March 23rd, 2014


Review: "Derash Yehonatan" by Rabbi Shalom Hammer

Koren/Maggid recently sent me a review copy of Derash Yehonatan: Around the Year with Rav Yehonatan Eybeshitz by Rabbi Shalom Hammer.

The Author's Preface begins with these words of introduction:

Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz, Dayan of Prague, and later rabbi of the the 'Three Communities' ... was an outstanding eighteenth-century talmudist, halakhist and kabbalist.... I discovered Rav Yehonatan's works a few years after I began my professional career as a teacher and rebbe... While parts of the commentary were difficult for me to understand because of their kabbalistic nature, typical of many of Rav Yehonatans books, I was enthralled by their richness, linking all of the varied disciplines of the Torah.... Discovering Rav Yehonatan's mastery in addressing a midrash, linking it to a portion of the Talmud, connecting it to a teaching of the Zohar, and then concluding with codified laws in the Shulchan Arukh was an awe-inpiring experience.

Why, then, does Rabbi Hammer's book both please me and frustrate me so?

Rabbi Hammer has structured his book around the Jewish calendar; each chapter takes as its theme one holy day and consists of a series of brief essays, bringing down a teaching of Rabbi Eyebeshitz that relates to that theme. Many of these essays taught me something I did not know before, or suggested a new perspective on a text that is overly familiar.

The book is well-written and, I think, is intended to be read one chapter at a time, just before or during each of the relevant days. It will take a place on my shelf of resources for when I am asked to deliver a dvar Torah.

One thing that I found off-putting, though, was that the structure of the essays was not what the Author's Preface seemed to promise. Instead, they seemed to follow the modern style of rabbinic essay: an establishing sentence that identifies a source text, then an extended quote from that source, then a question raised by that quote, then a series of brief observations that address the question, all wrapped up in a few pages and then on to the next. (I believe that this structure comes from a generation that came of age learning from the essays of Nechama Liebowitz zt''l.)

Rabbi Hammer has recast Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings in his own voice; these essays give the setup and then continue "Rav Yehonatan attempts to explain...", "Rav Yehonatan answers these questions..." Some essays are followed by a postscript labeled "Author's Note"; but that makes me even more unclear what the difference is between Rabbi Hammer re-writing Rabbi Eyebeshitz in the third person and Rabbi Hammer adding additional thoughts in these postscripts. (I would have preferred the Author's Notes to be typographically distinct -- perhaps in italics, or a narrower margin -- which might have helped me to keep Rabbi Hammer's voice, as himself, distinct in my mind from Rabbi Hammer's voice, teaching what Rabbi Eyebeshitz wrote.)

The approach that Rabbi Hammer has used certainly gives him the opportunity to make Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings more accessible to a general audience, and that is a good thing. By breaking Rabbi Eyebeshitz's commentaries down into shorter pieces, and by selecting those aspects that are not esoteric, Rabbi Hammer has produced a book from which anyone can learn. This comes at a cost, though: it is also a book that in some ways is indistinguishable from any of the other myriad collections of commentaries.

I kept wanting to break through the page and get at least one taste of pure Eyebeshitz, at full length, in faithful translation with explanatory footnotes. Perhaps that could have been an appendix. The Author's Preface, which I quoted above, made me eager to taste of the brilliant "linking" and the elaborate all-inclusive structure that Rabbi Hammer describes; instead, I felt like I was being given a series of disconnected glimpses.

Derash Yehonatan is a good book. I just wish it had been a great one.