How the Advent of the Printing Press Changed the Jewish Idea of the Sacred Book

Sept. 7 2022

Compiled around 400 CE in the Galilee, the Jerusalem Talmud was for the most part superseded by its Babylonian counterpart, compiled about a century later. Since it was less studied and less copied, there is much more uncertainty about the text itself—a problem that still dogs scholars today. These problems weighed on the mind of the scribe Rabbi Yeḥiel ben Yekutiel when he completed a manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud in 1289, as he makes clear in the colophon, or scribe’s note. Yakov Meir observes:

This monumental manuscript, written in beautiful Italian Hebrew script on 674 leaves of parchment, is monumental only to our eyes that have been educated in the age of print. In the eyes of the scribe who copied it, this manuscript wasn’t monumental at all. It was but a corrupted copy of the Jerusalem Talmud, full of errors and mistakes. It is only one stage in a chain of erroneously transmitted links of the ancient talmudic text. Rabbi Yeḥiel thought about himself as being very far from the origin of the text, all he could do was try to correct a few apparent errors, but he would never be able to create a copy of the book “itself.”

In the 16th century, Daniel Bomberg—a Christian who was the most important publisher of Judaica in the early age of the printing press—would use this manuscript as the basis for the first-ever printed version of the Jerusalem Talmud. Mayer observes that with the advent of the printed book, rabbinic literature changed its attitude toward the significance of sacred books as physical objects:

I [compared] Jewish reactions to the burning of the Talmud in 13th-century Paris with the responses to the early-modern burning of the Talmud in various Italian cities in the mid-16th century. In the first case, manuscripts were set on fire, and in the latter, printed volumes. I found it puzzling that the medieval mourners emphasized the national insult, the economic loss, and their wrath, but never mentioned a loss of knowledge. . . . But in the early modern world, a different tone is heard from the people whose books were destroyed. In the eyes of this early modern generation, the loss of these printed books does equal a loss of knowledge.

How strange that in a period when copies of the Talmud were easier to produce and more numerous than ever, they should be concerned about how they would study now that the books were being burnt! . . . In medieval times the material manuscript was considered a temporary materialization, a mere imperfect shadow, of a perfect metaphysical text. Therefore, destroying the material manuscript, while upsetting, could not harm the metaphysical text. In the early modern world, on the other hand, a considerable effort was invested in creating a book that would be as close as possible to the “true” metaphysical text.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Ancient Jew Review

More about: Books, Judaism, Manuscripts, Talmud

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy