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The worldly wisdom of the Talmud

Sage Tales, Rabbi Burton L Visotzky, Jewish Lights, $24.99

    The Talmud is often thought of as a legal source-book, which sets the precedents for Jewish practice. But it is also a work of imagination in which the rabbis explored the world and its ways through parables and anecdotes. Sage Tales is a popular and lively introduction to the “oddities and quiddities” of this rich narrative material by a veteran professor of Midrash at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

    Rabbi Visotzsky writes more in the vein of a raconteur than a scholar, sprinkling around references to baseball or musicals.But he uses his erudition deftly to explain the social milieu in which the rabbis lived and the nuances of the original language of their tales: Rabbi Akiva’s wealthy father-in-law, outraged at his daughter marrying a poor man, is named Ben Kalba Savua, meaning “satisfied son of a bitch”.

    While in later centuries the lives of great rabbis were often airbrushed by their hagiographic disciples, the foibles of the Talmud’s heroes can be exposed by the stories it tells about them. Even in a section dealing with their mystical speculations, Rabbi Visotzky portrays them as men of this world rather than unearthly saints.

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