A Beautiful Read

Posted Thursday, Feb 16th, 2023

By Toby Klein Greenwald

Title: The Book of Jewish Knowledge
Edited by Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Illustrated by Baruch Gorkin
Jewish Learning Institute

The first thing one must say about this 496-page volume, whose editor/compiler was Rabbi Yanki Tauber, is that it is absolutely gorgeous. Clearly no expense was spared in the printing, the full color graphics, the top-notch photographs, charts and maps, in addition to the comprehensive text itself, which reflects the seven years of copious research and writing that went into it. Even the meticulously detailed timelines are accompanied by miniature full colored graphics and photos. It is beautifully organized and user friendly.

For example, in the section on the matriarchs and patriarchs, called “The First Jews,” there is a timeline with text and tiny drawings of the events in Jacob’s life, which gives not only chronological information, but makes the topic understandable to a reader of almost any age. There is a similarly excellent depicture, though map, graphics and text, of the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness.

If all one does is pick up the book and flip through it to look at the photos and captions and charts such as these, they will gain a wide window into Jewish history, scholarship and life.

The publishers are upfront about the worldview represented in the book, and even write, “Our approach is unabashedly traditional.” They also write that the dates quoted, which may differ in some cases from those in academic sources, are from traditional Jewish source texts.

But they have wisely also brought quotes from an eclectic range of sources and people. In the very first section, the first two pages include quotes from Genesis, Isaiah, Midrash Tanchuma, Mark Twain, Franz Rosenzweig and Maimonides (in that order). This approach continues throughout the book. Even though this is a Chabad publication, quotes by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (the last Lubavitcher Rebbe) appear throughout the book but not overwhelmingly so.

The book opens with biblical highlights such as the Binding of Isaac, Jacob’s Ladder, and the saga of Joseph and his brothers, marking the beginning of the Jewish History section, which also includes Exodus and Sinai, In the Jewish Homeland and Diaspora. The Jewish Teaching section begins, again, with the Bible. It continues with excellent overviews of Talmud and Midrash, including the Chain of Tradition, Torah Exegesis Methodologies and the Art of the Parable. The section on Halachah includes Halachic Responsa, Medical and Business Ethics and more. You can read about Jewish Philosophy and Kabbala, and a section called “Moral and Character” includes topics such as self and fellow, joy and humility, love and awe, and trust. There are also sections on Jewish practice, the Jewish year, and lifecycle milestones.

In short, almost anything you could possibly want to know about where our people came from, Jewish customs, holidays or how to live your life from month to month and through your lifetime, can be found here.

The Book of Jewish Knowledge also deals with painful times in Jewish history. Its six-page section with both a timeline and text called “Persecution and Genocide” does not shy away from some of the modern roots of terror. It notes that in 1988 “Hamas publishes its ‘covenant,’ which includes the pledge to destroy Israel and kill Jews wherever they are found.” This is a critically important piece of information, especially for those living in the Diaspora who are less familiar with this bit of history that has had such a horrifying impact on life for Israelis and Jews everywhere. The editors list a number of mass terrorist murders; tragically, it would have been a gargantuan task to list everyone. Having said that, the last terror attack noted in the one of a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and the book was published four years later. Sadly, there were more in between.

In the “Notable Aliyahs” section, preceded, appropriately, by Rabbi Yehudah Halevi’s iconic poem, “My heart is in the east,” space is given to the various immigrations to Israel – such as the early aliyot, including the early Hasidic and Lithuanian aliyahs, and also those from Yemen, the Arab countries, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and more, but, surprisingly, there is no mention at all of aliyah from western countries, in spite of the fact that it rose exponentially after the Six-Day War.

The editors pose questions in the beginning and they hope this book will give people the answers, which they say, comes from offering “1,200 answers in 1,200 voices”:

“What is Judaism?

What does it mean to be a Jew?

What is Judaism’s message to the world?”

Yet, the perusal of this book, as outstanding as it is, left me with several questions.

How is it possible that a book on Jewish knowledge, that even gives you a recipe for gefilte fish, does not list any Israeli war after 1967, and even that war is mentioned only in the context of “the temple and the mount?” Or that there is no listing at all (in text or in a map anywhere) for Gush Katif, or make any mention of the Disengagement, a highly controversial and painful chapter in Israel’s history?

The only Israeli war noted (after the 1948 War of Independence) is the Six-Day War, which gets one page of text, a photo, and a few quotes. On the facing page is a map of Israel on which it is noted, in small letters, like other notes on that page, “In 2005, Israel unilaterally ‘disengaged’ from the Gaza Strip, removing some 8,000 Jewish residents and 21 Jewish settlements.” Thankfully, this is followed with the words: “…the area fell under the control of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas, which uses it to launch terror and rocket attacked on Israel.”

The Timeline of “historical milestones” in “The Modern State of Israel” ends in 1948.

At the end of the book, a section called “Authors and Works cited in This Book” includes the names of approximately 350 people. Only seven of those are women, of whom two are biblical personalities (Esther and Deborah).

In conclusion, this truly is a book that should be in every Jewish home, and not left to whither on a coffee table, but meant to be read, consulted, and pored over. However, for comprehensive information on modern Israel, you’ll need several companion books to bring you up to speed. One of those could be Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, by Daniel Gordis. Though published in 2016, it is more up to date on modern Israel than this book under review.

If one buys directly from the publisher, the price is $109 (raised from its original $99) and a Flexcover edition can be purchased for $79. From Amazon, they are $125 and $95 respectively. The project’s principal benefactor was Mr. George Rohr but there are a number of important foundations and benefactors listed as partners in the project.

Now what is needed are other partners in this book – those who will read and learn from it. The opportunity is in your hands.

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