Whenever I visit a person's home or office
for the first time, I try to catch a peek at the library before
we meet. Invariably, the books a person collects and displays
speak volumes about his or her personality.
As we visit with the Jewish people throughout
the ages, we see that there are certain books that they have
carried with them. No matter how far the Jewish people have been
driven or scattered, the Torah, the other books of the Bible,
the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, the Zohar, and the commentaries
and codes have been a part of our people's lives and libraries.
We can get to know our people better by knowing the texts which
have nurtured them throughout the centuries.
But the fact that these texts have been our
people's constant companions tells us something about the texts
as well as about our people. Throughout history there have been
leaders, teachers and authors who communicate insight and awareness
that helps their people give meaning to their lives. Other greater
and rarer leaders share a vision that is not confined to one
setting. Occasionally there are great works that are relevant
to individuals in different ages and situations. Texts that have
stood the test of time are few and far between.
From their inception until the present day,
our people have taken with them a reservoir of timeless texts.
Despite the different cultures, occupations, and fortunes through
which they journeyed, our people have continually turned to this
accumulated body of wisdom when they sought meaning and depth.
When they asked, how do we structure a community?, how do we
run a home?, how should we educate our children?, how should
we conduct business? in each new time and place, they have found
guidance within these sources. In previous generations and in
the present day, seekers of wisdom from all walks of life have
followed our Sages' counsel: "Delve into it (the Torah),
delve into it, because it contains everything." They have
discovered principles and truths that illuminate each unique
and new sphere of their life's challenges and experience.
But knowledge and wisdom is not all that our
people have gained from these texts. Throughout the generations,
study has been considered a spiritual pursuit. Our people's goal
was not only to gain wisdom, but to connect with the Source of
Wisdom. As one pondered the texts, one developed a relationship
with their Author.
As compelling as this quest has been in previous
generations, it possesses more relevance in our time. Never before
have these classic texts been so easily accessible to all of
Initially, all that was written from our tradition
was the Bible; the majority of the Torah tradition remained oral.
Later the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other texts were redacted
using that oral tradition. Nevertheless, even as they were written,
this tradition of laws, stories and ethical guidance was arranged
in a manner which required a teacher for their mastery. And the
texts were all handwritten copies.
The Jewish knowledge tradition continued in
this fashion, available primarily through scholars, until the
invention of the printing press. The scholars and simple people
alike cherished and preserved their handwritten scrolls, but
the scrolls themselves were not accessible to the average person.
Even after the printing press was invented, there were still
restrictions. Christian censors held back the printing of Torah
texts. The Talmud was burned publicly. Books were expensive and
primarily found in the homes of the wealthy. And there was a
language barrier; the texts were in Hebrew and Aramaic.
Today, the wisdom literature of our people
is available in translation, with explanatory commentary. The
texts are affordable and obtainable by anyone who desires them.
Our people's library can easily be brought into the library of
your own home. What a wonderful time to get to know the library
of your people!
Rabbi Eliyahu Touger
Rabbi Eliyahu Touger is one of the leaders in opening the world
of classic Torah texts to the English speaking public. He was
a member of the original translation team of the Steinsaltz Talmud,
and has published numerous translations of his own including
over 20 volumes of Maimonides' magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah;
the two volume traditional guide to Jewish observance, the Kitzur
Shulchon Aruch; 3 volumes of Torah Anthology (Meam Loez); and
many more works on Chassidic stories and thought.