With the Shavuos holiday around the corner, I thought I would discuss books with relevant material. The books I am highlighting are R. Yitzchak Sender’s The Commentators’ Shavuos, R. Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith (published by OU Press, my current employer) and R. Zvi Kanotopsky’s Rejoice in Your Festivals.
The Commentators’ Shavuos
I first came across the writings of R. Yitzchak Sender, who I believe used to be a rebbe in the Skokie yeshiva, in the early 90s when I saw his Hebrew book on halakhic aspects of prophecy, Machazeh Elyon. The clarity of his conceptual analyses of this widely neglected topic, one that often touches on both law and theology, made a lasting impression on me. For reasons I cannot identify, despite this positive impression I have not previously examined his “Commentators” series. Now that I have seen the Shavuos book, I will be looking for other volumes. This book, at least, generally follows a similar style to his Hebrew book — classical conceptual discussions of topics that touch on law and theology; accessible reviews of the existing literature with the occasional new interpretation or answer. Reading the book, I get the feeling of being back in yeshiva, listening to a high-level shiur on topics of the holiday.
The book’s sections cover bikkurim (first fruit offering), King David, the giving of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, Moshe, laws and customs of Shavuos, pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the division of the Bible into books and prophecy.
This book is not a work of critical scholarship; it is traditional talmudic study written in clear English. Despite the “yeshivish” nature of the book, the author quotes freely from scholars that some might consider too “modern” — such as R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, R. Shlomo Fisher and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (even the recently published Shiurei HaRav on Tefillah). See here for an example of a discussion in the book: link.
Festivals of Faith
R. Norman Lamm does not need an introduction for this audience. His scholarship and accomplishments are well known. During his over twenty years as a synagogue rabbi, prior to his term as President of Yeshiva University, R. Lamm kept meticulous files of his legendary sermons. A powerful speaker, his masterful derashos combine original derush insights with majestic language. The files have been placed online (link) and many of them have been carefully selected and edited for publication. Festivals of Faith, edited by Dr. David Shatz, contains 55 derashos on holidays throughout the year. Four sermons relate to Shavuos.
Each derashah combines biblical, midrashic and/or Talmudic insights with relevant comments about life that remain remarkably relevant even after all these years. The midrash (Shemos Rabbah 47:6) says that the Tablets were six handbreadths long and wide. Moshe held two; God held two; and Moshe derived his “rays of splendor” from the middle two. R. Lamm (p. 315) takes this to mean that there are three areas of life — that which is already attained, that which is unattainable and that which is not yet attained. People have finite abilities and cannot accomplish the impossible but we shine from the middle two handbreadths, by moving beyond our comfort zone and reaching new levels of achievement.
Surprisingly, at least to me, R. Lamm was sufficiently confident and direct to say the following to his wealthy Modern Orthodox congregation (p. 317): “[N]o one has the moral right to call himself a Torah-committed Jew if he merely observes the mitzvot… One who does not study the Torah at least once during the day and during the night — or at the very barest minimum (and this is decidedly less than the Halakhah demands) at least attend a shi’ur, a lecture on Talmud or Torah once a week — a person of this sort cannot call himself a Torah-committed Jew.” Those are strong words!
Rejoice in Your Festivals
R. Zvi Kanatopsky’s Rejoice in Your Festivals has been a favorite of mine since it was first published over three years ago (link. R. Kanotopsky was a leading student of Rav Soloveitchik in the 40s and an immensely popular synagogue rabbi in the 50s, continuing on to being a rosh yeshiva in the US and Israel until his untimely death. His derush is somewhat more textual, more technical and involved, than R. Lamm’s but less flowery and less connected to our lives.
See here for a more lengthy description and a sample from the book: link