Fresh Fruit & Vin­tage Wine: Ethics and Wis­dom of the Aggada

Yitzchak Blau
  • Review
By – December 7, 2012

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. 

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions