Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud
By Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 239 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 1, 2011
Rabbi Visotsky, the author of this volume, is a professor at The Jewish Theological Seminary and has been involved in studying and teaching the subject of Jewish Midrash, the ancient tales, parables, and teachings of Judaism, for over forty years. There are twenty-two chapters filled with interesting information told in an easy to read, frequently humorous manner. The title Sage Tales could mean stories filled with wisdom, tales told by wise men, or a history of ancient intellectuals. Visotsky uses the title in all three ways, because he gifts us well-told wise tales and informs us about the history of the times and the men who told the tales.
His opening chapter, for instance, explains what prompted the many unforgettable stories about the appearance of the biblical prophet Elijah long after his death, always appearing as a miraculous helper to people in distress. He tells his own story of how he was lost in Uzbekistan and was unable to communicate with people on the street since he couldn't speak or understand their language. But then a man suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and took him to the house he was seeking, even though he never told the man the address of the house. When he turned around within seconds to thank him, he couldn't find him. He disappeared. Was he Elijah the Prophet? He tells three stories from the Talmud where the rabbis relate similar instances and say that the stranger was Elijah, and he explains why they said so. One is how Elijah caught a man who jumped off a roof to commit suicide and dissuaded him from repeating his mistake. One tells how Elijah replenished a man's sack of jewels that a thief stole and arranged suitable punishment for the thief. Still another has the ubiquitous theme of Elijah disguised as a beggar who knocks on a door begging for alms. He explains how these folktales and others like them are constructed and what they are designed to accomplish. He admits that the "legends were told about people who really lived, but the events may not have happened as described in the narrative."
In his second chapter, to offer another example, he introduces five sages, tells us what they thought on a host of subject, what their teacher said about each of them, what posterity thought of them long after their death, and the tale of how and why the best them, smarter and more loved than the rest, went astray. While his colleagues are mentioned frequently in the Talmud, little is known of him other than his early wise statements and his teacher's accolades.
In the next chapter, to cite a third illustration, he tells how the idea of rewriting and expanding on previously-told ancient stories is an age-old well-accepted practice not only of Jews but of ancient Greeks. The Greeks did it with the Odyssey and the Iliad. The Jews did it frequently as when the tales in the book Pirkei Avot, called Ethics of the Fathers in English, were expanded with new stories in Avot deRabbi Nathan. He gives other interesting demonstrations. In the fourth chapter, our final example, he shows how the Bible itself uses this technique. I am reminded of the title Nathaniel Hawthorn used, Twice Told Tales, although it would be more precise to say "tales told and retold many times."
Visotsky includes two appendices. One, of twenty pages, recapitulates the tales alone without comments so that readers can find them easily and review them. The second, a four page Who's Who, identifies the people mentioned in his discussions. There is also a glossary that defines terms and a section Suggestions for Further Reading.