Photo Credit: Mosaica Press

Title: Essentials of Judaism
By: Rabbi Reuven Taragin
Mosaica Press



Historically, compulsories – skating in specific patterns to demonstrate precision and control – were a crucial part of figure skating, albeit tedious and unexciting to watch. Fun fact: that’s why it’s called figure skating. However, in 1990, the International Skating Union (ISU) voted to discontinue compulsories as part of competitions, much to the happiness of many TV viewers. The function of compulsories was meant to show that the skaters had the necessary discipline and capabilities.

Within Judaism, there are also necessary disciplines, ideas, and requirements. Yet, it’s not uncommon for people to live their entire lives without genuinely understanding these fundamentals.

In Essentials of Judaism (Mosaica Press), Rabbi Reuven Taragin, dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of The World Mizrachi Movement, lays out those fundamentals.

Taragin writes his book as a Hashkafa 101, which identifies and addresses Judaism’s philosophical topics in a comprehensive, systematic, organized, and sourced-based manner. He uses Pirkei Avot, which is the source of many hashkafic concepts, as a springboard for the ideas he is trying to transmit.

Walk into any Jewish bookstore, and there are countless books on different areas of hashkafa, which indicates the need for more comprehensive books on the topic. As someone who has dealt with thousands of students over the years, Taragin has his pulse on the spiritual state of things and is well-attuned to the hashkafic issues that are troubling many people.

The book is full of fascinating ideas. Perhaps the most amazing one is based on Pirkei Avot 3:4, where Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai says, “One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idle matters, has forfeited his life.” While most commentaries focus on this Mishna in a more negative light, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov recasts the Mishna in a positive light in Likutei Moharan.

He explains that “One who stays awake at night” refers to someone who takes advantage of the night by learning the Torah and being constructive. Someone who “travels alone on the road” can connote one who lives life on their own terms, in their own unique way, unaffected by those who may mock them.

As to turning one’s heart to idle matters, Rebbe Nachman uses the Hebrew word mefaneh to mean clearing your heart of all meaninglessness and focusing only on what is meaningful. And he explains that such a person is mis’chayev b’nafsho – that they deserve their life instead of receiving it as a gift.

While the Mishna’s basic explanation cautions us against misuse, Rebbe Nachman’s explanation inspires us to take advantage of our times and opportunities and through this, earn our lives. This explanation and many others form the groundwork for a fascinating book.

In Essentials of Judaism, Taragin has written an indispensable guide that speaks to many people today. While the compulsories of figure skating may have been boring, the compulsory topics and ideas detailed here are presented in an engaging and intellectually stimulating manner. This way, the reader gains innumerable insights, making them better people and closer to G-d, which is really an essential part of Judaism.

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