Recalling the Covenant

April 11, 2013

recallingcovenantby Rabbi Louis A. Rieser

This thought-provoking commentary draws on classical Jewish sources as well as contemporary archaeological discoveries. Rabbi Moshe Shamah writes with a deep concern that readers understand the plain meaning of the text with all its associations and symbolic allusions. Shamah assumes that the Torah is divinely inspired. He also understands that the Torah addresses a sophisticated audience; his carefully considered, thorough commentary does the same.

Recalling the Covenant follows the schedule of weekly reading common in the synagogue, featuring several studies on each portion. Throughout, one is aware of the debt Shamah owes to his teacher, Rabbi Solomon D. Sassoon. In particular he references Sassoon’s theory on number symbolism in the Torah, a theory that often reveals interesting insights.

Shamah’s blend of traditional and modern sources yields insight and wisdom. He offers a panoramic understanding that leads the reader to a deeper appreciation of the text. Shamah’s commentary enriches the intellect and the soul.

This is not a book for a casual reader. It challenges us to meet the text anew and consider broader associations than initially meet the eye. Recalling the Covenant is a rewarding book that examines the Torah for its own message. Highly recommended.

This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

A Review of The Essential Jewish Stories

April 9, 2013

EssentialJewish stories

 by Rabbi Louis A. Rieser

Stories tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is evident for all to see; sometimes you need to hold stories up as a mirror in order to see the truth. In The Essential Jewish Stories, Seymour Rossel shares his collection of favorite tales. They will make you laugh, move you to tears, and – most importantly – make you think about the human experience. They teach a great deal about the Jewish outlook on the world.

The stories are arranged in four large categories, each subdivided into discrete sections. The stories come from multiple sources, largely rabbinic and Hasidic literature. Other stories are of Rossel’s own creation. He helps by noting the source for the original tale, allowing us to decide if we agree with his version or wish to retell it in our own voice. Rossel’s occasional brief annotations comment on sources or the similarity to other tales or traditions.

Rossel includes three helpful indexes: festivals and holy days, notable characters, and concepts and values. For anyone planning a program or researching a theme, these indexes will prove indispensable.

This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

Sages of the Talmud: A Review

April 7, 2013

by Rabbi Ari EnkinSages of theTalmud Web1

Sages of the Talmud is an encyclopedic work on 400 Talmudic sages that are found on the pages of the Talmud. The various sages are listed in alphabetical order. After the sages’ name, it is noted in which century he lived and whether he was a Tanna, Amora, Babylonian or Palestinian. The listing continues with stories and anecdotes which help the reader understand the sage’s personality and the social environment in which he lived. Their rulings, ethical teachings, and famous sayings are cited, as well. In some cases bibliographical information is also included, especially regarding the lesser-known sages.

For example, the entry on Pinhas ben Yair states:

“Rabbi Pinchas was a son-in-law of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and his student for many years. He lived in southern Israel, not far from Ashkelon, and was active in the mitzva of redeeming prisoners…It is said of Rabbi Pinhas that never in his life did he eat bread that was not his own…R. Pinhas b. Yair said, “Zeal leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity. Purity leads to self-restraint, and self-restraint leads to sanctity.”

The Talmudic sources for all such stories and sayings are cited. Entries range from a single paragraph up to several pages, depending on the prominence of the sage and his frequency of appearance on the pages of the Talmud.

Most people do not know when each of the sages of the Talmud lived and what the outside world looked like at that time. Many don’t even realize that there were hundreds of years between the earliest and latest sages of the Talmud. This is true even regarding different sages who are found on the same page of Talmud! And so, what is exceptionally unique in this work is that at the end of every entry, not only are the dates when each sage lived included, but readers are directed to an appendix at the back of the book which lists the historic highlights of regional events that took place during that time. For example, at the conclusion of the entry on Rava, we are told he lived between 250 and 350 CE. Turning to the pages that discuss these years at the back of the book one will find historical tidbits such as:

• Gallus became Roman emperor in 251 and was assassinated in 253
• Valerian attempted to recover the territories lost to King Shapur of Persia, but was captured by Shapur in 259 and held captive until his death ten years later, in 269
• Aurelian was assassinated in 275
• In 325, several hundred bishops led by Constantine attended the Read the rest of this entry »