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Parshat Yitro – Decimal system

The Ten Commandments offer a framework that categorizes all the other laws. They also include a succinct reminder of Sinai (Yitro)
Library book stacks on sixth floor of Milner Library. (CC BY-SA, ParentingPatch/ Wikimedia Commons)
Library book stacks on sixth floor of Milner Library. (CC BY-SA, ParentingPatch/ Wikimedia Commons)

Melvil Dewey loved the number 10 and the metric system. He really loved it a lot. It defined his life and his legacy.

He attributed significance to the fact that he was born on December 10, 1851, and even greater meaning to the fact that it was the anniversary of the day in 1799 the French National Assembly voted to accept the metric system of weights and measures.*

While still at high school he wrote in an essay that the metric system’s “great superiority over all others consists in the fact that all its scales are purely decimal.”

Later in life, Dewey used the number 10 in many unusual ways. The letters he would write would have exactly 10 pages. At the Lake Placid Club — a resort he established in upstate New York overlooking the Adirondack Mountains — membership cost $10 a year, and lifetime membership was $1,000. In the guesthouse, lights had to be turned out at precisely 10pm, and the overnight train back to Manhattan departed at the same time.

In 1926, Dewey wrote:

I like 10 [hours of sleep a night]. Perhaps because I believe so firmly in decimals, of which I have been a life-long advocate and active missionary.

Melvil Dewey. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Dewey also loved to organize and arrange things. From the time he was small, he would put all the items in his mother’s pantry in order. This habit stuck with him through his entire life.

He also loved conciseness. He shortened his name — he was born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, but dropped his middle names, and the “le” from his first name. For a short while he shortened his last name to Dui, but it never caught on.

He invented a new spelling that reduced redundancies (and which I can’t stand reading). Here is an example, from the Grosvenor Dawe’s 1932 book, Melvil Dewey Seer Inspirer Doer 1851-1931.

In the present day a filosofy is prevalent which denies to the human creature unlimited spiritual place in the eternal scheme of things but grants to it only the same place as an insect fortuitously procreated and hatcht and only, by fortuitous chance, surviving to reproduce its kind. It is therefore refreshing to study the life of Melvil Dewey, who from boyhood dared to dream great dreams, vowd himself to definit lines of service and followd a gleam that carrid him further and further away from mere fisical existence into a world-wide mental influence.

Perhaps the only real impact Dewey had on the English language is that Americans now spell “catalog” without the “ue” used by British people.

A combination of Dewey’s love of decimals, his obsession with organization and his goal of streamlining things, gave the world the creation for which he is best known. And he wrote that it came to him in a flash of inspiration:

After months of study, one Sunday during a long sermon [in church]… the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near to shouting, ‘Eureka!’

The Dewey Decimal System, used to classify non-fiction books, seems so obvious to us now — what other way could you possibly catalog the books?

But before Dewey published his 42-page pamphlet entitled, A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library there were all manner of ways of cataloging books.

Many libraries simply noted the shelf the books were stored on. This was useful for librarians who knew where things were, but made it impossible for users to find anything. Others put the books in alphabetical order, which was fine except that there was no way of finding books on a particular subject matter. My favorite method (which the wife of a friend of mine once did to all his books while he was out) was to arrange the books by color and size. This was obviously by far the neatest method.

Dewey wrote:

A library’s function is to give the public in the quickest and cheapest way: information, inspiration, and recreation. If a better way than the book can be found, we should use it.

His decimal system classifies all fields of knowledge with a three-digit number (often followed by decimal places). Thus, for example, music is in the 780s. The fields range from general principles and musical forms (781), through Instruments & Instrumental ensembles & their music (784) to Keyboards (786), Stringed instruments (787) and Wind instruments (788).

Dewey’s system allowed a researcher to find all the books on a particular subject. For most students in an age before internet search engines, finding the relevant shelf was the prerequisite starting point for any essay or research paper.

Dewey’s name is intrinsically linked with library science. In fact, in 1887, he convinced Columbia University to allow him to establish the first ever school of librarianship. He was also ahead of his time, because he insisted that women should be admitted to the course — women were not permitted to attend Columbia at that time. Against the wishes of the college regents he set up the program with a shoestring budget, and accepted the first cohort of 20 students — 17 of whom were women.

Melvil Dewey and the 1887-1888 class School of Library Economy at Columbia College. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

He insisted that women be accepted into the program because he believed they had natural talents ideal for librarianship. He wrote:

In much of library work, woman’s quick mind and deft fingers do many things with a neatness and dispatch seldom equaled by her brothers.

However, he may have had other, more sinister, motives for wanting female students.

He would ask prospective female students for their height, weight, description of hair and eye color as well as a photo. He was teaching the librarians of the future, but he once stated, “You can’t polish a pumpkin.”

In fact, his behavior towards women was much worse than that.

In 1906, Dewey was forced to resign from the American Library Association he had co-founded following four “prominent women” who accused him of making inappropriate advances on several librarians during the ALA’s annual convention.

Joshua Kendall recorded in America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation that in 1924 Tessa Kelso, the one-time head of the Los Angeles Public Library said that, “For many years women librarians have been the special prey of Mr. Dewey in a series of outrages upon decency.”

Just last year, 88 years after his death, Dewey’s name was stripped from the top prize for librarians in protest against his habitual sexual harassment.

But he was not only a serial harasser. He was also a racist and an anti-Semite. For example, he refused to allow blacks or Jews to become members of his Lake Placid Club. He wrote in the membership rules:

No one shall be received as member or guest, against whom there is physical, moral, social or race objection… It is found impracticable to make exceptions to Jews or others excluded even when of unusual personal qualifications.

Due to his racism and anti-Semitism, despite being the most famous librarian in the country, in 1905 Dewey was forced to resign as director of the New York State Library.

The really interesting thing is that Dewey’s misogyny, racism and biases can be seen in the library classification system he created and which is still widely used today (though there have been some changes since Dewey’s original formulation).

For example, according to Adherents.com, there are over 4,300 different religions in the world. About one third of the world’s religious population is Muslim.

Yet, of the 100 numbers set aside for religion, Dewey assigned 88 to Christianity. The remaining numbers are for all other religions. Judaism is 296. Islam, the world’s second largest religion, shares 297 with Bábism and Bahá’í Faith.

The 370s are for education. After categories for schools, primary, secondary and adult education, we get to 376 which is Education of women. The 390s are designated for Customs, etiquette, & folklore. Within that, 396 is Women’s position and treatment, right next to 397 which is outcast studies. (Luckily, none of these numbers are used any more).

Dorothy Porter spent decades fighting race bias within Dewey’s library system. In an interview she said:

Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.

So Dewey was an extremely flawed individual who nevertheless revolutionized librarianship and by extension how knowledge was researched, shaped and shared with the world. And central to it all was the number 10.

And this, of course, brings us to this week’s Torah reading, Yitro, which contains the Ten Commandments.**

The Ten Commandments are a peculiar hybrid. On the one hand, they are clearly “more important” than the other commandments. The Ten Commandments were recited as part of the daily service in the Temple. The only reason it isn’t included in our prayer service today is that the rabbis were concerned about heretics who would say that there were only 10 commandments, and would ignore all the others (Tamid 5:1).

The Ten Commandments. (CC BY-SA, Lolo425/ Wikimedia Commons)

Even though the Ten Commandments are not included explicitly as part of the formal prayer, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 1:5) Rav Levi says that the reason we recite all three paragraphs of the Shema during prayer is because the Ten Commandments are alluded to within them.

Maimonides writes that the reason to include the Ten Commandments as part of the prayer service is “because they are the essence of the religion and its primary categories,” (Commentary on the Mishna, Tamid 5:1).

Rashi (Exodus 24:12) writes that all the 613 commandments are included within the Ten Commandments. Rav Sa’adia Gaon and Nahmanides both try to show how all the 613 commandments are subsumed within the ten “categories” of the Ten Commandments.

Many Synagogues have representations of the Ten Commandments on or above the Holy Ark to show their importance.

Synagogue of new Shilo. (CC BY-SA, Daniel Ventura/ Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, at the same time, the Ten Commandments are no different than any other commandments, and may not even be the most important commandments.

The same Maimonides who states that the Ten Commandments are the essence of Judaism rules (in a responsa) that one should not stand up when they are read during the Torah portion because people may think those ten are more important than the rest of the Torah laws.

When the prospective convert came to Hillel and asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, the Sage did not teach him the Ten Commandments, but the principle that, “What is hateful to you do not do to others.”

In the Talmud (Makkot 23b) Rav Simlai states there are 613 commandments. The Talmud then continues to distill these laws to their most basic components, first to 11, then to six, then to three, two and finally to one single commandment (“The righteous shall live by his faith,” Habakkuk 2:4). At no point does the Talmud suggest that perhaps the ten commandments are the basis of the laws.

There is a principle that any Jewish law may be set aside when life is at risk, with the exception of three — idolatry, murder and forbidden sexual liaisons. The rest of the Ten Commandments do not hold such importance.

So the Ten Commandments occupy this strange place in Judaism. On the one hand, they are the essence of the religion. Yet at the same time they are merely 10 of the 613 commandments, and some are not even the most important ones.

In Judaism, the Ten Commandments are not the sole (or even primary) basis of the legal system.

However, like Dewey’s system, the Decalogue gives the decimal framework by which all the other laws can be categorized. They give a succinct reminder of the Sinai experience and a distillation of the essence of the relationship between the Jews and God.


*As an aside, it is possible that the reason the US is the only country apart from Myanmar and Liberia that did not accept the metric system is because of pirates, or privateers as they were known at the time. More on that another time.

** It is interesting to me that different religious denominations have different ways of enumerating the Ten Commandments. But a discussion of the meaning and reasons for this is beyond the scope of this blog.

Thanks to the Kitchen Sisters podcast for enlightening me about the dark side of the man responsible for the library classification system.

I’ve 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. 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.
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