“A Concise Guide to the Sages,” subtitled “An Overview of Jewish Wisdom,” is one of five new books published by Maggid Books which were authored by the recently deceased scholar Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz who authored sixty books and hundreds of articles. The series informs readers in easy to read English of the fundamentals of Judaism.
It focuses on five main topics of Jewish tradition. In addition to (1) “A Concise Guide to the Sages, the Sages being called Hazal in Hebrew, a Hebrew acronym for “our Sages, may their memory be for a blessing,” the other four focus on: (2) Torah, in a volume called “A Concise Guide to the Torah,” (3) Jewish Law, called Halakha in Hebrew, meaning “guide path,” in “A concise Guide to Halakha,” (4) Jewish thought, philosophy and mysticism, called Mahshava in Hebrew, “thought” in English, in “The Concise Guide to Mahshava,” and (5) the Talmud in “Reference Guide to the Talmud,” a noun based on a root meaning “learning.” All five multi-page books are filled with eye-opening and thought-provoking information that will even inform people of all religions who are already well-trained in Judaism.
“A Concise Guide to the Sages” is made up of five parts. The first 271 pages of the 511-page volume focuses on the more than fifty weekly biblical portions of the Five Books of Moses which Jews read in synagogues and which many Jews study at home. Virtually all of the sayings of the Sages quoted in this section are midrashic (ideas derived from the biblical text which are not explicit in the text), which rational thinkers understand as fascinating and informative fables developed by rabbis to teach significant lessons, while other readers are convinced that the magical and unnatural events described in the sayings are not fables, like Aesop’s Fables, but actual facts.
Rabbi Steinsaltz gives a couple of paragraphs as general explanation of the weekly portion followed by the Midrashim in this book. Each Midrash is written in easy to read modern English, has a title, a brief explanation of the Midrash, the source of the Midrash, with brief notes when a word needs to be explained. Examples of subjects are: why does the Torah begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the world itself proves that God exists, why were animals killed in the flood, what was the sin of the city of Sodom, why did Rachel steal the idols of her father, years after the event Joseph visits the pit into which his brothers cast him, female firstborns also died in the Egyptian tenth plague, and hundreds more.
The second part of the volume and the next three parts follow the format and style of the first of the five parts. It has forty pages that deal with sayings by the Sages on the festivals. Examples of the Midrashim are what happens in heaven during the New Year holiday, the five prohibitions on Yom Kippur, and an explanation of the four sons in the Haggadah of Passover.
The third part contains 52 pages of stories from the Sages, the fourth part has 94 pages of essays by the Sages on life, and the fifth part has 22 pages of passages from the Talmud. The volume also has frequent notes in all five parts for further reading on the subject discussed, and a glossary of 15 pages.
In short, Rabbi Steinsaltz has made a significant contribution by giving us an easy to read and understand treasure of many fascinating, informative, and inspiring Midrashim.