When the pandemic left members of Beth Tfiloh Congregation without a way to gather in person, hold a minyan or say kaddish, Rabbi Eli Yoggev started looking for an alternative religious ceremony to honor loved ones. He began writing a series of commentaries for the congregation and distributing them through email to provide uplifting messages. During this time, he wrote about 20 to 30 original commentaries, each around a few paragraphs long.
Those commentaries were the start of Yoggev’s new book, “Ethics of the Soul: Uplifting and Relevant Commentary on Ethics of the Fathers,” which was released on Jan. 20, and is currently available for sale on Amazon.
“It is a modern and spiritual commentary to a classic work of Jewish ethics, called ‘Ethics of the Fathers,’” said Yoggev, a resident of Pikesville.
Known in Hebrew as “Pirkei Avot,” “Ethics of the Fathers” was written around 2000 years ago as part of the Mishnah. It consists of the sayings of different rabbis centered on their ethical philosophies, condensed into a few sentences per person.
“It’s like tweets from 2000 years ago,” Yoggev joked. “But without a comments sections. … So it’s basically the sayings of the rabbis encapsulated in a sentence or two.”
After the synagogue began to reopen, Yoggev decided to continue writing his commentaries, as he estimated he had already written about a third of the material he would need for a book.
While originally the commentaries were very centered around COVID-19, Yoggev removed the COVID references for the published version.
Aside from his dissertation, “Ethics of the Soul” is the first full book that Yoggev has ever had published, he said.
There have been many commentaries written on “Ethics of the Fathers,” but Yoggev believes that, in addition to his innovative interpretations, writing in the middle of the pandemic made his unique.
“I was writing it originally for my community as a rabbi … in their time of distress and their time of quarantine,” Yoggev said. “So the nature of the writing was unique, in the sense that I brought a lot of personal stories in there, because I wanted to keep them engaged and connected.”
On the main theme of the finished book, Yoggev said that, as he was writing for a Modern Orthodox community, much of the message is in favor of being engaged in this current world.
At the same time, Yoggev said, much of the book focuses on how “the purpose of Jewish ethics are not only to make us into good people, which is a wonderful ideal, which is one of the main ideals of Judaism, but, in addition, its to help us, through Jewish ethics, to draw closer to Hashem and to spirituality.”
Other Jewish-themed books by Baltimore community members
“Paths of the Righteous: Stories of Heroism, Humanity and Hope”
By Ari Mittleman
Written by Pikesville resident Ari Mittleman, “Paths of the Righteous: Stories of Heroism, Humanity and Hope” seeks to remind the Jewish community that, even in moments of darkness, they are not without friends in the wider world. The book focuses on the stories of eight non-Jews who have supported the Jewish people.
“Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children”
Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah
“Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children” combines Jewish teachings with the personal and professional experiences of its author, Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah, a Baltimore native and mother of three. Pessah is the former Pearlstone director for Jewish family education at the Macks Center for Jewish Education. She currently lives in Florida.