Reverence and love for Jewish books, as vehicles of transmission of sacred teachings and knowledge and expanding consciousness (mogen gedolut), is found throughout Jewish law and custom. Many great rabbinic sages note the importance of cherishing Jewish texts, as illustrated by the following remarks:
“Make books your companions; let your bookshelves be your gardens: bask in their beauty, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh. And when your soul be weary, change from garden to garden.” -Rabbi Yehudah ibn Tibbon
“My pen is my harp and my lyre; my library is my garden and my Paradise.” -Rabbi Yehudah HaLevy
“The wise of heart will abandon ease and pleasures for in his library he will find his treasures.” -Rabbi Shmuel ha-Nagid
“Three possessions should you prize: a field, a friend, and a book.” -Hai Gaon
“However when the wise man lies down with his fathers, he leaves behind him a treasured and organized blessing: books that enlighten like the brilliance of the firmament (Daniel 12:3) and that extend peace like an eternal river (Isa. 66:12).” -Rabbi Shimon ben Zemach Duran in Zohar HaRakiah
The Chofetz Chaim wrote a prayer asking for G-d’s mercy on the Jewish people because they are guardians of the Jewish book. In Jewish law it is not permissible for a sacred book to lie on the ground, and if by accident a book is dropped, it is picked up and given a kiss. A Jewish book is not to be left open unless it is being read, nor is it to be held upside down.
Rabbi Menahem ben Yehudah in the introduction to Bereita de Rabbi Eliezer and Midrash Agur (Safed, 1587) writes, “From the day I reached manhood I deprived myself of food and drink in order to purchase books.” Another avid collector was the 16th century Rabbi Yosef Shelomo Delmodigo, who confesses, “I have often traveled hundreds of miles by land and sea in order to search out, and buy, a small volume.”
Just as one’s feet allow one to walk in this world, books can allow one to walk in higher, spiritual worlds. The higher worlds in rabbinic thought refer to the G-d’s palaces, where according to Rabbinic texts, angelic doorkeepers guard gates, allowing certain meritorious souls, proportional to their attainment of levels of understanding, to enter into rooms where the soul is delighted and refreshed by angelic discourses of fountains of wisdom. This motif is found in texts such as Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.
November 16th to December 16th is Jewish Book Month. Sponsored by the Jewish Book Council, this period celebrates the rich literary tradition of the Jewish community.
Contributed by: David B. Levy, Librarian, Lander College for Women