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Home » Shavuot

Post Shavuot: The Printing Press

Submitted by on May 2, 2016 – 5:20 pmNo Comment | 3,052 views


The classic New Year resolution to lose weight is practiced assiduously during the first week. The classic Rosh Hashanah commitment to increase in a particular Mitzvah is also practiced assiduously during the first few days. After the first week or so, life gets in the way and we begin to taper off. The same holds true for Shavuot. The first few days after Shavuot everyone is excited about Torah study. We take on new classes, new subjects and new Torah commitments. The first week after Shavuot is thus the perfect time to delve into a discussion on Torah study.

The Printing Press

With the advent of the printing press, books of Torah study proliferated. Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, Jews made do with hand written scrolls. Now there are vast libraries of printed Torah books. With online libraries, Torah study has proliferated in ways hitherto unknown. Tracts and materials available to a select few only twenty years ago are now available to the wide public.

This raises a question about the Divine Master Plan. If the invention of the Printing Press was so impactful to Torah study, why didn’t G-d Almighty orchestrate this invention earlier?  Another way of approaching the question is this. The fact is that with the invention of the Printing Press, the number of Torah books authored, increased dramatically. The question then becomes, was the Printing Press invented because G-d knew that Torah scholars were poised to write many more books or were many more Torah books authored because the Printing Press was invented?

If you, dear reader, ascribe to the faith principle of Divine Providence, whereby events that occur on earth are orchestrated by G-d Almighty from above, then you believe that that the Printing Press was invented in the fifteenth century because that was when scholars were poised to write many more books. In order to facilitate the great number of Torah books about to be authored, the Divine Master Plan called for the invention of a Printing Press at that time.

Principle and Applications

To understand why it was mystically necessary for a plethora of new Torah books to be published around the time that Gutenberg invented the Printing Press, it is necessary to begin at the beginning.

G-d gave us the Torah in Ten Commandments. Our sages demonstrated that all 613 Mitzvot are included in the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are thus seen to be general principles that can be applied in 613 ways. The 613 Mitzvot are specific applications of the ten general commandments.

On a broader scale, the 613 Biblical commandments include hundreds of details that were transmitted to us via the Oral tradition. Once again, these details are incorporated in the general Mitzvah found in the written Torah, but those are general principles that incorporate myriads of details.

Rabbinic legislation and custom added to the body of Jewish law manifold. Yet, like layers of an onion, each segment of law is layered upon the previous one. One is rooted in the other. Thus, the biblical laws are the precedent and root of the more specifically applied rabbinic law and custom.

Mastering the general principle requires deep acuity and broad vision. The sages of old possessed such terrific cerebral power as to master all the Torah’s broad ranging principles. It was said that the early sages literally mastered the entire corpus of Torah law. Such depth and breadth is no longer extent.[1] Contemporary scholars are far less capable than their predecessors. But today, such mastery is no longer necessary. The early sages mastered the general principles and articulated them for us. Now, that they are all documented in the Talmud and its commentaries our work is to tease out the specific applications embedded in those broad principles.

This doesn’t require vast brain power. It requires narrowly applied focus and analyses. In fact, vast computing power might even be a hindrance to today’s task. For example, a technician uses a wide wrench to grasp a large bolt. But a diamond cutter requires fine tweezers to manipulate the diamond. Should the diamond cutter use a wrench he would fail to gasp the diamond.

Today’s minds are narrower and shallower by design. The Divine Master Plan called for few, but vastly superior minds to study Torah in the distant past in order to map out the broad strokes of Torah law. The same Master Plan calls for many more, but shallower minds to study Torah in this age in order to tease out the myriads of specific applications from the larger principles. There are untold applications in these laws, which is why so many more Torah students are required for the task.

Modern Day Examples

When the Ancient Greeks discovered that rubbing fur on amber causes an attraction between the two they had no idea how many wonderful applications their discovery of electricity would lead to. Even Benjamin Franklin was clueless about the ways in which his experiments would improve modern life. It took Thomas Edison to invent the light bulb and many others to tease out its varied applications.

When Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft, it took of all two incredibly brilliant minds to conceive of what would become Microsoft. Today, Microsoft employs thousands of computer engineers to uncover the myriads of applications that derive from those broad principles. The same is true of the Internet and Social Media. When they were first introduced, we had no idea that they would have such a marked impact on the way we live. It took only one person to think of Facebook and two to think up Google, but today it takes thousands of employees to chart the applications of these masterful ideas.

Back to Torah Study

The same is true of Torah study. Once the broad strokes were mapped out, it became necessary to publish many books in order to suggest new approaches and new analyses in the application of the law. Some were accepted and others rejected, but that is the creative process. It was also necessary for these books to have a wider reach, which is why the Printing Press became available around that time.

As we inch closer to the completion of the project, when all the details are discovered and all the applications are developed, we come to the bottom of this barrel. The barrel is shaped like a pyramid. Narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. There are relatively few general principles, but there are trillions of specific applications of Torah laws and forms of Torah Study. This is why we have an unprecedented number of Torah students today and why we have an unprecedented delivery system, via the internet, for the vastly growing body of Torah information to the vast pool of Torah students.

When the project will be complete, Moshiach will arrive. That will be the end of time. Or in fact, the beginning.[2] At that point we will know for certain, what we only accept on faith for now. That everything that happens in the world, happens according to a plan. Everything in the right time and everything for the right reason. And that Torah doesn’t piggy back on the world. The world piggy backs on Torah.

[1] Mishnah Sotah 9: 9. These great minds were aware of the potential applications, but they didn’t draw them out.

[2] Then we will study Torah on a new unprecedented level. This essay is based on Toras Menachem 1966, p. 133.

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