Q. I hear that the Koran calls Jews “donkeys carrying books”. Should Jews take this as praise or an insult?
A. The saying is actually Jewish and pre-dates the Koran. The idea seems to derive from Genesis 49:14, which says, “Issachar is a strong-boned ass”. Because rabbinic commentary regards Issachar, one of Jacob’s sons, as a scholar, the verse suggests that scholars will willingly load themselves with books and learning (Rashi says, “strong-boned ass: sturdy to bear the yoke of the study of the Torah”). The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 5b) recommends that, donkey-like, one should make himself able to carry a weight of knowledge. Similarly Rashi (Meg. 28b) says a person should be like a basket capable of holding many books.
The original connotation of the donkey is a compliment and not an insult, though by the time of the Koran it may be that donkeys had fallen in people’s estimation and had become brainless pack-horses: the Koran reference, 62:5, is thus not meant as a praise of Jews but the opposite.
The phrase is found in Jewish philosophy in Bachya ibn Pakuda’s “Chovot HaL’vavot” (“Duties of the Heart”) as an indication of a person who has many books but has not digested their contents. It also appears in this sense in Nachmanides’ works and in the Zohar. Later rabbinic responsa, however, tend to go back to the earlier concept and use the donkey metaphor in a positive way to indicate someone who is well-stocked with knowledge and handles it intelligently.