web analytics
April 25, 2015 / 6 Iyar, 5775
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post


Great Men; Great Writers

Winter-112213-Great-Men

While we know a lot about our greatest forebears from the Chumash and later biblical generations, even if there are often gaps in their life stories, we know considerably less about the Sages of the Mishnah (the Tennaim) and of the Gemara (the Amora’im), collectively known as Chazal – our Sages, of blessed memory.

There are probably historical reasons for this, as well as practical religious ones. An important reason being that Chazal set the halacha for ever after by using a technique of Biblical interpretation called derasha (often unhelpfully translated as exegesis). If we would know all about the men who gave us this exegetically derived body of halacha, we may attribute some of their conclusions to some factor in their lives (e.g., Rabbi Eliezer concludes such and such because his personal inclination was to have greater fealty to traditional teachings than his counterparts), and we may even be dismissive of their conclusions, God forbid.

While this is not an unfounded concern, something is lost when we know so little about Chazal, when Shnooky on the “Marvelous Middos Machine” CD is excited about finding a time machine because he can go back into the past and meet the Chofetz Chaim or the Vilna Gaon, but expresses no desire to meet Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Tarfon.

But if you want to learn more about the people who had the greatest impact on Judaism in the last 2,000 years (and who wouldn’t?), there are several wonderful books to turn to.

One is The Spirits Behind the Law (Urim Publications) by Rabbi Jonathan Duker. Rabbi Duker does a fine job of creating portraits of 14 different personalities, some more well known (Hillel and Rabbi Akiva), some less (Bar Kappara). Each is presented using almost entirely Talmudic and midrashic sources, and as Rabbi Duker culls from the different tractates and stories about each Sage, coherent individuals and personalities emerge. Even a reader who would be familiar with all of the sources in their desperate parts gains by seeing a holistic picture, and can begin to understand and appreciate who these giants were and what they achieved.

Another source for learning about Chazal comes from Koren Publications’s new edition of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s Talmud. In addition to Rabbi Steinsaltz’s always splendid commentary and Koren’s beautiful new look, this version include several wonderful new features, such as color photos, illustrations, maps. Yet, unexpectedly, the feature that I have enjoyed the most – the one I have flipped through the pages to find – has been the capsule biographies of Chazal found in the margins. Most are no more than four short paragraphs, but they do a fine job of giving the reader some biographical context for his learning.

My third recommendation is a three part series called The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity (Maggid Books), and it may be the best biographical books ever written about Jewish religious figures by a religious figure – tracing the major Sages from Men of the Great Assembly during the second Beis HaMikdash through Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. By writing an absorbing narrative that lets the reader into their lives, the author, Rabbi Binyomin Lau, creates the next best thing to a time machine.

For example, Rabbi Lau introduces us to Rabbi Eliezer, who grew up on his family farm and had never learned a day in his life. One day, quite suddenly, he decides that he will learn Torah with the greatest Sage of that generation, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. And as he goes through Rabbi Eliezer’s evolution from a land-worker to a great scholar, he sets the stage for a showdown between Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eliezer’s father, at once arresting and religiously uplifting.

One of the joys of reading is discovering, and sometimes this discovery is as much of a new writer (or thinker) as it is of the writing. Rabbi Lau’s ability to so thoroughly and engagingly present the lives of Chazal based almost entirely on the biographical snippets scattered about in the Talmud and midrashim is breathtaking, humbling and exhilarating.

Another new discovery that I have lately been enjoying is Rabbi Leo Adler, a German-born refugee of the Holocaust, who spent the last 25 years of his life as rabbi of the Jewish community of Basel, Switzerland.

About the Author: Shlomo Greenwald is associate editor of The Jewish Press.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Great Men; Great Writers”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
"Killing Jews is worship that draws us closer to Allah." That's his Jihad. What's yours? - An ad campaign sponsored by  the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
MTA Hopes to Change Rule, Ban ‘Killing Jews’ Anti-Jihad Ad
Latest Sections Stories
Food-Talk---Eller-logo

“People who never buy cookbooks are getting this one,” said Victoria. “They read it cover to cover and find it so interesting.”

South-Florida-logo

We have recently witnessed how other minorities deal with even perceived danger aimed at their brothers and sisters. They respond in great numbers.

South-Florida-logo

The Hebrew Academy students took part in all categories and used successful and innovative techniques to achieve their goals.

“The objective behind establishing small communities as places for relocation was a remedy for the excessive cost of housing and education in the large New York metropolitan market,” Mr. Savitsky explained.

Jewish Democrats did not entirely trust the son of Joseph Kennedy, a man broadly considered to be both anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi.

The teenage years are not about surviving. They are about thriving.

Every moment was a gift. I held each one, savoring.

We arrived in Auschwitz on Thursday, January 30, 2014. My seminary was taking us to see where the prisoners were kept. When we got there, I stepped off the bus in complete and total silence. I was in the back, and when we got to the gate I hesitated and started shaking uncontrollably. I couldn’t […]

From the moment Israel was declared a Jewish state, it has been the subject of controversy and struggle.

Now that Pesach is over, we return you to your regularly-scheduled pressing questions:   Dear Mordechai, Can I use a nose hair trimmer during Sefirah? Harry Lipman   Dear Harry, Yes, as long as your nose hairs are so bad that they’re affecting your job. Like if you have a desk job, and they interfere […]

It is very natural for kids to want attention and to be jealous of each other, especially when there is a new baby.

During the Second World War, a million and a half Jewish soldiers fought in the Allied armies, the Partisan units in Eastern Europe, and the anti-fascist underground movements in Western Europe and North Africa. These Jewish fighters won over 200,000 medals and citations. The Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II in Latrun, […]

The 2-day real estate event will take place in Brooklyn on April 26 and 27.

More Articles from Shlomo Greenwald
Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Creativity without clarity is not sufficient for writing. I am eternally thankful to Hashem for his gift to me.

Israeli flag

Israel’s morality is underscored by its unprecedented restraint and care for loss of life.

With Journey of Faith in front of you during the shul’s leining, or at home on a long Shabbos afternoon, you’ll enjoy worthy insights and see the entire sefer anew.

How political movements gain footholds remains one of the great true-life mysteries.

Filling two vacuums at once – one of Orthodox women taking a more public role and a second of Modern Orthodox Jews demonstrating the merits of religious Jewish practice – Allison Josephs has transformed her sweet and engaging webisodes and blog into a larger force. Jew in the City is now a franchise.

All the books reviewed in this supplement can serve as great gifts; the books reviewed briefly below do as well.

While we know a lot about our greatest forebears from the Chumash and later biblical generations, even if there are often gaps in their life stories, we know considerably less about the Sages of the Mishnah (the Tennaim) and of the Gemara (the Amora’im), collectively known as Chazal – our Sages, of blessed memory.

Zakheim frequently used his access to ambulances and helicopters to transfer sick or injured individuals to hospitals.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books/book-reviews/great-men-great-writers/2013/11/21/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: