RABBI JOSEPH B. SOLOVEITCHIK ON PESACH, Sefirat Ha-Omer and Shavu'ot
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by David Shapiro
The Rabbi Soloveitchik Library - volume 2
Series Editor: Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter
Comprises in-depth studies of Passover time from Rabbi Soloveitchik. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was the leading Judaic philosopher and rabbinic teacher for modern and traditional Orthodox Judaism in the United States during the latter half of the 20th century.
Rabbi David Shapiro was the Principal of Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts and was a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik for many years.
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is Dean of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute of Boston, MA.
The Rabbi Soloveitchik Library, under the auspices of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute, is a collection of volumes designed to enhance the understanding and appreciation of one of the greatest Torah giants of twentieth century Jewish life.
Hardcover, 287 pages
Published with The Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute
"Mei-apheila Le-Or Gadol: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-Omer and Shavu'ot"
by David Shapiro
The Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute & Urim Publications, 2005
The old adage notwithstanding, my first impression of this book was
generated by its cover. The title, Mei-apheila Le-Or Gadol, appears only
in Hebrew, and the font size is dwarfed by the subtitle, "Rabbi Joseph B.
Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-Omer and Shavu'ot." Similarly, the
author's name, David Shapiro, appears in a small font size at the bottom
of the cover, and the entire cover is dominated by a photo of the Rav.
After reading the volume, it appears that these design elements are
intentional, designed to highlight the presence of the Rav and downplay
the contributions of the author. While the author's humility is tangible
from cover to cover, his contribution to this volume is immeasurable.
The growing library of the Rav's writings is replete with reconstructions
of various kinds, each attempting to capture the grandeur and eloquence of
the Rav's presentation married to his incisive analysis. This volume is
markedly different. Shapiro does not pretend to re-create the Rav's
dynamism or poetry; his writing is too humble, sometimes even spartan, for
that. Instead, the author lets the Rav's ideas speak for themselves,
unencumbered by the articulate expression we come to expect. And it is the
raw presentation of the Rav's ideas that makes this volume distinctive.
This is not a light book. Unlike most of the other material that has been
published in the Rav's name, this is not a book you can just read. It must
be carefully learned, like any classical work of Talmudic lamdanut.
Explanatory material is sparse and the writing is terse. Citations from
primary sources are brought in full, but only in the original Hebrew and
Aramaic, often with little to no explanation. This book is not interested
in convincing the reader of the correctness of the analysis or the depth
of the Rav's understanding. Rather, it assumes that the readers will be
able to find relevance, construct meaning and explore on their own how the
material can enrich their religious experience.
What, then, are the special contributions of this volume? Rather than
relying on a single source reflecting a single iteration of the Rav's
analysis, David Shapiro collects from a broad range of sources - published
and unpublished, audiotapes and written notes, public and private, edited
and unedited, authorized and samizdat - distilling the Rav's concepts and
presenting a broader and more integrated picture of the Rav's
understanding of the topic than any student would have heard even sitting
in the shiur for many years. The sources for each discussion are clearly
identified at the beginning of each chapter, so that the reader not only
gets a comprehensive picture of the topic but a valuable index of
available material for further reading.
The thoroughness of the research that went into this book reflects the
seriousness of the author as a talmid hakham in his own right, and not
merely as an editor of pre-existing material. The primary text is
accompanied by comprehensive notes and excurses, providing valuable
context for the Rav's analyses especially as they are distinct from other
luminaries within the world of classical Jewish learning. The range of
other sources includes R Avraham Shapira, Dr. Isidore Twersky, R Yisrael
Meir Hakohen (Hafetz Hayyim), Avnei Nezer, Hatam Sofer, Hida, R Shlomo
Kluger and R Yitzhak of Karlin. In addition, Shapiro has the occasional
historical note on some of the figures cited, from the Amoraic sages to
those of the twentieth century, and references some of the relevant
academic literature, including critical editions of earlier works.
The eleven chapters of the book focus on three broad topics, and although
each chapter stands on its own there is a logical progression, with latter
chapters referencing earlier ones. Some of the material presented is new,
based on audio tapes unavailable to the general public, and at least one
chapter is an edited transcript of one of those tapes. Obviously, the
presentation of that material is dramatically different from most of the
rest of the volume, as it preserves the tone of the Rav's delivery in
addition to the content. Shapiro is careful to put that "original"
material in quotes, even entire chapters, to distinguish the Rav's
delivery from his own exposition.
In short, this volume is a significant contribution to both the literature
of the Rav as well as the literature about his halakhic analysis. Its
encyclopedic, albeit dry, presentation is a new genre of Soloveitchik
literature. The writing of an index of an era or an author often signifies
the "canonization" of that era or author. Only time, and the publication
of the planned follow up volumes, will tell if this book represents the
beginning of that process.
I want to say thank you for reviewing the new sefer on the Rav's shiurim
on Pesach from Rabbi David Shapiro. I may have purchased the sefer anyway,
but if I had not previously read the book review it probably would have sat on my shelf waiting to be read on Pesach.
Rabbi Shapiro's personal contact with the Rav and Rabbi Twersky combined with his experience as a day school educator and administrator provide a
unique perspective that few others could duplicate. Kol HaKovod to Rabbi
Schacter and Urim publishers for seeing the benefits of producing this
It is gratifying to see someone write a sefer designed to be taught from
instead of just to be read. The step by step development of the sugyot
helps even my younger students to grasp some of the Rav's thought process. The
only thing better would be a teacher's guide written as a companion volume
to help educators use the material in the most effective manner.
Personally, I used the first sugya in the sefer as a transfer point
between the last mishna in brachot perek aleph and learning Hagada before Pesach.
This is a springboard for introducing key Gemara skills and ideas in a
familiar textual setting. An excellent background sugya on Brachot 27-28
describes the appointment of Rabi Elazer ben Azarya as Nasi in place of
Raban Gamliel. His famous K'Shivim Shana statement is described clearly
with his hair turning white over night.
Chag Kasher V'Sameach
Elisha Paul, Hebrew Academy of Montreal
“Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-Omer and Shavu’ot” by Rabbi David Shapiro (Urim) includes the Rav’s analysis of some of the mitzvot of the seder, along with insights into aspects of the counting of the omer and Shavuot. Rabbi Shapiro explains that the Hebrew title, a phrase from the Haggadah, Mei-Afeilah le-Or Gadol, reflects the national development of the Jewish people over the course of the seven weeks “from the period of afeilah, physical and spiritual ‘darkness,’ to that of or gadol, of the ‘light’ afforded by the teachings of the Torah. Rabbi Shapiro has long been on the faculty of the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., and was its principal for 11 years.
Thoughts on redemption
In an excellent little book called Exodus and Revolution, American philosopher Michael Walzer marvels at the power with which the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from oppression in Egypt has gripped Western political thought. The sheer moral force of this endlessly re-imagined story has inspired the sermons of Savonarola and the pamphlets of John Milton, the English Puritans and the American revolutionaries, the leaders of the civil rights movement and the authors of Catholic "liberation theology."
But the story of miraculous liberation retold in the Pessah Haggada is, of course, first and foremost a Jewish one, and dreams of a "new Exodus" have fired the Jewish imagination from the prophesies of Isaiah and Jeremiah to the longings of the Zionists.
A pair of new books shows how two of the previous century's greatest religious thinkers read that story, thereby serving as useful introductions to these two figures as well as to the holiday that celebrates one of the most far-reaching Jewish ideas.
In Light of Redemption, Gideon Weitzman provides a commentary on the Haggada loosely based on the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook. In language considerably less evocative than the original, Weitzman explains that the iconic drafter of national-religious Zionism took the Exodus to be the archetypical redemption - the event from which the idea of messianism itself derives.
"We are summoned," Kook writes, "to stand before the entire world with a pure, refined soul which appears in its full glory on the stage of the world, to shine as an everlasting beacon for all the nations under the heavens... This is the attribute that binds the Passover of Egypt with the Passover of the future."
Since Kook sees everything as a kind of eternal recurrence of the narrative the Pessah holiday urges us to remember, he thinks it's crucial to understand the theological import of the flight from Pharaoh's "iron furnace." The main thing to notice, he says, is that the Exodus began in impurity. The Bible records that God heard the Israelites' cry even though they were deeply sunk in the fleshpots of Egypt. In a similar spirit, the Haggada begins by reminding its readers that their ancestors were idolaters.
For Kook, the lesson here is that holiness can - perhaps even must - come from impurity, and perfection from imperfection. "We needed the fervor of idolatry in order learn real divine service," Weitzman says. Or, as he notes in examining the meaning of the Seder's bitter herbs: "the bitterness [of slavery] was essential and was part of the freedom itself."
To illustrate Kook's idea of the profound interdependence of the holy and the profane, Weitzman cites a talmudic passage in which the evil inclination to idolatry takes the form of a fiery lion emerging from the Holy of Holies, of all places.
RABBI SOLOVEITCHIK'S book on Pessah, S'firat Ha-Omer, and Shavuot consists of 11 rather technical halachic essays David Shapiro has ably cobbled together from sources ranging from tapes of Soloveitchik's lectures to the Haggada commentary edited by Yitzchak Lichtenstein, preserving in the process much of the style and language of modern Orthodoxy's preeminent teacher.
We immediately encounter Soloveitchik's characteristic brilliant technique, which is premised on the assumption that, as he puts it here, "halacha is more than a collection of laws; it is a method of thought." Soloveitchik, like Kook, takes redemption to be a key theological category. God, after all, presented Himself at Sinai not as the creator of the world but as the redeemer of Israel.
But far more than Kook, Soloveitchik hews close to halachic sources. In his deft hands, theology arises directly from halachic puzzles - an interpretive knot in a Maimonidean text, say - so that his ideas are generated by and act in the service of halachic exposition before they open up into something larger.
From the laws of the counting of the Omer that begins on Pessah, for instance, Soloveitchik develops a philosophy of time to explain the mix of remembrance with anticipation and expectation that characterizes both the Haggada and Halacha generally.
"The halachic approach to time is the experiential memory that reaches out for the future," he writes.
To take another example, a detailed study of the obligation to eat matza gives Soloveitchik the chance to introduce his insistence that to perform a commandment is not necessarily to fulfill it; fulfillment goes beyond mere performance, in that it depends "on attaining a certain degree of spiritual awareness."
Finally, a discussion of how Jewish law regards slaves together with an examination of one of Rashi's comments on the book of Exodus yield an extraordinary riff on the dangers inherent in modern society.
"Some slaves," Soloveitchik writes, "are owned by real individuals; some slaves are owned by the state, that is, by a juridical person, by a corporation. It is better to have a real person as a master; at least he has a heart... That is why the Torah calls all Pharaohs by the name Pharaoh, and not by their personal names. [The relationship] was depersonalized and dehumanized. The Jews were enslaved to a soulless machine."
These are just a few samples of the discernment to be harvested from these two books. In the end, Kook and Soloveitchik, like many of the most sensitive readers of the Exodus story before them, see in it, reflected back in amplified form, the very highest of their spiritual and intellectual impulses. And they invite us to do the same.