By Rabbi Emanuel Feldman
What a pity that the classic writers of the past never made it to the 21st century. Shakespeare, John Milton, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Agnon, and dozens of other literary icons could have preserved their creative juices if they had had at their disposal that which we have today: emoji, which is a Japanese term for a picture character, or pictograph. Those ubiquitous yellow Smiley Faces are emoji, or emoticons.
Once upon a time, those Smiley Faces monopolized the emoticon world. But people who never smiled felt left out, so to the emoticon inventory was added a bright yellow Angry Face. But what about those who needed to express neither smiles nor anger, but other sentiments? In response to the overwhelming demand, the emoji faces multiplied like rabbits. There is today no limit to the available emojis: Tears of Joy Faces, Flushed Faces, Embarrassed Faces, Pensive Faces, Thinking Faces, Confused Faces, Worried Faces, Weary Faces, Excited Faces — whatever you wish to convey, one click of a key will express it for you. Six billion are sent each day. There is even an “Emojipedia” to help you match the proper pictograph to your special mood.
When those old masters wished to express the angst, confusion, joy, rage, disappointment, anxiety, cruelty, banality, amusement, hope, or ecstasy of their literary characters, they could have used emoticons. “To be or not to be,” for example, is a wasted six-word phrase. It could have been expressed by one or two little emoticon faces that express doubt and confusion. Any of the memorable lines of history could have been reduced to a single keystroke: “Of the people, by the people, for the people” (Confidence Face with Hopeful Face); “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” (Determined Face); “Youth is wasted on the young” (Baby Face and Smiley Face). And if not literarily inclined, one can say things like “Don’t cry over spilled milk” by punching in a Teary Face holding a milk container.
Just think of the tons of ink and forests of paper that might have been saved had emoticons been available. What a gift to the tree huggers, the environmentalists, and the save-the-planet fanatics!
Mankind used to chisel documents in stone. That evolved into the laborious use of quill and ink, which was transformed into the modern fountain pen, which became the inkless ballpoint pen, which shifted into the manual and then the electric typewriter, and then to the word processor, which gave way to the even swifter e-mail, which morphed into text messages, which were too cumbersome and were transmogrified into tweets and emoticons.
In one way, emoji-emoticons are eloquent manifestations of contemporary times. We are in a hurry; speed is of the essence. We cannot waste time searching for the precise word, the elegant phrase, the thoughtful idea, the bon mot. The president of the USA has no time for laborious news conferences so he tweets policy pronouncements — which permits only 140 characters. Can presidential pronouncements consisting only of emojis be far behind? Just think: If Abe Lincoln had had emoticons, he could have saved himself the trip to Gettysburg. And Winston Churchill could have stayed in bed; with three immortal key strokes he could have said “blood, sweat, and tears.”
Once upon a time, when we had to dip our quills into ink, and touch the pen to paper, and think before writing the next word, what emerged was classic epistolary literature and lasting poetry and drama and the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, the Gettysburg Address — things we still read today. What fruits of our creativity will our grandchildren read? Yellow emoji? When the King, in Megillas Esther 6:1, could not sleep at night, he read the history of the kingdom. Today, when the leader of the free world cannot sleep, he tweets.
With all the shortcuts at our disposal, we still have no time to study or learn or daven, or simply to sit still and consider the grass or the trees or the sky — or, heaven forfend, G-d. There comes to mind that magnificent prayer recited when we complete a Talmud tractate: “Anu ratzim v’hem ratzim — We run and others run.” We run toward eternal life, and they run to oblivion — like the proverbial lemmings over the cliff.
When G-d created man, He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, which Onkelos translates as the power of speech, which differentiated man from the beast (Bereishis 2:7). But if man loses the power of speech, another verse enters the stage: “…the pre-eminence of man over beast is nought…” (Koheles 3:19).
G-d willing, and the editor permitting, shall I some day write this entire column in emoji, saving us all some valuable time? (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 666)