Reviewing: “The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah with the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook,” by Bezalel Naor. Kodesh Press L.L.C. 2019. English. Hardcover. 354 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1947857117.
When you take one of the most enigmatic agadic pieces in the Talmud and attempt to use the commentary of one of the most esoteric commentators of the last 150 years, the likely outcome would be expected to have the readability of “Finnegans Wake” rather than a meaningful exploratory book.
The agadic piece described here is the sea travel stories of Rabbah bar bar Chana as detailed in tractate Bava Basra. The goal of the 15 stories are meant to strengthen one’s faith. The challenging endeavor, though, is making sense of these 15 tales, given they are written in codified and cryptic style. A simple reading of the texts leaves the message in an utterly incomprehensible manner, given that the cast of characters include huge sea creatures, traveling rabbis, Bedouin guides, giant geese and more.
There is a commentary on these stories by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. But many who attempt to read the writings of Rav Kook find them to be a significant challenge to understand. From his often impenetrable writing style to the inherent deepness of the subject matter, reading Rav Kook is a challenge for many people.
But in “The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah with the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook” Rabbi Bezalel Naor has masterfully taken Rav Kook’s commentary and made it readable and comprehensible to the English-reading audience.
While written in the year 1890 when Rav Kook was but 25 years old, his commentary to this agadic piece was only printed in 1984 in the second volume of his collected essays Ma’amrei ha-Rayah. To that, Naor is perhaps one of the greatest living experts and expounders on the thoughts and writings of Rav Kook.
Rav Kook wrote a running commentary on the Rabbah bar bar Chana agadahs, and Naor has succeeded in making these stories accessible. As every element of these 15 stories contain significant amounts of symbolism, Naor explains all of these symbols in detail. After reading the explanations, the stories are no longer esoteric, as he has explained all of the metaphors, double meanings, specific word choices and much more.
As Naor has mastery in the entire lifework of Rav Kook, he is also able to add additional commentary where relevant. Perhaps the most fascinating insight he brings is that Rav Kook composed a poem concerning Earth’s revolution around the sun. The poem traces the successive stages in the evolving consciousness of Earth’s inhabitants, from primitive man who engages in the worship of the sun to the Copernican revolution, whereby man discovers that rather than stationary, the Earth revolves around the sun, to the gradual, inexorable development of a global consciousness and, finally, to future man who will venture beyond the Earth to outer space.
The book concludes with a number of appendixes on different topics, including a Kabbalistic theory of personality, an analysis if Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was the real author of Kala’ch Piskhe Hokhma, Rav Kook’s ideas about the Messiah and the Vatican, and more.
Naor has succeeded where few have in opening up these esoteric texts to everyone. His translation results in “The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah” making for a most fascinating and meaningful read.
By Ben Rothke
Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke