Reviews in Brief

Reviews in Brief – Spring 2024

By Rabbi Menachem Genack | 2023 | 202 pages

Gan Shoshanim, vol. 1, 3rd ed. (Hebrew)

One of my teachers once said that one should learn Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, including his list and brief explanation of the Torah’s 613 commandments, at least twice: once before you complete the Talmud, when Sefer HaMitzvot helps you gain an overview of the entire Torah; then again after you have completed studying the Talmud, when you can fully appreciate the Rambam’s nuanced writing and ideas. 

That is how I felt rereading and relearning Gan Shoshanim, vol. 1, by Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher and rosh yeshivah at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He first published this collection of Torah essays in 1992, in memory of his mother who had passed away the previous year. I remember greatly enjoying the essays in the book, through which I became acquainted with many different texts, laws and concepts. Almost every essay contains an insight from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, of whom Rabbi Genack was an extremely close student. Through Gan Shoshanim, I learned about the different areas of the Talmud from the Rav, with Rabbi Genack as my guide.

Now, over thirty years later, and after growing close to Rabbi Genack as one of his students, I study the sefer from a more mature perspective. I can discern the artistry with which Rabbi Genack structures his articles, the rhythm of his questions and answers, the effortless flow of his insights and explanations. Rabbi Genack is a master of both the Brisker method of Talmud study and its style. The Brisker method, the conceptualization and categorization of halachah, has been discussed and analyzed by many. Rabbi Genack follows that approach, asking questions on a text and then invoking the Rav’s teachings in other subjects, building on them to solve the questions at hand. That is Brisker content.

The Brisker style is an elegant form of expression that dramatically presents a text, challenges it with a powerful question and then offers an answer that changes your understanding of the subject. After a good Brisker answer, you no longer comprehend the question because your thinking has changed. 

Gan Shoshanim, vol. 1, is now in its third edition, with volumes 2 and 3 published in the interim. It contains over eighty essays that primarily address prayer and the holidays, in addition to a wide variety of topics from across the Talmud, including the subjects of sacrifices (Kodshim) and purity (Taharot). 

Gan Shoshanim is a brilliant example of Brisker thought and communication. It serves as both an introduction to the breadth of the Talmud through Brisker analysis, as well as a guide for mature scholars to many of the complex questions that arise in the study of Talmud and halachah.


By Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe Kodesh Press, 2022 | 440 pages

Isaiah and His Contemporaries

Biblical history is found primarily in the Early Prophets and in Chronicles (with a few exceptions); the other books contain the teachings and prophecies from that time period. One of my high school Gemara teachers, a rabbi, once told us about a faculty meeting in which a Tanach teacher complained how difficult it is to teach students the Later Prophets when the students never learned the history contained in the Earlier Prophets. The rabbi added that he teaches the Later Prophets without ever having learned the Earlier Prophets. Even if you do know the history, it is easy to get confused due to the multiple, complementary historical accounts and the two different kingdoms (North and South, Israel and Judea). Additionally, the larger books in the Later Prophets do not always proceed in chronological order, making it harder to keep track of the historical context.

In Isaiah and His Contemporaries, Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe, rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah and director of the Tanach program at the Maimonides School in Boston, places the Biblical Book of Isaiah within its historical context in three important ways. First, he rearranges Isaiah into chronological order, offering commentary on each section based on the time in which it took place. Additionally, he presents the historical context provided in the books of Kings and Chronicles, as well as in the Talmud and Midrash. Finally, he explains the prophecies of other Biblical prophets and how they fit into Isaiah’s time and place. This historical method, imbued with a Talmudist’s sensibility, is a game changer for students of Tanach, who are now able to understand the progression of events in the First Temple era to which the prophets were responding.

The Book of Isaiah contains very difficult language and imagery. Rabbi Dr. Jaffe’s commentary explains the meaning of difficult words as well as the meanings of the prophecies, making many interpretative choices along the way. He points out the important literary techniques used by the prophet; presents philosophical issues that arise in the text; and notes the use of passages in prayers and haftarah readings. Maps and timelines help the reader keep track of the historical context. A detailed table of contents and multiple indices allow for easy reference to the many important ideas discussed throughout the work. 

The commentary simplifies a complex book while at the same time revealing the text’s many layers. Brilliant in concept and execution, Isaiah and His Contemporaries is an essential study guide for beginning and advanced students of Tanach.


By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks 
Maggid Books, 2023
286, 389 pages

Covenant & Conversation: Family Edition, 2 vols. 

Shabbat is one of the keys to Jewish survival. With family and community gatherings, it is the time when Jewish practice and ideas flow naturally from generation to generation. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, attempted to promote this transmission of Torah values through family discussion of the parashah, the weekly Torah portion. In collaboration with a team of educators, he published two cycles of a family edition of his popular Covenant & Conversation commentary on the parashah. This highly effective medium is now available in an attractive and eye-catching set of two books.

Covenant & Conversation: Family Edition builds on Rabbi Sacks’s popular insights into Jewish thought. In this series, rather than merely share his ideas, Rabbi Sacks tries to facilitate conversation around the ideas. Each parashah begins with a brief summary (“In a Nutshell”) for all ages. This is followed by two sections surrounding a basic idea that emerges from the commentaries on the Biblical text. First he explains a passage in the parashah from which an important message is derived (“The Core Idea”); this section is accessible even to middle school children. Then follows a related story (“It Once Happened”) that teaches the same message, appropriate even for younger children. Next comes an expansion of the idea (“Thinking More Deeply”), intended for older teenagers and adults. All of these sections are accompanied by discussion questions that encourage important conversations. Each unit also contains a meaningful quote from one of Rabbi Sacks’s writings (“From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks”) and three general questions about the parashah for discussion (“Around the Shabbat Table”); a shaded area contains suggested answers to all the questions.

As an example, in the first section on Parashat Beshalach, the “Core Idea” asks whether G-d’s plan for the Jewish people leaving Egypt was to protect them from fighting a war (Shemot 13:17) or to allow them to fight (Shemot 17:8). Rabbi Sacks explains that initially the Jews were not ready to face war and therefore G-d performed open miracles on their behalf. However, after the miracle at the sea strengthened their spirits, G-d could take a step back and let them fight for themselves. The story in “It Once Happened” tells of a young woman discussing the important steps forward in her life, such as her first day of school, her first time speaking publicly at her bat mitzvah, and her gap year in Israel. At each point, her parents lovingly encouraged her to proceed. “Thinking More Deeply” contains a full-length examination of the many questions underlying the textual problem, and a more thorough answer with this pull quote: “Courage is not fearlessness. It is feeling the fear but doing it anyway.” The thought from Rabbi Sacks consists of a short excerpt about G-d lifting us up when we fall, believing in us more than we believe in ourselves. “Around the Shabbat Table” presents three questions to encourage a lively conversation on this topic.

The ideas covered in this book follow Rabbi Sacks’s rational and inspirational approach to the Torah. He is at once traditional and modern, rooted in ancient texts yet relevant to contemporary sensitivities. He discusses issues of faith and practice, family and community, particularism and universalism, and unity amid difference. Covenant & Conversation: Family Edition allows Rabbi Sacks to become part of every family’s Shabbat discussion of the most important issues of Jewish life. Parents now have a powerful partner and tool in teaching their children to incorporate sacred Torah teachings into their own lives. 


Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and runs He is a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Board.

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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