The Seldon of Jewish History

How the Jews wrote an encyclopedia to save civilization.

Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic The Foundation Trilogy is about a man named Seldon who, envisioning the coming apocalypse, creates a haven to build a great encyclopedia of human knowledge. This seemingly simple task hides a much grander scheme, and the underlying message is his abiding faith that knowledge coupled with wisdom can save us from the abyss.

There was a Seldon in Jewish history. As the Talmud tells the story (Gittin 55b), while Jerusalem burned, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin. There he entreated of the soon-to-be Roman emperor Vespasian to give him “Yavneh and its sages.” In other words, he wanted to build a colony, like Seldon’s planet Terminus, to preserve the knowledge of the ages.

Like Asimov’s fictional hero, Yohanan ben Zakkai had a greater aim in mind than Vespasian could imagine. He prepared for a time when there would be no more empire, but the Jewish people, its tradition intact, would bring the essential message of God to the surviving world.

Through scientific wizardry, Seldon returns periodically through the novels to speak to posterity. So too Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his contemporaries speak to us through the pages of the Talmud, the encyclopedia of knowledge and wisdom preserved in that fateful moment. 

Rabbi David Wolpe’s musings are shared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter, Recharge, a weekly collection of readings to refresh your soul. Sign up to receive the newsletter.

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