Title: Isaiah and His Contemporaries
By: Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe
Kodesh Press Tanakh Project
How do you write a book about a giant complicated sefer of Nach? How do you organize it? How do you make it readable? Should it go in order? By theme? What is included and what is left out? Yeshayahu has sixty-six chapters. The language is poetic and difficult to translate. I could not wait to see how the author took this challenge on and what decisions he made.
This book did not disappoint. It was a treat from start to finish. I read it slowly, savoring it, reading parts of it Shabbos after Shabbos, taking months, reading with footnotes.
Imagine my surprise when I recognized Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe as someone I knew from elementary school, in my brother’s class! As a child, I found our school’s dean Rabbi Muschel intimidating, but I have been consistently impressed throughout the years by his bold educational stances, his rigorous and extraordinary ASHAR curriculum, and his resolute halachic decisions. I graduated with a strong foundation in Jewish education that is the basis of my ongoing Torah learning and teaching to this day, and I saw echoes of that education in this book.
I figured I was a good target audience. I have medium but not vast experience with Sefer Yeshayahu. I’ve read the haftorahs, I learned it for a year in high school, I have taught pieces of it. I knew generally that Yeshayahu was during the first Beis Hamikdash, about a hundred years before the exile of the ten tribes, well before the people thought anything would happen (as opposed to Yermiyahu, who was the Navi in the time leading up to and during the destruction of the Temple). I did not know enough to have a sense of the sefer as a whole.
It turns out that this book is so remarkable it works for all levels of learning. I recommend it for people who are curious about the sefer, people who want to understand a specific part of the sefer, Tanach teachers who want help preparing their curriculum, people who want to do an in-depth study of part or all of Yeshayahu, even people who have studied Yeshayahu in depth.
One of the things that makes Sefer Yeshayahu so complicated (aside from its huge size and difficult language) is that it spans so many years. I, along with my ninth grade Bruriah class, memorized “four prophets prophesied during the same time period”. And you could probably wake me up at 2 a.m. whenever you want and demand: “During the reigns of which kings did Yeshayahu prophesy?” and I would mumble, “Uzziah, Yosam, Achaz, and Chizkiyahu” by rote. Even with that tripping off my tongue, the amount of background necessary to understand what’s happening in this sefer is staggering.
R’ Jaffe deftly organizes all the background information, which is one of the biggest strengths of the book. Pulling from Melachim and Divrei HaYamim, he introduces and explains what was happening in the kingdoms (Northern and Southern) during different prophecies, and there is also a handy timeline in the back that I flipped to frequently, trying to keep track of everything and put it in chronological perspective. Each king had a different flavor, a different political situation, and it is eye-opening to understand each nevua in that context.
Obviously, the purpose of every prophecy in our hands today is not for its historical value but for our own ethical and spiritual development and understanding, and this book artfully provides that guidance. It manages to give a sense of many many hashkafic topics and a larger sense of Talmud Torah in the course of elucidating Sefer Yeshayahu. Wealth, arrogance, trust, politics, enemies, illness, destruction, hope. There are so many famous phrases from this Navi that are in our liturgy and in the piyutim. I had no idea how much of Lecha Dodi was based on Yeshayahu.
I appreciate the pedagogical approach of using different fonts and setting off different types of discussions in a separate text box to help the reader switch mental hats throughout the book. Dr. Emily Amie Witty, Ed.D., taught me this technique many years ago and it is done in this book to great effect. Information about kings, notes on liturgy application, focus on emotional states, and literary techniques all are discussed in distinct visual ways (italics, underlined, bold, different font, text box). This makes it easy to follow. It unconsciously primes the reader for what topic is being discussed and helps us keep track of these different threads as they show up many times and in different ways throughout the sefer.
I particularly enjoyed the many discussions of poetic style and technique that the author highlights throughout the book. He names the techniques as they come up (again having a convenient glossary of them at the end for easy reference). Each example illustrates how the poetic techniques enhance the content of the message, and how that made it more meaningful for the people of the time and for us now.
King Chizkiyahu’s controversial decision to add a “leap month” of Nisan when rededicating the Temple from his father’s idolatrous legacy, so that the nation could joyously celebrate Pesach, was completely new to me. It is a fascinating exploration of making sloppy halachic adjustments for the sake of developing vitally needed Jewish identity and unity. I was riveted by the discussion of the many practical, political, and spiritual reasons to delay, as well as the halachic reasons it was wrong and required atonement. It resonates to this day, when we passionately debate when halacha is constricting important national development vs. whether we are being incautiously lax with our responsibility to preserve the halachic system even at some cost.
If you have no background, you can learn a lot from this book. If you have gone through the sefer many times, you will probably have even greater appreciation for interpretations and approaches that the author has chosen than I was able to perceive. This book is a masterful contribution to Tanakh study and on behalf of Klal Yisroel now and the future, I thank the author for his decade-plus study of Sefer Yeshayahu and the tremendous amount of effort and scholarship it took to compile it into such a coherent and user-friendly format.