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    Life for our books – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. One of the kinnot (melancholy dirges) of Tishah B’Av does not weep for the Land of Israel, for Jerusalem, or the Temple, or even for our holy martyrs. It is simply concerned with the burning of books. Why bother with burnt books when there were so many burnt bodies?

    A. The kinnah you refer to is Sha’ali Serufah Ba’Esh – “Ask, O you who have been burnt by fire”, by Meir of Rothenburg (13th cent.).

    From the occasion which called forth this poem – the bitter day of 17 June, 1242, when, incited by an apostate Jew, and sanctioned by the Pope and the King of France, the mob threw 24 cartloads of Hebrew manuscripts onto the flames in a Paris square – through seven centuries of holocausts of Jewish books up to the Nazi attack on Jewish cultural treasures which destroyed three million Jewish books, there have been book-burnings.

    Our enemies feared these books. They represented independent, deviationist thinking, a threat, a symbol of defiance, and had to be eliminated.

    But for Jews these books were often their only friends. They overcame the ghettoes: books set us free. In times of turmoil, books were a haven.

    Heine wrote: “Nations rose and were vanquished, states flourished and decayed, revolutions raged throughout the earth – but they, the Jews, sat poring over their books, unconscious of the wild chase of time that rushed on above their heads”.

    Jewish reverence for study went with reverence for books. Yehudah the Pious said in the 13th century, “If you drop gold and books, first pick up the books and then the gold”.

    Jacob Moellin (14th cent.), said, “If two men are about to enter or leave a house and one has a book, the man with the book goes first”.

    Books were beloved companions, members of the family. If books were on fire, every Jew felt the pain and agony personally. That is why Meir of Rothenburg cried so bitterly (the translation is by Nina Salaman):

    “Dismay hath seized upon my soul; how, then,
    Can food be sweet to me,
    When, O thou Law, I have beheld base men
    Destroying thee?
    In sackcloth I will clothe and sable band,
    For well-beloved by me
    Were they whose lives were many as the sand –
    The slain of thee…”

    Our enemies knew that even if a Jewish body was destroyed, the Jewish soul was indestructible. But they did sometimes confuse and weaken that soul – by burning Jewish books. That is why the Jewish book had such a struggle in the Soviet Union for decades. The miracle is that the message of the Jewish book seemed to circulate behind the Iron Curtain almost by telepathy.

    If our enemies could not kill the Jewish book by active attack, we must not let it die through neglect.

    What Jewish books do most Diaspora Jews have? A Siddur, probably; maybe a Chumash – but what else?

    There is such a range of Jewish books available today that no one has an excuse not to have a Jewish bookshelf, add to it and absorb its inspiration. Asher ben Yechiel (14th cent.) ruled that the law to write a Torah can be fulfilled by building up a library of Jewish books.

    How true are the words of Moses ibn Ezra:

    “A book is the most delightful companion – an inanimate thing, yet it talks. There is in the world no friend more faithful and attentive. It will join you in solitude, accompany you in exile, and serve as a candle in the dark. It gives, and does not take.”

    On Tishah B’Av we mourn for the loss of books. On Simchat Torah we rejoice over the blessing of books. Fast and feast both tell us that the key to the future lies in the way we deal with our books.

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