Commentary to the Legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook
Introduction, Translation and Notes by Bezalel Naor
by Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhoffer
The first thing we have to clarify about this book is its intended audience. The book has a colorful cover, a portrait of a sea shore in England painted in the early nineteenth century, One might receive the impression from the cover that this is a book of stories for young children. This impression might be reinforced by the inclusion of fifteen drawings, one for each of the legends included in the volume.
In fact, however, this sefer is a very advanced work, with a strong emphasis on Kabbalah and the Kabbalistic interpretations of the aggadata in the fifth chapter of Meseches Bava Batra, which relates wondrous scenes and episodes in the lives of various Amoraim (sages of the Talmud), many of them involving the Amora Rabbah bar Bar Hannah. There are stories of colossal waves, of drawing near stars, of demons and of huge marine creatures. There are stories of the seas and stories of the Sinai desert, including the place where the generation that died in the desert repose, the fissure in which Korach and his followers were swallowed up, and the place where Heaven and Earth meet.
Over the centuries, these amazing passages and their possible interpretations have drawn the attention of great scholars. Indeed, this reviewer proposed his own interpretations in his sefer on Bava Batra.
As an example, Rabbah bar Bar Hannah speaks about a ship that could travel sixty parsangs at a speed exceeding that of an arrow shot by a horseman. Rav Kook’s interpretation of the metaphor is that the ship is sailing on the Sea of Wisdom. The wisdom symbolized by the sixty parsangs is “specialized knowledge of the ‘six extremities’ (Hesed, Gevurah, Tif’eret, Netsah, Hod, Yesod)…” A perfect grasp of each of these Kabbalistic concepts is represented by the number 10, hence a total of 60 parsangs. The number of parsangs represents the quantity of knowledge, while the speed of the arrow represents the quality of the knowledge. “The horseman is a wise man who shoots the arrows of reason guided by human intellect, yet Rabbah bar Bar Hannah’s crew was superior to the fastest intellect.”
In the opinion of this reviewer, even more valuable than the commentary itself is the material added by the translator and editor, Rabbi Bezalel Naor. Rabbi Naor is well known for the vast breadth and extraordinary depth of his knowledge. In his Introduction, Rabbi Naor highlights a change in the printed Hebrew edition that was evidently made to downplay a controversial passage in the manuscript that states that “there are halakhot that change on their rulings from one generation to the next, depending on its leaders and what seems appropriate to the ‘judge who is in your days.’” The printed text reads that there are halakhot “that change in the hora’at sha’ah (ad hoc rulings) of the hakhmei ha-Torah (Torah sages), the leaders of the generation, ‘the judge who is in your days.’”
Given the Kabbalistic nature of the commentary, Rabbi Naor’s notes are indispensable. They range across the length and breadth of Jewish Thought and History. But we must pay special attention to the Appendices. They are fascinating and enlightening. In the first Appendix, Rabbi Naor brings us the detailed account of Rav Kook’s exorcism of a dybbuk (“a disembodied spirit – usually of a malevolent nature – that inhabited a living person”) in Jaffa in 1912.
In the sixth Appendix Rabbi Naor considers Rav Kook’s critique of the Mussar Movement and, inter alia, his critique of Habad Hassidism. Rav Kook “then an eighteen-year-old Talmudic student in Smargon (today Smarhon, Belarus) heard of the passing of Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Lithuanian Mussar movement, he rent his garment, removed his shoes and sat on the ground in ritual mourning.” Nevertheless, he was of the opinion that the Mussar movement was “arrested at the stage of ‘yir’at ha’onesh’ (fear of punishment) and that the individual would never graduate to the higher levels of ‘yir’at ha-romemut’ (awe of the sublime) and ‘’ahavah’ (love), to employ the classic medieval hierarchy.” Accordingly, the yeshivot he founded were not based on Mussar, but on “the cerebral study of the classic works of Jewish philosophy.”
In a note to that appendix Rabbi Naor explains that, while one would therefore expect Rav Kook to be closer to Habad, which does focus on yir’at ha-romemut and ‘ahavah, he had a critique of Habad as well. Some one hundred years ago, Rav Kook wrote against Habad’s insularity, since Habad] is “but a specific style and specific way, while other ways are closed to them (or at least not opened sufficiently), they cannot arrive at an exalted, universal level; to a whole, all encompassing knowledge…”
This sefer is full of such insights and information. It is a worthy addition to the library of anyone seeking to understand Rav Kook’s thought, approach and sanctity. It will enhance one’s appreciation of an entire great generation, one of whose greatest thinkers was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook.
Originally published in The Jewish Press on August 2nd, 2019, page 46.