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Shabbat Parashat Vayigash 5781

Igrot Hareaya Letters of Rav Kook


As promised upon finishing our translation of Ein Ayah, by HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zecher tzaddik livracha, (or just HaRav zatzal, as he is referred to) we are now beginning a new project on Rav Kook’s writings. We will be translating a selection of his letters, as found in Mosad Harav Kook’s classic edition of Igrot Hare’aya, starting with volume I.

Our introduction to the volume is based in part on the introduction of the work’s editor, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, zecher tzaddik livracha. Rav Tzvi Yehuda, as he was belovedly called by his many direct and indirect talmidim, was Rav Kook’s only son and was his successor, both as the head of the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva and as a spiritual beacon in the path of his illustrious father.

The letters in the first volume cover the period from 1888-1910. In the beginning of this period, Rav Kook was a 23-year-old rabbi in Zaumel, Lithuania. Later on, he took up a position in Boisk, and in 1904 he moved to Eretz Yisrael, then under Ottoman Rule, to become the rabbi of Yafo (Jaffa), where he remained during the remainder of this period.

Following are some excerpts from Rav Tzvi Yehuda’s introduction:

1. “The letter, like the countenance of the face and the pace of the movement of the body and limbs and the manner of speech and the form of one’s writing and its style, provides expression, both by subject and by style, of the very essence of its possessor and serves as a proof and a clarifying tool of his direction and his nature. The main characteristic of a letter is that it possesses the internal nature of the ‘private domain,’ by expressing the ideas of natural spirit in an unadulterated manner from a person to his friend, from an individual to an individual or to several individuals. The relationships of the individuals and the matters [between them] are also aligned and are appropriate to the depths of the ‘private domain’ of the spirit.”

2. Rav Tzvi Yehuda explained that the addressing of the letters’ remarks to an individual or a group of individuals, as opposed to addressing all of Klal Yisrael, gives the igeret a “framework of a relating of the spirit” focused on the one who received the letter.

3. “In other teachings of Torah and wisdom, in all their subjects and the shades of their sanctity, their main purpose is the learning, according to their levels, of the matters at hand, and it is not important who said them. The personal appearance of the author makes almost no difference …” He goes on to say that it is important to relate teachings in the name of their authors, in part in order to be able to learn from the ways of the individual rabbi. This is along the lines of the concept, gadol shimusha yoter milimoda (roughly, it is better to spend time with a great rabbi than to learn his teachings). This is something that letters helps facilitate.


Let us briefly discuss some “ground rules” for our presentations. Translating Rav Kook is always challenging due to the number and complexity of rabbinic play on words with references to Tanach and the teachings of Chazal, poetry, and metaphors. At times, we will remove the literary flourishes for simplicity’s sake; sometimes we will translate them and rely on the reader to decipher the intention; and sometimes we will bring the translated original and explain in parenthesis. Parenthesis will also be used to bring the footnotes that Rav Tzvi Yehuda inserted into the edition. Brackets will be reserved for adding implied words to help make the reading of the material easier. When Rav Kook wrote in third person to the recipient of the letter, we will present it in second person to avoid confusion.

It is likely that both the translator and the readers will improve in doing our respective parts as we become more experienced in dealing with this exciting “genre.”

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