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The one custom for celebrating Shavuot is to stay up all night and study Jewish texts. But will we continue celebrating the printed word as more and more of what we read is electronic?

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The Tsene-Rene, a Yiddish version of the Bible, published in Amsterdam in 1751. (YIVO)

Most Jewish holidays have a ritual or physical symbol connected with them, a means of accessing the import the day. In the spring we rid ourselves of leavened products; in the fall, we build temporary structures; in the winter we light special candelabras. The holiday of Shavuot is an anomaly. There are no rituals that need to be performed, no special blessings to be pronounced. This is a holiday of pared-down simplicity, symbolized by the custom in Eastern Europe of making paper-cuts (called “shavuoslekh” in Yiddish) to decorate the home and synagogue.

The one custom for Shavuot is to stay up all night studying Jewish texts. This custom itself was enabled because of a particular innovation in food technology, as historian Elliot Horowitz has explained: the availability of caffeine. Horowitz discusses how once the stimulant became widely available in the 16th century, it enabled even the most sluggish among Jewish scholars to remain in a roused state through the early morning hours of Shavuot. Somehow this tension, between the corporeal (of our need for stimulants, or at least rest) and the spiritual aspects of awaiting revelation feels particularly Jewish to me, given the way our religion is rooted in the body.

The study of text on Shavuot takes no fixed form. Compilations of texts for this nocturnal holiday do exist, and they contain excerpts from the Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, and kabbalistic texts, but these are suggested modes of study. You could read anything really—Art Spiegelman’s Maus or stories by Amir Gutfreund. Shavuot is a time for Jews to focus on what it means to have a text and grapple with it, to be and to celebrate being the people of the book.

But what does it mean to be the people of the book these days? Recently, I went with my 10-year-old daughter to our local Borders, which was having a going-out-of business sale. My daughter looked at me and said, “I don’t think there will be any bookstores when I’m grown up.” This is a child who is notoriously pessimistic; she often fears that she will miss the school bus or doubts that she’ll able to finish her homework. I am usually quick to reassure her. In this case, I couldn’t. I think she’s right.

I appreciate so much about our electronic world, but I worry too, particularly the way it might be changing our approach to reading. Sven Birkerts writes of reading as an “ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself.” In Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Ben Bag-bag (whose own name is probably a play on Torah with its repetitive use of the second and third letters of the Hebrew alphabet) writes, “Turn it over and turn it over for all is in it.” How do we do that, how do we manage that sustained attention, let alone valuing one book, our Hebrew Bible, above all others, in our times?

Another historian of the book, Anthony Grafton has written of his Kindle that it “liberates” him because he always has a text to read on a long flight. Yet he also expresses his concern that postmodern reading is “rapid, superficial, appropriative and individualistic.” Physical objects give us information that we can’t glean electronically. Grafton writes of a scholar in an archive noting the smell of vinegar on a text which makes him aware that it had been disinfected during a cholera epidemic, giving us clues about the spread of disease.

I believe that Jewish books as objects will endure even if we move, as we seem to be doing, to a culture in which our texts are wholly electronic. We have been a culture that places a value on hiddur mitzvah, on the aesthetic value behind doing any commandment, so I believe Jews will continue to find value in lovely books for ritual use. Most of Jewish literature—from the Bible through rabbinic literature and modern halachic responsa—is available in electronic form. Yet we still handwrite scrolls and create beautiful book objects. It’s difficult to imagine the Torah ever being read from a Kindle for a congregation; we need rituals around our readings. So, we will have to stay in the corporeal and spiritual once again, using modern book technology as it is valuable, while taking time to sniff the ink on our handwritten Torah scrolls.

The revelation of Shavuot in the Bible, the Ten Commandments, begin with the letter aleph, of the word anokhi. Aleph is a silent sound, so all language that emanates from this revelation begins in silence. The text of the revelation is itself smashed and re-written. Moses creates one set of tablets, which he destroys; then he is told to recreate them; and then the destroyed tablets are still placed in the Ark of the Tabernacle, rendering it in effect the first geniza, a repository for a Jewish text. I think it’s essential that both old and new versions were placed in the ark. Perhaps this most ancient of biblical models can serve as a guideline for the ways we produce and consume texts today, that we can find a way to make an ancient desire to immerse oneself in a text to enlarge and deepen our experience, along with the liberation we find in the information instantly available at our electronically charged fingertips.

Beth Kissileff has taught Hebrew Bible and English literature at Carleton College and has received fellowships from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Hineni says:

While I agree with Ms. Kissleff that the tablet is unlikely to displace the scroll when we leyn and hear Torah, we should note that neither did the book. The tablet may very well replace the printed Chumash with commentary among those who follow in the pews.

I also predict that the printed siddur and machzor are currently enjoying their last hurrahs, at least in the liberal synagogue where use of electricity is a lesser issue — but whether they will be replaced by tablets or by projected Power Points or Power Point derivatives remains to be seen.

Whether or not the practice of tikkun leil shavuot was originally facilitated by the availability of caffeine, its prevalence in today’s Jewish world (by which I mean my world of the non-Orthodox synagogue) is fostered by two phenomena — the resurgence of interest in adult study and the drive to attach something to Shavuot that a congregation can “hang onto,” to replace the celebration of Confirmation, which remains strong in Reform synagogues but is typically no longer tied to Shavuot. And in my congregation, the attraction of the intellectual nourishment of tikkun leil Shavuot will be notably augmented by the promise of the rebbetzin’s famous cheesecake.

Experientially, praying/studying without the feel of a book in one’s hands just wouldn’t be Judaism.

I’m something of a bibliophile and I’m therefore biased. I take pleasure in books’ varied smells and enjoy running my fingers along a page’s edge or up a book’s binding; it’s a fetish, sure, but one that I’m quite comfortable with. That fetishistic appeal, though, makes the ritual and/or sacred value of the object more potent. Sure, we’ll have digital tablets or their future iteration (contact lens projections, perhaps?) when we daven at shul and its’ also true that bookstores will mostly vanish, but I believe books will remain objects of both sentimental, collectible value AND utility. This is true generally, but even more so for the “people of the book.”

‘Course, I could be wrong.

Also, kudos to Ms. Kissileff on this great piece. The last two paragraphs, in particular, are excellent.

Dr. Michael Zidonov says:

When an Insurance Agent sells a Policy to an individual, he has taken Money for an abstract thing, a promie, that cannot be seen, felt, or sensed in any other way … Therefore, a few days after your Check Clears, the Agent drops by and delivers a bundle of papers into the hand of the Insured, so that he will FEEL that he is actually getting something for his money … It is a Mind Game, that works because too few Human eings arecapable of thinking in the Abstract, and decerning any value imputed to them by an abstract … Torah is not Abstract at all, No Word of Ha’Shem is valueless or unreal … But, if it were not important for Humans to have writings that they can see, feel and perceive on every level, why then, would Ha’Shem have given it in writing in the first place ??? Electronic Gimmicks will never replace the Printed Word … Who would go to Temple … if when the Ark was opened, we looked upon a Kindle in the Bookstand ??? People of Substance will have Exemplars of that Substance … “You Will Know Them By Their Fruit …”

Dori says:

I understand the sentiment of this piece but disagree that bookstores or hard copy books will ever be obsolete. The same was said about radio when TV came along, the same about TV when movies came along, the same about movie theaters when cable, VHS, DVDS etc came along.

We still also have live theater productions, live symphony and concerts and *books* that were said to be useless now that we have internet and other technology.

The use and need for hard copy books will change for sure, but they will never be obsolete. As others have mentioned, the bibliophiles among us will always treasure our first copy of favored books and the Torah, in scroll form can never be replaced.

I was a die-hard paper book fan, but got a Kindle last year. Now there is room in my heart for both mediums, and one can’t replace the other. I love the zillions of books on my Kindle, but will take a cheap single copy to places my Kindle can’t go.

People who read ‘superficially’ on e-formats probably read superficially on hard copy as well.

I say as long as people are reading and thinking and enjoying themselves-Go for it!

Or E-Go for it!
…as the case maybe :)

Scott-Martin Kosofsky says:

Thank you, Ms. Kissileff, for this thoughtful piece. As a designer and producer of paper books, including some volumes of Jewish liturgy, and lately occupied with new designs for ebooks, these are matters of daily occupation and preoccupation for me. But as they say on TV, I’m also a client–a reader.

Electronic reading devices will only get better, so to judge them today by the Kindle experience is premature. In the past year, the year of the iPad, what started as excellent screen resolution has already doubled. But as a physical experience, the iPad is quite a different break from the past than what Gutenberg did, which was to imitate manuscript books. And it’s different from what the Kindle has done, which is to reduce books to a text-only delivery system, and idea that suits some things and not others. The iPad has possibilities of supplementing text with images, with alternate versions, and with limitless annotations. If you’re saying, “Wait a minute! Books do that, too,” there are also the possibilities of interactive cross references, audio, and video. But there’s a catch: these devices, neither the iPad nor the Kindle, can vary their size, so everything placed on them has to address the available screen. Some books need more, including any key Jewish texts. With some, we might be able to rethink the physical plan, as we did over five hundred years ago with the Talmud (the canon of Talmud was established through the printed page, not the other way around), but there are others that might not adapt so well.

(continued next post)

Scott-Martin Kosofsky says:

An example that comes to mind is a book that was published just last year, Mahzor Lev Shalem, the new High Holidays prayerbook of the Conservative congregations. It’s a book that plays out not on single pages, but in spreads, which contain, from right to left, (1) commentaries, (2) Hebrew text, (3) English translations and sometimes transliterations, and (4) complementary readings from non-canonical sources. The page is 6.5 inches wide, which in spreads comes to 13 inches. It won’t work on the iPad without reducing too far, and on a large screen (mine is 26 inches) it has to be enlarged to achieve sufficient resolution–ok for looking but requiring too much head movement for reading. The printed book form turns out to be far and away the best choice; in any electronic delivery system it would have to disperse or reduce some of the elements, thereby losing easy access to a “big panorama” of Jewish text and thought.

I was the designer and compositor of Mahzor Lev Shalem, and I was very conscious of this resolutely non-electronic volume I was making. But if you look around this very website, you’ll find links to a lovely ebook I made for Nextbook, “Selected Poems of Yehuda Halevi,” published early this year (it’s free!). This is a resolutely non-print book, in which the depth of the pages varies according to the length of the poems, each on one page, whether six lines or a hundred and six, and each with no surplus dead space.

The lesson here is that print will not disappear, bookstores will not vanish entirely, and ebooks will continue to grow. I predict it will soon become obvious to us which sort of book belongs in which form. In other words, to paraphrase the often great (and sometimes meshuga) Marshall McLuhan, “The message will chose the medium.” And it won’t be the end of the world. In fact, it shows every sign of being better.

Awesome point… not 100% sure I agree, but whatever. Everyone can have an opinion, right?

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The one custom for celebrating Shavuot is to stay up all night and study Jewish texts. But will we continue celebrating the printed word as more and more of what we read is electronic?

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