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    ancient scroll

    From Scrolls to Scrolling in Synagogue

    The way we read scripture has changed. Or has it?

    By J. L. Wall

    June 12, 2024

    I. The Shul

    Walk into a synagogue on a weekday morning, and you’ll see three cultures of reading coexisting. Weekday services include a brief Torah reading, so at the front or center of the room you’ll find the oldest: the scroll of the sefer Torah.

    Now look around: this is also the land of the codex. Congregants sit and follow the text of the Torah from the final pages of a siddur. Or perhaps they’ve pulled a volume from a shelf, and their eyes move from text to commentary to text. If I’m there, I’ve probably found something else. In the local Chabad House, there’s a short selection of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik’s essays that I’m slowly working through. Not distraction, exactly; just study of a different sort.

    Then there are the phones. Hebrew letters flare, black against a blue-hued white, as someone nearby pulls up the prayers. He davens quickly and periodically pauses to wait on the rest of us before proceeding, a minute here, ten seconds there. During these waiting times, the screen switches over and his thumb scrolls, scrolls, scrolls through a social media feed. I can’t see clearly enough to read what he pauses at. When I look around, I see he’s not the only one.

    II. The Scroll

    The earliest papyrus scrolls date back more than three millennia. In ancient Rome, public officials would read announcements from the vertically oriented rotulus. The one before us in shul is a volumen: that is, it rolls horizontally, right to left. It is pure animal product: roughly fifty sheets of hide parchment, sewn together with the hair or sinew of a kosher animal. Each sheet contains about five columns of forty-two lines each. The margins are exact: three inches at the top, four at the bottom, and two at the right and left.

    Once, all books, whether scrolls or codices, were handcrafted objects. Now, a sefer Torah must be, while the bound texts in the pews are mass produced. A single scribe, or sofer, has labored for a year, using a feather stylus to ink exactly 304,805 letters. He begins by lightly scoring horizontal lines across the parchment to guide his handwriting, then blesses his act, and begins to write: slowly, deliberately.

    Its reading is as ritualized as its production. The ba’al kriyah chants the words, vowelless and unpunctuated, according to the grammatically structured musical notations of Torah trop. Beside him, helping to hold the sefer Torah open, is the congregant who has said the blessing over the reading. At either end of the table on which the Torah lies, two more congregants stand, checking his words against the text in bound volumes. The reading takes at least three, often four people at a time – up to seventeen participants over the course of a Shabbat service. This is not private reading, but a group ceremony.

    ancient scrolls

    Ancient handwritten Torah scrolls from Yemen. Shay Fogelman / Alamy Stock Photo.

    This scroll is the technology of the classical world, of Roman bureaucrats and Homer’s steady temporal progression, once he was written down. Even its physical form implies continuity: it’s difficult, a process, to jump from place to place. Judaism’s rituals emphasize that continuity: though time progresses steadily from beginning to end, the narrative always circles back on itself.

    On Simchat Torah, when the last lines of Deuteronomy are read, the congregation immediately returns to the beginning. The narrative has ended but the story has not, recurring in every generation: our father, the wandering Aramean; Pharaoh’s hardened heart; we too were slaves in the land of Egypt. Political philosopher Michael Walzer has compared this experience of time to a spiral: history progresses, but also recurs. It’s a temporal experience that, as Cynthia Ozick observes, allows for the metaphors that shape Judaism’s moral imagination. “As thyself,” she notes, is the Bible’s “commanding metaphor” – a moral charge rejecting seeing the other as the Roman hostis and Greek xenos in favor of regarding them as the strangers and slaves we once were, or are. Such metaphor, she observes, relies on memory – the historical memory of the Torah. It is a moral imagination grounded in the rituals that allow the sefer Torah to contain past and future within the present.

    III. The Codex

    The codex offers a different relationship to time. You can hold a book’s pages, flip back and forth with ease. You can pause, put in a bookmark, and come back later. You can read the ending first and know who the killer was all along.

    The text of the Torah, writes Emmanuel Levinas, “contains more than it contains … perhaps an inexhaustible surplus of meaning. … Exegesis would come to free, in these signs, a bewitched significance that smolders beneath the characters or coils up in all this literature of letters.” The codex, at least in Judaism, has become the technology of this exegesis, transforming the ability to move back and forth in time into something else – a kind of simultaneity in which past and future once again find themselves contained in the present.

    This was not always the case. The books we call the Talmud began as an oral tradition in which the human self, breath and bone, was the means of record and of exegesis. An oral Torah, Judaism maintains, was given to Moses at Sinai along with, and as an elucidation of, the written Torah of the scroll. This was transmitted, studied, and explained from memory, students and teachers swaying to the melodies of the law, until the destruction of the Second Temple. Its aftermath saw the dispersal of the Jewish people, the destruction of houses of study, and the execution of great scholars. Preservation and continuity demanded writing.

    The effects of scrolling don’t tell us the whole story, that of the history of reading and of the interactions between secular technology and sacred texts.

    Thus developed the Mishna in the form we know it today. The second-century labor of Yehuda HaNasi initially served as both a codification and a study aid, organizing its precepts into six orders, sixty-five tractates, and 525 chapters. All, of course, in manuscript: handwriting. The Gemara developed during the next several centuries, records of the academies of Babylon and Jerusalem, their exegesis of the Mishna. Over time, the other voices that we find today on the pages of the Talmud began to speak, offering exegesis upon exegesis, though not, originally, on the same physical page.

    Just as the sefer Torah transforms the scroll’s steady progression to circularity, the Talmud insists not just that past and present can speak to each other, but that they always are. The Torah contains more than it contains – and all this, even the exegesis, was given at Sinai. Those conversations include voices ranging from the reign of the Second Triumvirate through late antiquity, arranged to argue, discuss, and sling puns across time and space as if each knew or could anticipate the others. The codex, or at least writing, is the technology that enabled the past to speak with the present, for the rabbis of the Diaspora to break bread with their dead.

    This process was gradual. Manuscript codices facilitated exegesis alongside codification, and early biblical manuscripts often contain brief textual notes on grammar, rare words, textual variants. But this was not their primary function.

    The great change was the printing press. Gutenberg had printed his Bible by 1455. The Talmud as we know it began its life in 1520 when Daniel Bomberg started work on a complete printed Talmud.

    So it came to pass that in the Venetian workshop of a Christian printer, the Talmud became the apogee of the codex, the most significant example of its technological difference from the scroll (and, indeed, of the printed codex from the manuscript). Today, we still follow Bomberg’s imagining of what the printed page could be and do. The Mishna and Gemara appear at its center, a column of continuous conversation enveloped in a ring of commentary: Rashi in his place of distinction, at the upper left-hand portion of each page, in “Rashi script” – a font the great commentator never used, but which Bomberg chose to help visually distinguish portions of the page. Opposite him, the comments of the medieval French Tosafists, many Rashi’s own students. Jewish printers gradually corrected Bomberg’s textual errors and omissions, revising and adding commentaries to the pages. If you open a volume today, the page you look at will likely be a variation on the late nineteenth-century Vilna editions. Typesetters and the printing press reshaped the role of the codex in Judaism. Voices separated by thousands of years and miles greet each other on the page as if they have always been and always will be in conversation.

    The Torah contains more than it contains – and that includes, you find when learning Gemara, your own encounter.

    IV. Scrolling

    The first transformation of “scroll” from noun to verb occurred in the early 1600s. To scroll was to write in a physical scroll. Our sense of “scrolling” doesn’t appear until the 1970s, when we began scrolling through text on a screen in the smooth, frictionless, and pageless manner. The metaphor is revealing in the way it misunderstands the scroll. There are, in a sefer Torah, if not pages, at least sheets. Their seams show. Our metaphor also forgets the physical act of reading. Even the Roman bureaucrat with his rotulus, scrolling vertically, as we do on screens, would feel his arms begin to tire and his grip loosen with the sweat on his palms beneath the sun.

    Now we doomscroll through a text without beginning or end, with only the barest physicality: the touch of a fingertip. Scroll, scrolling: and ten minutes, half an hour have disappeared. We scroll to fill, and then to kill, time. It’s the nightmare inversion of Wordsworth’s reveries, technology manipulating the mind’s ability, in wonder or delight, to step outside itself to something perhaps higher. Our self-mesmerism lets us step outside ourselves – to nowhere.

    ancient manuscript

    The Sassoon Codex is one of the oldest biblical manuscripts, an 1,100-year-old leather bound, handwritten parchment containing almost the full Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Nir Alon / Alamy Stock Photo.

    If the scroll and the codex enable circularity and simultaneity, respectively, then scrolling emphasizes ephemerality. Its conversations are brief and fleeting as breath – as the ragged and shallow hevel that the King James Version translates as “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. Even critics of scrolling (I’m among them) begin to take on this quality. Our horizons are as brief as our lives – data trends across decades, perhaps extrapolating to gaze on a full century. But history, beginning with the first imprint of stylus on clay, is longer than we can fathom.

    It’s not that the effects of scrolling’s ephemerality on individuals aren’t important. They are. But they don’t tell us the whole story, that of the history of reading and, especially, of the interactions between secular technology and sacred texts.

    Step back into shul on a weekday morning: something is developing here, so slowly as to test the limits of perception. There’s the scroll, the codices, and the surreptitious scrolling. It’s a scene that suggests that even thinking about technology in decades-long cycles of creation, reaction, and (ultimately) synthesis is deceptively shortsighted. More than a millennium passed between Yehuda HaNasi’s codification of the Mishna in the early third century and Daniel Bomberg’s 1523 Talmud. Three centuries more until the Vilna Talmud. That is the arc of time over which the People of the Book emerged from the People of Memorization. So the question shouldn’t be whether this era’s innovation in how we read – scrolling through an endless “text” produced by algorithms that, as seems likely, read us more than we read them – is rejected or redeemed, but in what ways it comes to be synthesized with all that has come before it.

    V. The Shul (Again)

    Judaism is a religion of synthesis. It is also a religion of separation. The most famous passages of Ecclesiastes engage in this. I separate meat and dairy, wool and linen, and, in ceremonies that bookend Shabbat, sacred time from the mundane.

    So, step back into shul one more time, this time on a Shabbat morning. Here is the scroll; there are the codices. But there is no scrolling. “The Sabbath is a palace built in time,” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, a line so quoted it’s nearly a cliché in Jewish communities. The walls built to protect this palace have, since the Industrial Revolution, made it sometimes seem like a fortress of Luddism. We must rest from creating – and modernity’s innovations let us manipulate and recreate our world so effortlessly that we often don’t notice it. This is the reason traditional Judaism prohibits not just things like cooking and writing on Shabbat, but also the active use of electricity. No phones, among other things. So, this palace is also one secured against scrolling.

    Synthesis does not mean acquiescence. Judaism’s synthesis with one technology, the codex, made it more fully itself. Its synthesis with many of modernity’s technologies, the screens that enable scrolling no doubt now among them, has produced a different kind of transformation. Shabbat, more than a day on which we rest from creating, now serves as a bulwark raised to protect us – to keep us separate – from our technological creations.

    If I’m to be an honest critic of scrolling, then I have to concede that the technology is here – it can’t be unimagined. There is, I’ve read, a time for everything under the sun. But a time is not every moment. So as humanity navigates the synthesis of new ways of reading, we can also find ways to preserve space – and time. For those, we know, grant access to the sacred – and the human.

    Contributed By Joshua Logan Wall J. L. Wall

    J. L. Wall is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Michigan and is the author of Situating Poetry: Covenant and Genre in American Modernism.

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