King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

“I understand what you mean to do,” he said finally to Solomon, still gravely interpreting the remarks of his ruler. “I do not see how you make people do it. I could not do that with my own people, even if they were slaves. There is always someone who will try to bend the rules, and ten more to follow him. Even if you flog and brand the way the black monks did, there will always be someone who does not understand what is he to do no matter how often you tell him. Those people out there, are they your slaves? Why do they obey so willingly?”

“We do not keep slaves,” replied Solomon. “Slavery is forbidden to us under our Law.” He translated the rest of Shef’s comments, listened to the long reply, spoke again.

“Benjamin ha-Nasi says that you are right to ask these questions, and that he sees you are a ruler in truth. He says you are right also to say that knowing the law is more wonderful than obeying the law, and declares that it is his belief that it is the unlearned alone who bring trouble into the world.

“What he wishes you to understand is that we Jews are different from your people, as from the Caliph’s. It is our custom to permit open debate of any matter—your lady Svandis might stand up in our debating chamber and say all that she pleases, and no one would interrupt her. But it is our custom also that once a decision has been made, a rule passed, then all must obey it, even those who argued most strongly against it. We do not punish for disagreement. We punish for not obeying the will of the community. That is why people obey all the rules willingly. Because we are the People not only of the Book, but of the Law.”

“And how do you all know the Law?”

“You will see.”

Turning from the battlements, the party retraced its steps into the center of the crowded forty-acre site, full of houses of stone and plaster connected by alley ways no wider than two men, winding up and down flights of steps that sometimes seemed to reach the gradient of ladders.

“See there,” said Solomon, pointing inside a narrow courtyard. There in the shade sat a man dressed in black, solemnly intoning a long unvarying drone to a dozen boys of different ages squatting on the ground. “That is one of the prince’s geonim. The prince maintains a dozen such, scholars who instruct youth without pay, for the love of learning. See, he will not desist even though he sees the prince his master pass by. For learning is more important than princes.”

“What is he teaching them?”

Solomon listened for a while to the steady drone, and then nodded. “He is reciting to them points of halakhah. That is; part of the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the law of our people, based first on our holy books, which the Christians call the Old Testament. But the Mishnah is all that has been thought and said on these books since we first made our Covenant with God. In the halakhot we learn particular decisions which have been made on particular points.”

“Such as what?”

“At present the gaon is explaining why, though saving a man’s life takes precedence over saving a woman’s, it is proper to cover the nakedness of a woman before that of a man.”

Shef nodded, walked on broodingly, following the prince’s unostentatious and unheralded tour. Another thing was beginning to catch his eye. Books in the crowd. He had seen several being carried, one man sitting short-sightedly with his nose almost buried between the covers of one. In one of the markets he thought he had caught a glimpse of a stall with a dozen or more laid out as if for sale. Shef had never heard of a book being sold. The Vikings stole them and ransomed them back, when they could, to their owners. The monks of Saint Benedict made them for themselves and their priest-dependents. No-one ever sold one. They were too valuable. Thorvin would have died in his boots before selling his collection of the holy songs, written down with difficulty in the jagged runic script. How many books did these people have? Where did they come from?

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Categories: Harrison, Harry