Monday, May 30, 2011

Mini review of three new seforim apps, plus a thought or two on the power of books

The first thing you see when you enter my living room is a book shelf crowded with Jewish volumes. Pride of place goes to the Talmud received from my father-in-law as a wedding gift. Right next to this set is my well-used mikraot gdolot edition of the tanach which I purchased at the YU bookfair several dozen years ago. The shelf above the Talmud holds the 14 volume mishna set I inherited from my grandfather. Below it is my collection of siddurim. One was a gift from my high school upon our graduation. Another was purchased at a little shop in mea shearim during my year of study in Jerusalem. A third has been prayed from nearly every day by one member of my family or another, and carries the signs of honest, fervent use on its cover and pages. Another type of blogger might tell you some of the stories that occasioned the most impassioned use of that siddur, but not me. You'll just have to use your imagination.

I mention all this because I have been asked to review three extraordinary new tools of Jewish study and devotion. The Rusty Brick siddur, which I used exclusivly during my recent secret missions, and the Crowded Room editions of the Tanach and Mishna. All three apps offer the convenience we've come to expect from an e-book. Contents are completely searchable, and the text is easy to read. Whistles and bells on the Mishna and Tanach include a wide variety of included exegetes, translations, and, on the Tanach, a "tikkun" display that permits you to use the app to prepare the kriah. Provide the Siddur with your location, and it will help you find the nearest minyanim, and provide you with the local zmanim. It also has a compass that points you to Jerusalem (though I can't confirm that it works when you're north of the city, or east of the Kotel.) And there is something undeniably awesome about being able to carry the main works of Jewish law, liturgy and literature in your back pack. Load these applications on to your iPhone or iPad and you will, in effect, have given yourself a portable bes madresh.

The only problem is one of sentiment. Thanks to these ingenious apps, my iPad can hold the words and the ideas of our ancestors but it can't replicate the power of a printed book. Each volume on my shelf has a story. I bought it somewhere. It was a gift from someone. I, or my father, or my grandfather, or my son, or my wife, or my daughter used it for this or that purpose. Upon entry to my house, visitors see them immediately and know that I value learning. Those books on my shelf set the tone for my house, and remind me of where I come from. An excellent app on a light and speedy iPad provides none of that.

So though I recognize the convineince of the e-seforim I will continue to collect books, just as we have continued to collect art and hang it on our walls even after it became possible to carry complete museums on our phones. Images and artifacts and icons are powerful in a way that words are not. If I want to know what hillel and shamai argued about I'll go to my iPad, but if I want to know what they argued about while also feeling some sense of communion with my past and my people, I'll reach for the books my father in law gave me.

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