Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, our ancestors made do with hand-written manuscripts. With the invention of the printing press, the number of Torah books increased dramatically. This raises an interesting philosophical question: Were many more Torah books authored because the printing press was invented, or was the printing press invented because G‑d knew that Torah scholars were poised to write many more books?

If you subscribe to the faith principle of Divine Providence, whereby all events are orchestrated by G‑d Almighty, then you may believe the latter. In other words, G‑d could have orchestrated the invention of the printing press earlier in history, if it was going to have such an impact on Torah study. But G‑d knew that at that particular point in time, there were a great number of Torah books about to be authored, so the Divine Master Plan called for the invention of a printing press in the 15th century.

Principle and Applications

To understand why it was mystically necessary for a plethora of new Torah books to be published around the time that Gutenberg invented the printing press, it is necessary to begin at the beginning.

G‑d gave us the Torah in 10 Commandments. Our sages demonstrated that all 613 mitzvahs are included in the 10 Commandments. The Commandments are thus seen to be general principles that can be applied in 613 ways.

On a broader scale, the 613 biblical commandments include hundreds of details that were transmitted to us via the Oral Tradition. Once again, these details are incorporated in the general mitzvahs found in the Written Torah.

Rabbinic legislation and custom added to the body of Jewish law manifold. Like layers of an onion, each segment of law is layered upon the previous one. Thus, the biblical laws are the precedent and root of the more specifically applied rabbinic law and custom.

Now, there is a belief in Judaism that as the generations progress further away from Sinaic revelation, our ability to comprehend the Torah fades and becomes weakened. “If the previous generations were like the sons of angels, then we are mere humans; and if they are like humans, then we are like donkeys,” stated the sages of the Talmud.1

Mastering the general principle requires deep acuity and broad vision. The sages of old possessed such terrific cerebral power as to master all the Torah’s broad-ranging principles. It was said that the early sages literally mastered the entire corpus of Torah law. Such depth and breadth is no longer extant.2

In the words of Rabbi Yochanan: “The first ones had hearts [minds] like the entrance of the grand hall of the Holy Temple; the latter ones, like the inner [smaller] chamber; and ours are like the eye of a needle.”3

Contemporary scholars are far less capable than their predecessors. But today, such mastery is no longer necessary. The early sages mastered the general principles and articulated them for us. Now that they are all documented in the Talmud and its commentaries, our work is to tease out the specific applications embedded in those broad principles.

This doesn’t require vast brain power. It requires narrowly applied focus and analysis. In fact, vast computing power might even be a hindrance to today’s task. For example, a technician uses a wide wrench to grasp a large bolt. But a diamond cutter requires fine tweezers to manipulate the diamond. Should the diamond cutter use a wrench, he would fail to grasp the diamond.

Today’s minds are narrower and shallower by design. The Divine Master Plan called for few, but vastly superior, minds to study Torah in the distant past in order to map out the broad strokes of Torah law. The same Master Plan calls for many, but more ordinary, minds to study Torah in this age in order to tease out the myriads of specific applications from the larger principles. There are untold applications in these laws, which is why so many more Torah students are required for the task.

Modern Day Examples

When the Ancient Greeks discovered that rubbing fur on amber causes an attraction between the two, they had no idea how many wonderful applications their discovery of electricity would lead to. Even Benjamin Franklin was clueless about the ways in which his experiments would improve modern life. It took Thomas Edison to invent the lightbulb, and many others to tease out its varied applications.

It took all of two incredibly brilliant minds to conceive of what would become Microsoft. Today, Microsoft employs thousands of computer engineers to uncover the myriads of applications that derive from those broad principles. The same is true of Facebook, Google and many other companies. It takes only a few innovative people to come up with the fundamental concepts, but it takes thousands of people to develop these masterful ideas.

Back to Torah Study

The same is true of Torah study. Once the broad strokes were mapped out, it became necessary to publish many books in order to suggest new approaches to the application of the law. Some were accepted and others rejected, but that is the divinely orchestrated creative process. It was also necessary for these books to have a wider reach, which is why the printing press became available around that time.

Think of Torah study as a pyramid—narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. There are relatively few general principles, but there are trillions of specific applications of Torah laws. Throughout history, we have been working to complete this pyramid (from the top down), and now we are completing the base. This is why we have an unprecedented number of Torah students today and why we have an unprecedented delivery system, via the Internet, for the vastly growing body of Torah information.

When the project will be complete, Moshiach will arrive. That will be the end of time. Or, in fact, the beginning.4 At that point, we will know for certain what we only accept on faith for now. That everything that happens in the world happens according to a plan—everything in the right time and everything for the right reason. And that Torah doesn’t piggyback on the world. The world piggybacks on Torah.