3 New Book Reviews

First Impressions: Sefer Ḥassidim and Early Modern Hebrew Printing (Brandeis University Press, 2023), by Joseph A. Skloot

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

Through this fascinating work, the author embarks on a scholarly journey into the first two printings of the renowned pietistic work, Sefer Chassidim. That seminal work is known for its moralistic lessons, presented in the form of stories akin to aggadah, as well as pietistic customs (minhagim) and rulings reminiscent of Halachic decisions. Skool’s captivating yet meticulously-researched work explores the first two printings of Sefer Chassidim and offers readers a unique perspective on the authorship, paratexts, and the historical context surrounding these editions.

Skloot first focuses on the initial edition of Sefer Chassidim, published in 1538 by "the Partners" — a consortium of Jewish merchants in Bologna, Italy and then turns his attention to the second edition, printed in 1580 by Ambrosius Froben, a well-known Christian printer with Italian roots based in Basel, Switzerland.

The study also takes into account significant historical events that transpired between the two printings, and shows how they influenced aspects of the printing world. Most prominent among these developments are the 1553 banning of the Talmud in Italy and subsequent efforts by the Catholic Church to actively censor Jewish works as part of the Counter-Reformation. Moreover, the emergence of the Great Ashkenazic Yeshivos in Eastern Europe and the organization and establishment of the Vaad of the Four Lands, further contributed to the backdrop that helped the author show the differences between the two historical milieu in which the two printings happened.

In discussing these two early prints of Sefer Chassidim, the author touches on the quasi-philosophical question of what authorship means, examining the motives behind ascribing Sefer Chassidim to Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid of Regensburg, the 12th century leader of the Chassidei Ashkenaz movement. However, it is important to note that unfortunately this work does not extensively explore the reception of Sefer Chassidim nor its publisher’s claims of its authorship by Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid. Additionally, the book does not provide a comprehensive analysis of the content of Sefer Chassidim within the broader genre of Chassidei Ashkenaz literature.

Beyond Sefer Chassidim itself, the author explores other books printed by the aforementioned publishers, shedding light on the individuals involved in those publishing houses and their relationships with the Catholic Church and the growing Protestant movement. The book also explores who exactly the intended audiences of these works were (i.e., whether they printed for the Jewish elite, Jewish students, or Christian Hebraists).

The author displays a keen interest in the physical characteristics of the books he discusses, such as size and typeset font. However, the focus primarily lies on the paratexts (including the title pages, introductions, and colophons), which surround the actual text in the two editions under scrutiny. While the discussion of the text itself largely takes a backseat, the author does touch on censorship within the book that was intended to conform to Christian sensibilities (especially in terms of how non-Jews and their holy sites are referenced), and such textual modification are analyzed with attention and nuance by comparing them to extant manuscripts of Sefer Chassidim.

Each chapter concludes with a succinct summary of its main points, aiding the reader in navigating the book's rich content. With hundreds of well-sourced endnotes and a robust bibliography, the author provides ample resources for further exploration. The inclusion of a well-structured index enhances the book's accessibility, allowing readers to easily locate specific topics discussed within its pages.

By employing the scholarly paradigm of microhistory, the author masterfully uses the stories behind the two printings of Sefer Chassidim to shed light on broader questions surrounding the early days of the printing press. This approach illuminates the profound impact of the growing use of this technology on geo-political and geo-religious dynamics. By zooming in on these particular editions, the author provides valuable insights into the interplay between Jewish literature, the printing press, and the complex sociocultural landscape of the time.

Jewish Blues: A History of a Color in Judaism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), by Gadi Sagiv

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

In this interesting book, the author presents a scholarly exploration of the color blue within the context of Jewish heritage. Focusing on the concept of techeiles, a blue-dyed wool mentioned in various biblical contexts (such as the Tabernacle, the High Priest's garments, and the commandment of tzitzis), the book delves into the multifaceted nature of this enigmatic hue.

One of the book's strengths lies in its comprehensive historical overview, which draws upon a wide range of archeological and scientific sources. Through meticulous research, the author traces the evolution of techeiles throughout Jewish history, shedding light on its significance as a distinctly "Jewish" color. This intriguing distinction emerges as the author compares the Jewish connection to blue with similar associations of red with Christians and green with Islam, providing a unique perspective on the symbolic power of colors within different religious traditions.

Linguistic analysis forms another compelling aspect of the book, exploring the various terms associated with "blue" in Jewish texts. By unraveling the nuances of terms like kachol and puch, the author uncovers the rich palette of bluish and blue-adjacent colors referenced in Hebrew literature. Notably, the book illuminates the historical significance of Jews in Muslim countries adopting dark clothing, with blue becoming a popular choice due to its cultural importance.

A particularly captivating chapter delves into the esoteric realm, decoding the semiotic meaning of the color blue in Jewish thought. Here, the author explores mystical associations, depicting how blue is said to mirror God's Throne of Glory and the profound symbolism of blue fire. Furthermore, the book explores the protective qualities attributed to blue gemstones and the color itself, including its reputed defense against the malevolent forces of the Evil Eye. Looking at the color from a Kabbalistic perspective, the author reveals the profound connections between the color blue, the sefirot, and the unity of God.

Sagiv’s book skillfully tackles the intricate debate surrounding the derivation of blue dyes, particularly techeiles, from various sources. While the color blue can be obtained from several venues, the author highlights the significance of techeiles being derived from a specific marine animal known as a chilazon. Throughout the ages, the question of which mollusk dye precisely constitutes techeiles has sparked intense discussion, with classical rabbinic positions maintaining that the identity of the crustacean has been lost and will only be unveiled in the future.

Notably, this question strikes at the core of contemporary debates that grapple with reconciling normative Halacha with scientific findings. The book examines the differing viewpoints, such as the Radziner Rebbe's preference for the common cuttlefish (sepia officinalis) and Rav Herzog's scholarly endorsement of the murex trunculus, offering readers many insights into the ongoing discourse within the wider Orthodox world. In doing so, the author posits an intriguing connection between the quest for restoring ancient techeiles and Messianic motives. In these chapters, the book highlights the profound religious and spiritual implications associated with the color blue within Jewish tradition by exploring the fervor surrounding the potential revival of this historical practice.

In a nutshell, this book is a meticulously-researched and captivating exploration of the color blue's profound role in Judaism. From its prosaic historical usage to its mystical and esoteric associations, the book provides the reader with a comprehensive understanding of techeiles and its wider implications. As an engaging and thought-provoking edifice, this scholarly study sheds light on the intricate interplay between tradition, faith, and the symbolic power of the color blue.

90 Seconds: The Epic Story of Eli Beer and United Hatzalah (Shaar Press, 2023), by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer

Reviewed by Shira Yael Klein (Rachack Review)

The beginning of the book started off by vividly depicting Eli Beer as a little kid traumatized from seeing a bus bombing and not knowing how to help. He was bright and entrepreneurial, successfully running all kinds of side hustles (dalet minim, bus trips for families, and even a gogo bank), but he could never make it in school. His whole family is very Haredi, and all his brothers were very successful on that track. But this kid Eli was just different. You can even see it in the pictures: Eli is a blue shirt, leather kippah type of a guy, and the rest of his family is in classic Haredi black and white.

The trauma of the bus bombing that Eli witnessed at the age of five, compounded by the repeated tragedy of people who could have been saved dying before the ambulance got there that he saw time and again as a young MADA volunteer, filled him with a burning passion: Something must be done to save more people, to save people better, and to save people faster.

And Eli did it. At its inception, Hatzolah was an underground organization. They used a radio that Eli bought at Radio Shack and smuggled into Israel to hack into MADA’s internal broadcasts. The minute they knew where there was an emergency, the nearest teenaged-volunteer would run over and start doing CPR, keeping the guy alive until the MADA ambulance got there. It was a bare bones operation, but it worked.

One day, a teenaged Eli Beer was manning the radio (instead of helping his father in his sefarim store), when he hears that there’s been a car accident right next to him. He races out to the street and sees a man lying there, bleeding profusely from a torn artery in his neck. Eli whips his kippah off his head, shoves it into the hole in the guy’s neck, and saves his life.

That was a good story. I would’ve loved more stories like that.

Teenage Eli, saving people with his band of undercover superheroes, grows up to be Eli Beer, the head of Ichud Hatzlolah. Hatzolah has come a long way from its humble origins. It is now a household name, and a major, organized force in saving lives. Nowadays, Hatzolah volunteers have defibrillators. And ambucycles. All of this takes money. Lots and lots of money.

At some point, the book shifts into showing how Eli becomes an incredible fundraiser. I would have been interested in reading more heartwarming stories about the work that Hatzolah volunteers do day in and day out, and less about Eli Beer’s flights all over the world, hobnobbing with the upper crust and getting million-dollar donations. This is truly a praiseworthy and wonderful thing, but as a reader it got kind of boring. Ultimately, I read the book and I even enjoyed it. But I was really hoping for more. 

England’s Jews: Finance, Violence, and the Crown in the Thirteenth Century

England’s Jews: Finance, Violence, and the Crown in the Thirteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023) by John Tolan

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

This scholarly book offers an in-depth look at the Jews' place in English history during the 1200s. The author meticulously researched the topic and provided exact dates, names of people and places within the context of the events that it describes. Although that sort of attention to detail makes the book somewhat overwhelming, the comprehensive index makes it easy to find specific topics.

Two major overarching topics that the book delves into are the Jewish involvement in the moneylending industry in England (a topic that has always been controversial) and how the Jews were precariously positioned in the rigid class of Medieval England. In discussing the second point, the author stresses how successive kings of England consistently referred to the Jews in the possessive "our Jews," and sought to assert their direct authority over them. However, as often happened throughout history, the Jews served as pawns in a greater power struggle between the Plantagenet Kings of England, English and French nobleman, the local English clergy, and the Pope in Rome.

Another interesting point emphasized in the book is how the Jews' situation and treatment in neighboring France was often even worse than in England itself, where anti-Jewish sentiments were even stronger and more official. Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, Jews were expelled from France multiple. One of the factions pushing for the expulsion of Jews was Church officials, who wanted to separate Jews from Christians to avoid social and sexual fraternization between them.

Besides the occasional massacres in which English Jews were actually killed, the author provides detailed accounts of the "punishments" levied against Jews for simply being Jewish, including special taxes called tallages and inheritance taxes ("Death Taxes"), making them wear distinct clothing, and forbidding Christians from working as maids and nurses in Jewish homes. The book also the aforementioned massacres against Jews, in addition to the various limits placed on the Jews’ ability to lend with interest and outright debt forgiveness for monies owed to Jews. Interesting, this book documents how ordinance that compelled Jews to wear special embroidered tablets to show their Jewishness was sometimes enforced by local grocers refusing to sell food to Jews who did not follow those rules, but was also sometimes not enforced on certain Jewish individuals or communities who paid for special exemptions.

The author also documents how Church officials commonly made up stories about Jews who were accused of unfair lending practices, insulting the Christian faith (especially desecrating the host and the cross), and even kidnapping Christian babies to circumcise them or kill them (“fake news”).

The book also covers the Jews' relationship to the Magna Carta and hones in on specific Jews who were active in lending money (such as Isaac of Norwich, David of Lincoln/Oxford, and Aaron of York). Although the primary focus of the book is on the reigns of King Henry III and his son Edward I, other important figures from English history (including Stephen Langton, Robert Grosseteste, and Simon of Montfort) are also discussed in the context of their role in the treatment of the Jews.

Overall, this book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Jews' place in English history during the 1100s–1300s. The author has done an outstanding job of meticulously and critically piecing together information from documents and rolls of chancery records, plus other archival sources, to provide a comprehensive account of the Jews' role in English society during this period. The book ends with the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 under King Edward I, bringing the story to its logical, yet unfortunate, conclusion.

3 New Book Reviews

The Anochi Project: Seeking God’s Identity (2017), by Paul M. Hamburger

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

In this work, Paul M. Hamburger — a lawyer by profession and author of several legal books — assumes his alter ego Shlomo Mordechai Hamburger to take readers on a profound exploration of the meaning of the word anochi in the Torah. He begins by distinguishing between the Hebrew word anochi and its more common synonym ani, both of are used by the first person to refer to himself (“I/Me”). In doing so, the author emphasizes the meaningful difference between the two words, with anochi representing God’s “signature” in This World (so to speak), which shows His hand in everything. The book then proceeds to examine classical rabbinical and Hassidic (especially, but not limited to, Chabad Chassidus) writings on the topic, drawing out a consistent and deeper meaning conveyed by the word anochi throughout the Torah, from Bereishis to Devarim.

This book offers a fresh perspective on God's identity and the process through which His Essence was revealed to the world. One of the practical lessons Hamburger presents addresses the challenge of reconciling one's Jewish identity with a desire to engage with the outside, secular world. To do so, he highlights the example of Abraham negotiating his place in a non-monotheistic society while facing the demands of Avimelech, an idol-worshipping Philistine king. Hamburger reveals how Abraham's response in Gen. 21:24, Anochi Ishavei'a (“I will swear"), holds a deeper significance because by swearing allegiance to Avimelech and simultaneously affirming his faith in God, Abraham exemplifies the ability to maintain a Jewish identity while participating fully in the world-at-large.

This book is a treasure trove of knowledge, meticulously analyzing the references to the word anochi in the Torah and offering profound insights. Readers will find the book insightful, inspiring, and incredibly interesting, yet presented in a readable English making it accessible to readers of various backgrounds. Of course, Hamburger's research is well-sourced, supported by numerous references and endnotes. Essentially, the author's erudition shines through in his clear and concise analysis, while presenting a fascinating thesis. While the accuracy of the research cannot be verified by a non-scholar, the wealth of supporting evidence and well-placed notes certainly lend credibility to Hamburger's assertions.

Although he comes from a totally different world than the largely Hassidic teachings that Hamburger cites, it is worth noting that Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), also known as Shadal, in his commentary to Exodus suggests parsing the first of the 10 commandments differently than its common rendering. He reads it as: “I (anochi) Hashem, am your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt (Exodus 20:2),” with innovation of the revelatory aspect of this commandment being the fact that Hashem — the name of God that the Jews had already known from their forefathers — is the very selfsame God, who took them out of Egypt. The standard way of rendering this verse is “I am (anochi) Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt,” with the emphasis on the fact that He who is revealing Himself at Sinai is none other than Hashem who had taken the Jews out of Egypt.

Either way, what sets this book apart is Hamburger's ability to convey complex and sophisticated mystical ideas in plain English. He skillfully bridges the gap between profound concepts and everyday understanding, making the text relatable and engaging. No doubt, this book’s clarity and the author's ability to communicate intricate ideas effectively are results of Hamburger’s professional standing as an international lawyer. His dedication to lifelong learning is evident, and his words have the power to captivate and inspire. Although this is his first book exploring Jewish texts and philosophy, this reviewer hopes it will not be his last!

In conclusion, The Anochi Project: Seeking God's Identity is a remarkable work that uncovers the depths of the Torah, providing readers with a profound understanding of God's Essence and our relationship with Him. The author’s insightful analysis, well-researched references, and engaging writing style make this book a must-read for anyone seeking to explore the hidden truths within the Torah.

Paul and Asklepios: The Greco-Roman Quest for Healing and the Apostolic Mission (T&T Clark, 2023) by Christopher D. Stanley

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

This fascinating study on healing and medicine in the Classical World divides into two parts. The first half of the book offers a detailed account of the different health care options that pagans in the Greco-Roman world had. The author shows how there were essentially four “systems” of health care that operate side by side in that milieu. Namely, home remedies, “religious” remedies, “magical” remedies, and proto-medical care. The dominant modality used for run-of-the-mill sicknesses which was especially practiced by families in the countryside was the “home remedy” tradition that often passed down from generation to generation, but sometimes something stronger was needed.

In those cases, Greco-Roman pagans would turn to the many gods for a “religious” remedy, which usually entailed offering a sacrifice or a prayer to a specific god with intent that the deity help cure one’s ills. In particular, this book devotes much discussion to the healing centers associated with temples Asklepios (a Greek god associated with healing), but the aid of other gods were also invoked for their supposed healing abilities. This mode of healing was officially accepted as part of the civic religion practiced by pagan Greek and Romans. In addition, other “unsanctioned” modes of healing — termed “magical” — were also available. This often entailed appealing to freelance sorcerers who used various sorts of drugs, amulets, and dream interpretation to help cure the ill by forcing the hand of the gods. Finally, people living the Classical World also had access to physicians who practiced early forms of what we now would recognize as medical practice.

The first part of the book ends with the author showing how these four systems worked side-by-side, but were not as distinct as might be commonly thought. Instead, there was much overlap and cross-pollinization between them, with different systems adopting and/or adapting elements of other systems and incorporating them into its own.

The second part of the book explores what the prevailing Jewish attitudes to health care may have been during the first century of the Common Era. This part of the book draws from the Bible, extra-Biblical Jewish literature, and rabbinic literature to try and tease out what sorts of medical practices were acceptable to Jews and what was considered beyond the pale. The author asks such questions as to what extent Jews followed the Biblical bans against diviners and augurs when somebody’s health might be at stake, and how Jews viewed pagan and polytheistic medical practices that were explicitly associated with foreign gods and even invoked their names. The book concludes with two chapters that speculate about how Early Christians may have fit into this discussion and what positions the early Christian leader Paul may have taken given his originally-Jewish upbringing.

The Six Days of Creation: The Garden of Eden, Dinosaurs, and the Missing Billions (Mosaica Press, 2023) by Alexander Hool

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

By now, Rabbi Alexander Hool has already gained a reputation for wading into questions that nobody else feels like they can attempt to answer. In this work, he tries to deal with the age-old question of the age of the universe. Like many other books devoted to reconciling Torah and Science, Rabbi Hool is bothered by the wide gap between the billions of years that science claims has elapsed since the creation of the Earth and the mere ~5,783 years documented by traditional Jewish sources.

Like his previous books, Rabbi Hool proposes an original and ingenious way of reconciling Torah Tradition with secular sources. This time around, he draws on scholarship in the world of physics — particularly Einstein’s Theory of Relativity — to draw a distinction between fundamental time and general time. Based on that distinction, he argues that during the Six Days of Creation, time was stretched to amount to what we would nowadays consider a long duration of time than merely six days. This explains why some elements of cosmology and the earth sciences seem to point to the notion that the Earth is 13.8 billion years old. Rabbi Hool then demonstrates how traditional Jewish sources were already aware of the notion that the universe was expanding, but notes that according to those very same sources this expansion stopped during the Fifth Day of Creation. Later on, Rabbi Hool discusses the idea that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, and likewise argues that these giant reptilians went extinct on the Fifth Day of Creation.

In this intriguing work, Rabbi Hool also engages in Jurassic paleogeography and the study of plate tectonics to discuss how the earth’s continents may have looked in Biblical Times (Pangaea). He does this in order to shed light on where the Garden of Eden might have been located, how the Holy Land was located at the geographic center of the world, and where the gold of Ophir might be found. Overall, Rabbi Hool shows great familiarity with scholarship on geography, geology, archeology, astrophysics, and other fields of science. His arguments are sound and well-formed, but it would take a real expert on these topics to truly assess the accuracy of what he presents. Whether or not what Rabbi Hool proposes is factually or historically correct, his charming book is chockful of information on the Bible’s creation story and how it collides with or merges with the findings of contemporary science.

June 2023 Jewish Book Carnival

The Rachack Revew is proud to serve as the June 2023 host for the Jewish Book Carnival, “a monthly event where bloggers who blog about Jewish books can meet, read, and comment on each others’ posts.” The posts are hosted on a participant’s site on the 15th of each month. Here are the latest book-related blog posts from the last month or so...

  • Gila Green interviews Tara Ison about her new book that explores Vichy France under Nazi Occupation (Amazon). 
  • Sarah Rindner reviews a newly translated book by Chaim Grade about two ex-Yeshiva students (Amazon).
  • Ben Rothke takes a look at two new books on Medical Halacha (Both on Amazon: here and here).
  • Allan Arkush introduces us to a book that explores Satmar Hassidic life in America (Amazon).
  • Laurie Novick offers us a scholarly review of the newly released Reclaiming Dignity Reviewed, an edited volume with essays from many different authors on the topic of what a woman's role should be in contemporary Judaism and how that fits with the ideals of tznius (Amazon).
  • Over at SeforimChatter, the host spoke to my friend Rabbi Shnayor Z. Burton about his new book that discusses the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisroel (Amazon).
  • On her My Machberet blog, Erika Dreifus routinely curates "Jewish Literary Links." Here's one of the most recent posts, sourced by London's Jewish Book Week; the upcoming Yetzirah poetry conference; the Yiddish Book Center; new publication Yafeh Zine; and more.
  • Israel Drazin sings the praises of Koren's translation of the Pentateuch (Amazon).
  • Barbara Bietz interviews Chris Baron about his newest middle-grade novel, The Gray (Amazon).
  • Rabbi Aryeh Klapper tells us about the first volume of hopes to be an annual journal dedicated to contemporary questions of medicine and Halacha published by Mosaica Press and Touro University (Amazon).
  • Jewish fictional protagonists and historical figures are discussed in Veronica Leigh's book review of Celestial Persuasion (Amazon)
  • If you're into real Yeshiva-style scholarship, you might want to find out about what new sefer Rabbi Yair Hoffman is ranting and raving.
  • Chava Pinchuk recently attended a bookstore event at the famous Pomeranz book store in Jerusalem about media bias against Israel.
  • Mrs. Rachel Reese wrote a fascinating book about the Jewish perspective on Christianity and the Messianic Movement.
  • Barbara Krasner interviews Michael Hinkins about his memoir, The Silk Factory: Finding Threads of My Family's True Holocaust Story (Amazon).
  • Deborah Kalb interviews Susan Rubin Suleiman about her new memoir, Daughter of History (Amazon).
  • And last but not least, my own blog, the Rachack Review has a book review about a biography of a Reform rabbi whose innovations continue to influence Judaism denominationally (Amazon).