The Bible says, “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Kohelet 12:12). These days the traditional print book is constantly challenged by electronic alternatives, but nonetheless there is an amazing output of the types of books we are used to. It is still uncertain, though, as to what makes a book different from a tract, a leaflet, a pamphlet.
The ancient rabbis defined a book in the light of a strange feature of this week’s Torah reading.
There is a little section comprising two verses made up of 85 letters and enclosed between the ancient equivalent of brackets. The verses are Num. 10:35-36. The sages said (Shab. 116a) that this section, and any piece of writing with 85 letters, is to be seen as a book to the extent that if, God forbid, there is a fire on Shabbat, a “book” of 85 letters can be saved from destruction.
In gematria, the letters of 85 – peh and heh – make up the word peh, a mouth. A book has a mouth; it has something to say; it is a self-contained utterance.
Obviously books differ in length and there are short books and long books. The distinction between a booklet and a book may be a modern problem which our ancient forebears would hardly have understood; for them a piece of writing was a book, period.
Now if we look at the content of this 85-letter section in the sidra there is something about its substance which explains why it is a “book”.
Point 1: it has a beginning. Point 2: it is a self-contained connected story. Point 3: it has an ending. Point 4: it has a lesson to teach – there is a God, and whatever happens in history is directed by Him.