Babel: The Tower and the Library

by Bob Schwartz

What do we know? What can we know? What should we know? Is it worse to know too much than to know too little? Is the way of knowledge madness?

Ben Zoma

Ben Zoma was one of the tannaim, teachers recorded in the Misnah, a part of the Talmud.

The story is told that Ben Zoma was seen staring into space, lost in thought. When asked about it, he said he was contemplating creation, when the waters above were separated from the waters below. What, Ben Zoma wondered, was in between? It was then said about Ben Zoma that he was “still outside”, that is, out of his mind.

The Tower of Babel

In the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 11), a tower reaching to heaven is planned by ambitious and presumptuous people. God thwarts the plan, believing that if they continued, there was nothing they could not know or do. Their infinite power would rival God’s. They had all been together, speaking one language. God separates them and their languages, baffles them so they will no longer understand each other.

The Library of Babel

In his story The Library of Babel,  Jorge Luis Borges conceives a library containing all books. It does not turn out well:


When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proffered dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad…