Commentary Magazine


A Basic Jewish Encyclopedia, by Harry A. Cohen; The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geof

Jewish Knowledge

A Basic Jewish Encyclopedia.
by Harry A. Cohen.
Hartmore House. 205 pp. $4.95.

The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion.
by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder.
Holt, Rinehart ir Winston. 415 pp. $15.95.

Both of these volumes are more or less successful in what they set out to do. In A Basic Jewish Encyclopedia, Rabbi Cohen sets out to define or explain 155 principles and practices in Jewish life in the order of their importance. Rabbi Cohen determined that order by selecting 104 books on the Jewish religion in English, Hebrew, German, and French and then counting the number of books in which a given concept appeared, as well as the amount of space devoted to it. Fortunately, God came out first statistically. Despite this happy circumstance, however, the rank-order system can lead to absurdity. Thus, in the very middle of the lists one finds the following items, each with one paragraph of explanation:

75. Shivah. The Seven Days of Mourning

76. Get. The Document of Divorce

77. Kelal Israel. The Community of Israel

78. Yahrzeit

79. Yizkor. The Memorial Service

80. Amen

81. Huppah. The Wedding Canopy.

It is enough to sell one on the virtues of alphabetical order.

But in terms of the encyclopedia’s primary intention, which is to serve as an educational source book for Sunday-school teachers, even the order-of-importance principle can be of some use, Rabbi Cohen’s idea seems to be that teachers can add some terms to the curriculum each year, and presumably even the child who drops out after a year or two will then have covered the major holidays and rites. The explanations for the individual items are simple but intelligent.

The volume by Werblowsky and Wigoder comes much closer to being a conventional encyclopedia and is a respectable reference work of its kind. There are, to be sure, some inexcusable technical mistakes, including a startling number of cross-references which lead to nothing. For example, under Aknin, Joseph ben Judah ibn, we find “see ibn Aknin” and under Nissim, Rabbenu the entry is “see Gerondi, Nissim,” but there is nothing to see in either case. Geographically, the encyclopedia is discriminatory, but not according to any discernible principle. Thus AFAM is entered, a contraction of the names of three Italian towns, Asti, Fossano, and Moncalvo, which are described as following the old French liturgical rite. The significance of this fact is not clear, there being absolutely no discussion of it under liturgy. SHUM and AHWA, the abbreviations respectively of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, and Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek are left out completely. This would lead me to suspect an anti-German bias were my paranoia not set at rest by the discovery that the authors had also omitted the “Council of the Four Countries,” whose role in the development of the Jewish religion cannot even be put on the same continuum as that of the three Italian towns—what was their name again?

But this is mere carping. The entries, while brief, are well-written and accurate, though they would be improved by the inclusion of recent bibliographic references. Moreover, there is something admirable about the guiding concept of this volume, which is designed to be an encyclopedia specifically devoted to the Jewish religion, and not a telephone directory of Jews. (On the other hand, some of the omissions of individuals are regrettable. Thus, Solomon Ludwig Steinheim, Moritz Lazarus, and ibn Gannach are without entries. As a Mainz hometown boy, I am grateful that Eliezer ben Nathan was included, but what about Eliezer ben Isaac, author of Orhot Hayim? And what really hurts is to find Baruch of Medzibozh but not Baruch of Mainz, who wrote Sefer ha-Hochma.)

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Both of these books, then, have their merits, but both finally lead one to wonder why encyclopedias such as these are published. The question is not based on a negative attitude toward these particular volumes; rather, it stems from a general feeling that the day of the encyclopedia is over. Of course, there is still a place for reference works, especially in the biological and physical sciences, and such works are sometimes called encyclopedias. But an encyclopedia in the true sense of the word is meant to encompass all that is teachable and to present a world picture applicable to all knowledge—or, according to later usage, at least one area of knowledge, like Judaism—and such a project no longer seems feasible.

Diderot’s Encyclopédie was so strikingly effective because it conveyed a new world picture of whose validity it was both proof and messenger. The great 19th-century encyclopedias (some of which, of course, still exist) reflect the view of an orderly, knowable, and progressive world and became the hallmark of a middle class which, for the time being at least, kept the world that way. Today, however, it is perhaps only in Communist countries that encyclopedias continue to serve vital functions, and there only because “encyclopedia” is not taken to mean all that is known, but all that is orthodox at the time of publication—a new twist on enkyklos (complete) and paideia (teaching). There is usually no way of telling how many lines Mao will get in the next edition, or even Lysenko. But encyclopedias such as the ones before us do not serve a revolutionary purpose; nor do they establish canons of orthodoxy; nor are they tools for scholarship; rather, they are tools for conversation.

Beyond that, such encyclopedias are, of-course, a sociological phenomenon, the phenomenon being that there is a market for them. The one-volume Jewish encyclopedia becomes an acquisition for the family which identifies itself as Jewish, often through the medium of the bar-mitzvah present, so that it can, without recourse to elaborate Jewish study, painlessly plug up lacunae of knowledge if the need should occasionally arise.

There is one further dimension. Jews, the people of the book, have quite literally lost their books too often, especially in this century. This may well be why there has been an “encyclopedia explosion” both here and in Israel. Jews have taken to gathering up the pieces of their knowledge in as many ways as possible, heedless of the fact that the pieces may not hang together too well.

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