Three Books on Shavuos

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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

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

12 comments

  1. Who considers R. Shlomo Fisher too ‘modern’? He is a RY in an Israeli charedi yeshiva. Maybe Yated Ne’eman don’t like him, but they don’t like R. Nisssim Karelitz either – not an indication of ‘modern’ness.

  2. I hadn’t heard of R. Shlomo Fisher until I encountered some of his recorded shiurim (in Hebrew) at yeshiva.org.il. He is absolutely brilliant and clear. A real Gaon who deserves more recognition.

  3. Pretty impressive, to release a “scholarly” book on a holiday with a typo in the title on the cover. “Shavous”?

    Almost as blatant as Dr Yeshayahu Leibowitz’ z”l “Noats and remarks on the weekly Parsha.”

  4. Michael Feldstein

    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!
    ————————————————

    What’s more impressive about Rabbi Lamm;s words is not who he said it to, but when he said it–at a time when daily or even weekly Torah learning was looked upon strangely.

    Today, there are plenty of wealthy MO congregations where members participate in weekly Torah shiurim at a minimum, with a sizable number learning Daf Yomi every day or otherwise engaged in daily Torah study.

    This statement wouldn’t be looked upon as courageous if it was said at the Jewish Center (or a similar type shul) today.

    So I think it was the generation he was speaking to and not the wealth or hashkafa of the congregation that is the most significant point here.

  5. I am a major R’ Yitzchok Sender fan. When I was a “bochur” I had learned through his sefer Ohel Rivka (I believe that this name). It was thorough, clear, and quite impressive. After I was married, by wonderful wife purchased The Commentators’ Chanukah for me. I learned through it and I couldn’t put it down. After that I was hooked. I agree that his seforim, English or Hebrew, read like sitting in on a b’iyun shiur on whatever topic he is dealing with. I have a few of his other volumes of the Commentators’ series and I enjoy them all. I also find that he takes quotes from RYBS and builds upon his chiddushim to mine new insights.

    BTW, I believe he is still a rebbi in Skokie. He is talmid muvhak of R’ Zimmerman and quotes his chiddushim all the time.

  6. The book says his address is in Lakewood. I took that to mean he retired.

    Interestingly, he dedicates the book to his recently departed (maybe a year or two) brother-in-law, whom I knew — R. Dr. Aaron Schreiber of Flatbush.

  7. I second Michael Feldstein’s comments. R D Lamm’s drashos are powerful statements, especially given the times and the audiences to whom he was speaking.

  8. Gil- you are probably correct. I checked the website and his name does not appear as part of the faculty.

    Maybe in his retirement in Lakewood we can expect many more volumes to come, at a much faster publishing pace.

  9. Rabbi Sender is a hidden gem. He retired from Skokie a number of years ago and now lives in Lakewood where he sits and learns all day. His sefarim collection would be the envy of any library and the amazing thing is that he actually studies them all. I love Machzeh Elyon as well but haven’t had as much success studying the Commentator series although every time I pick one up I wish I did.

  10. I suspect that many here are familiar with the multi-volumed Higyonei Halacha . Take a look at the most recent volume and the Pshat of the Chidah with respect to the famous statement in the Gemara in Shabbos of HaShem holding Har Sinai over Klal Yisrael.

  11. lawrence kaplan

    Et Hata’ay ani mazkir ha-yom. I confess to not being familiar with the writings of Rabbi Sender. I will endeavor to rectify this. Thank you Gil for calling his works to my attention.

  12. Lawrence Kaplan

    I took two of Rabbi Sender’s books out of the McGill library this Friday sfternoon about two hours after I wrote my previous e-mail. (They were the only two the library had.) They look very meaty, indeed.

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