Books – Their Introductions

reading_book_up_highWhy bother with introductions? Many authors begin the introductions to their seforim with the puzzling aphorism that, “A sefer without an introduction is like a body without a soul.” Some authors use this saying as an excuse for wasting the reader’s time with an introduction. Others use it to emphasize the important function of introductions in persuading the reader to peruse their books. Of course, the problem with the latter argument is that few readers bother to read the introductions. They prefer to leap straight into the sefer itself, innocently unaware of the admonition of the Sefer Habris that just as one should not enter a person’s house without first knocking on the door, so one shouldn’t read a sefer before reading its introduction. This article will discuss a third purpose of introductions – to inform the reader what motivated the author to write his sefer.

The Holy Land Connection

Rav Yehuda HaChossid writes in Sefer Chassidim (ch. 530) that you don’t need to find excuses to write and publish seforim. On the contrary, writing books is an obligation, “For the Holy One decrees… how many seforim a person will write. There may be someone who is decreed to write one sefer, or two, or three… Whenever Hashem reveals something to someone and he does not write it, yet he could write it, he is stealing what was revealed to him. For it was only revealed to him in order to write it as the verses say, The secret of Hashem is to those who fear Him and His covenant to inform them (Tehillim 25:14), and, Let your wellsprings spread outside (Mishlei 5:16). This too is the meaning of the verse, He will come to judgment for every hidden thing (Kohelles12:14).”

Nevertheless, many authors utilize their introductions to explain their motive for breaking into the publishing world. Their reasons are as varied as their seforim.

Rav Reuven Hakohen (died 1643) writes in the introduction to his sefer Yalkut Reuveni that his motive was to be mezakeh es horabim, to provide spiritual benefit to the public. In tune with this, he wrote, the name of his sefer had the same gematria as B’zeh ani mezakeh lorabim, with this I benefit the public.

Rav Avrohom Danziger, author of the Chayei Adam, wrote a lesser known sefer, Shaarei Tzedek, that discusses the mitzvos pertaining to Eretz Yisroel. In its introduction, he explains that he wrote the sefer simply to know what to do once he reached the Holy Land. First, he discusses what motivated him to move there in the first place.

“When the houses of my courtyard collapsed in 5564 (1724), as I discussed at the end of Chayei Adam, I made a great neder. When I finished marrying off my sons and daughters and if I could afford it, I would go to the holy city of Yerushalayim for the rest of my life and serve Hashem…. However, if a person enters the palace of a king and does not know how to behave, he certainly deserves the death penalty. How much more does this apply to someone who wants to live in the Holy Land and is not expert in all its laws. His blood is on his head and of him it says, Who asked this from your hands to trample in my courts (Yeshayahu 1:12).

“Therefore, I gathered all the laws relevant to this subject and named it Shaarei Tzedek after Yerushalayim, which is called Tzedek. And if I fail to go there, heaven forefend, I will fulfill the mitzvos that apply there with this learning [of its mitzvos], as the sages say, ‘Whoever studies the Torah of the burnt offering, etc.'”

At the beginning of this sefer, the Chayei Adam printed three kinos, oneto recite when he entered the Holy Land, the second when he arrived in Yerushalayim, and the third when he stood before the Kosel. Unfortunately, his dream of moving to Eretz Yisroel never materialized, and he passed away in Vilna in 1820.

Rav Meir ben Eliyahu, a grandson of the Gra, writes in the hakdoma to his sefer Derech Avos on Pirkei Avos that he wrote it not to teach him the halachos of Eretz Yisroel, but to provide him with spiritual preparation for the journey.

“I am printing this sefer many years since I wrote it…, because I decided to not delay settling in the Holy Land,” he writes. “…However, it is known that for such a long journey one must zealously make many preparations and not come empty-handed. This applies even physically speaking, and how much more so on the spiritual plane…”

Yet another person printed a sefer merely to raise money for the trip to Eretz Yisroel. In the Elul 1871 edition of the Hamaggid newspaper, Rav Yisroel Davidson of Chechikov, Galicia, advertised an ethical will he wrote with material collected from various sources, frankly explaining that he needed the funds of its sale to travel to Eretz Yisroel.

“For about the past two years, after I decided to devote my life to holy matters, I decided to move to the Holy Land,” he explains.”… However, due to various reasons and misfortunes, I delayed until now, the money I had set aside decreased, and a sum of money I expected to receive from an inheritance turned out to be much less than I expected. Therefore… I decided to print the will I have written in the sefer, Beis Yisroel and distribute it.

“Perhaps, if generous Jews add to its price I will earn enough to fill my lack. This will be a charity for them as the Sefer Chassidim (chapter 1,035) writes, ‘There is a charity that does not look like charity but which Hashem regards as high quality charity, such as a poor person who has something to sell or a sefer that people do not want to buy, and someone buys it from him.'”

It is not clear whether Davidson ever raised the necessary funds to fulfill his cherished dream.

In another introduction, a Jew publicized his gratitude for being the first Bucharian Jew to ever arrive in Eretz Yisroel with wife and family. After 1889, so many Bucharian, Persian, and Kurdistan Jews began moving to Eretz Yisroel that they built their own distinctive Yerushalayim neighborhoods. The first Jew from Bucharia arrived a little earlier, in 1871, and printed Sefer Ha’ilonos in Yerushalayim that year to commemorate the event.

“I thank Hashem with all my heart for the great good He has given me,” he writes in its introduction. “With His great loving kindness He did not desert me, but took me from my father’s home in Bucharia, led me to the Holy Land, and guarded me during the whole six month journey… I am the first from the land of Bucharia to dwell in the Holy Land with his family. Therefore, I decided to leave a memorial for myself in the land of my birth. I found here… the text of the study of Birkat Ha’ilonos… and in order that my name should be remembered in the land of my birth, I brought it to the printing house to bring merit to my brothers in Bucharia.”

Saved from the Fire

In the introduction to the Maharam Shiff’s famous Gemara commentary printed in 1737, his grandson explains that this priceless sefer was only a fraction of his writings, for the Maharam Shiff told his daughter, Henlah: “I wrote seforim on the entire Shas and the Arba Turim, a commentary on the Torah, and also kabbola seforim… My only son, R. Zundel, your brother… died childless and the writings fell into the hands of other people… The box with the writings was placed with another person where many of them were stolen. The rest were returned to me and remained with me until a fire was sent from high in the year 1711 that burnt all our beautiful possessions and the houses of Frankfort. From all of them, only these five messechtos remained.”

On the other hand, Rav Avrohom Danzig writes in the introduction to his second edition of Chayei Adam that the near loss of one of his manuscripts encouraged him to add a new chapter to this sefer after its first printing in Vilna in 1709-1710.

“In the first edition I wanted to save expenses and was forced to shorten the sefer,” he writes. “It also seemed obvious [that I should omit] the laws of Pesach, for I did not want to be involved in ruling the laws of issur veheter (kashrus) and making myself a name among the great, for who am I and what am I?

“However, after I wrote my sefer, Chochmas Adam on Yoreh De’ah, it was seized by the French [during the Napoleonic wars]. I went in anxiety to their camp and to their leader. I entered one side and the thief came towards me from the second side with the sefer in his hands. Hashem gave me favor in the eyes of the leader and he commanded him to return it to me. Afterwards, I printed it also, through a miracle, for the expenses were too much for me. I saw that with Hashem’s help, it was very accepted by great talmidei chachomim to the extent that they give rulings from my sefer. Because of this, I took the initiative and finished all the laws of Pesach [in Chayei Adam].”

Similarly, the Pnei Yehoshua writes in the introduction to his Shas commentary that he was inspired to write it after his house collapsed and almost killed him in the ruins. In the introduction to its first volume printed in Amsterdam in 1700, he writes, “I was peacefully studying with colleagues and talmidim in my house [in Lvov] when suddenly the building collapsed from many gun-powder barrels that had exploded. Many large, fortified buildings fell to the dust and about 63 Jews died including members of my household… I too was among those who fell into the deep pit… Then I said, while still within the ruin, ‘If Hashem is with me and takes me from this place in peace and builds me a faithful house to give me many talmidim, I will not leave the walls of the beis medrash and [will] analyze Shas and poskim, and study halachah in depth, even spending many nights on one subject…

“I had barely finished thinking this when Hashem heard my voice and a sort of path was made for me. I came out in peace with no injury… From then on, I was particular that my principal learning should be in halachah, in the sugyos of Shas and Poskim, and rarely write anything concerning derush or other learning that is far from the truth.”

So, out of tragedy was born one of the greatest Gemara commentaries ever written.

The Kotzker once questioned the whereabouts of the greatest introduction of all. If every sefer has an introduction, he asked, where is the introduction to the Torah? To which he answered: Derech eretz kodmoh laTorah. Every person pens his own introduction to the instruction manual of life.

(Main source: Avraham Yaari, Be’ohalei Sefer, Reuven Mass Publishers, Yerushalayim, 1939.)

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