Book Review – The Sages

The Sages by Rabbi Binyamin Lau

After the defeat of Bar Kochba the Jewish world was in turmoil. The sages gathered in Usha in the Galilee to strengthen Torah observance.

Their work shaped the Jewish world we live in today.

History and Biography

The Sages – Volume III The Galilean Period is about the prominent sages between the years 138 CE – 220 CE. That’s less than one hundred years of Jewish history.

However, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this period.

The Galilean Period begins right after the Bar Kochba revolt and ends with the death of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Rebbi), the final editor of the Mishna.

Rabbi Lau’s initial focus is on the five major disciples of Rabbi Akiva:

  1. R. Meir
  2. R. Elazar ben Shamua
  3. R. Yehuda bar Ilai
  4. R. Yose ben Halafta
  5. R. Shimon bar Yochai

Other significant sages from this time period that R. Lau discusses include:

  • Beruria
  • Elisha ben Abuya (Acher)
  • Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel
  • Rabbi Natan HaBavli
  • Rabbi Hiya
  • Bar Kappara
  • Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Rebbi)

Their era was filled with economic and political hardships. The sages struggled with how to invigorate Judaism after the brutal defeat suffered by Bar Kochba and under Roman oppression.

Rabbi Lau blends together rabbinic and modern sources to understand the historical background of the times. His original documents include the Mishna, Tosefta, midrashim, Talmud Bavli, and Talmud Yerushalmi.

These sources contain many biographical details about the sages and their interactions with one another.

However, none of these sources are meant to be primarily historical and biographical.

Rabbi Lau combed through these primary sources. He then pieces them together in a way that makes clear and comprehensible the lives of our sages.

Since even people who learn Talmud Bavli may not be familiar with the Yerushalmi and the midrashim, Rabbi Lau has performed an invaluable service.

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Personality and Relationships

Thanks to R. Lau’s careful reading and explanations, it becomes clear that our sages were human beings. Each one had to deal with problems and their interpersonal relationships were not always smooth.

Because of their different outlooks on life and Torah, they did not agree on the best approach for dealing with the significant problems facing the Jewish people.

As an example, here is how R. Lau (see page 348) concludes his discussion of the relationship between Rebbi and Rabbi Hiya:

The disagreement between Rebbi and Rabbi Hiya reflects two different approaches to Torah study. …The first approach [Rebbi] focuses on the obligation to safeguard Torah as the province of the learned elite. Torah should not be taught in the marketplace, nor should its secrets be revealed publicly. The second approach [R. Hiya] involves educating large numbers of students, so all of Israel can be privileged to study Torah. This is a deep ideological divide. Rabbi Hiya is very close to Rebbi, but he is not afraid to criticize his leadership style. …

Their disagreement becomes personal. When Rabbi Hiya comes before Rebbi, the latter mocks him by calling him “Iya.” But Rabbi Hiya does not relent, and the rift between them persists. Rabbi Hiya remains associated with the baraitot, traditions “outside” the Mishna. He has no place inside Rebbi’s Mishna, so he brings his teachings outside. The Babylonian Talmud is filled with his baraitot, thanks to which the Torah is not forgotten from Israel.


The Sages – Volume III The Galilean Period is suitable for men and women from high school age. This volume was translated from R. Lau’s Hebrew text into clear and flowing English.

As Rabbi Lau writes in the preface of a different book (Jeremiah), “Translation is not just the technical conversion of words from one language to another; it is an act of alchemy, capturing the mood, the music, the deeper meaning of the text.”

I think that ideal was achieved in this volume.

What’s Missing

Aaargh! Where’s the index?!?

For a book like this to be a reference resource it must have an index!

My Verdict

I enjoyed reading The Sages a lot. It gave me a much better understanding of the time period and of the interactions between the sages.

If you learn Mishna or Gemara or are interested in Jewish history, then I highly recommend that you buy and read this book. I’m sure the background information in this volume will add to your learning experience.

The Sages – Volume III The Galilean Period by Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau, translated by Ilana Kurshan. Published by Maggid Books.

Disclosure: I was given a review copy of The Sages – Volume III The Galilean Period by the publisher.

The Sages - 3 Volume Set
The Sages – 3 Volume Set

As you can guess from the title, Rabbi Lau has also written:
The Sages – Volume I The Second Temple Period and
The Sages – Volume II From Yavne to the Bar Kokhba Revolt

Your Turn

Go buy this book!

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.