Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

Different Levels of Worthwhile Writing


Various Rabbis

(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 2:19-21)

Gemara: All oils are good for ink, but olive oil is the best … They are all good for either "smoking" (having the oil’s vapors disperse and improve) or for mixing in. Some have the following version: all the smoking oils are good for ink, but olive oil is the best. Rav Huna said: all the saps are good for ink, but the sap of k’taf is the best.

Ein Ayah: There are two categories of books that contain matters of wisdom that light up the world, whether in the realm of Torah or other areas of wisdom known to the nations. In some books, each idea contains valuable wisdom. Connecting these ideas together creates a whole that is even greater than the sum of its worthwhile parts. In other cases, a book gathers many known ideas that individually add little to the world, but their collection has value.
[As we have seen before, oil can represent wisdom.] Oil that is good for smoking, where every element of the vapor’s spreading contributes through the oil’s goodness, represents the first type of literature. The other usage, for mixing, includes cases that only when gathered together does the oil add something, which can be valuable even if some individual elements are negative. Similarly, the ink can be spilled in ways that are not good except that their being gathered together can teach us something. Sometimes the fact that many books are produced brings some light (see Kohelet 12:12). Torah scholarship provides a double contribution of wisdom. There is a great light from the gathering of all the "pure olive oil" (divine wisdom), in addition to the light of every shred of Torah knowledge. The world will be fully enriched when this "olive oil" is used both to smoke and to mix in.
The second version of the gemara is that only those that are used for smoking are good for ink. That is because if we have to rely on things whose value comes only from their collection, there will be many problematic elements which cause spiritual damage to the world. Torah, in contrast, is all true and holy. It is not that only olive oil (i.e., Torah) can be used, as it is good to collect any wisdom whose individual elements are positive. But the other oils serve as testament that olive oil is the choicest oil, and one learns not to compare any other knowledge to it.
[Now we will analyze the message to learn from the different saps.] Some books are written by people who have not dedicated their lives to the subject of the book. In such cases, it is common for the books to be flawed, and they can even cause people to err. One should therefore attribute extra value to books written by those who have toiled greatly on their subject matter, which is thus less likely to contain serious mistakes. It is chutzpa and potentially corruptive for one to write about that in which he is not an expert, especially on matters of Torah, belief, and ethics. Although there are times that a non-expert can produce a useful book, the optimal situation requires one to put in endless days and nights of study. When we know that the books we read are written by true Torah scholars, whose every effort from a young age was on Hashem’s Torah, we can be confident that we are experiencing something true.
There are all sorts of trees that produce sap that can be used for ink (i.e., writing books), even though their main purpose is for their fruit. Sometimes even their mistakes have value, as they can serve as the basis for developing knowledge of what is not true. However, the sap ofk’taf is best, as the gemara (Nida 8b) says that its "fruit" is its sap. In other words, when its use is the whole focus of the plant, it is most valuable.

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