The latest volume in this ongoing series deals with the backgrounds and stories associated with the rabbinic leadership of the great Talmudic study halls in ancient Babylonia and Israel. Throughout the book, Binyamin Lau analyzes relatively esoteric Talmudic passages and then recounts a particular sage’s lineage and formative teachers, the seating arrangements in his academy, his specific pedagogic style, the power struggles in which he engaged, and the implications of his discussions with various contemporaries.
Lau takes an academic approach, surveying the extensive history of each of his subjects by way of classical Jewish sources and contemporary scholarship. The volume serves more as a reference guide to the personalities populating midrash and the Talmud than as a conventional page-turner — although developing a focused view of a particular sage is clearly beneficial to one’s Torah learning, a pursuit that can be readily achieved by reading this book.
That being said, the volume is more of a reference guide to the individuals populating the Talmud and midrash than a book that one chooses to read from cover to cover. If one wishes, however, to read the volume from beginning to end, it may be best to read a section at a time and pair it with the teachings of a particular sage or authority in midrashic and Talmudic study. This will allow for a focused and comprehensive view of that individual’s outlook and personal tendencies.
Binyamin Lau continues to do a great service with his writing, keeping alive the achievements of principal personalities of the ancient past. We should strive to get as much as we can from his work.