I am walking through the British Library in London, which serves as the state repository for, among other things, treasured original documents. Outstanding works in the collection include a unique Aristotle papyrus, four original Magna Cartas, the 4th-century Greek Codex Sinaiticus Bible, a Gutenberg Bible, and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
I am particularly excited, however, by an original, handwritten score by Beethoven (I earn some disapproving looks when I begin to hum the melody) and, perhaps even more so, by the lyrics to the Beatles’ monumental hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” written by Paul McCartney.
Everywhere I look there is living, pulsating history and the ghosts of the great men who live still through the ink and paper of their written words.
And then I turn around – and there it is, unbelievably right before my eyes: A handwritten responsa by Moshe ben Maimon, otherwise known as the Rambam or Maimonides. It is protected behind glass, but I can come within only a few inches of it and almost – almost – touch it.
As I begin to decipher the letter, trembling with excitement, a museum docent arrives with his group of some fifteen followers and offers a comprehensive and detailed discourse on Maimonides: renowned physician and Jewish philosopher, author of seminal texts on Jewish law, etc.
A member of the group asks: “But what does it say?” The docent bursts into a broad smile. “You know,” he says, grinning ear to ear “I have been conducting this tour for over 15 years, and no one has ever asked me that question. I don’t know the answer, but I will find out.”
I slowly raise my hand, which he acknowledges with a nod. “Although the Hebrew is old-style and I cannot read all of it,” I tell them, “this is a response to a question of Jewish law posed to Maimonides in which he essentially writes that the doctrine of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) has no place in Jewish law. That is, the seller has an absolute duty to disclose to the buyer all the material faults of the item known to him, and his failure to do so not only constitutes grounds for a ruling in the buyer’s favor, but also establishes a religious violation.”
With thick British eyebrows raised high, the docent asks, “Are you a Jewish scholar, then, sir?” I respond, much amused, “No, and I leave behind a long trail of rabbis and teachers who would happily disabuse you of that notion. Actually, I’m an average Orthodox Jew whose parents gave him the gift of a yeshiva education.”
I proceed to describe and contrast the yeshiva day school system in the United States and Britain, explaining that what is common to both is that every elementary school child is able to read the Bible in the original Hebrew, as well as centuries-old Hebrew and Aramaic texts. They are all awestruck.
“Now, as to this Maimonides letter,” I say, “I have a question: How much would it cost to purchase for my collection of original Judaica documents?” He stares at me dumbfounded for a few seconds, and we share a good laugh.
* * * * *
My fascination with written Judaica began when, as actuary for Computer Sciences Corporation, contractor for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), I was invited by Kimber Wald, the federal FEMA monitor on the NFIP contract, to attend a stamp show with him. I had never before looked at stamps as anything other than a means for mailing letters, but he taught me much about stamps, most importantly how to appreciate these miniature works of art. As a result, I began collecting Israel stamps which, I submit, are among the most beautiful in the world.