The Written Law

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David Zvi Kalman


And the Lord said to Moses, “Good! You’re here. I’ve got everything set up for you, the whole package, just like I promised. Now, I do need to give you some instructions on getting from development to production, and there are some finicky bits as you might imagine. The whole thing is set up as a hyper-progressive biologic lateralized algorithmic manifold. Do you know what that is?”

“No, O Lord,” said Moses.

“This is a little crude, but think of it like a very large dynamic version of a relational database. Do you know what a relational database is?”

“Apologies, O Lord,” said Moses.

“It’s a way of organizing data. Do you know what data is?”

“O Lord, Your wisdom and understanding truly know no limits,” said Moses, which was a long way of saying no.

“Okay, let’s just pause for a second,” said God, pinching the bridge of His mighty nose with His mighty fingers. “This is going to be trickier than I expected. Maybe I should start by just understanding what kind of hardware and software you’re currently running. Do you know about computers? About hardware and software?”

“No,” said Moses.

“What about automation generally? Jacquard looms? Mechanical clocks?”

“I know what a loom is,” said Moses, hopefully.

“Can you program a loom to replicate a specific pattern without human intervention?”

“Em… I don’t think so,” said Moses.

“Then how in the world do you distribute information? Do you just keep everything on paper?”

“What is ‘paper?’” said Moses.

And the Lord was silent for a good thirty seconds.

“You know, Moses,” said God. “Why don’t we start with you telling Me what you do have. Let’s say you want to remember something really well, so that you never forget it or accidentally change it. What would you do?”

“Well, I suppose I’d repeat it to myself many times,” said Moses. “And I’d teach it to somebody. And I suppose I’d also write it down.”

“And what if the thing you were trying to write down was immensely complicated—like what if it was a set of laws that interacted with each other constantly, where each law had many exceptions?”

“Perhaps I would ask many people to memorize pieces of it?”

“Memorization is fine,” said God, “but the problem is that the pieces are linked. Let’s say you have a myriad of people—that means ten thousand—and each of them memorizes one-myriadth of the whole thing. Now you have some rule that requires person 16 to talk to person 5015, and another that requires person 440 to talk to persons 8000 through 8006. Do they all just live together? And what if one of them dies?”

“Perhaps we could write it down?” asked Moses.

“Maybe, but that’s a lot to write down on—what is it you have for writing?”

“Papyrus and parchment,” said Moses.

“Peachy, just peachy,” muttered God. “Those are expensive, Moses. And you’re going to make mistakes when you try to copy it, of course, because I’m assuming you don’t have printing presses, either. And of course the material itself evolves over time. This is a real pickle.”

“A… pickle, O Lord?”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” said God. “Look. We’re just going to have to call this an ongoing project, okay? I’ll give you some of it now, but you’re going to have to keep coming back. It’s going to be a mess, I can sense it already, but I don’t see an alternative, and a promise is a promise.”

“Of course, O Lord,” said Moses.

“I’ll dictate. Get out your fancy papyrus and we’ll see how much we can cover. So, to begin—”

“I didn’t bring any papyrus,” said Moses.

“You said you had papyrus,” said God, narrowing His eyes.

“Yes,” said Moses. “As a society. But I don’t have any on me right now.”

“Did you bring parchment?”

“No,” said Moses. “I didn’t bring anything.”

“Moses, how exactly did you think this was going to work?”

“I had faith,” said Moses. “I thought that was enough.”

God sighed. “Well, we’re on a mountain. See those slabs of rock over there?”

“Yes, O Lord,” said Moses.

“I’ll talk slowly,” said God. “Try to keep up.”

David Zvi Kalman is Scholar in Residence and Director of New Media at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. His research and writing touch on Jewish law, technological history and ethics, material culture, and Islamic jurisprudence. He is the owner of Print-O-Craft Press and the KLMNOPS art house. His work can be found at