The Three Seforim That Have Had the most Impact on Me

I know I’m probably stretching the meaning of ‘seforim’ just a little bit, but I’m taking it to mean any book with Jewish / religious content. It’s a matter of necessity, as the number of ‘traditional’ seforim I’ve read can probably be counted on a couple of hands.

While I love books about Judaism, and I read them voraciously, I just don’t think that my mind is geared towards volumes about measuring what a k’zayos of oreo cookies looks like, or in-depth halachic discussion.

Though I may be stereotyping, I leave that stuff to my husband. And instead, I read books like: Off the Derech and The Science of G-d. These two had a profound affect on me for different reasons.

Off the Derech explores many of the reasons why people leave the faith. It’s a long book, but the main explanation – or at least, my reading of it – is that most people stop being observant because of emotional reasons. Yes, there are a small minority who have difficulties with ‘accepting’ the validity of the Torah, but most leavers come off the derech because they weren’t treated very nicely by people who claimed to be observant.

This really made me sit up and think, particularly in relation to my kids. And it sparked off a real effort in our house to explain the clear separation between ‘looking religious’ and ‘acting religious’ to my five and three year old.

If Off the Derech had a big impact on my parenting, The Science of G-d had an enormous impact, intellectually. Hard as we try to stay above the debate about ‘Creationism’ vs ‘Evolution’, it can be very difficult for a secularly educated, torah-observant Jew to be comfortable about the apparent and fundamental disagreement between science and theology about how our universe began, and then continued.

In ‘educated’ circles, I’d feel ridiculous claiming the world really was created in seven days, for example. In ‘religious’ circles, I’d feel like a semi-apostate for thinking anything else. Then along came Gerald Schroeder, and in a neat, little black volume he happily resolved all these dilemmas. Not everyone agrees with his findings – but then, not everyone has to.

He has a number of incredibly lucid and well-researched arguments which means that if I want to believe in the Genesis version of creation – and I really do – then I no longer have to check my rationality at the door. Schroeder’s book demonstrated that there is no contradiction between science’s account of creation, and our torah.

As well as resolving my personal doubts about the story of creation, it also taught me a very important lesson: if there is a disagreement between what science says and what the torah says, you can bet your bottom dollar that the torah is right.

For millennia, received wisdom was that the universe has always just been here. Jews had to wait 3,250 years for the Big Bang theory to come along and prove that they actually knew what they were talking about.

There are still many, many areas where science disagrees with Jewish theology, but they no longer worry me. Sooner or later the full facts will come out, and there will be more ‘told you so’ moments.

The last sefer is a proper one: Michtav M’Eliyahu, by Rabbi Dessler. The book contains so much that it’s hard to know which parts to highlight. Certainly, the sections on understanding that everything comes from Hashem had a big impact on me. It’s hard to properly motivate yourself when you really grasp that everything does indeed come from Hashem, regardless of our efforts. Finding the right balance between hishtadlut and hisbodedut has been an ongoing effort ever since.

Also, just understanding the level of middot we have to strive to hold ourselves to made me stop being so complacent.

It’s often said that it’s a sign of a good book when you can’t put it down. For me, these three books achieved even more than that: they fundamentally changed my understanding and appreciation of yiddishkeit, and along they way, they also inspired me to try and shorten the gap between what the Torah says, and what I often do.

16 comments on “The Three Seforim That Have Had the most Impact on Me

  1. I’ve commented on this subject in a previous thread wherein I included Rabbi Dr. Tweski’s “Living Each Day” on my list.

    That selection points out that what is important in one’s life of learning is not always the deepest of books or the most “classic” seforim. What is important is what allows one to grow from where they are at that particular time.

    Entering college, I was already Shomer Shabbos but still a “rookie” learner. I knew that going away for college would be a challenge (and for that reason rescinded my application to the United States Military Academy at West Point, much to the chagrin of my nominating congressman) and I thought that I would need some sort of anchor in my day to remind me of the commitments I had made and to buffer me from complete immersion in a less than religious lifestyle. A friend had previously given me “Living Each Day” which is one of the first of the “calendar books” which separated the learning into digestable daily portions. Every night, before bed I would learn that day’s portion.

    A few months ago, I was at a Bar Mitzvah and happened to be seated near Rabbi Dr. Twerski who is a relative of the Bar Mitzvah boy. During dancing I approached Rabbi Twerski who took my hand. I explained to him what his book meant to me and to a friend of mine in Colorado who had mentioned the importance of that book to him. Rabbi Twersky was very humble, gave me a warm smile, squeezed my hand and thanked me. It was gratifying to be able to give hakaros hatov for something that had happened nearly 20 yrs ago.

  2. Among others, in no specific order:

    1. Siddur and Machzor (including various nuschaot and translations)

    2. Chumash, with Rav S.R. Hirsch commentary in English translation. This edition has an abridged commentary (full editions are also available): http://www.judaicapress.com/product_info.php?products_id=94

    3. Likkutei Eitzot (Breslov), also available in translation from Breslov Research Institute as “Advice”—see http://www.amazon.com/Advice-Nathan-Breslov/dp/0930213041

    4. Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s “Ikvesa D’Meshicha” from his Kovetz Maamarim. Also available in an English language pamphlet as “Epoch of the Messiah”. Here are recorded lectures about this work:
    http://www.rabbidovidgoldwasser.com/ikd.html

  3. Since some posters are exceeding the limit, I guess that I will do so as well. I don’t think that I could begin to explore the Jewish view on any issue without Rashi and Ramban’s Commentaries on the Torah as well as Hilcos Teshuvah together ( and RYBS’s Al Hateshuvah or R N Oelbaum’s comments thereon),Nefesh HaChaim ( especially Shaar Daled), the CI’s Emunah UBitachon , Ruach Chaim by R Chaim Volozhiner on Avos, Mussaf of RH or YK with RYBS’s comments or a Haggadah Shel Pesach. From my POV, these core works express IMo so many of the essential components of Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim.

  4. Great post, Katrin.

    For me it’s:
    Messilas Yeshorim
    The Nineteen Letter
    Michtav M’Eliyahu
    Eyes To See (Rav Yom Tov Schwartz)-I could write a whole post about this book.

  5. Menachem, you said,
    “I really have no need to contact the those involved in that site.”

    This is true. But open, candid discussion has value for people with shared values whose minds are not closed. Maybe your summary judgment of their web site info would stand up in such a discussion, and maybe it would not.

    I gather that you are not committed to all the particulars of Dr. Schroeder’s and Rabbi Slifkin’s writings, but regard the existence of these writings as a form of permission. Do I understand you correctly?

  6. Bob,

    I really have no need to contact the those involved in that site. What’s important to me, and many orthodox Jews both BTs and FFBs, is to have the freedom to believe that a universe that is older than 6,000 years is not in absolute opposition to the Torah. Authors like Dr. Schroeder and Rabbi Slifkin, in utilizing knowledge of modern science in conjunction with classic Torah sources, allow for that freedom.

  7. I highly recommend these for baalei t’shuvah. They have influenced me greatly. There are at least sections or adaptions of all of them in English.

    Sichos Mussar -One of Mark’s choices, powerful earthy mussar, a great door for baalei t’shuvah to the inner sanctums of the yeshiva world.

    Sing You Righteous -many don’t like his punching scientists in the face. I feel that even if one doesn’t agree with all his conclusions, he did a great public service by deflating the virtual avoda zora of scientist-worship.

    Sifrei HaGra -When one learns them, it is easy to validate the idea of emunas chachamim. The brilliance and Divine inspiration is so apparent.

    Shem Mishmuel is a big personal favorite. If one wants to learn a deep chasidic sefer that is understandable (for the most part). Good for buiding emunah that bigger things are happing than what meets the eye.

    Gershon,
    Your list is probably what I should have been learning.

  8. Menachem,

    The Canadians involved with the Toriah.org site are pretty approachable, so I suggest that you communicate with them about your objections.

    I posted the link to encourage more thought. Some of their pieces are works-in-progress and are not offered yet as definitive.

    Dr. Schroeder, in my opinion, would be overreaching if he claimed that today’s physical laws can be extrapolated back to the period of creation. Do you think he considers the actual creation to have been instantaneous, with the rest of the first six (or seven) days involving something other than creation? Does he propose a physical model for this time period but not for miracles in general?

  9. Bob,

    At first glance this web site looks very impressive and professional. Obviously I haven’t had time to read everything, but the few things I’ve seen are quite unimpressive.

    There are a lot of unamed sources and articles and blatant out-of-context quotes which infer conclusions contrary to the underlying intent.

    Like I said, I’m very conmfortable knowing that neither our understanding of B’reishit nor our understanding of creation is fully mature and at some point in the future I believe they will clarify each other.

  10. There is no doubt that RSRH;s The Nineteen Letters and RYBS’s The Lonely Man of Faith had the most significant impact on my development. I would add Alei Shor as another sefer that also had a huge impact on my thinking as well.

  11. Katrin, I share your enthusiasm for Dr. Schroeder’s books. It is very important for me too, as a rationalist, not to reject science just because it doesn’t agree with a literal interpretation of the Torah.

    I know a well respected orthodox physicist who takes issue with some of the details of Dr. Schroeder’s theory. What’s important for me, though, is just to see these ideas being presented. In time I am confident that we will see our understanding of Torah and Science converge more and more.

    Have you read Dr. Schroeder’s most recent book, “The Hidden Face of G-d”. That book goes in the opposite direction and deals with molecular biology. I think it should be required reading for every Yeshiva science teacher. I can’t see how anyone could read that book and not walk away believing in G-d.

  12. Hirsch’s Nineteen letters

    Hirsch’s commentary on the Torah

    (come to think of it, every word Hirsch wrote)

    Messilas Yeshorim (path of the just)

    Daas Tevunos (the knowing heart)

    Nefesh Hachayim

    Alei Shur

    Daas Torah – Rav Yeruchum Levovitz
    ——————

    Looking back over 28 years, these seforim have made the biggest impact on my life, but there were some years when I didn’t even look at some of them – Somehow though, I always find my way back to them

  13. Although I originally penned this as a suggested topic, there are different ways we can look at impactful. What made the most impact on the beginning of my personal journey? What makes the most impact now? What would I suggest as impactful for other’s beginning their journey?

    Michtav M’Eliyahu was the first book ever given to me (in it’s Strive to Truth incarnation) and I consider it (all six English volumes) as one of my three most impactful seforim.

    I would include the Aryeh Kaplan Reader for hashkafa.

    For Parsha, there’s Rabbi Shmulevitz’ Sichos Mussar.

    And of coures there’s the Maharal on Pirkei Avos.

    And Rebbetzin Heller’s – Let’s Face It! The 8 Essential Challenges of Living.

    Who said to limit it to 3 seforim.

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