hallmark of the contemporary age: new communications technologies. Shandler notes that since the invention of lithography in 1796 (the first major development since Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type in the West, around 1439), “barely a decade has gone by without the advent of some new medium or technological innovation: the typewriter, photography and telegraphy, postal systems, the mimeograph, the telephone, the fax machine, photocopying, the microchip…”
The reader will get the idea.
The parallel development, notes Shandler, is the impact of new kinds of content in Jewish books: “the advent of a secular literature, both belletristic and academic, identified as ‘Jewish.’” Shandler deftly connects the dots between these two innovations. Each new technology, he argues, especially computer technology and the Internet, facilitates “the interpenetration of Jewish books and those of other cultures … and is emblematic of the modern Jewish integration into the modern cultural and political mainstreams.” It’s not only the creation of new kinds of writers, new audiences and consumers (Orthodox Jewish women studying Talmud is a good example), and new kinds of books; there is a new “book culture,” which has an increasingly complicated relationship to a newly emerging concept of the “Jewish author.” The transformative nature of the new technologies not only makes information more accessible; new forms of “content” emerge as well.
Journal Watcher’s problem with this analysis — and this is an issue with the classical and modern periods as well as with the contemporary case — is that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the impact of technology and the impact of other factors, whether demographic, political or social, which may indeed be regnant.
The future of the Jewish book? An urgent question, that, not the least because of the implications of technology and many other factors for the place of books in our lives.
Finally, Journal Watcher chances upon a bibliographic curio — this from the late Herbert Zafren of the Hebrew Union College and one of the deans of Judaica librarianship. “Was Gutenberg Jewish? And Other Conundrums” (Judaica Librarianship, 2007) is a mad romp through the esoterica and curiosa of the world of venerable Jewish books: an early (1680) systematic attempt to record all extant Hebrew books and manuscripts, which always included some musical reference to the author’s name (Shabtai Bass — get it?) in its entries; early print typefaces that offer typographic profiles of the printer, the place and the date of a book; and, indeed, was Gutenberg Jewish? — a speculation long pondered by scholars and conspiracy theorists alike.
Was Gutenberg Jewish? No, not likely — but he very well might have been!
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisem-tism through the Ages” (ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “Whither American Zionism?” (Bar Ilan) and “The Future of American Jewish Religion” (Columbia University Press).