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Rabbah bar Bar Hannah has been referred to as the Jewish Sinbad the Sailor. His tall tales, fifteen in all, are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra (73a-74a). The particular chapter in which they are situated is named “The Seller of the Ship” (“HaMokher et ha-Sefinah”). Appropriately, these tales of seafarers (nehutei yama) were inserted in that legal discussion, as is the wont of the Talmud to mix Aggadah with Halakhah, thus tempering law with lore and legend.
Rav Kook’s commentary to the Legends first appeared in print in Jerusalem in 1984 in the second volume of his collected essays, Ma’amrei ha-Rayah. In this early work (written at age twenty-five), Rav Kook yet cites sources. Later, when his style of writing switched to “stream of consciousness,” sources were eliminated. For this very reason, the commentary to the Rabbah bar Bar Hannah legends is of extreme importance. Here, Rav Kook divulges the many and varied Kabbalistic sources that informed his view, and it is one of the few places that he openly includes Kabbalistic terminology in his writings.
Rav Kook continues a long tradition of interpreting these legends. The Vilna Gaon, as well as his rival Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, both wrote commentaries on the aggadot of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah.
Rabbi Bezalel Naor is one of the most prominent scholars and interpreters of Rabbi Kook. In The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah, Rabbi Naor presents – for the first time in any language – Rabbi Kook’s commentary along with much needed explanatory notes. Rabbi Naor’s most recent works include Orot (Maggid, 2015), When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (2016, Kodesh), and The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017).