David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

One book to rule them all

Since nobody can know everything, focus on what is essential - whether it's found in an encyclopedia or in the Torah (Haazinu)
Frontispiece of Cyclopedia, 'L'Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts' (Public Domain/
Frontispiece of Cyclopedia, 'L'Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts' (Public Domain/

Ephraim Chambers knew what the problem was. There were too many books in the world.

I don’t mean like in “Fahrenheit 451,” where books were outlawed and burned by “firemen.” Or like certain groups nowadays who want to ban certain books because they disagree with the messages within them.

Chambers simply thought there was too much information available with the ever-increasing number of books in 18th century England, and as a result, nobody could ever learn everything.

Within a century of the invention of movable type, which had made mass publication reasonably cheap and available, people were complaining about the information explosion. For example, in 1525, Dutch theologian, Desiderius Erasmus wrote, “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books? Even if, taken out one at a time, they offered something worth knowing, the very mass of them would be an impediment to learning from satiety if nothing else,” (The Adages of Erasmus).

René Descartes wrote (in “Recherche de la vérité par les lumières naturelles” first published posthumously in 1684) that:

What good they contain is mixed with so much uselessness, and scattered in the mass of so many large volumes, that to read them it would take more time than human life gives us.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1605 (in “Analysis Of The Advancement Of Learning”):

For the opinion of plenty is among the causes of want, and the great quantity of books maketh a show rather of superfluity than lack; which surcharge nevertheless is not to be remedied by making no more books, but by making more good books, which, as the serpent of Moses, might devour the serpents of the enchanters.

German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote in 1680 (“Préceptes pour avancer les sciences”) of:

This terrible mass of books, which is constantly growing, is exposed to the risk of general oblivion by the indefinite variety of authors. There is a risk of a return to barbarism.

And Descartes’ biographer, Adrien Bailliet, wrote in 1685 (“Jugemens des scavans”):

We have reason to fear that the number of books, which is increasing daily, will lead in the coming centuries to a relapse similar to the barbaric conditions that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Luckily, Chambers had the solution. He would write one book which would contain the totality of human information within it, so that people wouldn’t have to read so many books.

Title page of Chambers’ 1728 Cyclopaedia. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Chambers was born around 1680 in Kendal, England. We know little about his early life, though it appears he attended Haversham Grammar School. He then when to London, where, in 1714, he eventually became an apprentice to John Senex, a globe-maker. To become an apprentice at the age of 34 must have been quite strange, especially as Senex was only a couple of years older than Chambers.

Chambers served his seven-year apprenticeship, but all the while he was reading books and making plans for his own book. In 1721, Chambers gave up globe-making and took a room in Gray’s Inn, where he began working, and in 1728, he published a two-volume work entitled “Cyclopaedia, or, An universal dictionary of arts and sciences.” There were several features that set this apart from other collections of knowledge. Firstly, it listed entries in alphabetical order (alluded to in the “dictionary” subtitle). In his Preface, Chambers wrote:

Former lexicographers have not attempted any thing like structure in their works; nor seem to have been aware that a dictionary was in some measure capable of the advantages of a continued discourse.

Secondly, it included cross-references, connecting articles that were separated due to the alphabetization. Thirdly, it included both the arts and sciences. This is considered the first encyclopedia. Or as Chambers wrote in Cyclopedia, “an attempt towards a survey of the republic of learning.”

It was seen as a democratization of knowledge, and an attempt to summarize the recent scientific advances of Newton and others.

How was one man able to gather all the knowledge in the world for his book? By copying large parts of it from other works. He claimed that this was not plagiarism, because that was the role of an encyclopedist, and furthermore, most other authors based their works on earlier books.

None of our Predecessors can blame us for the use we have made of them, since it is their own practice. It is a kind of Privilege attached to the Office of Lexicographer, if not by any formal Grant, yet by Connivance at least.

The first edition of Cyclopedia was sold by subscription – a list of subscribers appears in the opening pages. It sold so well that Chambers revised it and published a second edition in 1738. Chambers passed away in 1740, but his book kept selling and another five editions were published, with the last 1751 edition being followed two years later by a supplement.

The work appears to have achieved Chambers’ goal, stated in the Preface, that it:

Would answer all the purposes of a library except parade and incumbrance, and contribute more to the propagating of useful Knowledge thro the Body of a People, than any, I had almost said all, the Books extant.

Chambers’ Cyclopedia was the inspiration for the 28-volume French “Encyclopédie,” which began as a translation of the English, before the editor, Denis Diderot, realized he could ask experts to write entries on their chosen subjects.

Diderot’s motivation was also to combat the proliferation of books. He wrote in the 1755 edition of Encyclopédie:

As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.

Of course, awareness of the danger of too many books was not limited to the Renaissance period. In the first century, Seneca the Younger wrote in an Epistle, “distringit librorum multitude,” (the abundance of books is distraction).”

But he was preceded by King Solomon, who wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of making books there is no end.”

Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, Moses enjoins the Children of Israel:

Set your hearts to all these words that I testify against you today, that you should command them to your children, to observe and do all the words of this Torah.

This is the conclusion of the idea stated in the previous Torah portion, the commandment to “Write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths,” Deuteronomy 31:19.

The Torah is the single text that contains the knowledge the Israelites will need to live by. Like Chambers’ Cyclopedia, the Torah contains words and sections “borrowed” from elsewhere, such as words in Aramaic (e.g. Genesis 31:47) and other languages (e.g. Rashi’s explanation of the word “totafot” on Deuteronomy 6:8).

It also contains an entire section, the portion of Balak, that the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) says was written by Moses, but which is separate and additional to the rest of the Torah:

Moses wrote his book and the portion of Balaam.

It quotes the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14), which Ibn Ezra explains (in his commentary there) was “a separate book where the wars of God were written for those who fear Him. It may be from the time of Abraham.” Nahmanides explains that the wise men, known as “moshlim” (those who speak parables) of those generations would write down the history of wars and are cited in this verse.

Numbers 21:26 states “Those who speak in parables,” which the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 19:30) explains to mean “Balaam and his father.”

At least twice, the Bible quotes “Sefer Hayashar,” the “Book of the Just” (see Joshua 10:13 and II Samuel 1:17) and in II Kings 15:36 it references “The book of days of the Kings of Judah.”

It is even possible that the song of Haazinu, with its unique language and style, is also borrowed from an earlier work and incorporated into the Torah.

The point is that once those other texts were included within the Torah, they too became part of Torah. And the Torah is the single book which we need to gain the knowledge we need to live a good life.

It is true that no sooner had the Torah been completed, than the prophets began writing more books which were eventually compiled by the Men of the Great Assembly into the Bible. And shortly after that, the rabbis began compiling the Mishna and later the Talmud, Midrashim and other books of halacha and ethics.

The single book of the Torah, the “words that you should command your children” expanded to become a sea of Torah wisdom filling shelves and libraries. Every year, hundreds of new Torah books are written and published. It has become impossible to know everything in Judaism.

But the one solid foundation upon which everything rests is the Five Books of Moses, the “song” which we are commanded to “write and teach the Children of Israel.”

My next series for WebYeshiva is entitled “Rabbis on the Moon” and begins on Tuesday, October 17. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar. Check out my website,
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