The earliest libraries were found in the clay tablets of ancient Egypt and the scrolls of Alexandria. However from the Talmud and subsequent literature, borrowing books to study was clearly very commonplace. And although the Oral Law was not written down in book form until 200CE, there were notebooks on many topics of Jewish law and life, some of which were used by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi in compiling the final edition of the Mishna. In fact the rabbis spoke out against those who refused to lend their books, and Rabbinic responsa is replete with the issues and responsibilities of caring for books.
As Rabbi Berel Wein writes though, the greatest book ‘borrowers’ from the Jewish people have been the two other major monotheistic religions. Christianity borrowed the so-called “Old Testament” whole cloth from the Jews and it is therefore ironic in the extreme that the gratitude shown by the borrower to the lender of this basis of monotheistic belief has been expressed in unending centuries of discrimination and persecution. And while Islam never borrowed our book totally, it certainly used its contents.
The technological advances of DVDs and the Internet have made reading simple and libraries somewhat old fashioned, but nothing can replace holding the hard copy of a book in one’s hands because books are not just guests in a Jewish home, they are part of the family structure.
In 1945 a Jewish officer in the American army was involved in liberating one of the concentration camps of Europe. Walking disconsolately around the site of death he came across a man hardly alive, who looked up at him and said "Please could you do me a favour and help me find a tractate of Talmud. You see next week is the Yahrtzeit (anniversary) of my father’s passing and I promised him that each year on his Yahrtzeit I would learn an entire tractate in his memory.”
So important were Jewish books to him, that amidst the ruins, even after 6 years of war and tragedy, they represented a lifeline. Indeed Jewish books occupy a place close to our heart: we are prohibited from placing them on the ground or treating them with disrespect, when they are worn out we bury them rather than simply discard them and many people have a custom to kiss them after use as a sign of our affection towards them. So this month why not take advantage of the JLE library facilities and become a book reader again.