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Shabbat Parashat Vaeira 5781

Igrot Hareaya Letters of Rav Kook: A Smaller Shas

Vol. I, #3, p. 3-6

Date and Place: 5649 (1888), Zaumel


Recipient: Rav Chaim Berlin, the great giant, the glory of Israel, its crown and pride among Israel and humanity. [Rav Chaim Berlin was the oldest son of the Netziv, the rosh yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva, and rebbe of Rav Kook. At the time, Rav Berlin was Chief Rabbi of Moscow.]


Greeting: The dear greetings of your exalted greatness, my master shlita, appeared yesterday. My eyes saw and rejoiced, for the righteousness of the exalted master shlita aroused him to strengthen the hands of those who work in the field of sanctity with words of grace and honor. May our praise be upon you. The strength of the lion among the group should be great.


Body: I am now sending you the first issue of Itturei Sofrim (the short-lived rabbinical periodical that Rav Kook founded and edited), and with Hashem’s help you will soon receive a second issue, because the galleys are already finished at the printer. I come before you to beg that you honor us by adding your great hand to our work with your important words, which are beloved by our people both on their own merits and because their author is our glory. I hope to receive them soon, to adorn the “market” of the leading authors, for I am under pressure to give the material for a third issue to the editors. We request that the words of our master will be close to us and be among the most important contributions.

There is another new idea, which with Hashem’s help we are not far from carrying out. I want to present it to you to know what your exalted opinion is on the matter. I recently had the idea to make a proposal to the leaders of the generation to embark on a lasting project which could be of great value for the study of the holy Torah. I refer to publishing an edition of the Talmud Bavli in a small format [i.e., without the standard commentaries], along the lines of the small Tanach that was published in Berlin and Leipzig, not with big letters like the recently published Mishnayot. That way the whole Shas will comprise a small volume, I believe not more than three times that of the Tanach.

This will bring great benefit in creating people with broad knowledge of the Talmud in our nation. The scarcity of volumes of the Talmud was already raised several generations ago by those like the Maharal of Prague. The main reason for the shortage is the big format. While I could go on at length, this is not necessary before someone as great as you.

If we print some 10,000 copies, we could sell each Shas for 1 silver ruble and still make a nice profit, even though that is not our interest. In any case, any profits would go toward a special fund that would slightly help to raise the standing of the Torah, with Hashem’s help.

The one thing we would need is to print on the bottom a short commentary based on the most critical excerpts of Rashi, which is what is needed for those who are just reviewing what they have already learned to remind them of matters. I am attaching a sample page.

This would be too much work for one person, but I would call for a meeting of the generation’s leaders, and everyone would commit to doing one massechet or more. The matter should not be derailed, so we can finish quickly. Since I am young, I would just follow along the giants of the generation, and my illustrious father-in-law, the Chief Rabbi of Ponovitch, would orchestrate the holy work. Hopefully, we will quickly have a volume for those who have learned from the large Shas editions and will review with this one. I would greatly appreciate if you could take part in one or both of the projects, as we need a commentary using footnotes like the Zera Yisrael edition of Mishnayot.

Since such a printing will cost 7-8,000 rubles, which I cannot raise, I will need to enlist helpers for this project. If 20-30 friends can all lend some money, we can have the matter done promptly. There is no chance of loss according to my understanding of the field, and one of the great leaders will be in charge of receiving donations and passing them on to the publisher.

I would appreciate your lofty response on all of these matters.

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