Classic Texts

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 our people.

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.