To Lend or Not To Lend Books?

Reading is a virtue, but tradition is divided on the relative merits of borrowing, lending, and purchasing books.

In Judaism, it is often considered a great virtue to lend Jewish books. Some sages of the Talmud interpreted the verse “Happy are they that do righteousness” (Psalms 106:3) as referring to those who write books and lend them. Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hasid of Regensburg in the 13th century taught that the reward for those who lend books to their students in the world to come which will be as great as if they themselves had studied from those texts since they were the vehicles who enabled knowledge to be learned by the borrowers.

Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, a codifier of the 13th century, considered lending books a duty and, hence, a Jewish rabbinical court has the right to compel compliance since the one who does not lend his books may be liable for causing the cessation of Torah study. He ruled that anyone who does not lend a needed volume could be fined ten gulden per day, but the borrower would likewise be liable to fines if the book was not returned upon the agreed upon date. He legislated that the lender should be protected by requiring the borrower to leave a deposit for the book and signing a borrowing agreement. The celebrated Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572) agrees with Rabbi Asher, and it was his practice to forbid students to enter his study hall if they refused lend books. These commentators regarded rabbinic wisdom as the common property of the Jewish people.

Books on a library shelf, ready to be borrowed.

Conversely, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (ca. 1220-1293) and Rashi (1040-1105) maintain that it is not a duty to lend one’s books due to the risk of the books being damaged or lost. Rabbi Judah Companton, of 14th-century Spain, expresses the view against the obligation to lend books when he writes, “A man’s wisdom goes only as far as his books. Therefore, one should sell all he possesses and buy books, for as the sages expressed, ‘He who increases books increases wisdom.'” Rashi speaks to the same effect in interpreting the rabbinical injunction of “acquire thyself a companion” to mean “acquire thyself a book.” He continues by saying that a man who reads only borrowed books falls under the Biblical category of those whose “lives shall hang in doubt before You” (Deut. 28:66). Rashi further notes that the verse “with all your might” (Deut. 6:5) denotes that one should love G-d by purchasing books with one’s wealth.

Perhaps the moral of this rif on the question of “to lend or not to lend books” is that if you are to borrow a TC Library book please be as conscientious as Abraham Lincoln, honest Abe, who is said to have walked many miles to return his library books on time.

Contributed by: David B. Levy, Librarian, Lander College for Women

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