The Library of Congress gives a nod to the Jewish people as People of the Book. This appellation stems from the two main tomes of Hebraic Collections, the Talmud and the Torah. Both of these works can be visually challenging, and not coincidentally had strong oral traditions before their written versions were distributed for public consumption. Permit me to share a few visual insights from both of these works.
Take a look at Talmud text above, and what do you notice? Let’s just say that you wouldn’t find this as a template for good visual hygiene. In fact, it is a model for visual crowding. Beyond the compression of a significant amount of text onto each page, there are three different fonts: 1) the main text in the center; 2) the smaller italicized text of the two main commentaries flanking the sides; 3) the smallest size font of the notes on the side margins. There is no punctuation of the text. There is no pattern to the position or location of the commentaries in relation to the text on which they are based. While nothing was done for many years to address the challenges of following the text or “learning inside”, methods were adopted to aid the ergonomics of the visual task.
The key adaptation was the “shtender”, a Yiddish word for stand, whose key component was a slanted surface for the text. This was a European innovation, many years before more formal research by Darrel Boyd Harmon, Ph.D., introduced the slant board for classroom use in the United States. Although slanted board and desks have all but disappeared in secular educational settings, the shtender remains alive and well in Yeshiva settings, and in particular in the Beis Medrash or ultra-Orthodox study hall. In addition to having the visual angle to the text at approximately 22 degrees, the stand also facilitates the physical practice of “shuckling“, or swaying back and forth, while engaged in learning. The purpose of this swaying while engaged in textual study might be purely related to religious fervor. On the other hand, it may be another aspect of self-discovery about visual hygiene. The swaying to and fro prevents the individual from sustaining accommodative/vergence demand at a fixed viewing distance, which might otherwise result in asthenopia or eye strain – although some have intimated that it may encourage the progression of nearsightedness. The postural swaying also activates the vestibular system, known to help drive saccades – the type of eye movements used when reading.
Now consider the Torah. As used in synagogues it is read from a scroll and printed on parchment. It too has no punctuation and although the text itself is not as crowded as a page of the Talmud, can also represent a form of visual sensory overload for susceptible individuals. A pointer is used to help identify where the reader is on the page, and although this is done for the benefit of an individual who is following along with the reader, it represents a very old tradition in the still commonplace practice of using the index finger to keep one’s place when reading.
The ultra-Orthodox students who struggle with Talmudic text when “holding inside” – a phrase used for being engaged within the text rather than listening without following in the text – have a visual problem until proven otherwise. They are a narrow segment of the population at large, but may constitute a significant of one’s clinical population if their needs are understood. While we have addressed unique ergonomic components of the Yeshiva environment, this is not to overlook the potential application of lenses and prisms in optimizing opportunities for visual learning.