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Books That Speak

Books That Speak

The 5th of Tevet

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My husband, Asher, is a bibliomaniac. Yes, it is a real word. Just look it up in the dictionary. As Webster writes, it is “one who has a mania for books.” When we were dating, he tried to warn me, but I had no idea what he meant. I mean, he told me he loved books and had a lot of them. But I also told him I loved books and had a lot of them. To me, “a lot” meant that the entire bookshelf was filled with books, as opposed to pottery, photo albums or knickknacks. To him it meant that floor-to-ceiling bookshelves took up the entire apartment, and that closets and the space under beds were also designated as book storage areas.

Books are not only to be read, but they speak as well

But over the years, I have come to understand my husband’s relationship with his books. You see, to him, books are not objects. Books are our connection to our past, our history, our people, our survival and our future. They tell stories, give meaning, provide a foundation, and ground us. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, of righteous memory, would teach of the importance of having a house filled with holy books, a bayit malei sefarim, and he meant it. What greater wallpaper than the words of our ancestors?

Original title page of Emek HaMelech, published in Amsterdam, 1648.
Original title page of Emek HaMelech, published in Amsterdam, 1648.

I have witnessed firsthand that books are not only to be read, but that they speak as well. Sometimes very loudly. In our home we are blessed to have Jewish texts that have survived for hundreds of years, some which were smuggled through the Holocaust, others which escaped the fires of the Inquisition, all filled with the writings, notes, wax droppings and fingerprints of generations past.

But we have two books in particular that move me like no others. They are not the rarest nor the most impressive. One is filled with the holing of worms who have tried to eat their way through. But nonetheless, they are my favorites. For these books represent to me how, through all our individual and collective travels in our lives, we will always find our way back home.

My husband found the first book, Emek HaMelech (The Valley of the King), when a library in Israel, after many years, sold its contents. The book is a work of Kabbalah, written by Naftali Bacharach, and is one of the earliest presentations of the teachings of the great Renaissance-era master of Kabbalah, Rabbi Isaac Luria. This book was published in Amsterdam in 1648, the same year as the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland, in which tens of thousands of Jews (half of Poland’s Jewish community) were brutally murdered. In contrast, this was also the time of Descartes, six years before the naming of New York City and six years after Galileo died.

Letter in back of the book Emek HaMelech, dated 1721.
Letter in back of the book Emek HaMelech, dated 1721.

This book had been well preserved, in part thanks to it having been kept for so long in this library. When we first looked at it, we discovered a letter in the back of the book. The letter, handwritten, was dated 1721, and was a dedication that reads:

This book, called Emek HaMelech, was given to me as a gift, on condition that I learn from it and that I remember their names for good things in our holy city of Hebron. May their merit be doubled from Heaven. I write this now here, on the 15th day of the month of Cheshvan, in the year 5482 (1721). And also to remember the name of the honorable and modest woman of valor, the rebbetzin Bila, of whom it is said that she is the daughter of a woman who has happiness from her children.

We took the book to an expert on rabbinic handwriting

We took the book to an expert on rabbinic handwriting, and he determined that it matched the writing of David Melamed, who went out together with Rabbi Yisrael Cohen to Holland, Venice, and then, in the year 1721 (when he wrote the inscription) to Germany. They had left from Hebron in 1718 to raise money for the community there.

It was customary to write an inscription at the end of a book when one finished learning it. So the assumption is that he was given the book in Hebron, and it stayed with him throughout all his travels. When he finished reading it, in 1721, he then wrote the dedication in the merit of those for whom he had learned.

Original cover page of Brit Menuchah, published in Amsterdam, 1648.
Original cover page of Brit Menuchah, published in Amsterdam, 1648.

Ten days after this book came to adorn our shelves, my husband received a call from someone who knew he had a love for these rare texts. He had a book, one that was in terrible condition, eaten by worms, that had been dug out of a genizah, a specially designated place where Jewish books and religious items are buried when they are no longer usable. He found this one text in particular, and thought that my husband would be someone who could appreciate it.

My husband is known as one who is always trying to rescue Jewish books. Sadly, of the relatively few Jewish texts that have survived the wars and pogroms, now many of these Torah works are either being neglected, lost or destroyed. Asher has made it one of his causes to find these texts and give them proper homes. Sometimes we are able to take them in ourselves; other times he finds adoptive parents looking to host and love one of these rare texts.

So, needless to say, when we received the call that there was a book in desperate need of a shelf to stay on, we were interested in seeing what it was. What we found was a book that was barely readable, as worms had worked their way through most of the text. I watched as my husband caringly looked throughout the pages, when suddenly he froze.

I watched as my husband caringly looked throughout the pages

Upon looking at the title page, which miraculously hadn’t been damaged, he noticed that the text, called Brit Menuchah (The Covenant of Peace), had also been printed in Amsterdam, and also in 1648. Additionally, this was a work of Kabbalah, which in itself was extremely rare for such printings, and records show that these two books were printed very close together, and may have very well been in the same printing house in Amsterdam.

Dedication on the back of the title page of Brit Menuchah, dated 1721.
Dedication on the back of the title page of Brit Menuchah, dated 1721.

Then, on the back of the title page, there was once again a handwritten letter, in a very different script from the first. This letter said:

I have given this book to Rabbi David Melamed from the Holy Land, from the city of Hebron, and today is the Hebrew month of Sivan, 5481 (1721).

What this means is that both of these books, which came into our possession ten days apart from one another, were both printed in Amsterdam in 1648 and somehow made their way to David Melamed around the year 1718, accompanied him on his travels throughout Europe, and then the two books parted ways at some point after 1724 (which was when he returned to Hebron).

Now, according to the stamps and signatures, it appears that the first book had been in Warsaw and Russia before returning to Israel, where it spent many years in a library. The second book was most likely in Morocco until it returned to Israel.

All the indications point to this: these books, printed 363 years ago, in the same city, and owned by the very same person, were separated from one another for at least 250 years, until that amazing day, a few years ago, when we stood in our Jerusalem apartment and reunited them on our shelf.

Pages that have been eaten by worms.
Pages that have been eaten by worms.

We are not quite sure how we merited to be the recipients of these treasures, or what our connection may have been to its owner. But one more thing that is really unbelievable is that the person who was sent out from Hebron after David Melamed was a man by the name of Yom Tov Crispo. He left Hebron around 1724 and traveled to Italy.

It is hard to know for sure, but our last name is Crispe (originally Crispo)—and my husband’s family is Italian . . .

When the Rebbe would stress that every Jewish family should have a house filled with books, The books themselves—the paper, the binding, the history—are holy it was not solely for the knowledge they contain. While their meaning and teachings are of incredible importance, the books themselves—the paper, the binding, the history—are holy. These books are not just our friends; they are our famiy. For the Jews are the People of the Book.

This very week, we celebrate the importance of Jewish texts and their utmost relevance in our lives. Hei Tevet (the 5th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet), is referred to by Chabad chassidim as Didan Notzach, meaning, “We were victorious!” This is the day when the U.S. court ruled that the Chabad Library belonged to the chassidim, not to one individual person. In large part, the ruling was a result of the testimony of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, who stated that just as the Rebbe belongs to his chassidim, so too do the books belong to the chassidim.

Being victorious means learning that true ownership comes not from what you physically have, but from what you internalize and make your own. For the stories that books tell go far beyond what lies in the pages.

Didan Notzach is celebrated through purchasing new books for the family, and increasing in one’s learning of these texts. Needless to say, this is my husband’s favorite day of the year. Now only if we had more wall space . . .

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Marni Linden New York January 2, 2017

Another bibliophile What a wonderful story! My husband is also a bibliophile and we have overcrowded bookcases in every room of our home. At one time we had a phone number just one digit different than the Jewish Public Library's. When someone called our number in error I was often tempted to say, "Well, we are Jewish and we do have lots of books!" Reply

Malkie Jerusalem December 28, 2014

Unbelievable! Beautiful! I know a family who lived for years in a small apt. in Jerusalem. The walls were covered in books, until there was room for no more. Baruch Hashem, at that point they were blessed to moveinto a large apartment. Now they have more room for more sefarim! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 14, 2014

Passover: EXODUS I just came back to this. It's a Circulating "thing" as books do circulate, as blood does circulate, as we are known as, The People of the Book, as I just heard Merima Kjuco play the accordion to music and piano, music she had written, in a Jewish Music Offering, called The Sarajevo Haggadah, and Geraldine Brooks was present. She wrote a novel, called People of the Book, based on the peregrinations of an ancient Haggada through time. This particular post, is exquisite, meaning the author's and I am thinking I am meant to be here now, reading further, what others are saying. How beautifully some of their lives are weaving into her story.

There's a GREATER HAND in all stories. I think we're in agreement here, on these Chabad Pages. I think what might be different, is that I am gifted a story that is racing around the world, that has everything to do with all names, all naming, all words, the sacred alphabets around the world, and how, in the beginning was the WORD.

"HUG" Sameach! Reply

don zeman san diego April 12, 2014

This story is only the tip of the iceberg to a much bigger story. In my research, this has proven to be the missing link. Thank you. Reply

Kim UK December 19, 2012

Wonderful Story I loved reading this because me and my husband have exactely the same relationship, our story is the same as yours! When I met him he had floor to ceiling books... Funny how things change, now he has a very modest whole wall of works from The Talmud to the Brit Menucha but also has terrabytes of massive e-libraries of jewish works, the drives that hold thousands if books can fit in the palm of my hand!! And they are all searchable through one programme! The power of technology eh? Thanks again for the story. So exciting to find treasures. Reply

Linda Ireland December 17, 2012

I really enjoyed reading this. It was great to hear that both books ended up in your care. I do have a question however: are you going to make sure that there is visual copies made to share and store elsewhere in case of fire etc. etc.? There are so many natural disasters these days that it pays to be prepared. Reply

Lilach Melamed Gaash, Israel September 17, 2012

the Melamed Family What an amazing story! my name is Lilach Melamed, all my ancient family is from Hebron. i'm invastigating the family routs the past 2 years and recieved the link to your story from one of the melamed Family i found in USA. appriciate if you can get in touch with me and allow me to face the text of my great great great great grandfather. Shana Tova! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 4, 2012

re books that speak: Anonymous above Dear Anonymous,

I just read your story. So beautiful, about the unknown man how returned your siddur.

How "con siddur" ate of him.

Truly a lovely story! It seems so wonderful, to have these to treasure, as you treasured this book. Reply

Davida Baltimore, Maryland December 30, 2011

Beautiful Thank you for this gorgeous story - a personal memoir that takes us through many centuries and many insights. It's fascinating and full of charm. If each of us is a living book with our stories and chapters, was the Rebbe also giving a bracha that we should make a home filled w/ many people, to be read, loved, and treasured? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 29, 2011

voices from our past I am coming back to this again, because i think this story typifies so much that is a LOVE of books, a reverence for those who came before, of sacred texts, and the need to preserve our heritage. For me, as for you and your husband, books are living things. They speak and in 'volumes'. It's wonderful to read the commentaries here, which do form their own kind of book, being also similar Love stories.

I worry about books all going electronic, but then, it's a way to preserve the words, and also pictures. But there is nothing like the feel and heft of a book in one's hands. And the dusty musty old volumes, with their often hand-made, beautifully tooled covers, tell a story and that story is also contained in the art of making books, the love of putting pages together, of binding them. I think the "spines" of books are surely about love itself, especially the old Kabbalist texts, the texts of antiquity. We do time travel with "them", these ancient wise authors. It's about LOVE and ROSES. Reply

Joy Krauthammer Northridge, CA, USA December 28, 2011

Treasured old books I mamash love your book story.
I live in a bayit malei sefarim, with large, and built in book cases overflowing in every room. The best times were when Phil, the owner's son of the North Hollywood book store, House of David, greeted me entering the shop. He let me know that he had the best books waiting for me. I'm grateful for them. The book seller knew what my soul would love.
I loved it when one of my shuls met for classes at Roth's bookstore in LA's Pico Robertson; Teachers would come from Jerusalem. It is sad for me not to see that store anymore. My shul's rabbi, Stan Levy, understood the importance of holding classes in a bookstore; He then founded LA's Academy of Jewish Religion.
Learning now hours every day on computer, I miss the days where I totally surrounded myself with my books. Last night, 8th night of Chanukah at my Northridge Chabad, Rebbetzin Tzippy Rivkin had Rosh Chodesh books for us to read.
My husband, z'l, and I would argue over who would inscribe book gifts. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 28, 2011

We People Of The Book This is one of those amazing stories that rises from the yeast of our lives--beautiful in the extreme and so redolent of love--love of learning, love of those who passed before, love of books! And it is a Love Story. I see a Greater Hand all over this beautiful tale.

Strangely, or not so strangely, shortly before coming to this I had written of my father's love of books, how when I visited a new friend he would, invariably ask, "Tell me, do they have many books?" He always wanted to know. His deep legacy to me had everything to do with books and that love. I wish I could read most books in my most favorite of haunts, the bookstore.

Thank You again for a most Remarkable story out of your life! Reply

Anonymous Winston-Salem, NC December 28, 2011

love of books Having been trained as a librarian/archivist, I deeply enjoyed your article!

Hopefully, these rare, sacred volumes will receive the care they so richly deserve.

Thank you so much for sharing! Reply

staff jerusalem, israel December 28, 2011

Good old days We miss you both @ Mayanot, you both were the best.

What a couple and we mean it.

Fans Reply

Yehudit olam hazeh December 27, 2011

What a story! But what is the kabbalah that your husband received? What is he being asked to learn by his ancestor?? May we merit this learning passing through Asher's hands. Reply

ברכה ביילע רבקה NJ December 25, 2011

Bibliomania Wow... Now, I know what I am--a bibliomaniac! Thank you for sharing; this is a wonderful article. Reply

Molly Resnick New York, USA December 12, 2010

Just perfect Thank you very much for this fascinating gift of an article for Hei Teves. Reply

P. Huff via chabadpasadena.com April 30, 2007

You are such a gifted writer Sara. I think you write not just for yourself but to bring out expression in other people. I enjoy all of your inspirations. Reply

KS Montreal, QC January 3, 2007

Touching History Sounds like some incredible Divine Providence is at play here (even before you mentioned the Crispo connection!). This essay reminds me of another that I read this past summer in the Aryeh Kaplan Reader. He too had a tremendous love for books and was dedicated to collecting and preserving ancient texts. A whole other fascinating aspect of our history as a people... Reply

Anonymous January 2, 2007

books that speak once while praying at the wild tides of la jolla beach ,in winter solitude, the waves consumed my siddur. i leapt up the rocky cliffs and prayed for my siddur the one thing i felt i had left,to hold onto in that sorrowful time[a broken engagement].on this winter day only one sole man appeared in the distance, fom down the shoreline. as he steadily approached me and asked,"is this yours"? it was my beloved siddur. but who was he? Reply

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