Title: Timely Words: Holiday Insights Throughout the Year
Dr. Moshe Sokolow
Many readers skip or ignore anything called prologue, introduction, foreword, etc., in their haste to get to the book itself. Though perhaps understandable, this approach often means missing out on key details of context or perspective that frame the book – and this is particularly true when it comes to Dr. Moshe Sokolow’s recent book, Timely Words: Holiday Insights Throughout the Year.
The book takes the reader through the Jewish year, addressing a wide variety of fascinating, creative, scholarly topics related to the holidays in fascinating, creative, scholarly ways. But if one hasn’t read the preface, one will be left confused by the many chapters that end abruptly, with no particular conclusion or even direction.
If one has read the preface, one will know that the author first explored these topics in the context of various educational institutions and that the discussions in the book “represent an ongoing concern with ‘pedagogical content knowledge’” and “were constructed with the intent to make them easy to utilize in the widest variety of curricular and disciplinary settings” (p.1). Despite the author’s obvious expertise and depth of thought, this is not a typical book aimed at presenting one person’s ideas but a collection of sources, curated for the reader’s use as a means towards furthering his or her own study or that of his or her students.
Once the reader understands the framing of this book, it is a gold mine.
Of course, many of the author’s own perspectives and analyses do come through in the presentation of those sources – whether explicitly, as interpretations original to the author, or more subtly, in a turn of phrase or an organizational decision. While some of the chosen topics, texts, and analyses appealed to me more than others, they are all engaging and deserving of further exploration.
Out of all the fascinating material and ideas in this book, two in particular stood out to me, in different ways.
The very first chapter addresses the custom to avoid nuts on Rosh Hashana, beginning with the tantalizing claim that the author will propose a reason for the prohibition “that may be more persuasive than those recorded in the sources” (p.5). After taking the reader through the classic halachic sources that mention and even explain the custom (and that I personally found fairly persuasive), the author offers a completely different reason. (No spoilers here! Though the chapter’s title, “Warning: This Shi’ur May Contain Nuts” is kind of a giveaway.) I appreciated the sources and sympathized with the author’s feeling that something was still missing, but I was struck by the speculative nature of his own suggested reason. Such a claim seems to call for a full essay with sound textual and logical evidence – rather than, as here, a single paragraph appended almost playfully at the end of a collection of sources that all point to other explanations. Of course, every reader will determine persuasiveness for him- or herself – and in any case, the collection of halachic sources that makes up the bulk of the chapter makes it well worth a careful read.
While I was skeptical only at the end of the chapter on nuts, another chapter towards the beginning of the book (and year) seemed entirely absurd at first but turned out to be quite captivating. “BeRosh Hashanah Yikateivun: Angels Dancing on a Silicon Chip” – further subtitled “Who Is in Charge of Heavenly Computing? – asks whether G-d might have “replaced the old-fashioned method of manually recording human fate…with a computer” and if so, “which of His many ministering angels oversees the heavenly technology?” (p.25). I was somewhat relieved when the author acknowledged that the chapter was “written with a modicum of tongue in cheek,” and my initial cynicism was thoroughly subdued as I continued in the chapter and found it to be an almost magical read. I think I learned more about angels from that chapter than in decades of Jewish learning and teaching, and the computer-based framing – such as connecting the idea of angels having only one task to modern ideas of multitasking – were refreshing and fascinating. It is of course not really a chapter about whether G-d uses computers, but about gaining insight into G-d and His angels through a whole new prism of terminology, in a way that left me actually breathless.
Having given so much attention to those two chapters, I will have to leave further examples to readers to discover for themselves. I highly recommend doing so – first by reading the preface and even the table of contents, for a taste of the author’s range and creativity, and then by exploring each chapter carefully for its embedded gems of ancient material and modern twists.