As a child, I was taught to treat books with reverence; to handle them with care… to put them down in a respectable place; never to put a banal object on top of a book. And if a book happened to fall to the floor, which in itself was an unhappy event, I would pick up the book and kiss it. In our culture, books were a vehicle of knowledge, and knowledge represented the elegance of the human being.
We have many old books that have been copied from generation to generation. They have been copied with great care and as exactly as humanly possible. These books were copied by scribes using a quill and ink prepared according to ancient tradition, and inscribed on parchment. In our time, ancient remains of books have been found, and when compared to the copied texts available today, the texts have been almost identical. Of all the books, the most precious and revered of them all, are the five books of Moses. In the event that one of these books falls to the floor, it is common for the whole community to declare a day of fast. People are overcome by sorrow because of the disrespect to the book. But this has happened only very rarely in our history.
On the other hand, the way these scrolls are usually treated is characterized by joy and friendship. The scrolls themselves are dressed in clothing, and often have a crown at their head. Occasionally, a wealthy person will commission a scribe to copy these five books of Moses, which we call the book of torah. Sometimes the copy is dedicated to the memory of a loved one, or to the memory of an event. Such books, written on parchment, can be found in private homes, in schools, and in synagogues. When such a book is given to a synagogue, the event is seen as something like a marriage between the book and the community. The book is carried in the arms of different members of the congregation, and there is singing and dancing along the way.
When the book reaches the synagogue which will be its home, the books within the synagogue are taken out of their special closet, and they approach the new book in the arms of the congregation, and welcome the new book. Music is played, and the devout dance and sing in honor of the occasion.
Yesterday evening, I was visiting with Chana at her village, outside of Jerusalem, and as we approached the close of the day, we went out with the dog, so that she could do her business in nature. After Bonnie had taken care of business, we continued to walk around the village. It was a day in which we celebrated the new moon. Ours is a lunar calendar, and a new moon means a new month, and it’s a happy day. All of a sudden we heard cheery music, highly amplified and filling the air.
We walked in the direction of the music, and saw a van moving down a side street, decorated with numerous symbols of our people and our faith, and with crowns above it, illuminated with many little colored lights, and loudspeakers broadcasting the music. And behind the van was a wagon, and on the wagon a book of the five books of Moses inscribed on parchment, and around the wagon were common villagers in their everyday clothes, singing and dancing.
We approached the celebration, and followed at a respectable distance. This was a holy assembly. Men were in one group, and women were in another. The two of us with a dog in tow were in a separate category altogether. But our hearts were with the congregation. And as the procession made its way through the village, more and more people joined the celebration. I was reminded of such scenes I had seen in Jerusalem, where thousands of people had lined the streets to pay their respects to the new book. On an occasion such as this, children will dance in the street. Police close down the streets where the procession will pass, and police cars are seen moving very slowly, with their blue lights blinking as they protect the festivities, and move at the speed of the walking and dancing public.
I thought of the many years of our history, and how we had continued this tradition of love for our books even in foreign lands, when we were in exile… sometimes very modestly, for fear of recriminations by hostile neighbors. And I was very moved by the sight of this ancient ceremony taking place at a time when even books printed on paper seem a little old fashioned, and a great many people read ebooks and articles on digital devices and telephones. I myself enjoy the new media, and take pleasure in my computer and Kindle. But there is something very special about reading an ancient book written in our own language on parchment. And how wonderful it is to see such a celebration in honor of a book.