In 2005, journalist A. J. Jacobs wrote of his one-year mission to read all of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is a feat that cannot be attempted in today’s electronic age when the sheer volume of information with which we are bombarded is daunting: the equivalent of reading 174 newspapers daily. Writing recently in the New York Times, Professor Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University calculated that for every hour of YouTube video watched, there are 5,999 hours of new video posted. That means that it is virtually impossible to ever see the entirety of the content of YouTube, assuming anyone was so inclined to do so.
Over forty years ago, Bar Ilan University in Israel launched a project to digitize the sources of Jewish law so that, with a powerful search engine, scholars would have access to the treasure trove of the Jewish legal tradition. To date, thousands of books totaling over one hundred thousand response and well over 200 million words are available with hyperlinks to millions more. The twentieth edition will add even more texts yet the library of scholarship has barely been dented. And the rate of publication of new works exceeds the rate at which extant words are added to the collection.
Given the enormity – even impossibility – of the task of mastering the entirety of the Jewish legal canon, we cannot help but empathize with little boy who returns home with a failing mark in Jewish history. His father reprimands him with a recollection of his own success. “When I was your age,” he says to his son, “I always scored A’s in history.” The little boy immediately retorted: “Yeah, but in your day there was a lot less history.”
The “good news” related to the exponential growth of Jewish legal literature is the vitality of the Jewish tradition. The open-endedness of the Jewish legal canon is a testament to its dynamism. A dead tradition has a finite end. A living tradition, on the other hand, is endless. While the task of experts becomes increasingly challenging with every new commentary or response anthology, the liveliness of legal debate is a tribute to the seriousness scholars still give to the application of Jewish law as well as the ability of the Jewish legal tradition to adapt to new circumstances.