Topic: 1. Historical Perspective
This torah was confiscated by the Nazis and recently restored and donated to Temple Emanu-El, in Birmingham, Alabama.
Jewish practices of inscribing, transmitting and reading texts have undergone considerable changes over the centuries, driven by a variety of technological, institutional, economic, and cultural factors. Historians of writing and print culture usually define these changes in relation to major shifts in the material practice of communication, such as the spread of techniques for producing papyrus, the development of woodcuts and block printing that culminated in Gutenberg’s printing press, or the invention of linotype print machinery in the nineteenth century. In each case, new technologies and new institutions for the dissemination of textual communication precipitated new relationships between face-to-face oral discourse and written discourse, changes in the organization of space and time, and new possibilities for the organization of knowledge or memory. In each of these cases, there are specific stories that have been told about the way Jews participated in and were affected by these large-scale shifts, as techniques, technologies and institutions for producing written texts spread across Europe, the Mediterranean world, and other places where Jews resided. Among areas of particular interest are the following:
(a) The early history of textual transcription of the Torah, and later, its commentaries (Mishnah, Gemarah, Talmud, etc.), and the specific technologies of writing through which such processes of textualization were materialized (stone, clay, leather scrolls, silver, and later codices).
(b) The development of manuscript culture in medieval Europe: Jewish epistolary culture, Jewish participation in translation of classic texts from Arabic (such as during the Alfonsean Renaissance in Spain in the thirteenth century), or the role of Jewish literacy in social changes in Western Europe during the twelfth century.
(c) The shift from manuscript to print culture, beginning in the fifteenth century: founding of Jewish presses, such as Soncino, the first publishing house that can be identified as properly Jewish, or the development of a thriving Jewish publishing industry in Amsterdam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the development of Jewish presses in various European cities catering to specific communal needs (liturgy, scholarship, law, history, medicine, and countless “less lofty” topics).
(d) The industrialization of print technologies in the nineteenth century: the proliferation of new genres of Jewish writing, translated into new vernaculars (Yiddish, Judeo-German, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Polish, Russian, German, English, French, etc.), and also the rise of mass-circulated periodical print, that is to say newspapers, broadsides, and other serial publications.
(e) The rise of computer-mediated inscription technologies in the twentieth century, which has enabled, among other things, new possibilities for anthologizing, translating, and redacting rare or previously unpublished manuscripts (such as Responsa literature). This has had a decisive impact on the possibilities of Jewish knowledge for both academics and Jewish Talmudic scholars, opening up a universe of textual material to those who in previous times would have had to devote their entire lifetime to travelling from library to library, but who now have access to them all at the touch of a computer button (e.g., the Responsa Project at Bar Ilan University).