Great scholars, it seems, never die.
Rabbi Shaul Kagan, founder of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center and the late father of its current dean, Rabbi Aaron Kagan, is a case in point.
The elder Kagan passed away over 11 years ago, yet he may never have had as many students as he does now. Recently, a collection of many of his writings was published for the first time, and it is quickly becoming a hit in the yeshiva world.
According to Aaron Kagan, the new book has been a long time coming.
“Shortly after my father died, we found thousands of pages of notes he took,” Aaron Kagan said. “My brother, Yitzhok, then started organizing them together in a booklet form. He worked on the holiday essays for a year, year-and-a-half, then began organizing material about the parshas.”
In a true symbol of “from generation to generation,” Aaron Kagan added.
For example, for his son’s bar mitzva, which fell around Shavuot this year, Yitzhok Kagan, with the help of brother-in-law Shloimy Falik, decided to raise money to publish a collection of essays on Shavuot and the Book of Numbers, read at that time of year in the synagogue. They soon realized this would cost $5000 to print 6,000 copies of the five-volume set of the short, red leather-bound sefer. But thanks in large part to the generosity of the Pittsburgh community, they raised enough to publish 250 copies, of which only 10 remain.
“And none of his grandkids have a copy,” Aaron Kagan said.
In light of the response, the Kagan brothers wish more copies were published. When they finally do, the cost per volume will go down since the type has been set, but they are not expecting to ever cover the costs.
As of now, the book is being sold at the Kollel, his father’s old yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., and at the Plaza Lakewood Bookshop. “And they’re really selling it.” Aaron Kagan said. They have also received requests from several yeshivas in Israel.
Aaron Kagan isn’t surprised at the book’s success.
“It’s full of short, fresh insights, and it’s an easy read,” he said. “One thing that’s unique about it is that he (Shaul Kagan) will quote questions asked by us, his children, then answer them.”
Another thing it has going for it is style. “My father wrote beautifully in three languages, Hebrew, Yiddish and English,” Aaron Kagan said. “We had to take out some of the flowery stuff, but you can still hear his voice.”
With all this great writing, why didn’t his father publish it in his lifetime?
“There is a concept in Jewish study to write down your thoughts in order to concretize them,” Aaron Kagan said. “Many scholars do this and it helps with teaching. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a lot and actually expressed some desire to get published.”
Among those writings, they discovered he had already come up with the perfect title for his works: “Shivili Aish,” or “Pathways of Fire,” which, in the tradition of Jewish books, hints to its author’s name in Hebrew.
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)