Elul 5773/August 2013
Is It Right to Write?
Although ordinarily I devote my newsletters to mundane Torah Temimah business news, in light of the upcoming Yamim Noraim I am happily departing from my usual approach to elaborate on a relevant Torah theme.
Since I entered the publishing business, whenever I come across a topic that overlaps with publishing, it grabs my attention. Often, with insights gleaned from my new experiences, I am able to shed light on mysterious or seemingly insignificant statements. Recently, while researching the life of one of the Gedolim, I came across the following comment in a contemporary sefer.
He quotes the passuk near the end of Sefer Koheles (12:12) that says:
וְיֹתֵר מֵהֵמָּה בְּנִי הִזָּהֵר עֲשׂוֹת סְפָרִים הַרְבֵּה אֵין קֵץ וְלַהַג הַרְבֵּה יְגִעַת בָּשָׂר
The mefarshim disagree diametrically on how to explain this passuk. Some explain that Shlomo Hamelech is encouraging us to write sefarim, while others learn that he is discouraging us from doing so.
It would appear from here that every contemporary sefer printed could be problematic. According to some, the author is doing a mitzvah, while others would deem it the opposite.
Let’s try to understand this issue.
The Targum Yonasan states clearly that Shlomo Hamelech’s intention here is in favor of writing a lot of sefarim. He explains the passuk as follows: “Even more than this, my son, be careful to make an unlimited amount of books.” (Rashi is one of the leading mefarshim who opposed the proliferation of sefarim, but for reasons not relevant to this discussion.)
The Ibn Ezra, however, places the comma in a different place and explains the word עשות to mean מעשות. This is how he reads the passuk: “Even more than this, my son, be careful not to make many sefarim because there is no end to them.” He seems to be writing that he is opposed to the idea of writing a lot of sefarim.
Wait. What’s so terrible about writing a lot of sefarim?
Let’s ponder a different question: Which sefarim should we be learning? We certainly have a wide variety to choose from—those of Chazal (e.g, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and so on); Rishonim like the Rambam and Ramban; gedolei Acharonim such as the Ramchal and the Vilna Gaon; and those of contemporary talmidei chachamim.
Intellectually speaking, we would all agree that it is best to learn the Torah from its earliest sources. With all due respect to the Gedolim of later years, none can compare their works to those of the giants of previous generations. That is why, according to the Ibn Ezra, Shlomo Hamelech discouraged people from writing more sefarim—it is a distraction from the pursuit of the purest Torah available.
However, there is another way of looking at it—a practical perspective. Although it is ideal to be fluent in the classics before investing time and energy into the later works, most of us are more interested in more recent sefarim than in older ones. Learning a whole masechta doesn’t excite us as much as studying a juicy piece of Reb Chaim Brisker or kvetching on a single blatt of Gemara for a month until every detail is clear. Learning hilchos Shabbos from a sefer such as Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah captures our attention much more than learning the same halachos from a classic text, even from the Mishnah Berurah.
I can say for myself that when I was a teenager, one of the most influential sefarim I learned was Chovos Halevavos. To me, imbibing the author’s methodical analyses of our hashkafah based on pesukim, Chazal, and logic was like drinking pure spring water. But I am keenly aware of the preferences of today’s teens, and they have a different relationship to this sefer. To most of them, it’s more like drinking cod-liver oil! “It doesn’t speak to me,” they say. They enjoy reading more contemporary sefarim whose styles they find more dynamic and inspiring.
Does it not make sense that we should cater to the significant needs of our youth? Shouldn’t we encourage our most talented contemporary authors to write sefarim in their personal styles to inspire the next generation to continue growing in Yiddishkeit?
This, I believe, is the point of contention between the mefarshim: Should we continue to produce new sefarim that speak to the new generation, or is it better to restrict the youngsters and demand that they raise themselves to meet the expectations of the elders of the previous generations?
Who am I to voice an opinion and advise someone whether or not to write a sefer? What I would suggest is that before we commence a regular session of learning from a particular sefer, we should consult our rav or teacher to find out if this is the most appropriate one for us to be learning. Let’s be honest with ourselves and do a little soul-searching: are we setting our goals high enough? Maybe this year I am old enough, wise enough, and mature enough to raise my personal goals. Maybe this year I’m ready for a higher level of learning and a purer mode of behavior.
This is the beauty of the Rosh Hashanah season. We are challenged by the upcoming Day of Judgment to take a good, long look at ourselves and determine if we’re doing our best … or not. We’ve all had shortcomings and failures during the past year. But do we look back and recall how we overcame many difficult challenges? How many times did we say to ourselves, “I can’t,” but in the end we did?
Let’s try our best to begin the new year on a positive note. Let’s make this a year in which we have self-confidence in our ability not just to fall but also to rise to heights we’ve never before experienced.
Rabbi Eliyahu Miller
Publisher and General Editor