Book Review: Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

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Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Ktav Publishing House

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, whose thoughts on the weekly Torah portion are collected in Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah has a particular old-world type of class, the type we see too little of today. He has an abiding respect for our mesorah – not just for the words of Chazal but for the attitudes and practices of our grandparents and forebears, which he stresses should not be arbitrarily jettisoned in favor of passing fads or the trends of the day. He also feels passionately about matters of shalom bayis and pedagogy. (In fact, I have long felt that, given his passion for the subject, Rabbi Safran missed his true calling as an educator. I see from one of the essays collected herein that he previously served as principal of the Yeshiva University High School for Girls, which makes a lot of sense.) Rabbi Safran is particularity zealous about the way our communities address students who do not fit neatly into our preconceived models and the way we treat those who may have gone “off the derech.”

But don’t let the “old-world class” mislead you: Rabbi Safran is simultaneously a product of the old world and a resident of the new. He is fully aware of burgeoning technology and its impact on both our communities and the world at large. He is not blind to the trends that are affecting our communities, not always for the better. And he may surprise you by occasionally quoting The Beatles or The Who.

In the interest of full disclosure, let it be noted that Rabbi Safran is a colleague of mine at the Orthodox Union. Much of the material collected in this book has appeared on the OU Torah web site, occasionally in a mildly edited fashion. In the unedited versions, Rabbi Safran may on occasion wax political. He might criticize movements, institutions or, in extremely rare circumstances, individuals. Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah is the reader’s opportunity to acquire – and relish – a dose of pure, unexpurgated Safran.

The fact that Rabbi Safran has such strong feelings on current issues could be seen by any given reader as a blessing or a curse – a blessing when your views align with his and a curse when they don’t. Personally, I tend to agree with Rabbi Safran more than I don’t and, even when I don’t, that disagreement need not detract from his point. For example, Rabbi Safran subscribes to certain opinions on the subject of video games’ alleged correlation to school violence while I hold diametrically opposed opinions – but so what? While we may differ on the issue of cause-and-effect, I can still agree with his overall premise regarding the propriety of certain video games, particularly in homes that aspire to adhere to certain religious ideals.

Admittedly, the video game question I chose as an example is not particularly inflammatory. There are places where Rabbi Safran speaks quite emphatically against certain movements in the Jewish community that go counter to our traditional hashkafos. Those who favor such philosophies may feel put on the defensive but I’d like to point out Rabbi Safran’s overarching modus operandi: everything he says is said with love. He loves Hashem, he loves the Torah, he loves the Jewish people and he loves each individual Jew. If he speaks out against something, it’s like a loving parent expressing concern for his child’s wellbeing. In Mishlei (27:6), Shlomo HaMelech tells us that criticism from a loving friend is better than being told what we want to hear from an enemy. Or, as Rabbi Safran himself writes in an article on rebuke, “Hocheach suggests not simply admonition but also open, honest communication … The ability to criticize out of love rather than out of anger and hatred averts the future guilt of ‘carrying sin.’”

While I found it necessary to mention that there are such outspoken and unapologetic essays in the book, don’t be misled into thinking that Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah comprises Rabbi Safran jumping from one fray to the next. In fact, such essays are the minority. The majority of the essays are simply thoughtful drashos on the parsha, each with one foot planted firmly in our mesorah and the other in our plugged-in modern life. Rabbi Safran writes with equal passion on such issues as kiruv, tznius and the moral lessons we derive from kashering vessels. His intellectual insights are compelling but it is the sincerity with which he expresses them that make the book uniquely his.

One piece of advice for reading this voluminous tome: don’t rush through it as I did in order to meet an arbitrary deadline. Take your time with it and give yourself a chance to really savor things. There are several divrei Torah and insights on every parsha here. Read them each week as you study up on the current sedra, or enjoy them at your leisure on Shabbos. But don’t unnecessarily wolf down Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah in one gulp because the flavor has a lot of nuances you might otherwise miss.

Finally, while I don’t normally comment on books’ prices, Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah clocks in at nearly 700 pages with an Amazon price under $30 (as of this writing). If you’re looking to get the most for your Torah dollar, this sefer simply can’t be beat.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon. Rabbi Jack also serves as Educational Correspondent for Jew in the City. Follow him at facebook.com/rabbijackbooks.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.