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This Torah collection brings out the Smiles

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Torah Tapestries: Words of Wisdom Woven from the Weekly Parashah, Bereishis by Shira Smiles, Feldheim Publishers, New York; ISBN 978-1-59826-641-2, ©2010, $19.99, 201 pages plus bibliography, index, and glossary (Also available as a Kindle eBook)

 By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California — In the Book of Deuteronomy (31:10-12), God commanded that every seventh year, at the Festival of Sukkot, the entire Torah is to be read to the assembly of Israel. Everyone—men, women, children, and even the strangers living throughout the Land of Israel—are to hear the words of the Torah in order to revere God and learn His commandments. Whether or not the Judges, Prophets, and Kings of Israel ever followed this command is a matter of conjecture since the one named occurrence of this event, between the time of Moses and Ezra, is found in the Book of Joshua (8:34-35).

After the destruction of the First Temple, Ezra reestablished the public reading of the Torah. Later, the rabbis institutionalized weekly readings of a portion of the Torah, called a parashah. To accomplish this, they divided the Torah into fifty-four parashiot (plural of parashah), one for each week of the year. The rabbis need fifty-four parashiot in order to accommodate the Jewish leap year, which adds one extra month of four week seven times in a nineteen-year cycle. In non-leap years, four of the parashiot are combined. (The Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar, and in non-leap years there are approximately fifty weeks.)

Over the centuries, various Jewish scholars wrote commentaries, commentaries on commentaries, and responsa on the significance of the Torah’s words and verses. Shira Smiles, author of Torah Tapestries: Words of Wisdom Woven from the Weekly Parashah, Bereishis (Book of Genesis), a well-known teacher and lecturer who now lives in Israel, skillfully adds to that collection. She draws on numerous scholarly sources to give the reader wonderful new insights into the importance and implications found in the twelve parashiot that comprise the Book of Genesis.
In Parashah Noach, the biblical chapters that cover the story of Noah and the flood, for example, Smiles cites the twentieth-century Chassidic scholar Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, known as the Slonimer Rebbe, as well as the Midrash Tehillim, stories and tales about the Book of Psalms, which was produced no later than the eleventh century; Moses Maimonides, the great Middle Ages Jewish polymath; David Kimchi, a scholar who lived during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, known as Radak; the Talmud, and Yalkut Lekach Tov, an anthology of Torah laws and legends written between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, to name a few.

Smiles is a gifted writer who is able to draw on disparate sources and weave them seamlessly together in order to articulate the various messages that she sees within the Torah’s text. For example, she asks, “How does one survive when thrown into an unfamiliar environment?” To answer that question, she examines Parashah Vayigash, the eleventh of the twelve parashiot of the Book of Genesis. In this parashah Judah pleads with Joseph to release his brother, Benjamin, from prison lest their father, Jacob, die over the loss of his youngest son. Joseph subsequently reveals himself to all his brothers, and they send for Jacob. Subsequently, the Hebrews would live in Egypt for the next 430 years. By playing off Hebrew words, and calling on the commentaries of such illustrious Jewish scholars as Rashi and Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, Smiles effortlessly converts this topic into understanding how we can alter our life course, and eliminate our disconnectedness from God and core values.

Shira Smiles is an Orthodox Jew, and her interpretations and sources are from that brand of Judaism. Yet, her understanding of the Torah’s messages is so basic, that Jews from the whole spectrum of spirituality will take away many things of worth. If there is one criticism, it her overwhelming use of Ashkenazic Hebrew transliterations. This version of Hebrew is neither spoken in Israel, nor is it the Hebrew taught in Jewish schools and colleges in America.

Torah Tapestries is a wonderful book for rabbis who want to add another dimension to their homiletic material, as well as for the lay person who wants to glean additional levels of understanding from the Book of Genesis. I, for one, am looking forward to the production of her remaining four volumes.

*
Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars; Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah. The author can be reached through his website, www.fredreissbooks.com.

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