Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
January 2006

Self Censorship

Everyone edits their thoughts. No one says everything they think or dream. If they want to be part of society, they are careful not to say of do things that hurt or annoy the people around them. Author Judy Blume on her web page ( “Judy Blume Talks About Censorship” © 1998-2002) writes, "But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written; the books that will never be read and all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers."

This month's column is really a work in progress. I will have to do more research on the topic. As I wrote in the December 2005 column1 , censorship was present in ancient Rome. From the very beginning the Christian Church was always prompt in fighting what was in their opinion was heresy and dissidence. During the 15th century, shortly after printing began to spread books all over Europe, the Church had an aroused a sense of the necessity of some supervision. In 1486, Berthold, archbishop of Mainz, tried to establish censorship on all books translated into the vernacular from foreign languages, and in 1501 Pope Alexander VI issued a bull instructing the German prelates to exercise close supervision over printers. In 1515, the 5th Lateran Council issued a papal decree that forbid forever any book without a preliminary examination and the granting of a license (the famous imprimatur, issued by the local bishop or inquisitor and still in use nowadays). 2 This preliminary examination and statement of praise was the start of Haskamot (approbations) in Hebrew books.

The Christians were afraid that Hebrew books would spread heresy. To examine Hebrew books, apostates who knew Hebrew were employed. Domenico Yerushalmi (1555-1621) was one of these professional censors. According to his own estimates he examined 29, 011 works (22,167 printed books, 4,311 manuscripts and 2,533 works partly printed or partly manuscript). 3 Because these "scholars" already had turned their backs on Judaism, the Hebrew writers did not want to trust them. The Jewish community established an internal censorship system. When a trusted rabbi wrote words of praise for an author or his book, this indicates it was both Kosher for the Jewish community and the surrounding community.

Many books were censored before printing; however some had lines or sections blacked out after the printing.  The Jewish Encyclopedia has a picture on page 651 of vol. 3 of a paragraph of its article on Czar Alexander III blacked out

Even though the Church or the country’s government issued guidelines for censorship, the application of the law was very arbitrary. Sometimes different copies of the same book would have different words blocked out. Even from the same censor, the application was uneven. Since the Jewish community or the printer had to pay the censor, bribery, chance, or other considerations may affect the outcome. Since many censors were poor converts, the money bought lots of good will.

The Church did not want any passages that were negative to their people. Sometimes Jewish authors used code words such as Edom (Rome), Kuti, Babylonian as a substitute for Goy or Christian. Sometimes passages written hundreds of years before Christians existed were censored because of the ignorance of the Church or the censors.

All the state or Church sponsored censorship could not suppress creativity. As long as the book was written and printed, the thoughts could survive. The Jewish Encyclopedia even has examples when the censor’s ink has faded allowing the words underneath to be visible. Book production in general was a very risky business. People in power always seemed afraid of heretical or seditious ideas. The most risky business is offending some unknown entity. Because of this we will never know about the books and thoughts that were never written.

Even today in the United States we have censorship. There are some publishers who seek to define the world with their own rose colored glasses and refuse to publish any variant views. Their books, which they consider scholarly, actually contain ideas from a limited array of sources and ideas. We don’t call this “censorship” because it is not external or based on any outside forces. These publishers have an agenda and other ideas are quietly ignored. We have people who think that to safeguard their community, certain ideas or written works should be banned.

These two columns on censorship are just some preliminary thoughts. Perke Avot tells us that a wise person learns from everyone. Scholars learn from those they agree with and those they disagree with. Censorship is a topic that makes librarians cringe. Librarians strive to build balanced collections with multiple points of view because that is the best way one can hope to understand the human experience. Children should be safeguarded from some kinds of ideas until they are mature enough to make their own decisions. That is not censorship; it is education and guidance. The topic deserves much more study.

[1] “Banning Books” December 2005.

[2] Tofiño-Quesada, Ignacio. Censorship and Book Production in Spain During the Age of the Incunabula. CUNY. , retrieved Feb. 5, 2006.

Prebor, Gila. "Sepher Ha-Ziquq" by Domenico Yerushalmi(1555-1621)and its Influence on Hebrew Printing by Gila Prebor. Library of Information Science, Bar Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel. Retieved Feb. 5, 2006.

[3] Numbers are from “Censorship of Hebrew Books” in Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1902) v. 3, p. 647. Gila Prebor quotes the number as 20,000. This number must refer to the number of physical volumes, because I could find fewer than 200 Hebrew tiles listed in WorldCat as published in Yerushalmi’s lifetime.

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 © 2006 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised February 6, 2006