Monday, August 31, 2009

Desert Island Sefarim

Remember "Desert Island Discs"?

The radio station in my hometown used to ask listeners to submit three songs that they would take along if they knew they were going to be stranded on a desert island. These would be the only three songs they would be able to listen to for the rest of their lives.

Along similar lines, I wondered: What if I knew I was going to be stranded on a desert island and could only bring along a limited number of sefarim. Which would I choose? I find the exercise helpful because I have this theory: If you are, like me, not engaged in full-time Torah study (and, perhaps, even if you are), you would be better off focusing on a few learning projects for the rest of your life than randomly learning this and that, perusing every sefer that happens to catch your eye, or even attending myriad shiurim.

Mind you, I'm not suggesting that you not learn everything you can. But time is finite, and I have come to the conclusion that most of us would be better off—that is, would accomplish more and become better talmidei chachamim—by focusing on fewer books. Keep in mind that "fewer" is still an enormous amount. If you told your chavrusah that you were no longer going to look at any sefer that was not on your "favorites" list, he might argue that you’re condemning yourself to a life of amaratzus, but realistically, it would be a tremendous accomplishment just to learn—and relearn—those favorites.

So for the past several years I have been randomly asking people I know, What sefarim (a set of sefarim –anything you can buy as one unit—counts as one) would you bring? Initially, I asked for a top-ten list, but then decided to put the pressure on and narrowed the number down to five. Nearly everyone included a Chumash on their lists. Ah, yes, but which one? Personally, I would be torn between the Toras Chaim and the Torah Temimah. I could take both but that would be 40% of my total. And then what would I do about Nach? In the end, I would have to take along a standard Mikraos Gedolos Tanach.

A certain rav, whom I polled recently, shared a terrific story with me, which only deepened my belief in this theory. He learned at Ner Israel in Baltimore. Once, a famous physicist came to Baltimore from the Soviet Union for a scientific conference. He was escorted all over by Russian police, but he was able to persuade them to let him visit the yeshiva. He spoke with the rosh yeshiva, Rav Ruderman, zt”l, who was duly impressed with the man’s knowledge, especially considering his background, living in such an anti-religious environment.

How did you become such a scholar? Rav Ruderman asked.

The man replied that when he was young he had a melamed, and when the communists took over his melamed died. He took upon himself to learn six hours a day in memory of his teacher (mind you this was on top of a very rigorous secular-studies schedule through which he developed as a physicist).

All he had in his possession was a Talmud and a few books of the Rambam. He had many questions on the Rambam that he brought to the attention of Rav Ruderman. The rosh yeshiva was able to show him that all his answers could be found through an examination of the volumes of the Rambam which he did not have access to.

I wish I could tell you that the story has the happy ending that the man got out of Russia, or that he at least was able to smuggle in the “missing” Rambams. But history rarely has such fairy tale endings.

In any event, my rav told me, after that encounter he recognized the power of staying focused on just a few sefarim. So what would he bring with him to the desert island? His most intriguing choice was a Ritva. “I can’t learn Gemara without one,” he said.

The most remarkable response I received, however, came from one of my cousins who offered that he didn’t really like sefarim; he was more interested in reading Torah articles. Hmmm.

But in the end, most people included a Tanach and a set of Shas on their lists. So assuming that the desert island shtibel has those sefarim in its library (along with a siddur, a machzor, a selichos, and a haggadah), here are the additional five I would bring along:

One, the Torah Sheleimah, the most thorough collection of midrashim on each parshah.

Two, a set of Kehati mishnayos. I cannot imagine learning mishnayos without my "chavrusah," Rav Kehati. One can argue that his thorough commentary is too much of a crutch, but because it’s in Hebrew (I never use the English version), I allow myself the “luxury” of utilizing it.

Three, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, preferably the Frankel edition.

Four, the Aruch Hashulchan. The closest thing we have to Kol Hatorah Kulah in one work. I am continually blown away by the work of Rav Epstein as he guides you from the Mishnah, through the Gemara and Rishonim, all the way to the practical laws and customs. The publisher, Oz Vehadar, recently did a magnificent job of republishing this masterpiece, including footnotes containing the rulings of the Mishnah Berurah.

Five, a Jastrow dictionary. It was a close contest between this critical reference book and the Alkalai dictionary. But as I need more help deciphering Aramaic than Hebrew, Jastrow is my pick.

So the reality is that I'm not headed for a desert island any time soon (I hope!), but I believe this is a good exercise in staying focused. If I spent all my learning hours with "only" these books, is that not a life to be proud of?


Blogger Mata Hari said...

I'm impressed that this is what you're thinking about in your spare time.

Sun Aug 23, 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Not Brisk said...

Frankel Rambam is a good idea. you can see if the questions you have are asked by others

Sun Aug 23, 10:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

While I agree with all your selections (I would add a Steinsaltz gemara next to the Kehati mishnayos as well as the Aruch HaShulchan Al HaAtid), I think you eventually undo the point of the exercise.

The original three disc rule is just that - not three boxed sets, not three collected works, just three discs.

So going along those more stringent criteria, I would suggest:

1) Torah
2) Neviim
3) Kesuvim

Why? Because if you look at every isolated Jewish community that lost contact with the rest of us for prolonged periods of time but that also survived, what one book did they have that they obsessively held to and maintained their connection to Am Yisrael? The Bible, that's it.

If you have a Bible you have, as Rav Hirsch zt"l notes, the crib notes to the entire Oral Law so until you're rescued from your desert island (and even Gilligan was eventually rescued) you can review everything and still bring up your previous learning.

Tue Sep 01, 07:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

Oh! Oh! I have one better.

Just take along the Bar Ilan Responsa CD:

Oh, I guess you'll need a laptop with a really, really good battery too.

Wed Sep 02, 08:12:00 AM  
Blogger SemGirl said...

Maybe Im taking the lazy way out. But I would just take an Art Scroll with a 'Mesivta' gammarra

Thu Sep 03, 06:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Bob Miller said...


1. In the mid-1980's when we lived in Allentown, PA, I studied Gemara Sanhedrin weekly with friends at Dr. Murray Schechter's home (now retired, he was a math professor at Lehigh U.). We were using the Steinsaltz Hebrew text with vowels. Murray found that parts of Steinsaltz' Hebrew commentary were weak or murky, but that the issues could often be resolved by checking the Kehati commentary on the relevant Mishnah.

2. Even out in nowheresville, such as on a desert island, we need access to the Oral Law. Rav Hirsch ZT"L never suggested that we have what it takes to extract the whole Oral Law from the biblical text alone. His real point was that the "lecture notes" embedded in these texts pointed to the "lectures" themselves, namely the details in the Oral Law. Unless we arrived on the island with these details already memorized and understood, we'd need them in writing.

3. Unless we understood the guiding principles really well, the responsa would not be of much help.

Tue Sep 15, 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger thanbo said...

Three books?

Single volume Shas (pub. 1937 with just Rashi)

Single volume Mishneh Torah (at least 3 ed'ns that I know of; I have two)

Jastrow so I can understand the previous two.

Wed Dec 02, 01:28:00 PM  
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