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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 042-174(WS)-E
Division Number: VII
Professional Group: Library History in association with the Association of Jewish Libraries, Judaica Librarians Group, and Hebraica Libraries Group: Workshop - Session 5
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 174
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No  

Publishing and the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox

Chaim Seymour
Cataloging and Classification Department for Non-Hebrew Material
Bar-Ilan University
Ramat Gan, Israel


The Jewish Ultra-Orthodox prefer a marginal role in society. They want to preserve their own distinctive way of life. Although they reject the ideology of modern society, they use its technology. Publications include children's literature, 'novellae' on the Babylonian Talmud and responsa on Jewish law together with reprints of books no longer available and editions of manuscripts printed for the first time. Cd-Roms are available with games for orthodox children, together with databases of Jewish texts. There is an Internet portal 'Toranet', and lessons on the Talmud can be accessed. The ultra-orthodox assume that technology is culturally neutral, and will not affect their core beliefs, but is this really true?



An observer cannot but be impressed by the vitality of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish publishing. The material published includes children's literature, 'novellae' by theological students on the Babylonian Talmud and responsa on Jewish law produced using desktop publishing and camera ready techniques together with reprints of books which are no longer available and editions of manuscripts printed for the first time. On the electronic front, Cd-Roms are available with games adapted to the needs of the ultra-orthodox community, together with databases of Jewish texts. There is an Internet portal 'Toranet', lessons on the Talmud can be accessed through the Internet and organizations such as Chabad use the Internet very effectively for publicity and communication.

The Community

One of the basic tenets of Jewish Orthodoxy is the belief in the Divine origin of the written law (the Pentateuch) together with an oral law which explains and expands the written law and which is codified in the Talmud and later writings. Study of both the written and oral law occupies a central place in the Orthodox Jew's life.

Sociologists and other observers tend to divide Jewish orthodoxy into two basic schools, 'Modern Orthodox' and the 'Ultra-Orthodox'. The two groups are differentiated by their attitudes to the society surrounding them. Modern orthodoxy seeks for a synthesis between Judaism and contemporary society, which would include both practical and ideological components. Its members play active roles in society. The Ultra-Orthodox prefer a marginal role in society. They want to protect and preserve their own distinctive way of life. Although they reject the ideology of modern society, they are ready to use the technologies available and where necessary will be involved in politics in order to protect the interests of their community. There are considerable differences between members of the ultra-orthodox regarding the extent to which they are involved in secular society.

What we define as Orthodoxy today was co-extensive with the Jewish community prior to the nineteenth century. The general trends such as the Industrial Revolution and the French revolution together with movements to emancipate the Jews within the general community gave rise to what Marmorstein (1969) calls Secularization.

    The secularization of the traditional Jewish society was a slightly more deliberate process. Nowhere did the relaxation of the role of the Torah originate either from an internal decision or an external decree. An increase of opportunities and distractions rather than premeditated revolt weakened Judaism's hold on many an aspiring Jewish family… (p.30-31).
The resurgence of the Orthodox is defined by Marmorstein (1969, p. 59) as 'counter-revolutionary'. He sees them as inhabiting a "citadel manned by zealots" (p. 109). The modern orthodox inhabit the metropolis or are 'borderers'. The ultra-orthodox today are not homogenous but include three basic groups (which in turn sub-divide into sub-groups), the so-called 'Lithuanian' (called after their original center) ultra-orthodox, who are renowned for their intensive study of the Torah (Jewish law), the Hasidim, a more mystic group (divided into courts ruled by 'rebbes' who exercise considerable control over the lives of their 'hassidim'), and the ultra-orthodox of Sephardic (Asian and African) origin.

Outsider by Choice

A minority with distinctive beliefs has to struggle to retain its identity. The life style of the majority can be very enticing. How do the ultra-orthodox retain the loyalty of both adults and children?
    One. by insulating their members from outside society, e.g. forbidding television, newspapers, children's literature, etc.

    Two. certain groups within the ultra-orthodox community supply their own newspapers, children's literature, etc. Other groups consider that this 'medicine' to be used against secular society is worse than the 'disease' itself.

We would claim that those groups within ultra-orthodoxy that are ready to adopt modern technologies assume that technologies are culturally neutral. They may affect material conditions, but will not affect the way people think.

The Trojan horse?

In his discussion of the influence of technology, Winston (2000) defines 'technological determinism' as the technologist who has 'control of the pedals' (see p. 102). It is the technologist who directs our development and the form of our civilization. He rejects this position in a picturesque manner
    I still see, (after two centuries at least) of these supposed transformative technologies impacting on our world patriarchy, capitalism, nations (and tribes), the Queen, the Stars and Stripes, wars of religion, exploitation of labour, leisure versus work and so on. So, for example, what interests the technological determinist is that the American radical right endlessly exploits the Internet; what interests me is that these folks use the technology to push a social vision two centuries out-of-date. In short, stand close to the technologies and they loom very large; stand away and they blend into the fabric of society. Being digital becomes no big deal (Winston, p.108).
Superficially, it would seem that Winston has proved his point, that technology is merely a neutral tool. Some of the examples, however, undermine his thesis. Is 'patriarchy' as secure as it was two hundred years ago? Has Britain's constitutional monarchy not changed? Change may also be subtle.

Hall (2000, p. 706) writing in the same anthology emphasizes that 'cultural identity' is not only about 'being' it is also about 'becoming'. The results of the introduction of change are never predictable.

Early publishing

The Jews as "the people of the Book", quickly took advantage of the invention of printing:
    The first Hebrew books were printed within, at most, 35 years of the invention of printing - the first dated one being Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch and Jacob ben Asher's Arba'ah Turim of 1475 (Posner & Ta-Shema, 1975, p. 85).
Jewish law is divided into the written law (i.e. the Pentateuch) and the so-called 'oral law'. The 'oral law', which was written down in order to preserve it, includes the Babylonian Talmud. Most editions of this work comprise 20 printed volumes and thousands of leaves. The first recorded printed edition of this work was in 1482 in Spain. The major edition was printed by Bomberg in Venice in 1520 (see Steinzaltz, 1977, p. 59). This edition includes commentaries and its layout was retained for most succeeding editions.

Baruchson (1993) examined catalogues of the private libraries of Jews in 16th century (the first century after the introduction of printing to Europe) Italy. She found printed books on a variety of subjects, including, Liturgy, Bible, Jewish law, ethics, grammar, oral law, philosophy, literature, mysticism and science.

Technology and the publishing Renaissance

There is no doubt that the ultra-orthodox community has had to change and adapt to defend its identity. The community's main problem is how to change to meet challenges without compromising its core beliefs. One example is the expansion of education for girls in the last 50 years. Their educational system now equips girls with an understanding of Jewish subjects together with vocational training.

Children's Literature
In previous generations, children's stories would have been regarded as a waste of time. However, the leaders of the ultra-orthodox community realized that it was not enough to block children's literature, which would instill negative values. It would be necessary to supply a substitute.

Yitzhaki & Shoham (1995) chronicle the success of this new genre in Israel. Between 1970 and 1989 the percentage of haredi children's books rose from 5% of the total number of children's books to 20%. They attribute the relatively large numbers to the large ultra-orthodox families and to the fact that the children's literature replaces both unsuitable children's literature and television.

The genre is not only negative, blocking general children's literature, but also positive, conveying a clear moral message reflecting the community's values. Yitzhaki & Shoham (1995) also mention that some of the books suffer from the defects of didactic literature. The characters tend to be stereotypes, rather than rounded characters.

Some of the books are published by general ultra-orthodox publishers such as Feldheim, others by children's publishers such as Zarkor, etc., while in some cases, the authors publish their own books.

Desktop/Camera ready Publishing
The possibility of cheap "home" publishing has been taken up by many modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox. The books published are varied. They include eclectic commentaries on the weekly portion from the Pentateuch read in the synagogue. Organizations have been set up by pupils of rabbis such as Rabbi Hayim David Halevy, for example, to ensure publication of his writings left in manuscript form. Among the modern orthodox, pupils are publishing works by Rabbi Soloveichik and by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Students in Rabbinical Seminaries, who feel that they have something to contribute to on-going debates are publishing their notes and commentaries on the Talmud and other sources. Rabbinical seminaries are even producing periodicals (too often irregular) to show their students' prowess. Many organizations have begun publishing weekly broadsheets based on the Torah reading. Halachic decisions are being published with greater ease than ever before.

One of the most important repercussions of the new technologies is the possibility to reproduce manuscripts, such as the Bet ha-Behirah and make them available for study. It would seem that the ultra-orthodox are joining their secular brethren in their encounter with information overload. There are indeed many valuable publications, but as Ecclesiastes said: "of making many books there is no end" (12, 12).

Electronic media
The CD-Rom has been found to be very useful. Games are available for children. These games may aim to teach Jewish law or moral qualities. These games mark a real change in the pedagogic methods of the ultra-orthodox.

Similarly, many classic texts are available on-line. The search engines mean that the ability to compare sources in different parts of the Talmud is no longer restricted to the advanced student with an excellent memory. Preparing a lecture takes a fraction of the time. There have been a number of revolutions in Jewish study starting with the writing down of the oral law, which opened its study to people, who did not have excellent memories; through the invention of print, which made the texts available to many more people. The electronic format has the potential to change traditional patterns of study yet again.

The ultra-orthodox organized a portal Toranet, to limit access to authorized sites. Obviously, it requires very little sophistication to circumvent the Toranet.

On the 8th Jan. 2000, the London Telegraph, published an article by their correspondent Alan Philps in Jerusalem. The article discusses a ban on the Internet by leading ultra-orthodox rabbis. He quotes an ultra-orthodox newspaper, which described the Internet as: "the world's leading cause of temptation, it incites and encourages sin and abomination of the worst kind." The article provoked discussion on Hasafran, the Jewish librarians' electronic discussion list, where it was claimed that the rabbis actually wrote that Internet may be used for earning one's living but surfing is obviously not consonant with an ultra-orthodox life style.


It is very hard to generalize about a community as heterogeneous as the Jewish ultra-orthodox. The sub-culture can be seen as a continuum, where some groups accept more technology than others.

In most cases, there have been changes in the education of children. Cheap book publishing and electronic databases have changed and will change the way in which the group's central activity the study of Torah will be conducted. Although it is beyond the scope of this study, it is also appropriate to point out that patterns of employment are also changing. Technologies, which serve education cannot, in my opinion, be completely neutral, but influence learning patterns and set priorities.

If I may be permitted to expand Marmorstein's metaphor .I would claim that the ultra-orthodox leaders are willing to agree to structural changes within the town, but do not allow any changes in the citadel, the central core of their beliefs. However, the boundaries between town and citadel are not so clear. What the ultra-orthodox identity is today and what it will be tomorrow may be very different.


Baruchson, S., 1993. Books and Readers : the Reading Habits of Italian Jews in the Renaissance. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press (Hebrew). Hall, S., 2000. Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation. in: Stam, R. & T. Miller (eds). Film and Theory : an Anthology. Malden : Blackwells, p. 704-714.

Marmorstein, E., 1969. Heaven at Bay : the Jewish Kulturkampf in the Holy Land. London : Oxford University Press. (Middle East monographs)

Philps, A., 2000. Internet, Threat to Israel, say rabbis. In: London Telegraph (Electronic edition) : 8th January. Posner, R. & L. Ta-Shema (eds.), 1975. The Hebrew Book : an Historical Survey, foreword by J. Rothschild. Jerusalem : Keter.

Steinzaltz, A., 1977. The Essential Talmud. Jerusalem : Edanim (Hebrew).

Winston, B., 2000. Necessities and Constraints: a Pattern of Technological Change. in: Stam, R. & T. Miller (eds). Film and Theory : an Anthology. Malden : Blackwells, p. 102-110.

Yitzhaki, M. & S. Shoham, 1995. Ultra-Orthodox Children's Literature in Israel : a Case Study of Sub-Cultural Children's Literature. In: Sustaining the Vision : a Selection of Conference Papers from The 24th International Association of School Librarianship Conference, 17th-21st July 1995. Worcester : Worcester College of Higher Education.


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