Librarian's Lobby
February 2003
by Daniel D. Stuhlman

The Ten Commandments and I.B. Singer

I was in Southern California recently to teach a two-day class and spent Shabbat in Agoura Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles. Between mincha and maariv on Shabbat afternoon I gave a short shi'ur (speech) on Aseret Ha-dibrot (Ten Commandments), which was part of that morning's Torah portion. The shi'ur consisted of some light-hearted views of the Aseret Ha-dibrot in the eyes of six professions.

A librarian sees commandments and starts counting them. He sees five dealing with man's duty to God and five concerns man's duties to his fellow man. The librarian will count them, arrange five in one column, five in the other, then make the collection available for everyone to find them and study them.

A historian sees the events at Sinai as a central moment in Jewish history. Every event before revelation was a preamble. The activities of the patriarchs, Joseph, Moses and Aaron readied the Hebrew people to become a nation. Every event afterwards remembers the revelation. Revelation is the moment a group of tribes became a nation.

A Biblical scholar puts the events at Sinai into context. The events will be related to other events in the Bible, with the archeology, and with the cultural milieu. The scholar would read the text and try to understand why the commandments are central to the laws of mankind.

The linguist examines every word and would make a connection between the word, va-yidaber and ha-dibrot because they have the same root, dalet-bet-reish.

The theologian shows us that God introduces himself with the phrase, "Anokhi Y H V H 'Elokekha." This is an example three words in a row referring to God. Each has its nuance of meaning. "Anokhi" indicates that God is speaking and this is not a person repeating the words. Y H V H is the private name of God relating to the eternity of God. 'Elokekha is a descriptive word concerning the power of God. God then warns us to forsake the belief in any other god. This is the fundamental dogma of Israel's religion, the unity and uniqueness of God.

A lawyer sees need for additional regulations and is already combing the Torah for additional case law to explain what "Shabbat" means and what it means to observe the Shabbat. He continues looking until he finds the thirty-nine av malachot (categories) of work. He then waits for the mishnah and gemarah before he gives any kind of opinion.

Of course it is a lot easier to be dramatic in person than in this column. I hope that you get a little taste of the speech and idea that the Torah can be interpreted through many eyes.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1904-1991. cover image

In 1965 or 1966 I went to a speech given by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I knew he was a writer, but I really never heard of him before. I was young and asked a rather naive question. I asked him to name some of the books that he wrote. He stumbled over the names. I did not know at the time that he wrote in Yiddish and did not know all the titles in English. His story, "Gimple the Fool," translated by Saul Bellow and published in 1953 was his introduction to the English speaking audience. In 1965 Jewish Publication Society published Singer's, Short Friday. I bought the books and immediately loved his stories of Eastern European Jewry. Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

To Yiddish readers he was known under his pen name, Yitzkhak Bashvis; to English readers he is known as Isaac Bashevis Singer or I.B. Singer. He took a pen name to be distinguished from his older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, 1893-1944, who was also a writer.

Seth L. Wolitz edited a scholarly work on the writings, experience and life of I.B. Singer, The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer (Austin, TX : University of Texas Press, 2001) (1)

This is a collection of essays by leading Yiddish scholars who attempt to recover the authentic voice and vision of the writer known to his Yiddish readers as Yitskhok Bashevis. The essays are grouped around four themes: The Yiddish language and the Yiddish cultural experience in Bashevis's writings, thematic approaches to the study of Bashevis's fiction, Bashevis's interface with other times and cultures, and interpretations of Bashevis's autobiographica writings.

A special feature of this volume is the inclusion of Joseph Sherman's new, faithful translation of a chapter from Bashevis's Yiddish "underworld" novel Yarme and Keyle.

This book makes a significant contribution to the academic study of Singer and his genre of Yiddish literature. All the writers are professors. I think they read too much into the stories. I have a problem with the depth they go to interpret the stories and Singer's life experience. In an article in the New York Times Magazine(2) Morton A. Reichek writes a more narrative article about Singer. Reichek visits Singer in his New York apartment. Singer is telling stories. The stories were written in Yiddish because they themes are Jewish and Yiddish. "Contains vitamins that other languages don't have." Singer was a very modest man' I don't think he would have liked how Irving Saposnik compared him with the character Gimple in "Gimple the Fool" (Gimpl tam).

The supernatural, demons, imps and Eastern European shtetl dwellers dominated Singer's stories. While fiction relates human truths and relationships, Singer is only a storyteller. When asked why he wrote about the European experience, he replied that the exile lasted 2000 years. You can not ask a 2000 year old people to remember only the last 10 years. Singer even joked with Reichek about the microphone. He had Reichek test the tape recorder. It was working perfectly when Singer said, "The dybbuk is gone."

Wolitz does exactly what he intends with this book, an entirely fresh focus on Yitskok Bashevis. The authors of the articles do read and understand the original Yiddish and quote Yiddish proof texts. The Yiddish is the real text while the English is a second original. This book is for scholars. Singer's fans would rather read and enjoy the stories. For more about Singer read the articles that Morton Rechek and Richard Burgin(3) wrote for the New York Times Magazine.


1. As a aside-- my son thinks and I agree the yellow background of the cover reminds him of a series of books that are written for "dummies."

2. "Storyteller" March 23, 1975.

3. Burgin, Richard. "Isaac Bashevis Singer talks ...about everything." November 26 & December 3, 1978.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:
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 ©2003 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised August 22, 2011