By Rabbi Johnny Solomon
Over the past decade there has been an explosion of both Hebrew and English language books containing and explaining the teachings of the great Jewish thinker and Talmudist Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. However, while many of these books faithfully convey the wide range of creative and insightful ideas of Rav Soloveitchik, far fewer explore his unique talmudic methodology or attempt to present many of the ideas that he taught in his talmudic lectures. The reason for this apparent omission is due to the fact that any (authentic) attempt to explain how the Rav extrapolated his ideas from the Talmud requires a deep knowledge of the talmudic passages which inspired and informed him.
Rabbi Dr Shlomo Pick, himself a former student of Rav Soloveitchik and currently a teacher of Talmud and Maimonidean thought at Bar-Ilan University’s Institute for Advanced Torah Studies, wishes to redress this imbalance through presenting some of the more accessible Talmudic lectures by the Rav that explore themes relating to the festivals.
In 2004 Rabbi Pick published a Hebrew volume titled Moadei HaRav (literally, ‘The Festivals of the Rav’) containing seventeen extended summaries of public lectures delivered by the Rav based on the notes that both he and others took while attending these lectures, in addition to incorporating an introductory chapter on ‘The Rav’s Methodology of Torah Study’. In so doing Rabbi Pick provided a unique window that shed light on the Rav’s methodology that could be understood by both Talmudic experts and laypeople alike.
Earlier this year, Urim Publications published an English edition of Moadei HaRav containing all bar one of the previous essays on the festivals (omitted is the essay on ‘Hashutafut Bein HaAdam L’Bein Hakadosh Baruch Hu’) and including a second introductory essay on ‘The Rav and the Jewish Holidays throughout the year’. As Rabbi Pick explains, ‘my hope and prayer is that this volume will offer the English-speaking religious nonprofessional a better understanding and appreciation of some of the Rav’s ideas, analysis, and methodology, and through them, a deeper understanding and heightened experience of the festivals.’
As mentioned above, this book is about nuance and text, which means that a short review such as this can’t do justice to the contents or purpose of this work. Nonetheless, especially as we are just days away from Yom Kippur, it seems fitting to share some of the insights about this awesome day as presented in Moadei HaRav:
* In his introductory essay on ‘The Rav’s Methodology of Torah Study’, Rabbi Pick explained how Rav Soloveitchik learnt from his uncle, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev, that mitzvot are made up two parts – the act of the mitzvah (Ma’aseh Mitzvah) and its fulfillment in the heart (Kiyum She-be-Lev). Given this distinction the Rav explained that while the Ma’aseh Mitzvah of teshuvah is confession, the actual Kiyum She-be-Lev takes place in the heart.
* In the same essay, we learn how the Rav extrapolated from the Rambam’s law of Teshuvah that the different aspects of the Yom Kippur service and liturgy relate to the atonement achieved by the people of Israel and of its individual members respectively.
* In the essay on ‘Keri’at Shema on Yom Kippur’, we learn how the practice of reciting ‘Barukh Shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed’ out loud on Yom Kippur turns Keri’at Shema into a davar she-bi-kedushah which is said in response to the hearing of ‘God’s glorious and revered name’.
* Finally, in the essay on ‘Sounding the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur’, Rabbi Pick presents a number of fascinating reasons offered by the Rishonim regarding why we blow the shofar at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service. He then explains how of Rav Soloveitchik regarded the shofar blasts as both song and prayer and concludes by citing the Rav who wrote that: ‘when a person reaches the Ne’ilah service, he feels disappointed with himself, as if he has not yet prayed, as if he has hardly said anything before the great and mighty God. Then the Jew begins to cry out from his heart Shema Yisrael, and he thinks that his mind will be put to rest when he declares Barukh Shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed. However, his mind is still not set at ease, and he opens with an even shorter statement: “The Lord is God,” which he repeats seven times. Yet, he is still not pacified… Suddenly, there issues forth a teki’ah, teru’ah, and teki’ah… through which the Jew says it all… Everything reaches its climax with this prayer. As Rabbi Pick concludes, ‘in the cry of the shofar, there is one last expression, at the final moment of the Holy Day, of all of our souls’ desires, all our hopes, everything that we want in holiness and purity. There is no more time left, no more strength, no more words to express. With this simple prayer the Holy Day comes to its conclusion.’
Moadei HaRav is a deep and stimulating work that enables those who did not have the privilege to sit before Rav Soloveitchik to read his ideas, reflect on his methodology, marvel at his creativity, and forge an intellectual and emotional bond with one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.