The Primacy of Speech Over Writing in Mitnagdic Society

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Chapter Five examines the status of writing among the Hasidim's fierce opponents, the rabbinic, legally oriented Mitnagdim. Despite the many differences between Hasidic and Mitnagdic cultures, the principle of oral dominance was shared by both. Like the Hasidim, the Mitnagdic yeshiva scholars treated writing, and especially the committing of oral teachings to paper, with suspicion and reservation. However, their explicit justifications and implicit motivations for doing so were different. In Mitnagdic society, writing was treated suspiciously primarily because it was thought to weaken memory, to diminish knowledge, and to disseminate erroneous teachings. The preference for speech over writing found expression in well-established practices and institutions, such as the dialogic method of study and learning by repetition out loud. With the advent of the Haskalah, the opposition to writing was mitigated, but not abandoned. The chapter shows that both the adherence to the principle of the primacy of speech and the partial withdrawal from it were supported by Halakhic or semi-Halakhic considerations, some of which were intended to deter writers while others were intended to justify writing and printing for spreading the Torah, in keeping with the paradoxical verse, “time to act for the Lord, they violated Your Torah” (Psalms 119:126).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Directions in Book History
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages35
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2022

Publication series

NameNew Directions in Book History
ISSN (Print)2634-6117
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6125


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