Title of Book: The Legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah:
With the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook
Author: Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook
Translated by: Rabbi Bezalel Naor
Publisher: Kodesh Press
Who is Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah?
There is some confusion about his name, but to straighten matters out, he is Rabbah the son of Bar Hannah. Rabbah bar Bar Hannah was a second-generation amora who lived in the second half of the third century. He went from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael. There, he became a student of the great master, Rabbi Yochanan, whose teachings he transmitted. The fact that at different times he lived both in Babylonia and in Eretz Yisrael is reflected in our collection of legends. On the one hand, he talks of the city of Mehoza in Babylonia; on the other, he travels in the Sinai Desert.
What is the book/sefer “ The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah” about? Please give our readers a little summary.
The book consists of several parts. First, there are the fifteen legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra. These are tall tales of fantastic creatures of mythic proportions. Some of the legends take place at sea. The seafarers (Aramaic, “nehutei yama”) recount to Rabbah their adventures on the high seas. They encounter fish so enormous that they stagger the imagination, and an equally prodigious bird, Ziz Sadai.
Other stories take place in the desert. There, Rabbah is guided by a mysterious Tay’a or Bedouin, who shows him the giant “dead of the desert,” the site where the earth swallowed up Korah’s mutineers, and scorpions as large as donkeys surrounding Mount Sinai.
The second segment of the book consists of Rav Kook’s kabbalistic commentary to the legends. For Rav Kook, as for other kabbalists of renown, the legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah are highly symbolic and contain valuable lessons for all of us to learn.
Finally, there are my own abundant notes, designed to make Rav Kook’s commentary comprehensible to the reader.
How did you come to write a book like this?
I have been a lifelong student of Rav Kook. When Rav Kook’s commentary to the Legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah first appeared in print in Jerusalem in 1984, I, as many others, was immediately drawn to them.
In fact, I taught that to my advanced students in Kiryat Arba.
Recently, it occurred to me that the commentary should be translated into English so that it might reach a broader audience. And I should point out that this is the first annotated edition of Rav Kook’s commentary in any language–including Hebrew.
Have you written any other seforim? Which ones?
Thank G-d, I have been blessed to write many seforim. Two of the most important are my critical edition of Rabad of Posquiere’s “hasagot” to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and my edition of the Vilna Gaon’s “bi’ur” to Sifra di-Tseni’uta based on the manuscript in the Library of Congress in Washington. (The latter was issued on the occasion of the Gaon’s 200th Yahrzeit in 1997.) But to get back to Rav Kook, you may be aware that I am the founder of Orot, a not-for-profit organization that exists to disseminate the teachings of Rav Kook. Over the years, Orot has produced many works of Rav Kook, including his teachings on the Torah portion of the week; his interpretation of the dreams in the ninth chapter of Berakhot (Perek HaRo’eh); his seminal work Orot; his historical essays (under the title When G-d Becomes History); and his commentary to the prayer-book (‘Olat Re’iyah). So, the commentary to the Legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah is the latest of a long list of Rav Kook’s works being made available in English under the Orot aegis. This is the most recent installment in the ongoing Orot project, to which I have devoted my life.
How did you get the commentary of Rav Kook on this topic?
It is readily available in Ma’amrei ha-Rayah (1984).
How much of this sefer would you say is based on Kabbalah?
Look, there is no underestimating that a goodly portion of Rav Kook’s text is outright Kabbalah (which makes it unique among his published oeuvre). Hopefully, the abundant notes and charts will ease the reader through this process. However, much of the work speaks to the experience of every Jew and the challenges of life. Though the technical jargon may be a bit daunting at times, what comes through loud and clear is Rav Kook’s passionate love of humanity and his attempt to effect the tikkun or “fixing” of every neshamah (soul), even, and especially, those that have fallen to almost unimaginable depths. We usually associate this kind of “outreach” with the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples, but one of the great finds of the book is that it looks like the only “haskamah” the Vilna Gaon ever wrote for a specific sefer, was his haskamah to Rabbi Samuel of Kalvaria’s Darkhei No’am. It just so happens that Darkhei No’am is a commentary to the Legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah. And like Rav Kook, Rabbi Samuel of Kalvaria is very much attuned to the foibles of mankind and their repair.
Who would you say is your target readership for this sefer?
An obvious target is the growing community of Kookian scholars and enthusiasts. Thank G-d, there is a new generation that is conversant with and inspired by the writings of Rav Kook. Beyond that, there are kabbalists per se, and also academicians who have explored the Legends of Rabbah bar Bar Hannah. (Years ago, Reuven Kiperwasser wrote an important article that tackles the linguistics of the Legends, such as the Persian “pushkantsa,” and other basic scholarly issues.) But the audience I am most hoping will embrace the sefer is the small army of spiritual seekers, men and woman longing for “divrei Elohim Hayyim” (“the words of the Living G-d”). Because essentially, that is what Rav Kook was, a man thirsting for the En Sof, the Infinite.
How can someone purchase this book?
It is available in Jewish bookstores and online, either at kodeshpress.com or at orot.com.
Is there something else that we did not discuss that you would like to tell Jewish Vues readers?
Yes, indeed. Do not accept the “lashon hara” that has been heaped on Rav Kook by both the right and the left. As I heard recently from the nonagenarian Rabbi Nota Greenblatt shelit”a, one of the last to have known Rav Kook personally, Rav Kook was “esh lehavah” (“a flame of fire”).