“Inscribe These Words”: Judaism and the Power of the Writing

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary, Alberta; 2016/5777

By Rabbi Mark S. Glickman

There’s something in this box that I’m very excited to show you today, but we’ll get to that a little later.

First, I’d like to report to you that I am having a great time serving as your rabbi here in Calgary. I’ve been here for just over three months now, and in that time I’ve come to learn my way around town so that – at least with the help of my GPS – I can get anywhere I need be. More important, I’ve gotten to know many of you, and those of you I haven’t met I hope to have the opportunity to meet soon. In general, as the weeks go by, I’m feeling more and more settled in to my new Calgary life.

The one area in which I still feel unsettled is the bibliographic one. At my home in Washington State, I had a wonderful library in the basement in which I had organized every one of my 3,000 or so books by topic, and then alphabetically by author. Better yet, I’d created a database on my computer which held all the information about each volume – its shelf number, where and when I’d gotten it, a picture of the cover, etc. It was a work of art, that library. Its beautiful oaken shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling, incandescent lighting made it glow with warmth, there was a nice work area hollowed into one corner of the room, and in another corner, was a waist-high stand holding a globe that looked resplendent even though I never used it.

Moving here to Calgary, while great in every other way, wreaked havoc on my library. The shelves in my office down the hall are plentiful, but they only afford me enough space for about half of my books. The other half are at home, and those that are here got all jumbled up in the move, rendering my beautiful computer database useless in locating particular volumes. Now, unlike before, a volume of, say, biblical commentary might find itself shelved right next to a book on modern Jewish history, a volume of rabbinic literature might be sandwiched between two books on mysticism, and a philosophy book I need might not even be in my office at all but instead be on one of the shelves in my basement at home.

It’s horrible, I tell you. Horrible! (And the waves of sympathy I feel coming my way from you now are simply overwhelming.)

One of the books I was able to find, however, is the one in this box, but more about that later.

In many ways, as you know, books lie at the very heart of the Jewish people. Other religions try to hear the voice of God when they pray. With us Jews, however it’s different. Traditionally, prayer is the way we talk to God, not the way God talks to us. To hear God talking to us, we turn to the old books. As the great Rabbi Louis Finkelstein once put it, “When I pray, I talk to God. When I study, God talks to me.” For Jews, the book – the written word – is the conduit through which God communicates to the Jewish people, and to individual Jews.

It’s been like this from the beginning, you know. It was, after all, a book that God dictated to Moses at Mt. Sinai – the Torah, God’s greatest revelation to our people. Judaism teaches that all of the great truths of the world are contained in that book. Do you want to know what God wants, Judaism says – do you want to find great wisdom? Don’t cloister yourself off in prayer, or climb to a mountaintop shrine, or even sit in silent meditation. Do you really think that you can solve the problems of the world by sitting on your tuchus and thinking? No! Open the book and read the wisdom. Thinking is good too, of course, but only at great peril do you ignore what our sages who have already struggled with the great questions of life can teach us.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that when writing was first invented, the rabbis hated it. In late antiquity, Jewish scribes started writing down what their rabbis were teaching, and many of their rabbis howled in protest. The rabbis saw their greatest work as teaching “Torah,” but to them, “Torah” was not writing on a page, it was what happened when teachers and students sat down to learn together. In person. To them, Torah was an activity, not a text. It was students learning at their teachers’ feet, hearing the passion in their teachers’ voices, asking questions, and growing in wisdom not only from their teachers’ words, but also from who their teachers were as human beings. You could record the words of the old texts onto paper or parchment, but that sparkling experience of true encounter could never be expressed in writing. Writing, they feared, would ossify learning – freeze it into old stale old words rather than spectacular encounter. The great first century sage, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, was quite direct about his concern. “Those who write down legal traditions,” he said, “are like those who burn the Torah,”

The rabbis’ complaints about writing were about as successful the Rangers were against the Bluejays last week. Jews needed writing, because without writing, everyone was all over the place. Without writing, for example, worship services, were different in different places. If you were a Jew who lived in ancient Calgary, and you traveled to visit your cousin in ancient Winnipeg, chances are that you would hardly understand anything that was happening at services in Winnipeg, because without a written prayerbook there was no standard form of worship, and other communities’ services would be almost completely different from your own. Also, without writing, the rabbis’ teachings had to be transmitted by word-of-mouth, and that too caused lots of big problems. Before there was a written record of what they said, Rabbis got misquoted all over the place, and this not only made for some very unhappy rabbis, it also caused all kinds of misunderstandings as to what Jewish law was supposed to be. Eventually, rabbinic teachings grew too voluminous to transfer by word of mouth. You might not believe this, but sometimes rabbis can be very verbose. Pontiffs might pontificate, but rabbis “rabbificate.” And they do it a lot. In time, remembering all that they said – all of those hours and hours of rabbification – became more and more difficult, and eventually impossible.

In short, Judaism in the pre-writing era was an utter mess, which is why by the late second century, even those curmudgeonly rabbis couldn’t prevent Jewish texts from being written down. They recorded a collection of their teachings into a work called the Mishnah– a gigantic corpus of rabbinic teachings divided into six large sections called orders, and 63 individual tractates, addressing everything from blessings to brisses and sacrifices to sukkahs. A few centuries later, they added a huge set of commentaries to the Mishnah, called the Gemara, and then they put the Mishnah and the Gemara together into an even larger work called the Talmud – 5,724 pages of pure rabbinic joy in today’s standard edition. Those ancient and medieval rabbis also wrote prayerbooks, and philosophical treatises, folklore collections, and anthologies of case law. Soon, Jewish bookshelves filled with these treasures, sagging like contented smiles under the weight of the books’ collected wisdom.

One of those works is the book in this box, but we’ll get to that.

Writing, we should note, not only recorded a lot of good material, but it also brought our people together – in a very real sense, it put them all on the same page. What is it that unifies the Jewish people? Even more than our shared history, even more than our memories of oppression and suffering, even more than shared religious and national identities, it is the written words of our shared literary treasures that unite Jews everywhere.

Still, even with writing, it was a little messy. For over a millennium, books weren’t printed, they were written by hand. A single book could take months to create, and as a result they were very expensive and not readily available to most Jews. Plus, the scribes who created them often made mistakes, and sometimes those naughty scribes threw in little zingers of their own to make the text read the way they wanted it to. Even the bible differed from place to place, not to mention the Talmud, prayerbooks and other such works.

But then printing got invented. The Guttenberg Bible was printed in the 1450’s, and within a couple of decades, printing technology had begun its sweep through the Jewish world, too – first in Spain, then in Italy, later in Germany, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Printing standardized these texts even more than writing had, and perhaps even more important, it made books affordable, allowing even un-rich Jews to get their own. Nowadays, no Jewish home is complete without Jewish books on the shelves.

  1. With all of that background, let’s take a look at the book in this box, shall we?

But first, let me tell you how I got it. Several years ago, when I lived and worked in Tacoma Washington, I had as members of my congregation the widow, daughter, and son-in-law of a rabbi named Maurice Feuer, who had died a few years before his family moved to town. At an oneg after services one night, the family came up to me and said, “Rabbi, you know, his books have been gathering dust in storage ever since he died. Would you be interested in them?”

What I said was, “Why yes, thank you, I’d be very interested in seeing them.” What I thought was “You had me at ‘books.’”

A few days later, ten boxes of books showed up in my office, and I rolled up my sleeves and dove in. Many of them were mid-20th century works, some of which I was delighted to receive, because they filled gaping holes in my library. A few were older – enticingly so – usually works of rabbinic literature printed in Eastern Europe during the late 1800’s.

And then I came to this book.

<Show Book>

I didn’t know what it was at first; all I knew is that it looked sexy. And I wanted to get to know it really, really well. I cleared some space on my desk, set it down, opened it up, and turned to the title-page.

For me, seeing the frontispiece of an old Jewish book is just as exciting as feeling that slight push-back into your seat as airplane is about to take off, or getting the first glimpse of the deep green grass and the ivy when walking out into the summer sunshine at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. It is a thrill beyond words.

In this case, I looked at the title page and saw what you can see now on the numbered side of your handout.

Here on top – Number 1 on your sheet – it says “Tractate Rosh Hashanah.” from the (Number 2 on your page) Babylonian Talmud (there were actually two Talmuds – one written in Babylonia, the other written in the Land of Israel. Of the two, the one from Babylonia is far more widely studied). The big red word in the middle of the page – number three – says that it was published “B’Amshterdam” – in Amsterdam. A little bit below that (at Number 5), it says that it was “Printed in the year, ‘On that day, he shall blast the great shofar.’”

What could that mean? What year is it talking about?

Well, remember, Classical Hebrew has no numerals, only letters. As a result, Hebrew uses letters to refer not only to sounds, but sometimes to numbers, as well – aleph is one, bet is two, gimmel is three, etc. And if you look carefully at this line of (Number 5) Hebrew, you’ll notice that some of the letters are larger than the others. When you put the numerical value of the larger letters together, you get the number of the Hebrew year when this book was published. It was an encrypted way of including the publication date. To finish the job, all you have to do is total the number of the large letters, add 5,000, subtract 3760, and you can get the English year of publication. Simple.

So I put these letters into that formula: I added up the numbers, and got 512, added 5000 and got 5512, subtracted 3760 and got 1752. This book was published in 1752.

Immediately, I emailed Dr. David Gilner, director of the Klau Library at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. “I have what looks like an 18th century Dutch Talmud here,” I said. “What am I supposed to do with it? Does it need to go into a rare-book room or some other special holding facility?”
“Oh, that sounds like a Proops,” he replied.

“A what?”

“A Proops.”
“OK…I’ll bite…What’s a Proops?”

“Proops was the name of a prominent Dutch Jewish printer in the 1700’s. It sounds like they’re the ones who published your book.”
“Then, I looked more closely, and I saw a small line of print on the title page – Number 4 on your sheet. “Printed at the publishing house of the honorable Mr. Joseph, the honorable Mr. Jacob, sons of the late honorable Mr. Solomon…Proops.”

“The book isn’t worth a whole lot of money, Dr. Gilner said, but it’s a wonderful volume. Hold onto it and show it to your students and congregants – they’ll love it.

***

Rosh Hashanah isn’t the only tractate in this book – in fact, there are several. The next one after Rosh Hashanah, as you might imagine, is called Yoma in Aramaic – The Day – the most sacred day. In other words, Yom Kippur.

Since it is Yom Kippur, and since we do have this book out today, I’d like to take this opportunity to study some Talmud with you. What we’ll study is study from the very beginning – the first Mishnah in the tractate. I’ll be starting with the ornately framed word on the top center of the back side of your sheets.

The rabbis in this tractate are writing about how Yom Kippur was to be practiced in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Now remember, the last Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, and these rabbis were doing their rabbi-ing mostly during the second century – 100 or so years later. Their belief was that the person who would rebuild the Temple was the messiah – so Yom Kippur in the Temple, what they really were discussing was what was going to happen when the Messiah comes.

Seven days before Yom Kippur, they take the high priest out of his home and bring him to the Chamber of Counselors.

On Yom Kippur, one of the High Priest’s most important Jobs was to go into the Holy of Holies – the innermost sanctum of the Temple – and there recite the four-letter name of God. He was the only one who really knew how that name was pronounced, and even he only uttered it once a year. If anything went wrong at that moment, it was said, the whole world would have been destroyed…and that would have been a bad thing. (High Priests, you see, are just like nuclear engineers and brain surgeons – you never want to hear them say “Oops.”)

So, to make sure that he was completely ready, they took the high priest away from his house and family a week beforehand to prepare him.

Then they appoint another priest to act in his stead in case something happens to render him impure.

Since the priest’s job was so important, he had to be in a state of absolute purity to perform his job when Yom Kippur came. Now remember, by Yom Kippur, the priest would have been away from his home for a full week. That means that he also would have been away from his wife for a week. And, as you know…sometimes when men are alone…late at night…especially when they’re away from their wives…during the hours when dreams tantalize and entice…certain things can happen to men’s bodies which, if they were to happen to the high priest, would render him… “impure.” So they needed to appoint a backup – an on-deck or on-call high priest – who could be called up at the last minute in case he was needed.

Rabbi Yehudah says “They even appoint a new wife for him in case his wife dies.” For it is said, ‘He shall make atonement for himself and his household.’ (Leviticus 16:6) His household? That means his wife.”

Here, Rabbi Yehuda says that they don’t just need a backup priest for the high priest, they also need a backup wife for him. Why? Because in the book of Leviticus the bible says that the High Priest is supposed to atone “for himself and his household” and who, Rabbi Yehuda reasoned, is the High Priest’s household if not his wife? In order to fulfill this commandment to atone for his household, in other words, the High Priest needed a wife…and if God forbid Mrs. High Priest should die, they needed somebody who would be willing to step into the breach at a moment’s notice.

The High Priest’s backup wife – how’s that for a job?

They said: If thus, there is no end to the matter.

In other words, Rabbi Yehudah’s rabbinic colleagues said, “Yehudah, c’mon! That’s ridiculous. What, are you going to appoint a backup to the backup wife? Or a backup to the backup to the backup wife? If you go there, you’ll never be able to stop, and eventually you’re going to run out of eligible women.

***

What amazes me about this is that here we have rabbis living in the Land of Israel almost 2,000 years ago, sitting and debating Torah – words said to have been written thousands of years before that. The Temple had been destroyed a century or so earlier, and they’re talking about what to do on Yom Kippur when the messiah comes and rebuilds it – and they’re doing so in the present tense! It’s almost as if they’re saying, “When the messiah comes and perfects the world…like, next Tuesday…he rebuilds the Temple, and here’s what happens….” The particular volume from which we’re reading their words was printed more than a quarter-millennium ago in the Dutch lowlands of Europe – I can almost smell the tulips and see the windmills near the print-shop. Who knows who the people were who studied from these very same pages during the 264 years that have passed since. And here we are, right here in this room, at Temple B’nai Tikvah in Alberta Canada, in 2016, on Yom Kippur – the very day that they were discussing – centuries later, studying the very same words from the very same pages. We too are envisioning that glorious future, and guess what – we’re still doing it in the present tense! When the Messiah comes – like, next Tuesday – just imagine what’s going to happen.

A leather-covered book, ancient words, the smell of tulips, and a glowing vision of tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but as we sit here today and let the words flow from the page in to our own hearts and minds and imaginations, I can’t help but think that we touch eternity.

My friends, it is the word – the written word – that binds our people together across vast spans time and space. Where would we Jews be without our books? Looking ahead, let’s recommit ourselves to opening up these old books, to immersing ourselves in their rich, life-giving waters, and, with our help, to letting the letters fly off the page and into the world where they can truly work their magic.

Shanah Tovah

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