Thursday, March 4, 2010

Proliferation of Seforim – Good or Bad?

Not that long ago, before the nuclear and Seforim proliferation age, there was a dearth of available texts in the Yeshivos. Rare was the Baal Habos who owned his own Shas. Bochurim needed to wait on line, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning to peruse the only dog-eared copy of Ketzos or Rashba that their yeshiva owned.

And this was in a time when printing was rampant. Take it back a few hundred years, before the printing press, and it was even more difficult to obtain the classic Talmudic texts and commentaries.

Fast forward to our era, when every Bar Mitzvah boy owns a Shas, we need to reflect on whether we are better off now or then.

One advantage to scarcity, is a stronger appreciation when you finally obtain the object. Memorization is more easily accomplished when required by necessity. Our generation is sorely lacking this skill.

Another related phenomenon that I’ve noticed in the past few years is the exponential growth of the photography industry. Standard film has become virtually nonexistent due to digital photography. While this has certainly made photo taking cheaper, the sad side effect is that although more and more photographs are being taken, less and less actually make it to a physical hard copy. I pity the person who stores all his memories on his hard drive, only to suffer the consequences of a hard drive crash.

My second grade Rebbe gave me a Tehillim as a prize for an ENTIRE year of effort. I cherished that little Tehillim, taking it wherever I went and tried to memorize portions of it. Today, such a gift would be meaningless. Every Chasunah or Bar Mitzvah participant receives an equivalent, if not nicer gift.

I might have 40,000 Seforim available on my hard drive, yet the Bochur of yesteryear probably learned more with only 100 Seforim at his disposal.

Newer editions of Seforim are produced every year. Better fonts, more footnotes, critical footnotes, square letters instead of Rashi script - so many improvements, but I somehow believe that the Yegiah of sweating it out with a Rashba from a bygone era, mistakes and all, is more conducive to productive learning.


  1. I would like to suggest that the last sentence should read "more conducive to a productive atmosphere of learning". L'maaseh people are learning the same thing. Supply and demand dictates means that something common is not valued, but it doesn't change what it is.

  2. Thank you for your suggestion. But if I were to incorporate your idea, it wouldn't be my blog anymore. Good Shabbos.

  3. I didn't mean to interfere, I was just venting my personal take on learning, where I feel comfortable with my lack of trying hard, which is not a barrier to my learning itself, rather just my application to it. My apologies.

  4. No apology necessary. Comment early and often, as I once read from the great Bray.

  5. It sounds like you're comparing, say, 100 years ago to today. While you're not wrong, the 19th century was like a supernova of Hebrew printing. You could have written the exact same "post" 100 years ago. By 1910 standards the proliferation of seforim in that time were ridiculous compared to 1810. So unless the contention is that we're devolving into donkeys . . .

    Rather, I think there are many more partial scholars today than there were then. I also think the sea of thousands of scholars back then contained more than a few who would not hold up so well today. I say this even though I too am roundly impressed by some of the scholars of earlier generations.

    However, I know what you mean about the change. As a kid I had my handful of favorites and I read every precious bit over and over and over again, and I digested information and thought about it and analyzed it every which way. This is completely different from how I process avalanches of information today, and my children will likely never have that experience. However, I still don't think humankind is devolving into donkeyhood, so I'm not so concerned. I bet if you'd show anyone from 150 years ago 40,000 books on one screen they'd cry tears of joy, not sadness.

    Still, I'm reminded of Plato's discussion of the invention of writing and the contention that it is "not a potion for remembering, but for reminding" and it gives "the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality." see here. Of course the point is that 2500 years ago Plato wrote your post.

  6. S.

    Think about the vinyl records or tapes of your youth. There was such a dearth of Jewish music that the few available recordings were memorized to perfection. Books were read over and over again, almost to the point of total recall.

    With the flood of reading material available nowadays, and the proliferation of music, compounded by the availability due to the IPOD, I highly doubt that future generations will retain what they heard and what they read for as long.

  7. As for someone from 150 years ago coming back to addition to the 40,000 Seforim that will totally shock them...will be the radio, automobile, television, airplane, internet, sidewalks, paved roads, plumbing...

  8. This is the big question. People have been speculating what the sea change in how we take in information will do to civilization. I see no reason to be particularly pessimistic, although I do wish kids could no what it means to listen to an album with the songs in order, having been placed that way specifically. What it means to read something over 40 times because you find it so interesting, and that's the only bit of information on the topic that you have; the deductions and inferences you make when limited like that.

    On the other hand, the trade off could well be worth it. It's hard to believe that we achieved that perfect blend of convenience and old school hard work and deep analysis in our younger years. It's also hard to believe that any specific point in time had it all in the right measure.


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