On Root / Making Book: Counting, Recounting and Discounting

The Jewish love for the written word goes back to ancient history, and is never more evident than during Book Week.

If you think the only week-long festivals of the Jews are Pesach, Sukkot and Hanuhkah – you must not be aware of that great summer celebration of Hebrew culture in Israel, Hebrew Book Week.  

Actually spanning most of June, this nationwide literature-fest-cum-clearance sale is a feast for the intellect and – with all the discounts – a fast for the pocketbook.

This column deals with the Hebrew language and the Jews are, at least according to the Prophet Mohammed, 'Am Hasefer, עםהספר- "the People of the Book." So let's take a look at the sefer ספר, the "book," and some themes related to Shavua' Hasefer Ha'ivri שבוע הספר העברי, Hebrew Book Week.

 The root of sefer, s-p-r ס-פ-ר("p" and "f" being alternates of the same letter) gives us two phrases that at first seem unrelated, even opposite. Lesaper sipur לספר סיפור– means "to tell a story." And lispor misparim לספור מספרים, is "to count numbers."

Could these actions be more different?

"Storytelling" and "counting" define the modern era's "two cultures": humanities and the exact sciences, qualitative and quantitative.

But Hebrew knows no such dichotomy, treating them as related modes of reckoning, valuing and evaluating the world. English sometimes does the same thing, as with "counting" and "recounting" and "telling" and "tallying."

 There is another homonym root s-p-r ספר, that sounds like it could be connected. This root from the same three letters, s-p-r ספר, means "cut" – giving us tisporet תספורת, "haircut," mispara מספרה, "barbershop," and misparayim מספריים, "scissors."

What makes more sense than the barber, sapar ספר, being the medium for many stories and tales? After all, the word for gossip in Hebrew, rechilut רכילות, is probably related to rochel רוכל, a travelling salesman. The historical connection, however, is not clear, though one conjecture is that the first writing was actually inscribing, with a stick or stylus, and thus closer to a cutting action. Literary "style," then, may indeed 'cut' both ways.

 The noun sefer ספרappears in the Bible, meaning most probably "letter" or "document." Only later did the word "book" become central to literacy and education, giving us the standard Hebrew term for "school," beit sefer בית ספר , literally "book house."

What we now call a "book" is technically a codex, a bound set of papers with writing on both sides. Books of this sort came into being in the first and second centuries, supplanting the previous print technology, the scroll, known in Hebrew as the megillah מגילה, from the root g-l-l גלל, to "roll."

Ironically, the same digital technologies that are threatening to make the printed book extinct have brought "scroll" back in fashion. But this time the word is a verb involving a computer mouse, galal גלל, rather than a noun involving an ink quill.

Jews call the time period that gave us today’s book the Common Era (C.E.), whereas most Westerners call it A.D., anno domini, "the year of our lord." The Hebrew terms for this era and the era preceding it take us back to the root of our discussion.

In Hebrew, the Common Era is lasfira לספירה, literally "of The Counting." B.C., or B.C.E., as it is known in Jewish parlance – is lifnei hasfira הספירהלפני, "before The Counting."

When referring to these dates, Jews traditionally add leminyanam למניינם, "according to their counting" (i.e., the Christians). This word is from another rich root, m-n-h מנה, which can mean to "count" or "number."

A "meter" is a moneh מונה, and a car with a meter is a monit מונית, a "taxi".

A beautiful line from the Book of Books ties counting to wisdom: "Teach us to number [limnot למנות] our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Psalms 90:12). And, of course, a praying Jew needs to be able to count to 10 to form the required quorum for public prayer, the minyan מניין.

Book Week is, of course, all about books, sefarim ספרים. But there is another side to the event: accounting, meaning profits – most of which are apparently going to publishers and bookstores. It is common knowledge that just two companies control over 80 percent of Israel's retail book market and that they battle in part through cutthroat discounting, selling four books for as little as NIS 100. Authors, sofrim סופרים, are being harmed and other publishers and independent booksellers are being undercut, say the reports.

Many protest this practice. A recently drafted bill requires that books be sold at or above their list price for 18 months after their publication and sets minimum royalties to be paid to authors during that period.

There is a great deal to be debated about the proper relations between authors, publishers, retailers and us, the customer-readers. Also, the book business seems to be in flux during this age of digital publishing, e-books and online book purveyors of Amazonian proportions. Yet publishers still have an important, inspiring and even evocative profession, as their title attests.

Publishing in Hebrew is hotza'ah le'or הוצאהלאור, literally "bringing into the light." At their best, publishers help new ideas and talents to see the light of day. Readers and writers depend on them – as well as each other – to advance literacy, literature and knowledge in general.

As the quip goes, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!" Ignorance is undeniably hugely costly to society – and dangerous, too. Ensuring the continued making and reading of books is a "sefer" option.

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