Courtesy of a student of mine comes this beautiful and thought-inspiring video, narrated by Carl Sagan: a man with a truly golden voice.
It is the evening of the third of Shevat, the yahrtseit of the Rav’s father, Rav Moshe, zt”l, and we are in Lamport Auditorium at Yeshiva University awaiting the arrival of the Rav to deliver his annual Yahrtseit Shiur. Some of us have been sitting for a few hours, having come early to obtain seats as close as possible to the Rav. The auditorium is now packed and overflowing. Suddenly, as if an electric current has run through the room, the entire audience, as one, rises: the Rav has arrived!
Sitting in front, we do not immediately see the Rav, for he enters from the rear, and must traverse the entire length of the auditorium to reach us. Everyone is standing, blocking our view; yet the feeling of his presence pervades the room. Finally, the Rav emerges from the crowd, walking briskly, manuscript in hand, steps onto the stage and sits down behind an empty table to begin the shiur.
Then the journey starts. The Rav, usually focusing on one or more halakhot of the Rambam, ticks off one question after another that reflect obvious difficulties in the halakha – at least they are obvious after the Rav sets them out in his clear, lucid and inimitable manner of exposition. Then, after developing each of his questions – superlative pedagogue that he is – he reviews in summary form all of them, to assure that we understand what the problems are that will now be clarified.
That phase of the shiur concluded, the Rav goes on to develop a concept – the hiddush of the shiur – traversing a plethora of passages in the Talmud, commentaries (mostly Rishonim), Midrashim, and others. We watch, listen, and many of us avidly write notes, trying to keep up with the Rav’s rapid-fire delivery as he lays out the hiddush, brick by brick by brick, reconciling all the varied and seemingly contradictory texts.
Now that the foundation has been set and the text reconciliation completed, the Rav returns to the original series of questions. Each is repeated, and then almost summarily disposed of through application of the hiddush, one after the other, after the other. It is more than two hours later and the circuit has been completed; the first portion of the shiur is concluded.
- excerpted from “Dedication”, by Julius Berman. Pages vii-ix of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halakha, Man of Faith (ed. Menachem D. Genack; Ktav Publishing House, 1998).
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Categories : Random Musings
From 1927 until his death in 1983, R’ Menachem Mendel Kasher published thirty-eight volumes of what was to be considered not only his personal masterpiece, but one of the profoundest anthologies of Torah learning to be printed in the 20th century. As of the time of my writing this, forty-five volumes have been published, the remaining seven having been put together posthumously by his son-in-law, his students and the tireless scholars at Bet Torah Sheleimah – the institute that he had founded.
Titled Torah Sheleimah (תורה שלמה; “The Complete Torah”), these forty-five volumes constitute the first four books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers); appended to each verse is every passage within the early rabbinic literature that quotes that verse – a corpus that the author defines as ranging from the halakhic midrashim through to the Geonic period, but which is inclusive of works that are traditionally ascribed to authors during that time, despite their actually possessing a later provenance (like the Zohar, to pick but one example), and a handful of texts (like Sefer Hasidim) that were included for reasons of which I am not aware. As a result, the first parsha of the Torah, Parshat Bereishit (a total of 146 verses) takes up 388 pages: the first of the forty-five volumes. The first thirty of those pages are devoted to expositions of and commentaries upon the parsha’s first word, בראשית.
A Gerrer hasid, R’ Kasher was born in Warsaw in 1895. At the instruction of his rebbe, R’ Avraham Mordechai Alter (the Imrei Emes), R’ Kasher moved to Palestine and established the Sefas Emes Yeshiva in Jerusalem. His being there enabled him to help his rebbe escape Poland and move to Palestine after the outbreak of World War II, but it was there that he and so many others had to watch helplessly as millions more were turned to smoke. His efforts in preserving and transmitting the work of the Rogatchover has earned him great renown, and for his Torah Sheleimah he received the Israel Prize in 1963.
I am very fortunate to have been able to add this forty-five-volume set to my growing collection, and can testify to its incredible beauty. The author’s tremendous ambition and the scope of his phenomenal knowledge are absolutely breathtaking. I haven’t been so much in awe of a single work of scholarship since I first discovered Seder haDorot, or R’ Saul Lieberman’s Tosefta Kifeshutah, and I stand humbled by both the vastness of the tradition and the towering genius of its brilliant expositors.
While opening the eighth volume of Torah Sheleimah recently, to look upon R’ Kasher’s presentation of Parshat Shemot (the first parsha in the book of Exodus), I was struck by a somewhat arresting poem that the author presents by way of a dedication. Prior to this poem is a brief preface, chiefly concerned with the specific manuscripts and versions upon which he relied, and which is signed:
ותושלם מלאכת הקודש, ביומא תליתאה, לירחא תליתאה, שנת בשב”ת
The sacred work [of compiling this volume] was completed on the third day of the third month (3rd Sivan = May 25th), 1944.
After this poem is found a brief dedicatory message, somewhat brutal in its bald emotion:
החלק הזה כולל פרשת שמות, ובו פרשת עינוייהם וסבלותיהם של בני ישראל בראשית עלותם כאומה על במת ההיסטוריה העולמית
עלה בגורלו של הספר הנוכחי לצאת לאור בימי דמים ועינויים, ושוב בני ישראל נאנחים תחת סבלותיהם האיומים
אך נהיה חוטאים לאמת אם נשווה את שברנו בימים אלו, לצער שנצטערו בני ישראל במצרים. הנחש הקדמוני גדל ונתפתח במשך שלושת אלפים שנה. לרשות עמלק ושותפיו עומדים כל כלי המדע להשחית ולהשמיד ולאבד. בחרי-אף וללא שבעה הסתערו פראים, טמאים וזדים על בני עמנו שבאירופה לגדוע אותם מן החיים, כאיש כאשה, כסב כעולל
אנו, שבדרך נס ניצלנו ממבול-הדמים האירופאי שנשפך על העולם כולו ועל עמנו שבעים ושבעה, נתקיים בנו: “ויקוצו מפני בני ישראל”, אף “וימררו את חייהם”. מגיע ללבותינו הד דברי משה רבנו אוהב ישראל: “למה הרעתה לעם הזה?” ואזנינו קשובות לתחינת נעים זמירות ישראל: למה ברחוק תעמוד
אין אנו מבינים לדרכי ההשגחה. “כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם ולא דרכיכם דרכי”. ואנו תקווה שגם בימינו תתקיים תשובת ה’ למשה רבינו: “עתה הראת…” ונזכה לראות חיש-מהר ובקרוב בימינו את ישועת אלהינו, ומי שאמר לעולמו די, יאמר לצרותינו די, והרשעה כעשן תכלה, והשוכן בשמים ירים קרן עמו, ונגיל בפריחת תורתנו הקדושה ובמשוש ארצנו הבנויה בקודש, בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון
This volume includes Parshat Shemot, in which is recorded the suffering and the oppression of the children of Israel when they first entered as a people upon the stage of world history.
It is the fate of this present edition to be published during days of blood and suffering, when the children of Israel are again groaning under their fearful oppression.
But we would be unfaithful to reality were we to equate our torment in these days with the anguish that was experienced by the children of Israel in Egypt. The primal serpent has grown and expanded over the last three thousand years; in the service of Amalek and his allies stand all of the tools of technology to eradicate, annihilate and destroy. With furious anger and without ever being sated, the savage, the unclean and the wicked have laid siege to our people in Europe, severing them from the source of life: women together with men, the old with the very young.
For those of us who by miraculous means have been saved from the torrent of European blood that has been poured upon the entire world and upon our people sevenfold¹, in us has been established: “They became sick because of the children of Israel”², such that “it made their lives bitter”³. An echo of the words of Moshe Rabbeinu, the lover of Israel, reaches our hearts: “Why have you made things so bad for this people?”⁴ And our ears are attuned to the plaintive cry of David⁵: “Why do you stand from afar!?”⁶
We do not understand the ways of providence. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor your ways mine”⁷. But we do hope that in our days will also be established Hashem’s response to Moshe Rabbeinu: “Now, see…”⁸, and that we will merit to see quickly and soon our God’s salvation. Let He who said to His world, “Enough!”⁹, say to our sorrows, “Enough!” May wickedness dissipate like smoke and may the one who dwells in the heavens raise up the horn of his people. May we rejoice in the blossoming of our holy Torah, and in the joy of our land, rebuilt in holiness, when Hashem returns the captivity of Zion.
¹ Lit. seventy-sevenfold (cf: Gen 4:24).
² Exodus 1:12
³ Exodus 1:14
⁴ Exodus 5:22
⁵ Lit. “of the pleasing [composer] of the songs of Israel” (cf: 2 Samuel 23:1).
⁶ ≈ Psalms 10:1
⁷ Isaiah 55:8
⁸ Deuteronomy 4:35
⁹ cf: Hagigah 12a, Genesis Rabbah 46:3
On the following page stands R’ Kasher’s poem. It is titled בכה אבכה מר: “Bitterly shall I weep”. As with the passage above, typological constraints have required me to strip the Hebrew of some of its punctuation, but I have attempted to reflect it in my translation below:
בכה אבכה מר על חרבן עיר-מולדי ורשא
קהלה קדושה של ששים רבוא נפש-ישראל
עיר מלאה חכמים וסופרים, והתורה מורשה לה
אהה, צדיקיה וחסידיה, תמימיה וקדושיה
אנשים ונשים, ישישים וטף, נשרפו ונכרתו ונשחטו
הה, לדמים אשר נשפכו כמים
דמי בני ישראל ובנותיו, הטהורים והזכים
הה, לישיבות, בתי-המדרש ובתי-החסידים על רבבות לומדיהם
מי ימלל תפארת גדלתה והוד קדשתה
ועתה נרמסה ונהרסה ברגל-רשעה
בלא הפוגות אקונן על חללי בת עמי
הרוגי פולין, רוסיה, אשכנז, צרפת, בלגיה, הולנד, ליטה ולטביה, רומניה ואונגריה
גדול שברנו, עצמו מכאובינו, רבת אמללנו
אתה ה’ ידעת כלם
מצבת-זכרון, מנחת עני, מגשה לזכר קדושינו
Bitterly shall I weep for the razing of Warsaw, the city of my birth,
A sacred community of sixty myriad souls of Israel -
A city filled with wise men and scribes, for the Torah was its inheritance,
Woe for its righteous, its pious, its pure and its holy,
Men and women, the elderly and the infants are burned, cut down and slaughtered -
Woe for the blood that flows like water,
The blood of the sons and the daughters of Israel, the pure and the blameless!
Woe for the yeshivot, the study houses and the hasidic institutions with their myriad students!
Who can relate the glory of its greatness or the splendour of its sanctity,
Which is now trampled down and crushed beneath the foot of iniquity!
Without rest I will lament the slain of my people,
The murdered of Poland, of Russia, of Germany, of France, of Belgium, of Holland, of Lithuania and of Latvia, of Romania and of Hungary -
Great is our agony, powerful is our pain, enormous is our grief:
You, Hashem, know all of it!
This memorial monument, this paltry tribute, is dedicated to the memory of our slain.
That this was written in May of 1944 is itself chilling. This was less than a month after the first transports from the Hungarian countryside had begun rolling towards Auschwitz. At the time of this poem’s composition, close to 500,000 Jews were yet to be murdered.
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Tags: kasher, Shoah
Categories : Jewish Tradition, Shoah
It may be that I simply have too many books. Since I last wrote about my library (which is now two libraries – one that dominates the living room, and another that almost prevents my entering the study), I have acquired the following texts:
• Megillat Taanit. Considered by some to be the earliest work of “rabbinic” literature, Megillat Taanit comprises a list of dates on which it is forbidden to fast or to deliver a eulogy, written in Aramaic. The entire text can be viewed online here. It also includes a Hebrew commentary, which may have been written several centuries later, providing historical reasons behind each of the dates in the Aramaic text. The Aramaic component was probably authored at some stage in the 1st century CE, being referred to in the Mishna (Taanit 2:8), and at least one baraita (Shabbat 13b). Mine is the critical edition, מגילת תענית: הנוסחים, פשרם, תולדותיהם בצירוף מהדורה ביקורתית, by Vered Noam (Yad Ben-Zvi: Jerusalem, 2003).
• HeArukh al-haShas (3 vols.), by R’ Natan ben Yechiel of Rome (1035-1106). Completed in 1101, the Arukh constitutes the first ever dictionary of the Babylonian Talmud. According to a poem that the author wrote by way of an introduction, it appears that he had four sons: Yechiel, his firstborn, died after thirty days, Benjamin lived only to the age of eight, Shabbetai died at the age of three, and the fourth did not survive long enough to be circumcised. Seeking comfort for his grief in an intensive study of the rabbinic literature, R’ Natan produced a work of scholarship that had a profound influence on subsequent generations of Talmudic scholars, and one that sheds light today on the early history of Talmudic interpretation in Europe.
• Sefer Hasidim, by R’ Yehuda heHasid (1140-1217). As one of the leaders of the pietistic movement known as Hasidei Ashkenaz, which flourished in Germany during the 12th-13th centuries, R’ Yehuda has had his name attached to this text but without any certainty as to its actual provenance. A collection of ethical maxims, although not homogeneous in nature, it is believed to have reached its final form in Germany in the early part of the 13th century.
• Beit haBechirah (7 vols.), by R’ Menachem Meiri (1249-c.1306). Although this commentary on the Talmud wasn’t published until the 18th century, and had a very limited influence upon the development of the halakha as a result, it is widely regarded as one of the most lucid overviews of Talmudic law. One area in particular in which it has had some effect is in the author’s emphasis on non-Jews of his day (specifically Muslims and Christians, but also other peoples whose nations are run in accordance with law) falling beyond the purview of those to whom the Talmudic authors were often referring when they spoke of goyim, nochrim and akum. As such, R’ Meiri was likely the first person to observe that certain passages need to be viewed within the context of their Sassanid-era composition.
• Shnei Luchot haBrit (5 vols.), by R’ Yeshayahu Horowitz (c.1565-1630). First published in 1648 by the author’s son, R’ Horowitz’s magnum opus is actually several books in one:
- Toldot Adam: written in eighteen parts (with an introduction of its own), this is the author’s introduction to the overall text. In it he makes clear the work’s tripartite structure and emphasises the fact that it serves as a testament to his children. He also provides an overview of his philosophical approach to the nature of God, the purpose of existence, the study of Torah, and several other issues, including the phraseology of prayer and the Temple service;
- Aseret Maamarot: the first of the text’s three parts, this section comprises ten philosophical/kabbalistic discourses;
- Sha’ar haOtiyot: an addendum to Aseret Maamarot, this section comprises twenty-two halakhic/philosophical excurses, titled as an alphabetic acrostic;
- Aseret haDibrot: the second of the text’s two parts, this section comprises discourses on ten of the tractates in the Talmud and their related legislation. Each discourse is further subdivided into three parts: Ner Mitzvah, in which the laws are explicated in full; Torah Or, in which the reasons for the laws are enumerated; and Derekh Chayim, in which the author expands upon the philosophical and ethical lessons to be learnt from this legislation. To several of these discussions are appended drashot on a variety of related subjects;
- Torah ShebiKhtav: the first of two addenda to Aseret haDibrot, this section comprises the author’s philosophical, legal and ethical commentary on the Torah, arranged by parsha. This section is occasionally published separately, as its own text;
- Torah Shebe’al Peh: the second of the two addenda to Aseret haDibrot, this section comprises a lengthy and technical introduction to the early rabbinic literature, divided into twenty-seven “principles” and constituting a methodology for Talmudic analysis. The concern here, as with similar introductions, is with provenance and authority: which parts can be said to have been authored by whom, what is the relationship of individual corpora to one another, and how can we determine the halakha. The thirteenth “principle”, titled לשונות הסוגיות (“the expressions found in Talmudic pericopes”), constitutes a corpus-based analysis of Talmudic clauses and phrases, based upon information found within the Talmud’s various commentaries and meta-commentaries. In that respect it is not dissimilar to a modern dictionary, albeit with phrases for lemmas;
- Aseret Hilulim: the third and final division of the text, this section comprises ten ethical treatises.
Although Shnei Luchot haBrit was written expressly for R’ Yeshayahu Horowitz’s children, it has had a profound impact upon the development of subsequent Jewish ethics and philosophy. One area in which it has had a particularly powerful impact is that of hasidic Judaism. The classic Liqqutei Amarim (“Tanya”) of R’ Schneur Zalman of Liady – the principle expression of the kabbalistic philosophy of Chabad – is heavily indebted to this text, perhaps more than any other post-Talmudic expression of ethical philosophy.
• HaMeor haGadol (2 vols.): a compilation of novellae taken from various sources, all of them attributed to R’ Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), published in 2004. Novellae concern selections taken from the individual parshiyot of the Torah, (most of) the subsequent books of the Tanakh, the sixty-three tractates of the Mishna, the Pesach haggadah and the siddur.
• Various works of R’ Yonasan Eybeschütz (1690-1764), each of which was published posthumously:
- Chasdei Yehonatan (first published 1897) is a collection of novellae on various midrashim, halakhic and aggadic, found chiefly in Midrash Rabbah, Yalkut Shimoni, Midrash Tanchuma, Torat Kohanim, Sifrei Bemidbar and Devarim, and Rashi’s commentary on chumash;
- Ahavat Yehonatan (first published 1875) is a collection of novellae on the parshiyot and haftarot that are read throughout the year, as well as on Lamentations (Eikhah);
- Divrei Yehonatan (first published 1903) is a collection of novellae on the Torah, arranged by parsha, as well as on the festival of Pesach, its laws and customs, and the text of the haggadah;
- Nefesh Yehonatan (first published 1901) is a collection of novellae on the Torah, as well as on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim, arranged according to the parsha and in reference to a variety of midrashim and passages from the Talmud and the subsequent halakhic literature;
- Midrash Yehonatan (first published 1933) is a collection of novellae, frequently complex, on the individual parshiyot of the Torah, in which the author links concepts from a wide range of Talmudic and halakhic texts;
- Tiferet Yehonatan (first published 1873) is a collection of novellae on the Torah, arranged by parsha;
- Tzefichat haDevash (first published 1887) is a collection of drashot that had been delivered by R’ Eybeschütz on various shabbatot and yamim tovim.
• Seder haDorot (2 vols.), by R’ Yechiel ben Shlomo Heilprin (c.1660-c.1746). First published in 1769 (תקכ”ט), Seder haDorot is three books in one:
- Seder Yemot ha’Olam. This 425-page text constitutes a history of the world, based on a variety of rabbinic historiographical sources, from the creation of the first man until the year 1696 (“ה’ אלפים תנ”ו”). The work is prefaced with a comprehensive 50-page index of all instances in the Babylonian Talmud in which the author believes that the name of a sage or the relationship between two sages has been incorrectly recorded; it is followed by a 69-page index of all names mentioned within the text (although Jesus, whose birth is mentioned in the year ג’ תרע”א and whose ministry is mentioned in ג’ תש”ז, appears to be mysteriously absent);
- Seder Mechabrim uSefarim. Based heavily upon the monumental Siftei Yeshenim of R’ Shabbetai Bass (1641-1718), this 203-page text constitutes an alphabetical index of rabbonim, together with the titles of the works that they authored. Unlike Siftei Yeshenim, this text includes no additional information as regards each of the works that it lists, nor their dates of publication;
- Seder Tannaim veAmoraim. This 778-page text constitutes a comprehensive index of every sage mentioned in the Mishna and Gemara, together with some brief biographical information (chiefly parentage, tutelage and names of disciples). The index also includes references to every passage within the Mishna in which they are mentioned, as well as to sources within the two Talmuds and their respective commentaries in which the biographical information that he provides can be found.
• Nefesh haChayim, by R’ Chayim ben Yitzhak of Volozhin (1749-1821). A disciple of R’ Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (the Gaon of Vilna; 1720-1797), R’ Chayim is most famous today for having founded the yeshiva in Volozhin – regarded by many as the first “modern-style” yeshiva, in terms of its curriculum, its management and the means by which ambassadors of the yeshiva raised funds for its continued support. Nefesh haChayim, which was first published in 1824, is the author’s major philosophical work, dealing with issues that pertain to the nature of existence, the mechanism of prayer, our relationship with God and the study of Torah. To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the text lies in its author’s distancing himself from a particular philosophy that was ostensibly held by his rebbe – a philosophy that, in Chabad literature, is presented as having been the chief cause of friction between the Gra and the hasidim – that of tzimtzum kifeshuto. So, for example, the Nefesh haChayim writes:
והוא ענין הכתוב “הלא את השמים ואת הארץ אני מלא” (ירמיה כג, כד). ויותר מפרש במשנה תורה “וידעת היום וגו’ כי ה’ הוא האלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד” (דברים ד, לט). וכן “אתה הראת לדעת כי ה’ הוא האלהים אין עוד מלבדו” (שם, שם לה) והוא ממש כמשמעו, שאין עוד מלבדו יתברך כלל, בשום בחינה ונקדה פרטית שבכל העולמות, עליונים ותחתונים והבריות כלם, רק עצמות אחדותו הפשוט יתברך שמו לבד
- Shaar III:3; for more on this subject, see Allan Nadlar, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Baltimore, 1999), 11-28. On p16, Nadlar notes that, contrary to Chabad sources, “there was virtually no substantive theological difference between Hasidim and Mithnagdim in their respective theoretical understandings of the nature of divine immanence”.
• Mei haShiloach (2 vols.), by R’ Mordekhai Yosef Leiner (1839-1854), student of R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa and the Kotzker Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Morgensztern. First published in 1860 (תר”כ), approximately six years after his death, Mei haShiloach comprises two distinct hasidic commentaries on the Torah.
• Minchat Chinukh (3 vols.), by R’ Yosef ben Moshe Babad (1801-1874). First published in 1869, Minchat Chinukh is the author’s conceptual commentary to the 13th century Sefer haChinukh, itself a methodological presentation of the 613 mitzvot, according to their presentation in the Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot, and arranged by parsha. This 19th century commentary provides depth to those halakhot, teasing out the nature of the legislation by means of reference to Talmudic and post-Talmudic discussions on the subject, and through the author’s own discussion of hypothetical cases.
• Two collections of novellae on the Torah by R’ Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), aka Chatam Sofer:
- Torat Moshe Chatam Sofer (2 vols). First published in 1881, this is a collection of the Chatam Sofer’s novellae on the Torah, written as drashot and arranged by parsha;
- Chatam Sofer al-haTorah (5 vols). This is a collection of the Chatam Sofer’s previously unpublished novellae on Torah, first printed in 1961 by R’ Yosef Naftali Stern, the son-in-law of the Chatam Sofer’s grandson, R’ Shlomo Aleksandri Schreiber.
• Ketav Sofer (2 vols.), by R’ Shmuel Binyamin Schreiber (1815-1871), the eldest son of the Chatam Sofer. First published in 1883, this is a collection of the Ketav Sofer’s novellae on the Torah, the five megillot, the individual chaggim and the haggadah.
• Ha’Ameq Davar (6 vols.), by R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), rosh yeshiva at Volozhin. First published in 1879, Ha’Ameq Davar constitutes a commentary upon the Torah (at times, a super-commentary upon Rashi) and upon Song of Songs.
• Meshekh Chokhmah (4 vols.), by R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (“Or Somayach”; 1843-1926). In three volumes (the fourth constituting a series of detailed indices), this is the Or Somayach’s celebrated commentary on the Torah, first published posthumously. Perhaps the most (in)famous component is a remark made in the author’s explication of Parshat Bechukotai, to the effect that certain of his contemporaries were responsible for neglecting the study of Jewish literature, of failing to master the Hebrew/Aramaic language, of ceasing to consider themselves in exile and of considering Berlin to be the new Jerusalem. To such people, R’ Meir Simcha promises a storm of tremendous ferocity, the likes of which this exile has never seen, which will transport Jews to a foreign land in which they will be subjected to harsh decrees, will be reminded that they are Jews and will be brought to the edge of annihilation.
[Such threats are not uncommon in certain modes of literature, but the time and place of Meshekh Chokhmah's composition makes their author seem something of a prophet.]
• Various novellae and drashot from the school of Brisk:
- Beit haLevi al-haTorah: a collection of novellae arranged by parsha (from Bereishit to Ki Tisa), plus twelve drashot on Hilkhot Stam (the writing of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot). Authored by R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk (“the Beis haLevi”, 1820-1892);
- Sefer Drashot: a collection of eighteen drashot on a range of subjects, extracted from the Beis haLevi’s magnum opus, “Beit haLevi”;
- Yalqut Shemu’ot miBeit haLevi: first published in the 9th and 10th editions (2001-2002) of Yeshurun, this is a collection of novellae and drashot on various parshiyot of the Torah, on some of the subsequent books of Tanakh, on certain tractates of the Mishna/Talmud, on the siddur and on the haggadah. They are all of them attributed to the Beis haLevi, either by people who heard them from him or who heard them in his name;
- Chiddushei Maran haGriz haLevi: a collection of novellae and drashot on Tanakh and on various passages in the rabbinic literature, attributed to R’ Yitzhak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (“the Brisker Rov”, 1886-1959), grandson of the Beis haLevi. As with the previous collection, these have all been recorded by individuals who heard them from him personally or who heard them in his name. They were first published in 1996.
• Tzafnat Pa’aneach al-haTorah (3 vols.), by R’ Yosef Rosen of Rogatchov (1858-1936). Known as the Rogatchover Gaon, R’ Yosef Rosen (together with R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) was one of very few people to have recognised the infamous Yerushalmi Qodshim as a forgery. A Kapuster hasid, the Rogatchover studied under the Beis haLevi and R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin (“Maharil Diskin”), and gave semikha to the seventh rebbe of Lubavitch, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. At the time of his death in 1936, most of his voluminous writings were unpublished, and there were few who were capable of deciphering his famously laconic style. Leaving her home in Petach Tikva, the Rogatchover’s daughter, Rachel Citron, travelled to Dvinsk and met up with her father’s student, R’ Yisrael Alter Safern-Fuchs. Togther, they frantically prepared the Rogatchover’s writings for publication until such time as the Nazi ban of Jewish printing put an end to their efforts. In the time that they had left, they photographed the pages of his Rambam and Shas, together with his copious marginalia, and sent the pictures by post to R’ Tzvi Hirsch Safern in NYC. They were both murdered in 1942, but it is thanks to their efforts that many of the Rogatchover’s writings have now been published.
This three-volume set is a commentary upon the Torah and upon the Rambam’s Guide of the Perplexed. It was first published in 1974 by R’ Menachem Kasher, together with introductions that pertain to the life and thought of R’ Yosef Rosen. If you wish to read more about this incredible man, his insights into Torah and the amazing self-sacrifice of those who worked at disseminating them (or if you wish to contribute in any way to the ongoing labour of preparing his manuscripts for publication), you can consult the Tzafnat Pane’ach Institute.
• Mikhtav meEliyahu (5 vols.), by R’ Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953), mashgiach ruchani at Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Published between 1955 (תשט”ו) and 1997 (תשנ”ז), Mikhtav meEliyahu is a collection of R’ Dessler’s ethical writings, personal correspondence and mussar schmuessen, primarily dealing with themes that touch upon matters of faith, divine providence and free-will.
• Sefat Emet (5 vols.), by the second Gerrer Rebbe, R’ Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905). First published in 1905 (תרס”ה), immediately after the rebbe’s death, Sefat Emet constitutes a hasidic commentary on the Torah, widely regarded as exceptionally complex by virtue of its offering the reader very little in the way of any indication as to precisely which subject is under discussion, or which passage (in the Torah, in Rashi’s commentary or in the Talmud) is being specifically referred to.
• Yismach Yisrael, by the second Alexanderer Rebbe, R’ Yerachmiel Yisroel Yitzhak Danziger (1853-1910). First published in 1911/2 (תרע”א), Yismach Yisrael is a hasidic commentary on the Torah.
• Tiferet Shmuel, by the third Alexanderer Rebbe, R’ Shmuel Tzvi Danziger (1860-1923), the brother of his predecessor. First published in 1925 (תרפ”ה), Tiferet Shmuel is a hasidic commentary on the Torah, and one that makes reference in a number of instances to the Yismach Yisrael.
• Divrei Yoel (8 vols.), by the first Satmarer Rebbe, R’ Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979). First published in 1971/2 (תשל”א), Divrei Yoel constitutes the Satmar Rebbe’s commentary on the Torah, and probably the most systematic elucidation of his hasidic thought.
• Melekhet haMishkan veKheilav, by R’ Asher David Meyers. Published in 2004, this text (“The Construction of the Mishkan and Its Vessels”) constitutes a detailed study of the sanctuary and its adornments, the altars, the table and the courtyard, and the means by which these were constructed. It is based upon discussions of the subject in the rabbinic literature, and includes responsa by R’ Chaim Kanievsky (born 1928), son of R’ Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, “the Steipler Gaon”.
• Sha’arei Sefarim ‘Ivrim, by A.M. Haberman. Published in 1969 by the Museum of Printing Art in Safed (מוזיאון לאומנות הדפוס, צפת), this work is a collection of images of 104 different Hebrew title pages over the course of several centuries. Commencing with a hand-drawn title page from a Tanakh written at the end of the 13th century, and culminating with a printed title page from a 1949 printing of Maayan Tahor (by R’ Moshe Teitelbaum, rav of Ujhely; 1759-1841), it is fascinating to see the evolution of different styles. Some are quite startling: a Pentateuch printed in 1591 shows a bare-breasted woman, draped in a cloth and sporting a crown, with a spear in her hand, pointing downwards at a seven-headed dragon; a collection of halakhic novellae on tractates Beitza, Bava Metzia, Ketubot, Hullin and Gittin, printed in 1737, depicts a ship at sea under attack from a giant, hornéd sea-monster, which appears to be swallowing the anchor and which has two men in its belly, wearing pointed hats and lighting a fire beneath a cauldron. The title pages of my own books are staggeringly boring to me now.
• Jacob Shatzky, The History of the Jews in Warsaw I: From the Beginnings to the Uprising of 1831 (New York, 1947).
• Jacob Shatzky, The History of the Jews in Warsaw II: From 1831 to the Uprising of 1863 (New York, 1948).
• Jacob Shatzky, The History of the Jews in Warsaw III: From 1863 to 1896 (New York, 1953).
• Malachi Beit-Arié, Unveiled Faces of Medieval Hebrew Books: The Evolution of Manuscript Production – Progression or Regression? (Jerusalem, 2003).
• William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein (trans.), Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana: R’ Kahana’s Compilation of Discourses for Sabbaths and Festal Days (London, 1975). Strack and Stemberger provide a variety of possible dates for this compilation, all of them within the first millennium but differing from one another by several centuries. A collection of homiletical discourses for Shabbatot and festivals, it has been described by some as the oldest exegetical midrash, and is our primary source for the ten special haftarot that are read before and after the 9th of Av.
• Mordechai Z. Cohen, Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi (Leiden, 2008). In this text, Cohen applies metaphor theory to the figurative language found within Tanakh, and analyses the different ways in which these three rishonim interpreted scripture.
• Anne and Roger Cowen, Victorian Jews Through British Eyes (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization; London, 1998). This delightful 200-page text is a collection of newspaper articles, photographs and caricatures that concern Jews in England (be they English Jews or migrants) between approximately 1829 and 1900. The articles attest to the changing fortunes of Jews in England, both socially and politically, to attitudes that were held towards Jews from the East, and to the manner in which certain prominent Jewish individuals were considered in the public eye. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• José Faur, The Horizontal Society: Understanding the Covenant and Alphabetic Judaism (2 vols; Boston, 2010). A somewhat strange but phenomenally eclectic collection of essays, dealing with a wide range of Jewish subjects and exhibiting an almost encyclopedic familiarity with the rabbinic literature. Its author is an alumnus of Beth Midrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, and a former professor at JTS and Bar-Ilan.
• John C.L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions I: Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions (Oxford, 1971). (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• John C.L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions II: Aramaic Inscriptions, including inscriptions in the dialect of Zenjirli (Oxford, 1975). (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (London, 2008).
• Isaac Halevy-Levin (ed), The Revival of the Hebrew Language (Ariel 25; Jerusalem, 1969). Featuring articles by S.Y. Agnon, Chaim Rabin and E.Y. Kutscher, among others.
• Louis Jacobs, Theology in the Responsa (London: 1975). A fascinating text, R’ Jacobs looks at a range of responsa from the Geonic period through to the 20th century, and considers how their authors, either explicitly or implicitly, developed arguments on matters of faith. Arranged chronologically, with chapters devoted to different centuries. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• Leo Kadman, The Coins of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE (Corpus Nummorum Palaestinensium III; Jerusalem, 1960).
• Paul Kahle, The Cairo Geniza (2nd ed; Oxford, 1959). Based upon a series of talks given by the author for the British Academy Schweich Lectures in 1941, this text is an historical and literary introduction to the materials found within the Cairo Geniza, with a special emphasis placed upon witnesses to the biblical text, both masoretic and translations. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• Gail Labovitz, Marriage and Metaphor (New York, 2013). As with the work by Mordechai Z. Cohen, mentioned above, this is a contribution to the field of metaphor theory, and one in which the author turns her attention to the language of commerce that pervades rabbinic matrimonial texts.
• Binyamin Lau, The Sages III: The Galilean Period (trans. Ilana Kurshan; Jerusalem, 2013). The third volume in a three-volume series, the first was titled “The Second Temple Period” (from Shimon haTzaddik to R’ Tzadok) and the second was titled “From Yavneh to the Bar Kokhba Revolt” (spanning Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai to R’ Yehuda ben Bava, and the deaths of R’ Akiva’s students). This third volume, titled “The Galilean Period” covers the establishment of the bet midrash in Usha, through to the death of R’ Yehuda haNasi.
• Marvin Lowenthal (trans.), The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln (New York, 1977). Written in Yiddish between 1690 and 1719, Glückel’s diary (which she authored for the benefit of her children, shortly after the death of their father) provides a fascinating insight into the life of a Jewish woman of business in the final quarter of the 17th century. She writes of her memories of the expulsion of Jews from Hamburg in 1648, the Swedish invasion of Altona in 1657, the aftermath of the Chmielnicki uprising in the east, and the false messiah, Shabbetai Tvzi. The first of the two major German translations of this work was undertaken by a descendant of Glückel named Bertha Pappenheim. Better known to the world as “Anna O.” (the pseudonym by which Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer referred to her in their case studies), Pappenheim was the most significant patient when it came to Breuer’s work on hysteria, and takes a major place in the early development of psychoanalysis. What can I say: this world can be a very strange place.
• Shimon Yosef Meller, The Brisker Rav: The Life and Times of Maran HaGaon HaRav Yitzchok Ze’ev HaLevi Soloveitchik zt”l (3 vols; trans. Daniel Weiss; Jerusalem, 2007). Published by Feldheim, these three volumes constitute a (somewhat romantic) biography of one of the greatest Torah scholars of the twentieth century, the son of R’ Chaim Soloveitchik and the grandson of the Beis haLevi. His nephew, R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (“the Rav”) is not mentioned once in the book’s 1,792 pages. His absence, while not particularly surprising, is somewhat striking in the opening chapters of the first volume, in which the Rav’s family tree stops with his father, R’ Moshe Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav’s brother), and in which information about the life of R’ Moshe Soloveitchik is attributed to his grandson, R’ Moshe Meiselman. R’ Meiselman, who heads Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Jerusalem, has courted controversy with his pretence that the Rav’s Zionism was put on for the purposes of outreach only, and that the Rav (who was both his uncle and his teacher) was as staunchly anti-Zionist as the rest of the Soloveitchik family.
• Jacob Neusner, A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai Ca.1-80 CE (Leiden, 1970).
• Jacob Neusner, Major Trends in Formative Judaism II: Texts, Contents, and Contexts (California, 1984).
• Hayim Goren Perelmuter (trans.), Shir haMa’alot l’David (Song of the Steps) and Ktav Hitnazzelut l’Darshanim (In Defence of Preachers) (Ohio, 1984). Authored by R’ David Darshan and first printed in 1571 and 1574, respectively, these were the first books of darshanut to have been published in Poland, and its author the first itinerant preacher to have devised a handbook for others of his profession. Perelmuter’s translation incorporates a copy of the original publication in the back of the text, an introduction to the period and the style, and a running English commentary. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• Gil S. Perl, The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth-Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship (Studies in Orthodox Judaism; Boston, 2012).
• Harry Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life: Jewish Laws and Customs of Mourning (London: 1964). This short and pocket-sized text provides information that pertains to the various periods of mourning, the care of the deceased, funerary and consecration practices and the observance of yahrzeits. Most importantly, it is replete with copious footnotes, providing sources in the Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature, making it an excellent pedagogical tool. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (2 vols; 1999). These two volumes constitute a brief biography of the Rav, followed by a compendium of remarks made by him on a wide variety of issues, translated into English.
• Stefan C. Reif, Shabbethai Sofer and his Prayer-book (Cambridge, 1979). One of the most outstanding grammarians of the 16th-17th centuries, the Polish-born Shabbetai Sofer was commissioned by the Council of Three Lands to write an official siddur for use by Ashkenazi Jews. That text was lost until the end of the 19th century, when the original manuscript was recovered in London by A. Neubauer and subsequently published. This volume, by Stefan Reif, constitutes an introduction to and commentary on the text of Shabbetai’s siddur. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)
• William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1977).
• Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century: Creating a Tradition of Learning (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization; trans. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz; Portland, 2012). Shaul Stampfer focuses primarily on the yeshiva in Volozhin, which was established by R’ Chaim ben Yitzhak and which counted amongst its leaders (at least for a time) both the Beis haLevi and the Netziv, but he also gives attention to the yeshivas in Slobodka, Telz and Kovno. The yeshiva in Slobodka is particularly interesting to me: headed by R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel (“the Alter of Slabodka”; 1849-1927), the yeshiva placed a very strong emphasis on the study of mussar. In 2011, when the rosh yeshiva of the Mir in Jerusalem died (a man also named Nosson Tzvi Finkel) he was eulogised by R’ Nissan Kaplan as having come to the yeshiva as a young American boy so many years back – a young boy, with no yichus. I don’t know what it means to have no yichus, given that his father was a rabbi, his great-uncle was the rosh yeshiva at the Mir, his grandfather was the mashgiach ruchani at Yeshivas Hebron, and his great-grandfather (for whom he was named) was the Alter of Slabodka. But there you go.
• Bernard Wasserstein, On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (New York, 2012). From the book’s jacket: “Unlike most previous accounts, On the Eve focuses not on the anti-Semites [sic] but on the Jews. Wasserstein refutes the common misconception that they were unaware of the gathering forces of their enemies. He demonstrates that there was a growing and widespread recognition among Jews that they stood on the edge of an abyss… Wasserstein introduces a diverse array of characters: holy men and hucksters, beggars and bankers, politicians and poets, housewives and harlots… from Vilna (the “Jerusalem of the North”) to Amsterdam, Vienna, Warsaw, and Paris, from the Judeo-Espagnol-speaking stevedores of Salonica to the Yiddish-language collective farms of Soviet Ukraine and Crimea… Based on comprehensive research, rendered with compassion and empathy, and brought alive by telling anecdotes and dry wit, On the Eve offers a vivid and enlightening picture of the European Jews in their final hour.”
• Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jerusalem, 2012).
and the pièce de résistance:
• Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archaeology – Jerusalem, April 1984. This wonderful text contains articles and addresses by a number of different scholars, many of whom were giants in their field. The list of authors includes, but is not limited to, Frank Moore Cross, Benjamin Mazar, Yigael Yadin, David Noel Freedman, Norman K. Gottwald, Siegfried Herrmann, Moshe Kochavi, Amihai Mazar, Israel Finkelstein, Avraham Biran, Ruth Amiran, William G. Dever, David Ussishkin, Donald B. Redford, André Lemaire, Baruch A. Levine, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Joseph M. Baumgarten, Elisha Qimron, John Strugnell, Hartmut Stegemann, David Flusser, Cyrus H. Gordon and Ephraim E. Urbach.
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Tags: jewish books
Categories : Personal Reflections
In 1957, Noam Chomsky published “Syntactic Structures”, in which he provided the following example of a sentence that is both grammatically correct and semantically nonsensical at every level: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. Although green cannot be colourless, ideas can neither be green nor sleep, and one cannot sleep furiously, the line possesses a certain poetic charm. As such, in 1985, Stanford University held a competition: participants had to compose, in no more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse, a text that would contain this line and give it actual meaning.
By way of an example, C.M. Street wrote a short piece about planting in the autumn, in which he observed that, “While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. Neither he nor Bryan O. Wright won the competition, but the latter’s contribution is beautiful and deserves to be read in full:
Behold the pent-up power of the winter tree;
Leafless it stands, in lifeless slumber.
Yet its very resting is revival and renewal:
Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
In deep and dedicated doormancy,
Concentrating, conserving, constructing:
Knowing, by some ancient quantum law
Of chlorophyll and sun
That come the sudden surge of spring,
Dreams become reality, and ideas action.
- Bryan O. Wright
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Categories : Language / Literature, Poetry
On October 16th, 1940, the German Governor-General, Hans Frank, established the largest ghetto in all of occupied Poland. Comprised of an area some 3.4km², the Warsaw Ghetto was populated for a time by over 400,000 people. Hunger, privation, casual murder and the systematic eradication of its inhabitants in Treblinka resulted in the annihilation of almost 300,000 Polish Jews between 1940 and 1943.
The Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, ran a secret synagogue within the Warsaw Ghetto. He was murdered in Trawniki during Operation Harvest Festival, but was survived by some of his disciples. His weekly and festival discourses have been edited and published in English translation as Sacred Fire.
Adam Czerniaków, former senator in Poland’s parliament, was the appointed head of Warsaw’s Judenrat: the governing body of Jews who were tasked with enforcing Nazi directives. On July 23rd, 1942 – one day after the commencement of Grossaktion Warsaw – Czerniaków swallowed a cyanide tablet. He was survived by his wife, Niunia, who preserved the diary that he had kept from 1939 and who published it in 1979. It is available, in English translation, as The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow.
Dr Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of mediaeval Polish Jewish history, was moved into the Warsaw Ghetto along with his family and the rest of the local population. There he led a committee of historians, rabbis, scientists and social workers named Oyneg Shabbos (“the joy of Shabbat”), collecting visual and textual documents that would enable them to later tell the story of the ghetto and its inhabitants. As it became increasingly apparent that this story would end with the deaths of all of its actors, their mission became one of preservation only. Ringelblum and his family were all murdered in 1944, but two of the three collections that had been hidden have subsequently been unearthed. Their contents are currently housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Together with the reams of archival footage taken by the SS, the copious German documentation of the Ghetto and the voluminous testimony of its survivors, it is hard to imagine that much could be forgotten. And yet, were it not for a school project undertaken by four girls from Uniontown High School in Bourbon County, Kansas, one of the most historically significant personages of the Warsaw Ghetto may have remained in obscurity.
Irena Sendler was not a resident of the ghetto, and although she is reputed to have worn an armband with a magen david, she was not Jewish. A senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, Irena was able to reroute funds to Jewish families before the formation of the ghetto, registering them under false Christian names and forestalling inspections under the pretext that they suffered from highly infectious diseases. Upon the construction of the ghetto, Irena joined a Polish resistance movement called Zegota: the Polish Council to Aid Jews. With the aid of a pass from the Epidemic Control Department, and with food and medicine secreted on her person, Irena found herself within the ghetto on a daily basis.
Few of us can imagine the tribulations that would be faced by one who sought to smuggle items into the Warsaw Ghetto. At tremendous risk to herself, Irena Sendler helped to ameliorate (in so small a fashion) the swelling tide of disease and malnutrition that plagued the ghetto’s inhabitants. But it was not enough, and so she dared to risk the impossible: to enter empty-handed, but to smuggle people out.
In the years before her capture and incarceration in 1943, Irena Sendler rescued some 2,500 children. “Some children were taken out in gunnysacks or body bags. Some were buried inside loads of goods. A mechanic took a baby out in his toolbox. Some kids were carried out in potato sacks, others were placed in coffins, some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. They entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians.” [Source]
In order to preserve their true identities, Irena Sendler wrote a list. In coded form, its meaning known to nobody but herself, she wrote the birthnames of these children and the names that she had given them. Buried beneath an apple tree, across the road from the German barracks, the information might have remained hidden were it not for Zegota members having successfully bribed the Gestapo agents charged with her execution, and having subsequently affected her release. Physically broken from Gestapo questioning, Irena was forced to spend the rest of the war in hiding, and for many years after its conclusion there were few who knew of her deeds.
In 1965, Irena Sendler was accorded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but it was not until 2000 that her actions started to become more widely known. It was then that four students (Elizabeth Cambers, Megan Stewart, Sabrina Coons and Janice Underwood) won the 2000 Kansas state National History Day competition with their play, Life in a Jar. A dramatic representation of Irena Sendler’s heroic story, this play not only raised awareness within the United States, but has since garnered international attention as well. When the students met Irena in 2001, the meeting was covered by Poland’s newspapers. In this way, so many who had never heard of her came to learn of her remarkable story; and in such a fashion, Poland’s parliament came to consider ways of honouring her legacy themselves.
In 2003, Irena was awarded Poland’s highest military and civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, along with the Jan Karski Award for Valor and Courage. With her photograph in the newspaper, the 96-year old woman began receiving phone calls from those whom she had rescued as children, the overwhelming majority of whom had lost their original families, but several of whom remembered well the face of their liberator. In 2007, the Polish parliament unanimously nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. Irena, who was too ill to attend the ceremony held in her honour, had her remarks read for her by a woman whom she had saved:
“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory. Over a half-century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its spectre still hangs over the world and doesn’t allow us to forget.”
In 2008, at 98 years of age, Irena Sendler passed away. She is survived by her daughter, Janina Zgrzembska, and by descendents too numerous to count.
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Categories : Shoah
On Saturday morning, at 7:00am, my brother and I left Katoomba for the Jenolan Caves. After being given a helmet with a flashlight, blue overalls, knee pads and a belt, we joined up with another six explorers and three terrific guides to explore a small section of the largest underground cave network at Jenolan and the oldest in the world: the Mammoth.
After a twenty minute walk from the guidehouse, through a dense forest of eucalypt and pine, meandering along a dried-out riverbed of stone and ivy, and in the permanent shadow of a looming cliff, we reached the steps that took us up to a small grate that was then unlocked. Turning on our torches, we crouched through in single-file…
Our first stop, after clambering down, down, down into the belly of the mountain, was the Rock Pile: a mass of fallen boulders, held in place around each other by their own stubborn weight. We clambered over, crawled under and slithered sideways through this labyrinth, feeling the icy touch of age-old stone so far away from distant sunlight.
At every turning in the passage, past every narrow entranceway, it was too easy to forget which way we came. In silence, and with nothing save our bobbing torches to light the inside of the mountain, we followed our guides down to a burbling river. There, greedily, we drank the clearest water I have ever tasted, and washed the dirt of a million years from every hand and face.
Our next stop was the Oolites Cavern: a short, but not so tricky climb to a high, expansive cave whose every wall glittered with crystal, where stalactites and straws hung dripping from an ancient roof. We marvelled at the priceless wonder of it all, the breathtaking acoustics and the short and shiny stalagmites that took an age to grow. Finally, this part of our adventure over, we turned back and retraced our steps… but we were far from being finished.
Climbing and winding our way back to the Rock Pile, we were each of us clipped onto a karabiner for the purpose of scaling a rigged-up ladder that swayed listlessly through a chimney of stone. This was the most challenging part of the day: hauling myself up, two rungs at a time, contorting my body to get onto the ledge, adjusting my position to remove the karabiner and then finding the strength to clamber up and over a boulder not much smaller than myself. There, after another short and fairly easy climb, we turned off our torches and marvelled at the dense and utter blackness, so thick that it seemed to crawl behind the eyes and stupefy the brain.
There is no time within the bowels of this green earth, no way to mark the slow aging of rock and stone. I could not help but imagine being trapped down here: unable to differentiate between day and night, unable to tell the difference between dreams and waking, unable to take a step for fear of falling an immeasurable distance…
Our lunch was had in a tiny, dirt-floored chamber, where we were careful not to leave a single crumb, the smallest morsel flowering rapidly into an eager mould. A dark line near the ceiling showed us how high the water gets in the rainy season, and bits of decaying stick and leaf served as evidence of the most recent flood.
Packed and ready to keep exploring, we trudged onwards over rocks that were coated in slippery goo, and into a dark world of clay and slime. Crawling on our bellies beneath the overhanging stone, through cracks no higher than a human head, we emerged after a series of tunnels, caked in clay and soaked with water, at an undulating field of mud.
Careful to place our feet in the deep, watery footprints left by others, and mindful of the smallest misstep sending us sliding towards the edge of a rocky pit to our right that breathed upon us as we marched, we walked carefully and in single-file towards an abyss so deep that our guide’s thrown stone continued sending back echoing report as faint vibration even after we could no longer hear its distant chime. Crudely, the wall was marked with an arrow facing away from the precipice, whose base lay out of hope and memory, along with an image of a skull and crossbones: a dire warning, scrawled by 19th century explorers, one of whom may have learnt too late what lay beyond its lip.
Our final stage was optional, but it was an option that we all took. The Hellhole. A slimy, mudpacked tunnel through which we ducked and squeezed and crawled, which flattened out into a winding chimney the size of a human torso. Watching the man in front of me squeeze his way through, his two arms pressed flat alongside his body, boosting himself upwards with his legs, his fingers working the roof above his back, I wondered whether I might need to give up here.
Once his feet had disappeared beyond the bend, I embraced the slimy walls. Sliding my arms before me, and attempting to dig my elbows into the tightly-packed clay, I wedged my head and upper body into the crack. So tight that I could not change the direction in which I was facing, there being insufficient room to turn my head, I gasped and grunted, squeezed and pushed until I came plopping through into a slightly larger cavity, from which I could pull myself safely up. “It’s a boy!”, shouted someone from above.
Finally, defeated by the Mammoth Cave and breathing loudly, we embarked upon the most dangerous part: a journey along the face of a stone wall, guided by a hand-held cord, our feet and knees pressed firmly against the slippery surface opposite us, and a crevice beneath us that tapered away into a crack just wide enough for a person’s ankles, and maybe half their legs. No legs were broken and no ankles sprained, but the trek over this drop was tortuous and slow, made easier by the guides’ advice on where to lean and where to push, and safer by their physical presence towards the end.
Finally – finally! – we retraced our steps, through mud and slime and over rock and stone, under, over and through each narrow cleft made smaller by my own physical and psychic exhaustion. The final push, a long flight upwards, so easily traversed when coming down it at the very start of our journey, absolutely broke me. I was utterly spent, and almost wept with joy when I got a face full of cobweb. A sign of life; a sign that we are approaching the summit.
All told, we had spent a total of seven hours in the Mammoth Cave. Seven hours climbing and sliding and squeezing and crawling through the age-old intransigence of stone. Seven hours deep within the heart of the mountain, with silence our companion and with darkness our friend. Seven hours where the walls leer and the shadows dance around the dim reach of the torchlight. Where the only other living creatures are infant bats and featureless white flatworms. Seven hours, and we had finally made it through, blinking and teary in the dying sunlight, into a gently-raining forest, bathed in sound.
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Categories : Personal Reflections