The Rabbinic Imagination
Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah, now translated and published for the first time in English as The Book of Legends,1 is a work of creative scholarship that makes the word “monumental” seem modest. First issued in six Hebrew volumes in Odessa between 1908 and 1911, it has been reprinted dozens of times in a standard Hebrew edition having 736 double-columned, nearly folio-size pages. The new English version, which preserves the format and almost all of the contents of the Hebrew, is physically even a bit bigger. This should deter no one from acquiring it, however, for it is not a book for a week, a month, or a year. Having consulted it often and with unfailing enchantment during the three decades that I have had it on my shelf, I can testify that its treasures are almost literally inexhaustible.
Yehoshua Ravnitzky was a Hebrew editor and publisher who formed a business partnership with the great Hebrew poet Bialik in 1901 when the two of them started an Odessan Hebrew publishing house named Moriah. The company’s first commercial success was a series of annotated Bible stories for children that appeared between 1903 and 1905, which were also the years of Bialik’s peak productivity as a poet; subsequently his powers declined sharply, so that by 1908, when he was only thirty-five and at the height of his authority in the Hebrew literary world, he had stopped writing serious poetry almost completely. It was partly to compensate for this drying-up that he now began to devote himself to a number of ambitious editorial projects that came under the rubric of what—giving an old Hebrew term a new meaning—he called kinus.
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.