The future of the Sefer, the Jewish book, is currently uncertain, but not for the reasons you might think. Jews have been traditionally called the “People of the Book.” We maintained a culture of literacy even before public education became a societal goal. My non-Jewish business colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that my children learn to read Hebrew before English. Reading, particularly religious texts, is in our blood and our culture. In contrast to the Catholic Church’s pursuit of heresy among early translators of the Bible into English, Jews have generally treasured translations into the common language. We are commanded to read the weekly Torah portion with a translation, and we have an ancient tradition, albeit largely abandoned today, of reading the Bible in synagogue each week accompanied by a translation of each verse. Everyone, not just rabbis, must be well versed in the Torah.

The Future of the Sefer

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My article in the Spring 2011 issue of Jewish Action (link):

Is the Sefer History?

The future of the Sefer, the Jewish book, is currently uncertain, but not for the reasons you might think. Jews have been traditionally called the “People of the Book.” We maintained a culture of literacy even before public education became a societal goal. My non-Jewish business colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that my children learn to read Hebrew before English. Reading, particularly religious texts, is in our blood and our culture. In contrast to the Catholic Church’s pursuit of heresy among early translators of the Bible into English, Jews have generally treasured translations into the common language. We are commanded to read the weekly Torah portion with a translation, and we have an ancient tradition, albeit largely abandoned today, of reading the Bible in synagogue each week accompanied by a translation of each verse. Everyone, not just rabbis, must be well versed in the Torah.

The Talmud (Gittin 60b) says that, originally, only the Bible was allowed to be written. We must retain the oral nature of our other traditions. However, due to the danger of forgetting these sacred ideas, the Sages eventually permitted us to write them down. This led to the publication of the Mishnah and Gemara, Midrashim, and all subsequent Torah books. While there is a dispute today whether someone who publishes an unnecessary book violates this prohibition, everyone agrees with the vital importance, the national necessity, of publishing original Torah insights. So important is the publication of Torah books that we are told to set aside this prohibition rather than risk losing these ideas.

But Jewish book sales are down. On its own, this is unsurprising during a devastating economic downturn. When unemployment approaches 10 percent, it is hard to take a complaint about sagging book sales seriously. Financial difficulties do not restrain people from buying the must-have new book, the publication that excites their imaginations and draws them to bookstores, but such exceptions only prove the rule. Most books today languish on store shelves as cautious consumers spread their limited discretionary income ever more thinly. However, I think that something larger than penny-pinching is occurring. Even when the economy improves, there is a larger trend that may remain and jeopardize the future of the Sefer…

Continue here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

29 comments

  1. How about a maximization of the value of books? Artscroll, while a great company for what they do, really has a knack for turning a 5$ sefer into a 5 volume 150$ purchase.

  2. Raphael Kaufman

    I notice that you, like most folks, missuse the expression, “the exception that proves the rule.” T o”prove” in this context means “to test” not “to confirm”. A true rule has no exceptions and the truth of a rule is “proved” I.E. tested to see if there may be an exception. An exception that proves a rule is one that turns out to be no exception.

  3. >The solution to the Internet is to embrace it on our terms. If people process information differently, then books need to be written in a different way. We must produce books that accommodate the new way of reading. The “vort” genre, in which books consist of short Torah insights, is perfect for our unfocused generation.

    Gil, do you really think this abysmal vision you propose or predict is the “future of the sefer”? The “vort” genre?

  4. “But Jewish book sales are down.”

    for this statement what is considered a “jewish book”?
    and how are sales of these “jewish books” measured?

    “this is unsurprising during a devastating economic downturn.”

    well how does the decline of jewish book sales compare to non-jewish book sales? (although in the latter must one specify print or digital, because while print sales are down, how much is due to the economy and how much to ebooks?)

  5. S: For the general public, yes. For scholars, no.

  6. Abba: You can always slice and dice things more thinly and define things with greater precision. Do you have a point or just questions?

  7. GIL:

    as someone with an interest jewish bibliography they were just questions concerning which i was intested in some clarification.

    but your evasive response makes me wonder if i should have a point.

  8. Gil: For the general public, yes. For scholars, no.

    What is your solution for scholars? Surely scholars are also drowning in information.

  9. S:

    “What is your solution for scholars?”

    a byproduct of this in academia is ever increasing specialization.

  10. One minor quibble: Gutenberg invented movable type, not the printing press. Movable type drastically reduced the labor to set up each individual page to be printed. Prior to movable type, one needed a separate complete plate for each page, which had to be individually manufactured.

  11. So, let’s chunk this down:

    1. The

  12. So, let’s chunk this down:

    1. Key texts in their original form have been digitized, often with multiple editions available for comparisons that only those with access to scholarly libraries previously had.

    2. I suspect that modern translations are the primary sefarim business today; but without transparency from the publishers, it is difficult to validate this assumption.

    3. Then there is the popular trade for the various segments of Jewish books. Again, without transparency it is difficult to validate, but I would guess there are discrete market segments just as with any other niche books. While some of these may stand the test of time in the long run, few are genera,

  13. So, let’s chunk this down:

    1. Key texts in their original form have been digitized, often with multiple editions available for comparisons that only those with access to scholarly libraries previously had.

    2. I suspect that modern translations are the primary sefarim business today; but without transparency from the publishers, it is difficult to validate this assumption.

    3. Then there is the popular trade for the various segments of Jewish books. Again, without transparency it is difficult to validate, but I would guess there are discrete market segments just as with any other niche books. While some of these may stand the test of time in the long run, few are general Jewish Market that are essentials in a home Jewish canon library.

    Two other points:

    A) The extent to which Orthodoxy drives out those who don’t meet their standards, erode the potential Market for publishers of new books (category 3 above).

    B) The increasing rate of “banning” will erode the market further (e.g. Books by people no longer welcome at YU).

    As a final comment: I am very fi

  14. As a final comment, I am fond of the view that we are not the people of the book, but the people of the interpretation of the book.

    Apologies for the broken up message – ironically, I am getting used to an iPad while on the road in Israel this week.

  15. Danny Geretz:

    quibble on a quibble: the chinese and koreans had movable type hundreds of years before guttenberg, but it wasn’t practical for them. but this was ok, because they also had block printing, which they used to print mass circulated books again centuries well before guttenberg enabled europe to do the same with movable type.

    and of course in europe itself gutenberg may not have been the first to use movable type. of particular jewish/hebreic interest, google the hypoetheses concerning davinus de Carderouse of avignon and mair jaffe.

    IH:

    “without transparency from the publishers . . .”

    as i asked, what is the basis for gil’s assesment of the state of jewish publishing

  16. “a byproduct of this in academia is ever increasing specialization.”

    I’m in academia and it is true. The old joke, “we learn more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing” has a basis in fact.

  17. CHARLIE HALL:

    it is self evident from comparing the nature of phd dissertations written 50 years ago and those required today. many thesis proposals from 50 years ago wouldn’t even pass a first reading today because of subject broadness.

  18. Michael Feldstein

    Gil,

    One thing that you did not mention is the purchase of books as “furniture”, which i believe accounts for a significant amount of sales of seforim. Today, it’s imperative for any frum couple (regardless of where they might be on the hashkafa spectrum) to have a Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch, and Rambam on their bookshelves, even if they rarely or never open up these books and use them. All the growth of e-books and other seforim available online will not dramatically affect the “books as furniture” market.

  19. “Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch, and Rambam…”

    Sorry, but those examples you provided are the least likely to remain as “furniture” on a seforim shrank.

  20. I cannot agree with your conclusion that books have to be written differently. Torah was not meant to be learnt ‘easily’. One has to ‘toil’ over it. That is really the problem, that no one does that these days. Artscroll dont charge the full cost of a sefer to the public, but have people donating money to cover it.

  21. “to have a Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch, and Rambam on their bookshelves”

    I’ve been in homes with a Shas but no Tanach.

  22. Well, it was going to be a comment, but it grew.

    Main point – you write about psychological change and the publishing industry, but you avoid the looming elephant in the room – ebooks. Yes, you had a post in the past casually dismissing them, but they’re only going to grow – and whether Torah Judaism treats it as a threat, and makes itself more irrelevant thereby, or treats it as a challenge to be met, is going to be up to us and our children.

  23. A quibble and a comment:

    The quibble:

    Article: Financial difficulties do not restrain people from buying the must-have new book, the publication that excites their imaginations and draws them to bookstores, …

    _______

    Actually, I’m pretty sure that blockbusters are the ones that suffer most during a recession, as marginal readers refrain from buying and loyal readers continue to purchase.

    The comment:

    Tangentially, this topic might relate to derech halimud: perhaps, with so much information readily available, iyun should receive more attention (and I say this as a longtime bekius person). After all, it’s not like knowing on which daf something appears is as vaulable when everything is searchable.

  24. While the problem with Jewish book sales noted by R’ Gil is presumably true, the solution proposed is defeatist. Books should be principally about the transmittal of ideas, not cute vortlach. The latter’s natural medium is the internet or its more recent incarnations as Facebook and Twitter. It is defeatist to assume that people today, or, more specifically, the young generation aren’t interested in reading books or long articles. Traditional Jewish education is based on reading such material. If yeshiva/day school students really aren’t interest in their Jewish texts, that bespeaks a failure of the educational system. The solution is to train teachers to teach in a more interesting and relevant fashion rather than to admit defeat and to teach only from excerpts.

    Of course, a writer must strive for readability. Breaking a long article into short paragraphs, with or without headings is one approach. Similarly, dividing a book into short chapters makes for ease of reading and greater interest. An example of such writing is the highly popular “Da Vinci code” by Dan Brown.

  25. I would like to offer a dissenting POV from an otherwise well written and argued article, but one which IMO is flawed. I would add that perhaps I am commenting with a somewhat jaundiced eye since I have a Chavrusa who is a very loyal customer in Biegeleisen, and I spent a few afternoons while we were in Israel in December in such stores as Girsa, and the new stores of Feldheim and Manny’s, which have simply a superb across the board selection of Seforim and English Judaica-which there is a clear distinction in terms of the intended reader and purpose of publication. I suspect that like many posters here, I have made my annual pilgrimage to the SOY Seforim sale, which remains the gold standard in the US for prices for sets.

    1) At the outset, buying a sefer, at least according to the Rosh, as quoted by the Minchas Chinuch on the Mitzvah of Ksivas Sefer Torah, may very well be a Kiyum of Mitzvas Ksivas Sefer Torah, since Seforim are the main way of learning since the advent of the printing press. One of the best pre Guttenberg examples of dissemination of a vital commentary in pamphlet form would be none other than Rashi or Perush HaKuntres as cited by the Baalei HaTosfos throughout Shas. This is especially the case with the advent of well edited editions of Rishonim and Acharonim, which have rendered the old editions obsolete. The SOY Seforim sale, which sells sets and other major seforim at Israeli prices as well as stores of similar quality like Biegeleisen or Lishkas HaSefer in Monsey deserve patronage from the sefer buying public, as opposed to local stores that carry a limited range of Seforim, carry a lot of English Judiaca, some Tashmishei Mitzvah and Kedushah and what I would call “chatckes”. I further question whether merely clicking on pages and downloading a Talmudic passage, and downloading the same achieves any Kiyum in that regard.

    2) Accumulating a lot of Sefarim that collect dust on one’s bookshelf is viewed in a highly critical fashion and not evidence that the owner is in any way a Ben Torah, let alone a Talmid Chacham. As a corollary. merely because one can download seforim in part or their entirety neither renders the person who does so a Ben Torah or a Talmid Chacham. One needs years of learning from a rebbe and with great chavrusos before one can reach either level. I recently picked up a gorgeous edition of a wonderful sefer- the Psichah HaKolleles of the Pri Megadim-I can’t imagine how anyone could write a sefer of that caliber unless he is on the caliber of RHS or a similar Gadol BaTorah. Skimming a text without having a rebbe to know the ins and outs and a chavrusa to work on difficulties encountered cannot be considered a serious means of Talmud Torah.

    3) R Eytan Feiner and many other rabbanim extoll the purchase of seforim for many reasons. I would add a simple reason-online acesss to seforim, as in any other endeavor that is an online phenomenon, is always vulnerable to who controls the release of information, a not inconsiderable factor.

    4) I think that online Parsha sheets, and endeavors such as the Roundup should be considered as nothing more than an invitation to whet one’s appetite in “real” Limud HaTorah, just as one cannot serously contend that going thru the ArtScroll Shas with all of the comments, without digging into the sources quoted, cannot be considered a replacement for digging into a Rishon and working out what a Rishon is saying.

    5) There is a statement in the Talmud that Shabbos and YT were given so that those of us who work for a living can engage in serious learning. I think that such a statement is absolutely true, but I do feel that any yeshiva trained Baal HaBayis who works for a living should be capable of finding his portion in Talmud Torah without feeling spiritually inferior because he is not engaged in learning on a full time endeavor. I know that the Medrash extolls the roles of Yissacher and Zvulun, but the Rambam quotes sources that all Jews, regardless of their income and occupations, are supposed to find time to learn Torah. I think that reliance on web based Parsha sheets, as opposed to digging into a sefer, will not enhance a Jew’s being literate or appreciating the beauty of Talmud Torah.

    6) I agree that we are inundated with a lot of Seforim and Iternet based Parsha, Daf Yomi and Halacha style publications. What we need is a means of evaluating the same as to which are excellent, which either add unnecessary Kulos and Chumros without concern for Dikduk BaMitzvos , which have some interesting content, which are barely passable, and which should never have been published in the first place. R Zevin ZL wrote a two volume work , which was based on articles in HaTzofeh, which I have never seen reprinted-possibly because of the some comments therein about some of the sefarim and their authors. However, there is a real need for such a clearinghouse .

    As far as other posters comments, I see no conspiracy neither to publish nor to encourage authors not to write under the YU rubric. The OU Press and YU Press are publishing everything from seforim of RY in Lashon HaKodesh to English Halacha to English works on Parshas HaShavua that include a broad range of authors. Urim and Ktav also publish a broad range of authors. The real issues will be whether all of the above publishers can compete with ArtScroll, Feldheim, etc in the English Judaica market. I would add that I have seen no discussion over any possible Halachic issues with translating texts into a format whereby TSBP is now no longer the privilege and responsibility of Am Yisrael to transmit and learn, but now can be purchased at the click of a mouse by Gentiles as well, many of whom may not have a deep sense of Ahavas Yisrael.

  26. Steve — “conspiracy” misses the point.  It is simply a matter of the market.  The smaller the demand for a given title, the per-unit cost incurs a higher allocation of fixed costs.

    While profit may not be the deciding factor, demand will impact cost (and, in practice, price).

    The extent to which demand is constrained by peer pressure (“banning”) it must impact the economics of the Jewish book trade at least in regard to price; and decisions about whether or not to publish & market a given title.

  27. I just received a notice about this symposium on “The Jewish Book: Past, Present, Future”

    http://www.cjh.org/event/1759

  28. Let me add two other factors to this discussion:

    1)The publication of Sefarim is dependent on people willing to dedicate a Sefer for a Yahrtezeit, etc. I see no shortage of willing donors.

    2)One of the Mnahalim at a Seminary that is a huge feeder to SCW once called being dependent on internet parsha sheets and the like akin to a book burning.

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