The book “HaMasoret HaYehudit” (‘The Jewish Tradition’) was born out of deep pain at the detachment of a large portion of Jews from their heritage, but also out of a strong sense of brotherhood and a common destiny * At first, the book was meant for traditional Jews, but during the writing it became clear that it is of benefit to both the observant, and secular Jews * In contrast to traditional beliefs, the essence of Judaism is the duties between man and his fellow, his family, and his nation
All in good time, by the grace of God, this week my book ‘HaMasoret HaYehudit’ (‘The Jewish Tradition’) was published (for now, only in Hebrew), which is intended to convey the entirety of values, mitzvot and halakhot as expressed actually in Jewish tradition, in one book. Since this column is mostly personal, presumably, many readers would be interested in hearing about how the book was written.
My first thought about writing such a book arose in wake of Prof. Meir Buzaglo’s remarks in the framework of ‘Si’ach Shalom’, regarding the value of Jewish tradition and the hidden blessing in its accessibility and empowerment. I’m not sure I understood his full intent, but his words stirred me. From this, I noticed there was not a book that sums up and clearly explains Jewish tradition, neither the faith-value side, nor the halakhic side. If I recall correctly, the first conversation with Prof. Buzaglo about the idea of the book took place about ten years ago.
About five years ago, I received a request from the rabbis of the Conversion Institute, headed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman shlita, to write a book that would describe in clear language the tenets of the emunah (faith) and halakha of Judaism, in a manner similar to the style of “Peninei Halakha,” but much shorter. Thus, out of a deep sense of brotherhood for my fellow Jews that they can become acquainted with the spiritual treasures of Jewish tradition, and out of respect for those wishing to convert – I sat down nearly five years ago to write the book.
At first I thought of condensing the books ‘Peninei Halakha’, but after attempting to do so for a few weeks, it became clear that in this way the book would be over 1,500 pages. On the other hand, it was difficult for me to cut out essential parts, and omit halakhot and ideas. I returned to my usual study, concerning the continued writing of the ‘Peninei Halakha’ series.
For the next few years, after dealing with various issues and taking note of questions of public interest, I thought I could focus on the more central rules and halakhot. Once again, I devoted a few weeks to the book, however, from what I had prepared, it was already clear that the book would run to about eight hundred pages – far beyond what is necessary. Once more, I returned to my main studies in connection with ‘Peninei Halaklha’.
In the month of Elul last year, I participated in the “Our Common Destiny” conference, where the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Genesis Foundation joined forces to gather Jewish leaders from around the world to strengthen the mutual responsibility of the Jewish people. For the first time I met Jews from distant locations and various movements – having been separated by oceans. We found that we are close in our hearts, far apart in our opinions, and very much yearn for a true partnership. The encounter was disturbing and painful for me. My heart was torn with pain over the millions of adult Jews who had become so distanced from their heritage. There were those who condemned us – the Israelis, particularly the religious settlers – with terrible accusations, based on the vicious libels of our worst enemies. In spite of this, there was love in their hearts, and a willingness to talk. That was the reason all of them had attended – to find a common vision that would once again reunite the Jewish people.
Afterwards, in my prayers, I had to close my eyes tightly to stop the tears, and at times even in my talks. When I spoke about the enormous questions regarding the nation, the Torah, and tikun olam, I found it difficult to conceal my heart’s feelings, so in order to continue speaking, I talked about the laws of kashrut that I had been studying at the time.
After completing the second volume of the laws of kashrut just before Chanukkah 2019, I made two decisions. First, instead of trying to condense “Peninei Halakha,” I had to write a new, separate book, “HaMasoret HaYehudit”. Specifically, to first think about the principles, the halakhot, and the important values in each field of study, and write them anew. Naturally, I drew on wording from “Peninei Halakha“, but the format is new. My second decision was to sit continuously until the completion of the draft of the entire book.
By the grace of God, after about two months I finished the first draft. I sent the book to various people for comments and insight, and immersed myself in studying the halakhot of Taharat HaMishpacha (family purity). At that time the Corona quarantine began, which helped me advance at a rapid pace. After receiving initial comments, I passed the book on to rabbis who are members of the Yeshiva Har Bracha Institute, headed by Rabbi Maor Kayam shlita, so they could scrupulously review the book, and with the help of all the comments and insights, I went back to polishing the book, over and over again, until it was published.
Although at first the target audience was mainly masoriti (traditional Jews), during the writing I found that I could not write a book only for a specific audience. Since in practice the book will be available to everyone, it is impossible to ignore any audience. Thus, I found myself striving to write the story of Jewish tradition also for observant Jews who want to see the basic concepts, mitzvot and halakhot they are familiar with collectively, paying attention to the principles underlying them, and on the other hand, also for those who see themselves as secular Jews who want to learn about Judaism just the same. Despite the need to condense things, I tried to write them with the utmost precision and clarity, until perhaps in the end, this is the essence of the book – to express the overall picture of Judaism in a balanced way, and in a way that the formative ideas are reflected in all of the mitzvot and halakhot, with the addition of a new idea every time. To a certain degree, this book is somewhat similar to ‘Sefer HaChinukh’.
The book is intended to present to those interested, a summary of the ways and ideas of Jewish tradition just as it is, in the hope they will find it beautiful, understandable, and profound. It is not my purpose in this book to conduct debates and disputes with those with other opinions and positions, or alternatively, to please them. At the same time, I do not ignore the challenges we face in the fields of morality, culture, and relations between Israel and the nations.
The Guiding Principles of the Book
Often, when trying to describe Jewish tradition, emphasis is placed on the mitzvot bein adam le’Makom (between man and God), with the addition of a folkloristic touch of different minhagim (customs). But in truth, the mitzvot between man and his fellow man, his family, and his nation – precede, and these are not just minhagim, but constitutive principles of tzedakah (charity) and mishpat (justice), chesed (kindness) and din (judgement), and ahava (love) and rachamim (mercy). Not for naught the Gedolei Yisrael (Torah giants) reiterated and emphasized the significance of the mitzvot between a man and his fellow man. Rabbi Akiva said: “Ve’ahavta l’reicha kamocha” (love your neighbor as yourself) – this is a great rule in the Torah”. And Hillel the Elder said, that all the Torah on one foot, is: “Ma she’sanua aleicha, al ta’aseh l’chavercha” (what you hate, do not do unto your friend), and all the rest is an elaboration of this rule.
Thus, in order to tell the true story of Jewish tradition, I have appropriately emphasized the mitzvot between a man and his fellow man, and between a man and his family. Therefore, immediately after the two opening chapters, I continued to the mitzvot between a man and his fellow man, including the system of tzedek (justice), tzedaka, and mishpat. Following that, the halakhot of the family and its values are explained: marriage, its joy, a benevolent relationship and dealing with crises, mourning, honoring parents, and educating children. Needless to say, in the first chapter as well, which deals with the vision of Israel, and in the second chapter, which deals with Israel’s history from Genesis to the Giving of the Torah, the great vision of tikun olam is emphasized, whose primary objective is the good of man and the world, and its advancement. This completes the first third of the book.
The Second Third
I could have started the book with an explanation of the foundations of emunah (faith), but I chose to open it as the Torah does – with the story of the Jewish nation’s life, and the mitzvot between man and his fellow man. Consequently, at the beginning of the second third of the book the meaning of emunah and Torah is explained. In order to clarify the full meaning of emunah and Torah, it is necessary to clarify the central place of the nation, the Land, and the Mikdash (Holy Temple). This too is a novelty compared to many other books that try to describe Jewish tradition as a personal story concerning an individual’s private life, and at the very most his community, without properly emphasizing the place of the nation and the Land of Israel, which are connected to the great vision of the perfection of the entire world, heaven and earth, Torah and work. Thus, in practice, all the immense yearning that accompanies Judaism in its prayers and customs, in its holidays and fasts are deemphasized, and vast parts of the Tanakh and halakha are set aside and concealed.
It is impossible to talk about Jewish tradition without explaining the value of the Land and the Mikdash. From this, it is possible to proceed to the explanation of the halakhot of the Beit Knesset (synagogue), tefilla (prayer) and brachot (blessings), all of which express the values of emunah and their revelation in the Land and the Mikdash. Subsequently, the halakhot of kashrut and mitzvot concerning the dignity of man and his treatment of animals and plants, are clarified.
The Last Third – Shabbatot and Moadim
The last third of the book deals with Shabbatot, Chagim (holidays), and the Fasts. It wasn’t easy postponing Shabbat and the Chagim to the last third of the book. However, since Shabbat and the Chagim are meant to express the full values of Judaism throughout the year, it was appropriate to first clarify the entirety of the ideas, in order to make it easier to explain how they are reflected on Shabbat and Chagim, and how from the Shabbatot and Chagim, great blessing is drawn to all areas of life.
From the appreciations at the end of the book: “By the grace of God, I have been privileged to serve as rabbi in a glorious community of pioneering, Torah-learned people who merit fulfilling the vision of the prophets, blossoming the wilderness on the frontline of settlement, engaging in Torah and work, and establishing wonderful families. The learning with them is alive and profound, and connects the great ideals with practical life, to the point where it is impossible to be oblivious to the blessing that the words of Torah bring to their lives. Along with them are the yeshiva students, many of them graduates who are already prodigious rabbis and outstanding scientists, educators and top-notch public figures, who examine and test every idea I voice. By way of them, I am able to focus the ideas, and polish them. Thanks to them, the abstract belief that the Torah is meant to add life and blessing to all areas of life is fulfilled, until I can honestly write that indeed, in actuality, the Torah of Eretz Yisrael adds blessing. “How blessed are the people who experience these things. How blessed are the people whose God is the Lord” Psalms 144: 15). “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalms 34: 9). I must also give mention to the numerous women who regularly come to the Shabbat lesson at noon, and take an active part in clarifying the issues and the dilemmas on how to pen them in the book, and add insightful questions and suggestions.”
In the farewell, I wrote: “In this book I have endeavored to present to my brothers and sisters the story of the ‘Jewish tradition’. From here, our gaze and prayers turn to the future, to the wondrous vision of the prophets, which describes the spiritual and moral revolution that will emerge from the Jewish tradition, its beliefs, concepts, values and laws. My hope is that this book will add a tier to the same foundation on which the Temple of the Future will be built, in which, will shine the wisdom of the generations and devotion of the souls of our holy fathers, who, even in the darkness of exile, and under the rule of evil empires, did not lose faith in tikun olam in the kingdom of God.”
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.