Fresh Fruit & Vintage Wine: Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada
KTAV, OU Press, Yeshivat Har Etzion
Appropriately, Yitzchak Blau derives the evocative title of his selection of the Talmud’s Aggadic material, accompanied by summations and analyses of a wide variety of commentaries, from a Rabbinic gloss on a verse from the Song of Songs. In his preface, the author notes that the reference to fruit and wine in Song of Songs 2:5 is associated in the Talmud with a contrast between Jewish law on the one hand, and passages appearing in the Oral Tradition devoted to attitudes, perspectives on life, anecdotes, Biblical interpretations, and philosophical insights on the other. Blau, basing himself upon a latter-day commentary, explains the title as well as his approach to the material by saying that whereas Jewish law is traditionally approached as reflecting eternal truths that transcend particular times and places, like “vintage wine,” this is not the case with respect to Aggada, which in order to be understood as relevant, must be given “fresh,” contemporary interpretations.
The Aggadic passages along with their explanatory discussions are divided into fifteen chapters/themes, ranging from Prayers, Festivals, Learning, and Halachic Observance, to Character Traits, Jewish Philosophy, the Goal of Life, and Modernity. The discussions of the Aggadot are fairly concise and wide-ranging, including perspectives drawn from over thirty traditional Rabbinic sources, as well as occasional secular references to the likes of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Mill. The author is not hesitant about adding his own opinions and experiences to the discussions, providing a decidedly present-day air to the Aggadic passages under consideration. Reflecting his considerable experience in Jewish education, many of Blau’s personal comments are drawn from the world of pedagogy, which should prove of particular interest to fellow practitioners. The author notes that one of his aims is to encourage and demonstrate to those interested in Aggada how expanding the variety of sources used in one’s research would be of great benefit, and I believe that he successfully achieves this goal.