Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 29

Proper care of books.

My mother was a librarian who referred to the sin of dog-earing pages in the same tone others use when discussing murder. She would have loved the mishnah on today’s daf that begins with directions on proper care of books: 

If one found books, one reads them once in 30 days. And if one does not know how to read, one rolls and unrolls them. But one should not study passages in them for the first time and another person should not read it with them.

This mishnah dates to a period before the codex — meaning books with pages that turn — became widely popular. In this period, the Hebrew word sefarim (books) refers to scrolls. 

Scrolls produced in antiquity were always hand-written, usually on vellum or papyrus. They were, for this reason, quite expensive. If you discover a lost book, according to the rabbis, your obligation isn’t just to return it; you must take proper care of it while it is in your care. This includes occasionally opening it up and rolling it to keep the parchment supple. You should do this whether or not you can read what’s written inside.

But why shouldn’t a person use a found book to study something for the first time? Using the example of a borrowed scroll, rather than one that’s been found, the Gemara explains:

The sages taught in a beraita (early rabbinic text): In the case of one who borrows a Torah scroll from another, that person may not lend it (to a third party). One may open it and read it, provided that one does not study passages in it for the first time, lest the scroll be exposed for a lengthy period of time and sustain damage. And another person shall not read the scroll with them, lest the scroll tear.

A scroll that is opened to one location for a lengthy amount of time — which one would do in the course of deep, initial study of an unfamiliar text — is prone to damage in that location. The prohibition of sharing the open scroll with another is also a concern about damage, due to the possibility that two people holding either end of the scroll might inadvertently tear it.

Today, books are, on average, much less expensive and easier to replace than they were in antiquity, thanks to the invention of the codex and then the printing press. In her best-selling book, Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World, Spanish author Irene Vallejo notes that the codex grew prevalent between the third and fifth centuries, just as the Mishnah and then Gemara were being produced: “In time, the codex became the preferred format for literary works, especially for long narratives, groups of tragedies or comedies, and anthologies. The scroll was unwieldy and required the use of both hands, [while] … the codex could go anywhere with its reader.”

Some scholars even posit that utilizing the format of the codex was one way Christians differentiated their books from Jewish sacred texts, which continued to be written on scrolls. Today, books that Jews use for important ceremonial purposes in synagogue, like the sefer torah or the megillah, are still scrolls.

The Babylonian Talmud was first published as a printed codex by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in the 16th century. The standard version that we study in Daf Yomi, the Vilna Shas, was first printed in Eastern Europe some 300 years later. Today, however, another format is available: There’s a good chance you are studying Gemara not from a printed book, but right off a screen. That’s a testament to the longevity of the talmudic text, which continues to inspire, whatever the format.

Read all of Bava Metzia 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 28th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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