Title: The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah: With the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook
Author: Rav Betzalel Naor
Publisher: Kodesh Press
Reviewed by Shlomo Zuckier

Rav Betzalel Naor has long been known as the expert translator of Rav Kook’s work into English. Among his many translations and publications to date are Orot (annotated edition), When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, and The Koren Rav Kook Siddur. He approaches his craft with a broad-based knowledge of Rav Kook, a poetic pen, and a creative mind. This latest contribution to his translations of Rav Kook into English deserves particular mention and singling out.

The new work – The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah: With the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook – a translation and elucidation of Rav Kook’s interpretation of these narratives, continues in that tradition but also moves in a unique direction. This volume incorporates not only a basic translation of the material, but also very extensive footnotes, 11 short essays appearing in appendices, multiple bibliographies and indices, and even artwork, all with the goal of bringing to life Rav Kook’s messages.

The original Hebrew of Rav Kook’s analysis of that sugya on Bava Batra 73a-74a is included in the volume, and the translation both reads smoothly and is true to the Hebrew original. An introductory essay incorporates an analysis of the status and treatment of the original manuscript by Rav Kook and notes cases of censorship of some of Rav Kook’s bolder claims.
The volume also offers a short-form summary of Rav Kook’s commentary on the stories, helpfully framing the broader corpus of material. Extensive notes on the passages not only provide citations and clarify the text, but also offer alternative readings of the Gemara (based on commentaries of the Rishonim) and offer references to related comments of Rav Kook in his other works. Here one sees the great acuity and broad knowledge base of the author, as the notes flow freely (and some, indeed, are relegated to appendices).

Each chapter is also accompanied by a piece of artwork by Tamar Odenheimer depicting the vision that Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah saw, composed uniquely for this publication. This is no mere that sugya on Bava Batra 73a-74a is included in the volume, and the translation both reads smoothly and is true to the Hebrew original. An introductory essay incorporates an analysis of the status and treatment of the original manuscript by Rav Kook and notes cases of censorship of some of Rav Kook’s bolder claims.

The volume also offers a short-form summary of Rav Kook’s commentary on the stories, helpfully framing the broader corpus of material. Extensive notes on the passages not only provide citations and clarify the text, but also offer alternative readings of the Gemara (based on commentaries of the Rishonim) and offer references to related comments of Rav Kook in his other works. Here one sees the great acuity and broad knowledge base of the author, as the notes flow freely (and some, indeed, are relegated to appendices).

Each chapter is also accompanied by a piece of artwork by Tamar Odenheimer depicting the vision that Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah saw, composed uniquely for this publication. This is no mere adornment; the jarring aesthetic invoked by the Talmudic text and elaborated upon by Rav Kook (in Naor’s translation) is truly brought to light with these illustrations. The Talmudic stories, taken literally, relate to massive antelopes, demons running on walls, seabirds, scorpions, and geese, as they depict fantastic beasts and where to find them.

Rav Kook takes these descriptions to be ethical lessons on topics ranging from responses to Christian supersessionist claims; to critiques of materialistic misers; to attacks on Torah scholars animated by ulterior motivations; and to meditations on the relationship between community and individual. This reading of these evocative, imaginative stories as allegories or parables follows in the Kabbalistic tradition of the Vilna Gaon and others.

This aesthetically pleasing and insight-packed volume is highly recommended to both those interested in deeper understandings of that extended sugya and those looking for a taste of Rav Kook on Aggadah.

 

Originally published in The Jewish Press, Friday, January 10, 2020

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