J-BOM Review for “The Lost” forthcoming

Yes – I know I’m behind. But it’s been a crazy month, and The Lost: A Search for Six in Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn is a hefty book, both in size and in depth. This reminds me of Tevia (Fiddler on the Roof), as Derek was saying that I was behind on my reviews, I was shouting out “I von’t be late!” Well… I’m late. :-)

I wish I could devote all of my time to academics & such, but it just doesn’t happen when you run your own business and have 4 small children. So, I’ve come to the resolve to just “being late” from time to time, as much as I hate it. I’ve already started my review, but it probably won’t be finished for a few more days. Thanks for bearing with me. Shalom!

J-BOM: Visions of the Fathers

Visions of the Fathers

Rabbi Abraham Twerski

Mesorah Publications, 1999

I’ve owned and cherished Visions of the Fathers for a few years now. It has become a wealth of inspiration, as well as a guide to practical application of the wisdom contained within Pirkei Avot. Some of my readers may not be familiar with Pirkei Avot, so let me begin by sharing a little about this source

Pirkei Avot, often shortened to merely Avot, is a chapter of tractate Nezakin (Damages) of the Mishnah, the Oral Law of Judaism. It contains six chapters1, which are traditionally studied one chapter per week during the counting of the Omer, and then continue again at a slower pace until Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Avot is probably the most familiar work of the Mishnah due to its timeless aphorisms which affect all aspects of our lives. Sayings such as:

  • On three things the world stands: Torah, Service & Acts of Loving Kindness
  • Make a teacher for yourself, acquire a friend/companion for yourself and judge all men on the scale of merit
  • The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah
  • Make your Torah study a fixed practice. Say little & do much; and greet everyone with a cheerful countenance
  • Do not say, “When I am free I will study,” for perhaps you will never be free

So, why is studying Avot important? First, because it’s just good wisdom and we can all use more wisdom. But secondly, because the words of Jesus predate nearly all of the wisdom sayings found within this work, and yet you can almost hear his voice in the majority of these sayings. And though studying these comparatively with the words of our Master, I think we can gain some insight and understanding into his teachings which may have eluded us.

Lastly, I find one of the most important reasons to study Avot is that many often spend a considerable amount of time learning the text and meaning of Scripture, but fail in the application. The main focus on Avot (and all of Jewish theology for that matter) is application. Comparing the straight forward instructions of Avot with the sometimes broad strokes of Yeshua’s teachings can sometimes really help in understanding practical application of the Master’s imperatives.

Every Wednesday morning I meet with three other men for fellowship & to discuss the things we are learning, studying, etc. Over the last couple of weeks we have been discussing Avot, based on Twerski’s work. So far, we’ve gotten through the first three sayings of the first chapter. Yes, it’s that engaging. It’s been a wonderful time of digging into this text and then into the words of our Master to see how they compare and if we can learn something new and applicable to our lives.

In regard to Avot commentaries, there are a plethora of commentaries available from various sources. This commentary by Twerski, however, is personally significant in that it seems to contain the kind of analogies which really drive home the message of each particular mishnah (segment of text, similar to a verse). He is a natural maggid (story teller), and includes an enormous amount of talmudic anecdotes & chassidic stories to illustrate his points for each mishnah. Some Messianics might take issue with his constant affinity with psychological principles or kabbalistic insights. However, I find them very stimulating and accessible.

As far as illustrating Twerski’s methods, time permits me to give only one example.

Avot 1:6 says

Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: Make a teacher for yourself; acquire a friend for yourself; and judge everyone favorably.

Commenting on the last portion of this passage regarding judging everyone favorably, Twerski states

If we are flexible and lenient with other people, then God is lenient to us. If we are stern, rigid, and demanding, then God will act accordingly with us. When we judge other people favorably rather than condemn them, we merit that God will judge us favorably as well.

Essentially, this is what Yeshua tells in the Gospel of Matthew:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

So, why should we judge others favorably? Why not judge them with the measure they “deserve”? Because we will be judged in like manner, according to our Master.

From there, Twerski references the Baal Shem Tov and the Zohar on a couple of insightful points, and then says the following:

If we fail to identify our own shortcomings, we are likely to see them in others and be critical of them. If we acquire a teacher and friend that can alert us to our own biases and allow us to be more impartial in our judgments, we are far less likely to be condemning of others.

This is the essence of Yeshua’s instructions, and the extension of the mishnah at hand. Twerski does a great job at digging to the heart of the mishnah and looking at both the broad and specific applications time after time throughout the book. I would definitely be interested to hear any other specifics as to what you have enjoyed from Visions of the Fathers if you want to post a note for me in the comments. If you haven’t read it yet, you can pick up a copy here.

  1. In liturgical use, and in most printed editions of Avoth, a sixth chapter, Kinyan Torah (“Acquisition of Torah”) is added; this is in fact the eighth (in the Vilna edition) chapter of tractate Kallah, one of the minor tractates. It is added because its content and style are somewhat similar to that of the original tractate Avoth (although it focuses on Torah study more than ethics), and to allow for one chapter to be recited on each Sabbath of the Omer period, this chapter being seen well-suited to the Sabbath before Shavuot, when the giving of the Torah is celebrated. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirkei_Avot#Structure_of_the_work

J-BOM: JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Pt. 2

April’s J-BOM Book: Visions of the Fathers by Rabbi Abraham Twerski

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

Joseph Tabory

The Jewish Publication Society, 2008

This, the second half of my review of The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, unfortunately, I have run out of time to highlight all of the interesting information which Tabory puts forth in this succinct volume. We are well into April, and I need to focus my attentions on the April J-BOM review (Visions of the Fathers by Rabbi Abraham Twerski – one of my favorite commentaries on Pirkei Avot). There is, however, one last thing I want to make sure I hit.

I have often been troubled over the last decade or so of celebrating the seder meal in regard to the seeming absence of the answers to the Four Questions in the Maggid. Tabory makes a connection between the mandate of R. Gamliel and the questions. Gamliel requires the “mention” (in context, the “discussion”) of three things at the seder meal: pesach (referring to the meat of the Pesach offering), matzah and maror. He states,

Examination of the best manuscripts of the Mishnah and early haggadot show that there were originally only three questions, which may be summarized as “Why do we eat only matzah? Why do we dip (referring to the dipping of the maror)? Why do we eat only roasted meat?” Thus it seems to be a reasonable assumption that R. Gamliel’s explanations of the significance of Pesach, matzah, and maror are the answers to the three questions, although distanced from them in the haggadah.1

In essence, the original three questions were changed over the centuries to deal with the change of custom (particularly the absence of the pesach after the destruction of the Second Temple), but the answers continued as a type of curious provocation which were not explicit in their connections to the new questions. I feel this is a reasonable explanation which tends to put in a missing piece of the puzzle surrounding the haggadah.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled to try and make some kind of connection between the Questions and the answers. In my Greek-oriented mind (which has to have a clear connection of all the dots), when I created my own haggadah, I attempted to make a clear connection of a question with its answer. Rather than maintaining the mystique and encouraging questioning, I have formulaically given both the problem and the solution. But this is what we are accustomed. Rather than chewing our own food, we have someone else chew it for us. Although this particular example is innocuous, the overarching snapshot is that this is a sad commentary on our culture and the spiritual state of the majority of believers.

There are also a few instances in which Tabory actually rejects interpretations of the text which have traditionally been thought to be written as anti-Christian polemic. It is interesting to hear his opinions on this, because he appears to be unbiased in his approach (he takes the opposition position a time or two as well). The two examples he gives (and defends as not being anit-Christian in origin) are: 1) the de-emphasis of Moses as the redeemer, and 2) the re-interpretation of the Afikomen as the “bread of distress/affliction.” In both cases, Tabory looks at the earliest historical sources (including Philo, an interesting source considering the topic) and refutes (or cast serious doubt on) the interpretation.

Lastly, the listing of the various differences between haggadot across cultural and linguistic lines is fascinating and much attention has been spent in tedious comparisons between them. Tabory does a masterful job at presenting these with fine granularity in the areas that are significant enough for examination. If you’re interested in this type of examination of one of the most central texts of Judaism, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah is a welcome addition to your bookshelf.

  1. Page 14.

J-BOM: JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Pt. 1

JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

Joseph Tabory

The Jewish Publication Society, 2008

I have officially jumped on the J-BOM wagon, and I appreciate the call to action by fellow-blogger, Derek Leman. If you are not sure of what this “J-BOM” thing is about, Derek explains it for you here. This is my first installment of my review on the JPS Commentary, be sure to check back for subsequent posts, as well as posts reviewing a new book each month.

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah from the Jewish Publication Society is the first book for all of us J-BOMmers to review. It was very nice to be able to know about this resource prior to Passover this year, as I believe it will enhance my personal experience of Passover.

Let me begin by saying that this commentary is not for the average person wanting to find out how to better celebrate Passover. It is for those who have celebrated the feast for several years and have wondered about the origins of all of the strange rites, traditions and expressions found within the haggadah. However, even within this group, it is probably not a blanket recommendation for addition to your reading list. This commentary is a scholarly approach at peering beneath our current text of the haggadah through textual & higher criticism, comparing our current text to many early variations of the text that, although extant, are not in use. Tabory makes note that “the earliest sources that help us understand the modern seder are those found in talmudic literature” (p.1). And although he does make reference to arguments regarding Christian scholarship regarding many related topics, including the Last Supper, he does not consider the Gospels of the New Testament a valid source from which we can learn anything regarding the earliest seder expressions. Maybe this is due to the fact that his position is somewhat opposed to any kind of interpretation of the seder experience from the believing community. Maybe this is due to his not considering the Last Supper of Jesus to be a seder meal, as many have reasonably argued1. Whatever the case, rabbinic literature is his primary source, and the majority of these works appear to come from the Cairo Genizah (in the case of what Tabory terms the “Eretz Yisra’el” tradition) or sources such as the siddurs of R. Amram Gaon and R. Saadiah Gaon (both from the 9th century, and follow the “Babylonian” tradition).

In regard to this vast sea of literature, Tabory appears to have a knack for pouring over massive volumes of historical & rabbinic works and compressing the essentials into a very small space. He makes many assertions about the origins of the haggadic elements, however, which may be problematic for the average reader. Yet in his pulling on the sacred threads, he is deeply reverent and respectful of traditional interpretation and understanding. Tabory does a thorough job at peeling back layer upon layer of text to uncover the earliest records of the Passover tradition in a way that is both curious and rewarding.

I plan on posting several insights and thoughts brought up by Tabory, but one of the things I would like to note first is regarding the historic nature of the haggadah. In regard to this we can be certain of one thing: The haggadah has never been a static text. Although our present text represents the current and definitive expression of the seder experience, it has not been without challenge or modifications historically. It has been a very dynamic text; one which has changed throughout the centuries in order accommodate the every-changing circumstances of each generation in order that one may be able to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt, as it says: “He brought us out from there in order to bring and give us the land which He had promised to our ancestors” (Deut. 6:23). Although many might view this as a corruption, or paganizing of the service, it can also be viewed as proof that the haggadah has ever been a living organism, bent on elucidating the purpose of redemption in each generation. Tabor notes that “the Torah does not prescribe exactly how the post-Exodic paschal meal should be eaten nor does it prescribe any ceremony connected with it” (p. 4). This is noteworthy in that each generation and community have adapted this ritual in some way or another throughout the centuries, not re-creating it as some would have us do2, but adapting it. Personally, I think this fortifies a Messianic position in that we should be able to produce Messianic versions of the haggadah unapologetically, without feeling we have tipped any sacred cows. We are only adapting to our needs to express Hashem’s redemption according to our understanding, the same as each of the previous generations.

With that said, let me begin my actual commentary with an interesting note regarding the traditional four cups of wine. In his overview of the seder and its history, Tabory makes an observation regarding these cups. He states, “The texts of the second cup, which embodies the story of the Exodus, and those of the fourth cup, Hallel or songs, are unique to this evening. Some of these texts belong to the tannaitic stratum of the haggadah, having been added between the destruction of the Second Temple (c. 70 C.E.) and the redaction of the Mishnah (c. 220 C.E.), while other were added even later” (p. 7). Although here, Tabory speaks of texts in association to the additional cups3, I believe we might also be able to deduce that these cups may not have been in use during this time either. Thus, we have a better explanation of why it appears that during the Last Supper Yeshua only drinks from two cups, rather than the traditional four.

Another interesting note that seems obvious, but I have failed to recognize it until he brought it out, is the fact that the Maggid (the telling of the Exodus) and the Shulchan Orech (the actual Passover meal) are really not connected. The Maggid actually takes place prior to the meal, rather than surrounding or in relationship to the meal. This is due to the post-Temple era in which the modern seder evolved. Since there was no lamb to be the focal point of discussion for the evening, the discussion naturally shifted to the expressions of redemption that could be represented tangibly in the evening. Hence the four cups representing the four4 expressions of redemption found in Exodus 6:6-7.

This is all I have time for now. I will post more soon…

  1. But Tabory cannot be faulted for this. Take for instance the argument of Jonathan Klawans in the Biblical Archaeology Review: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/jesus-last-supper.asp
  2. Some Messianic or Christianized haggadot stray very far from the traditional text in order to “fix” it. However, I believe a book such as this would help their understanding of the elements of the haggadah to become more mature.
  3. Tabory notes that the first and third cups are traditional cups associated with festive meals, to which the houses of Hillel and Shammai took issue in regard to interpretation.
  4. Although many have seen not less than five expressions, the fifth found in Exodus 6:8, “And I will bring you to the land I swore.” The debate surrounding this fifth cup lead to the Cup of Elijah.