Old Wine, New Jugs: Torah and New Media
Thanks to Lev Israel and Tali Arbit Winkler for contributing sources and inspiration!
What might we learn when we encounter Torah through new media? How has our tradition weathered past media shifts? What can we learn from past experiences to maximize the positive aspects of the digital revolution?
Part I: "Those Who Write Halakhot Are Like One Who Burns the Torah"
What were the advantages and disadvantages of an oral culture? Why was it so important that texts not be written down - and why did we eventually shift to writing things down?
א"ר יהושע בן לוי הדא אגדתא הכותבה אין לו חלק. החורשה מתחרך השומעה אינו מקבל שכר. א"ר יהושע בן לוי אנא מן יומוי לא איסתכלית בספרא דאגדתא אלא חד זמן איסתכלית...אפי' כן אנא מתבעי בליליא.
R. Yehoshua Ben Levi said: One who writes down Aggadah has no portion. One who works it burns himself. One who hears it receives no benefit. R. Yehoshua Ben Levi said: Only once did I look into a book of Aggadah. I found written there ... Even though (it was only once), I am fearful at night.
חָרַךְ (b. h.; cmp. חָרָה) to roast, parch. Pi. - חֵירֵךְ, חֵרֵךְ to char, burn bread so as to make it uneatable; to prepare a wick by charring. Pes. 21ᵇ חֵירְכוֹ קודם וכ׳ he charred the leavened bread before the time appointed for the removal of leavened matter. Y. Sabb. II, 5ᵃ top מְחָרְכִין (לין) לן they char them (the wicks).—Part. pass. מְחוֹרָךְ, fem. מְחוֹרֶכֶת, pl. מְחוֹרָכִין, מְחוֹרָכוֹת. Tosef. Sabb. II, 1 (v. Var. ed. Zuck.); Sabb. 29ᵃ (v. Tosaf. a. l.). Hithpa. - הִתְחָרֵךְ, Nithpa. - נִתְחָרֵךְ to be singed, burnt. Tanḥ. Noah 13 נ׳ שער וכ׳ the hair of his head and beard was singed. Pirké d’R. El. ch. XXXIII נִתְחָרְכוּ וכ׳ (not ב) his hair was singed. Y. Sabb. XVI, 15ᶜ הדורשה מִתְחָרֵךְ he who preaches it (the Agadah) will burn himself (at the fire of the Law); (Treat. Sof’rim XVI, 2 מתברך, corr. acc.)
אמר אי אשכחיה דכתיב איגרתא שלחי ליה לרב יוסף...
ואי הוה ליה איגרתא מי אפשר למישלחא והא אמר רבי אבא בריה דרבי חייא בר אבא א"ר יוחנן כותבי הלכות כשורף התורה והלמד מהן אינו נוטל שכר דרש ר' יהודה בר נחמני מתורגמניה דר"ל כתוב אחד אומר (שמות לד, כז) כתוב לך את הדברים האלה וכתוב אחד אומר (שמות לד, כז) כי על פי הדברים האלה לומר לך דברים שעל פה אי אתה רשאי לאומרן בכתב ושבכתב אי אתה רשאי לאומרן על פה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל כתוב לך את הדברים האלה אלה אתה כותב אבל אין אתה כותב הלכות אמרי דלמא מילתא חדתא שאני דהא רבי יוחנן ור"ל מעייני בסיפרא דאגדתא בשבתא ודרשי הכי (תהלים קיט, קכו) עת לעשות ליהוה הפרו תורתך אמרי מוטב תיעקר תורה ואל תשתכח תורה מישראל.
He (R. Dimi) said "If I had a messenger, I would have written a letter and sent it to R. Yosef" ... And if he had a letter, could he have sent it? Didn't R. Hiyya bar Abba say in the name of R. Yohanan: Those who write the halachot are like one who burns the Torah, and he who learns from them receives no reward? R. Yehudah bar Nahmani, the Meturgeman of Resh Lakish, expounded: One verse says: “Write down for yourself these words” (Exodus 34.37) and one verse says, “For according to (al-pi, lit. “by the mouth”) these words” (Exodus 34:37), in order to teach you that matters [transmitted] orally (al-peh) you are not permitted to recite from writing and those matters that are in writing you are not permitted to recite from memory. And it's taught in the school of R. Ishmael: Scripture says, “Write down for yourself these words” (Exodus 34.37)-- these words you may write but you may not write halakhot (laws). They said: Perhaps a new matter is different? For R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish used to study a book of Aggadah on the Sabbath. And they explained it in this manner: “It is time to act for the Lord, for they have made void Your Torah” (Psalms 119:126), which they explained: It is better that Torah be uprooted than Torah be forgotten in Israel.
דר' יוחנן ור"ש בן לקיש מעייני בספרא דאגדתא בשבתא והא לא ניתן ליכתב אלא כיון דלא אפשר (תהלים קיט, קכו) עת לעשות ליהוה הפרו תורתך ה"נ כיון דלא אפשר עת לעשות ליהוה הפרו תורתך
And a proof for this is that Rabbi Yoḥanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish used to read from a scroll of aggada containing the words of the Sages on Shabbat. But such a scroll may not be written, for in principle, the statements of the Oral Law may not be committed to writing. Rather, since it is not possible to remember the Oral Law without writing it down, it is permitted to violate the halakha, as indicated by the verse: “It is time to act for the Lord; they have nullified your Torah” (Psalms 119:126). Here too, in the case of a haftara scroll, since it is not always possible to write complete books of the Bible, due to the expense, it is permitted to apply the reasoning of “It is time to act for the Lord; they have nullified your Torah.”
רַבֵּנוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ חִבַּר הַמִּשְׁנָה. וּמִיְּמוֹת מֹשֶׁה וְעַד רַבֵּנוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ, לֹא חִבְּרוּ חִבּוּר שֶׁמְּלַמְּדִין אוֹתוֹ בָּרַבִּים בְּתוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה; אֵלָא בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, רֹאשׁ בֵּית דִּין אוֹ נָבִיא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה בְּאוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר, כּוֹתֵב לְעַצְמוֹ זִכָּרוֹן בַּשְּׁמוּעוֹת שֶׁשָּׁמַע מֵרִבּוֹתָיו, וְהוּא מְלַמֵּד עַל פֶּה בָּרַבִּים. וְכֵן כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד כּוֹתֵב לְעַצְמוֹ כְּפִי כּוֹחוֹ, מִבֵּאוּר הַתּוֹרָה וּמֵהִלְכּוֹתֶיהָ כְּמוֹ שֶׁשָּׁמַע, וּמִדְּבָרִים שֶׁנִּתְחַדְּשׁוּ בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, בְּדִינִים שֶׁלֹּא לְמָדוּם מִפִּי הַשְּׁמוּעָה אֵלָא בְּמִדָּה מִשְּׁלוֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה מִדּוֹת וְהִסְכִּימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן בֵּית דִּין הַגָּדוֹל. וְכֵן הָיָה הַדָּבָר תָּמִיד, עַד רַבֵּנוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ. וְהוּא קִבַּץ כָּל הַשְּׁמוּעוֹת וְכָל הַדִּינִין וְכָל הַבֵּאוּרִין וְהַפֵּרוּשִׁין שֶׁשָּׁמְעוּ מִמֹּשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ, וְשֶׁלִּמְּדוּ בֵּית דִּין שֶׁלְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, בְּכָל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ; וְחִבַּר מֵהַכֹּל סֵפֶר הַמִּשְׁנָה. וְשִׁנְּנוֹ בָּרַבִּים, וְנִגְלָה לְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל; וּכְתָבוּהוּ כֻּלָּם, וְרִבְּצוּ בְּכָל מָקוֹם, כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא תִשְׁתַּכַּח תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
Our Holy Master compiled the Mishna. From the days of Moses our Master till our Holy Master no text book of the Oral Torah for public instruction had been issued, the practice theretofore being for the president of a tribunal or a prophet who flourished in a given generation to keep privately written memoranda of his Masters' oral teachings, out of which he, in turn, instructed the public orally. Like practice was resorted to by each and every individual scholar to write down, according to his ability of understanding the exposition on the Torah and its laws, as he heard it. So was also the practice in preserving new acts in each and every generation which were not based on tradition but upon one of the thirteen hermeneutical rules, to which the Great Tribunal had assented. This procedure was followed continuously until the advent of our Holy Master, and he collected all traditional precedents, judicial pronouncements, expositions and explanations, whether they were traditionally attributed to Moses our Master or whether they were so instructed by the tribunals in each and every generation, the scope of which embraced the whole Torah, and from it all he compiled the Book of the Mishna, out of which he gave public instruction to scholars, and its fame reached to all Israel, and written copies of it were made universally, and its circulation reached everywhere, so that the Oral Torah be not forgotten from the midst of Israel.
רב צדוק הכהן מלובלין
ומהם והלאה שייך הקבלה פע״פ דדברים שבעל פה א״א רשאי לאומרם בכתב שא״א להשיג האמיתות שבלב החכם אלא בקבלה מפה אל פה.
הבדל בין כתיבה לדיבור כי בכתיבה היא רק התגלות החכמה שבמוחו ומחשבתו אבל הדיבור הוא התגלות הבינה שבלב שזה נגלה בדיבור כפי איכות הדיבור ותנועתו ניכר עליו מה שבלבו, כידוע שיש הכרה בדברים אם יוצאים מן הלב ואם מדבר בתוקף או בנחת, בכעס...משא״כ בכתיבה מלובש רק בחכמה
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakha.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, (21)4, Fall 1985
Pg. 13
“And from then on oral tradition became relevant (shayyakh), (and the rule that) "oral traditions may not be written down" (Gittin 60b) (came into force), for it is impossible to.comprehend the truth in a sage's heart except by oral transmission….”
(Resisei Laylah, 161a)
"This last statement regarding the importance of oral teaching requires elaboration. It is only God Who can write a Word that retains its freshness; mortals can transmit their ideas accurately only through thc medium of the spoken word-the deadening effect of writing leads to distortion. In speech a man can communicate by gesture and intonation; in writing these are lost."
(Liqqutei Ma'amarim, 104b)
Part II: The Printed Word
"The printed manual...freezes and rigidifies halakhah, which must remain fluid...authority is personal, it depends absolutely on the halakhic scholar...who cannot - and may not - rely on precedents." - Elchanan Reiner
הכותב בכמה קולמוסים, בלא מעשה ניסים...
Abraham Conat, Colophon to the Tur, printed in 1476 in Mantua, describing a printed text:
Writing with many quills, without miraculous intervention...
הרב יעקב עמדין, מגילת ספר
אעפ”כ לא משכתי ידי ממצוה שהתחלתי בה, ולא עזבתי מלאכת ה’, כל זמן שהיו בידי מעות להוציא מלאכת הדפוס... לא מנעתי עצמי שעה אחת מלהרביץ תורה בישראל, בדרך זו שיזכו בה קרובים ורחוקים.
Rav Yaakov Emden, Megillat Sefer
Even so, I did not withdraw my hand from the mitsvah that I began, and I did not leave the Divine work, the whole time that I had enough money to produce printed work....and I did not hold back for a moment from spreading Torah in Israel, in this way so that many, far and near, might benefit.
"The Ashkenazi Elite at the Beginning of the Modern Era: Manuscript versus Printed Book," by Elchanan Reiner, pg. 87
“Just as a person likes only the food that he prepares for himself, in accordance with his own appetite and taste...thus he does not like another person’s rulings unless he agrees with that person. All the more does he not wish to be dependent upon the books of other authors, whom he does not trust, just as a person likes only the food that he prepares for himself, in accordance with his own appetite and taste, and does not aspire to be a guest at their prepared table. And for that reason the ancients refrained from writing any special book to lay down customs and halakhah to the general public.” (quote from Hayyim ben Bezalel of Friedberg, 16th century, brother of the Maharal of Prague)
Part III: The Digital Revolution
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakha.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, (21)4, Fall 1985
Pg. 16
With the completion of the Babylonian Talmud and its reduction to written form, came the same mystical linkage of each Jewish soul to Oral Torah as to Written Torah. In kabbalistic terms, just as each soul has its root in a letter or stroke of Written Torah, so too with the promulgation of the Babylonian Talmud, did each soul find its root in its words. Moreover, with its appearance in written form came the Oral Torah’s inclusion in the Written one. The process did not end here. Each successive effort of codification of Oral Law added to the Written Torah, and each code, as it became part of Written Torah generated still more layers of innovation in Oral Torah. In practical terms, each portion of Oral Torah as it was reduced to writing generated new commentaries whose authors approached the newly incorporated work as the sages of Oral Torah had approached the original Written Torah. Thus, if we may be permitted to draw out the line of reasoning a step further, the Amoraim applied to Mishnah methods similar to their creative reinterpretation (derasha) of Written Torah, the Rishonim continued the process on Talmud as a whole, and the Aharonim used the works of the Rishonim as a point of departure and treated them the same way. And the process continued apace. Progressive revelation continues through the medium of sage and text.
אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק למה נמשלו דברי תורה כעץ שנאמר (משלי ג, יח) עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה לומר לך מה עץ קטן מדליק את הגדול אף תלמידי חכמים קטנים מחדדים את הגדולים והיינו דאמר ר' חנינא הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן
Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Why are Torah matters likened to a tree, as it is stated: “It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it” (Proverbs 3:18)? This verse comes to tell you that just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large piece, so too, minor Torah scholars can sharpen great Torah scholars and enable them to advance in their studies. And this is what Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.
ת"ר מעשה ברבי יוחנן בן ברוקה ורבי אלעזר (בן) חסמא שהלכו להקביל פני ר' יהושע בפקיעין אמר להם מה חידוש היה בבית המדרש היום אמרו לו תלמידיך אנו ומימיך אנו שותין אמר להם אף על פי כן אי אפשר לבית המדרש בלא חידוש שבת של מי היתה שבת של ר' אלעזר בן עזריה היתה ובמה היתה הגדה היום אמרו לו בפרשת הקהל ומה דרש בה (דברים לא, יב) הקהל את העם האנשים והנשים והטף אם אנשים באים ללמוד נשים באות לשמוע טף למה באין כדי ליתן שכר למביאיהן אמר להם מרגלית טובה היתה בידכם ובקשתם לאבדה ממני
§ The Sages taught: There was an incident involving Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Ḥisma, when they went to greet Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: What novel idea was taught today in the study hall? They said to him: We are your students and we drink from your water, i.e., all of our Torah knowledge comes from you, and therefore how can we tell you something you have not already learned? He said to them: Even so, there cannot be a study hall without a novelty. He asked them: Whose week was it, i.e. who was the lecturer this week? They said to him: It was Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s week. He inquired: And on what subject was the lecture today? They said to him: He spoke about the portion of the mitzva of assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua persisted: And what verse did he interpret homiletically with regard to this mitzva? They said to him that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya interpreted the following verse: “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones” (Deuteronomy 31:12). This verse is puzzling: If men come to learn, and women, who might not understand, come at least to hear, why do the little ones come? They come in order for God to give a reward to those who bring them, i.e., God credits those who bring their children to the assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: This good pearl of wisdom was in your hands, and you tried to conceal it from me?
Throughout the centuries, Jews have always been the people of the book. With the wonderful development of the new National Library in Jerusalem, our people has a physical home for the book. The Sefaria project has the potential to become the digital home of the book for the people of the book. The digitalisation of our books, manuscripts and journals, is not just creating a vital online resource, but is opening up our ancient heritage to a new generation on a global scale in a digital age. I commend all those involved in this initiative and wish it every blessing and success.
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks