The White House Scientist and the Ancient Jewish Book

Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Eric Lander as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lori Lander holds the 1492 Perkei Avot for her husband. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

Once upon a time – May 8, 1492, to be precise – a Jewish printer in Naples made the first printed text of the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish laws, ethics and traditions that had been kept orally for centuries. In the post-Gutenberg world of early printing, this was a rare and important part of Hebrew “incunabula,” as books printed before 1501 are known.

Centuries passed.

The New World was explored. Copernicus proved the Earth was not the center of the universe. Shakespeare came and went. Nations rose and fell. Plagues, wars and famines swept across continents.

And still, part of that 1492 Mishnah survived, in particular a 13-page fragment of the “Pirkei Avot,” or “Chapters of the Fathers,” a short, oft-quoted tract that sums up Jewish ethics and moral advice, often in easy-to-remember adages.

At some point, the fragment made its way across the Atlantic to the United States, bound in a bland Victorian-era-looking volume with a nondescript brown cover. It probably arrived in the Library in 1912, lost in a sea of about 10,000 volumes donated by Jacob H. Schiff, the railway magnate and Jewish philanthropist.

Another century passed.

And then this week, that 529-year-old book made a starring appearance under the hand of Eric Lander, a man who helped map the human genome, when he was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lander, 64, who is Jewish, used the book as the sacred text upon which he swore his oath to uphold the values of a nation that was not even a notion when the book was printed.

“I just had this sense that books tell stories and the place to go was the Library of Congress,” Lander said, explaining how his search for a historic copy of the Mishnah led him to the Library’s Hebraic section.

Lander zeroed in on chapter 2, verse 16 of “Pirkei Avot,” which speaks to the value of Tikkun Olam, or the endless task of repairing the world: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”

That espouses, Lander says, his family’s deepest values.

“We are (all) part of a continuous chain of people who are devoted to repairing the world,” he said. “That’s what keeps the world, you know, livable and good. And we make it better in this way.”

It’s a nice story, but the book had survived half a millennium only to nearly be lost to the ages. Had it not been for Ann Brener, the specialist in the Hebraic Section, neither Lander nor anyone else would have known the book still existed. And here the story becomes one of how the work of libraries preserve world cultures, from lifetime to lifetime, from century to century.

Brener found the book a decade ago, while sorting through about 40,000 rabbinic texts in the Library’s collections, nearly all from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were fine copies but not particularly striking. But as soon as she touched the paper of this copy, she knew this book was far older. It was rag paper — “strong, thick, a bit fibrous to the touch.” This was a gem.

It was a major find – there are only about 160 copies of Hebrew incunabula known to still exist; the Library has 37 of them.

In her entry describing the work, she listed these among the “crown jewels” of the Hebraic Section at the African and Middle Eastern Division. She wrote: “These Hebrew ‘cradle books’ or incunabula, as they are more generally known, offer a truly representative view of early Hebrew printing, with works ranging from rabbinical commentaries and responses to poetry, belles-lettres, and Arabic philosophy. They come from the presses of some of the best-known Hebrew printers of late fifteenth-century Europe and span the three major centers of Hebrew printing during the first crucial decades of its existence: Spain, Portugal, and Italy.”

The place and year of the book’s printing – Naples, Italy, in 1492 – carried even more cultural context. The kings of Naples and of Spain were cousins, each named Ferdinand. But while the Spanish king instituted the Spanish inquisition, driving Jews from the region, the king in Naples offered Jews refuge.

To Lander, this made the book as meaningful as the words printed on its pages.

“The book itself told the story of a world in which some places were tolerant and some places were intolerant. It spoke about refugees and in a whole new dimension that merely downloading a PDF with the words would not.”

Still, even though Brener had found, identified and described the book in a Library document called a finding aid, the book wasn’t listed in Library’s online catalog, meaning it was invisible to anyone who looked for it via a computer search. (The Library has so many millions of items that getting them all online is an ongoing, massive task.)

To get the book listed online required the efforts of David Reser, a metadata librarian. In 2019, Eugene Flanagan, Chief of the Library’s General and International Collections Directorate, directed Guadalupe Rojas, an intern from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities program, to transfer information about these ancient Hebrew texts onto a searchable spreadsheet. From there, Reser was able to upload the basic record of the book into the Library’s online catalog, even though the book itself is not yet catalogued.

It was, Brener said, “incredible magic” to get a book that had been lost to world view for five centuries to suddenly being available to anyone who typed in a few words on a computer.

And so it was from this daisy chain of events that a Harvard and MIT biologist and geneticist was able to go online to the largest library in world history and find a 13-page book from another age that spoke directly to him. Lander was so moved that he invited Brener to the swearing-in ceremony, bringing the 1492 “Pirkei Avot” with her. Lander’s wife, Lori, held it for him to place his hand upon while Harris administered the oath. It was really quite a moment.

“Although I chose a Jewish text, because it is my tradition and deeply meaningful to me,” he said, “it is also quite universal.”

13 Comments

  1. Paul Bechtel
    June 4, 2021 at 4:27 pm

    When did the Mishna originate relative to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and is it mentioned in the 1492 Perkei Avot, used for the swearing by Eric Lander, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    • Neely Tucker
      June 4, 2021 at 5:37 pm

      Hi there,

      The 1492 Perkei Avot is part of the Mishnah that was printed that year. If you’re asking as to the origin of the oral tradition of the Mishnah, please use our Ask a Librarian service at //ask.loc.gov/.

      Thanks for writing,
      Neely

  2. Ethan Kent
    June 5, 2021 at 2:09 am

    Dear Mr. Tucker:

    Please add a “c” to the family name of Jacob Schiff (searching the New York Public Library’s online catalogues for “Schiff Collection” yields literally thousands of items) ; it’s spelled like that of current California US Representative Adam Schiff (I have no idea whether our contemporary is in any significant way “related” to Jacob Schiff).

    Ethan Kent.

  3. Jean
    June 5, 2021 at 6:55 am

    I love the use of this artifact — but why is anyone touching it with bare hands???

    Please tell me the volume was only out of the archival wrapping for a few minutes…thanks!

    • Neely Tucker
      June 5, 2021 at 10:24 am

      Hi there,

      Thanks for writing and sharing this concern. It’s a popular one that we get often. But despite Hollywood films and pop culture lore, archivists do not generally recommend handling rare books, no matter how old, with gloves as they pose more risk to tearing pages than they do to preserving them.

      Here is the LOC policy: “Before handling any collection item, thoroughly wash and dry hands. Contrary to widespread belief, gloves are not necessarily recommended to handle rare or valuable books. Gloves (nitrile or vinyl) are always recommended if there is reason to suspect a health hazard (e.g., mold, arsenic). Clean gloves (nitrile, vinyl, or lint-free cotton) are also recommended when handling photograph albums/photographs or books with metal or ivory parts. Aside from those specific situations, it is generally preferable to handle your books with clean hands, washed with soap and thoroughly dried, rather than with gloves.”

      Hope this helps,
      Neely

  4. Judith Ellen
    June 6, 2021 at 9:57 am

    With change & challenge, comes opportunity. Lovely story, with many thanks for sharing.

  5. Rabbi Sholom Raichik
    June 7, 2021 at 10:54 am

    The origins of the Mishna is late 2nd century when it was formalized by the scholars of that era. It contains teachings of Jewish Scholars of the previous 3 centuries, like Hillel who said what today has been paraphrased as the Golden Rule, “What you dislike, don’t do onto others”

  6. Steven Selss
    June 7, 2021 at 10:22 pm

    The Pirke Avot is one of the most collectible books in the Jewish world; one would think that Dr. Lander would have a copy of his own. The passage by the way is Chapter Two, “verse” or “Mishnah” 21, not 16.

    • Neely Tucker
      June 8, 2021 at 9:46 am

      Hi there,
      Thanks for writing! While I hesitate to speak for Dr. Lander, I think he was reaching out to the Library for a special copy, not because he lacked one. As to the citation: The reference I was using lists it as 16, as do others, and our reference experts proofread the article and raised no objection. I do see other online sources listing it as 21, though. I’ll go back and check once more.
      Best,
      Neely

  7. Steven Selss
    June 10, 2021 at 9:49 pm

    I asked the rabbis of my synagogue to clarify the verse/mishnah numbering situation for me.The explanation is that some editions of the Pirke Avot consolidate several of the verses/mishnayot which results in the numbering of 2:16 instead of 2:21.

    • Neely Tucker
      June 11, 2021 at 9:47 am

      Yes. As our expert, Ann Brener, had written when I asked about this earlier: “…rabbinic texts exist in different manuscripts from different times and periods, and printers create their printed texts based on the manuscripts they chose, or the ones to which they had access. In the 15th-16th centuries, this meant combing the world to find reliable manuscripts of a given text, and then collating and comparing them to find the one deemed most reliable.”

      Standardization, she says, did not occur until the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Thanks again for the careful read!

  8. Steven Selss
    June 11, 2021 at 5:37 pm

    I have since found out that the verse numbering discrepancy arises since some editions of Pirke Avot consolidate several verses/mishnayot into one.

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