Remember me by your letters, as is the custom among the Children of Israel, so that, when they are separated, writing brings them near again.
LEONE DA MODENA
MESSAGES have been exchanged between men since the beginning of civilization. For thousands of years they were conveyed to their destinations by the spoken words of messengers. But when readable signs replaced oral transmission a new and momentous phenomenon came into being: the letter. Whatever the material used for it - whether it was cut into clay, wood or wax, or written on bamboo, potsherds, parchment, papyrus or paper - the letter gave the first wings to man. It became the magic vehicle by which he himself - not a stranger - transmitted news, wishes, thoughts and feelings to other men in distant places. The written message extended the sphere of the individual and widened infinitely the range of human neighbourhood. It has multiplied the richness of our life, and from a merely utilitarian means of communication has become the most intimate link between men.
Letters have been written in almost all languages, and they have played an outstanding part in the development of all nations which have acquired the skill of writing. But the function of the letter in the life and history of one nation, the people of Israel, is peculiar and, indeed, unique. There are many reasons for this. One can certainly hardly conceive that letter-writing should anywhere have been put to better use or been more urgently necessary than among a people that from an early period continuously suffered the fate of exile and dispersion, and yet remained one family, striving incessantly to preserve its own unity and at the same time to maintain fruitful relations with the surrounding world. The combination of all these exceptional conditions led to a letter-writing activity the records of which extend - with rare intervals - over a period of nearly three thousand years - almost the whole of Jewish history itself.
A few traces only are left of Jewish letters written in antiquity -