Rav Shagar passed away 13 years ago today. I was fortunate enough to have been his student for several of his too short years, to sit with him in the beit midrash, translate some of his writings and to pray with him time and again on the holiest days of the year.
In the very first formal class in which I sat with him, he told us something profound. R. Shagar’s father was a handyman of sorts. And he said that when he would enter a house for the first time, he would look at the door with the eyes of someone who understood what went into building it. He would notice the wood type and grain, what kind of hinges were used, how well it had been hung, the handle, the distance between it’s bottom edge and the floor. All these things that the layman might, if he took the time to think about them, know went into constructing that door—but usually ignored. For his father, though, as a craftsman, these things were always in his mind.
What Rav Shagar asked of us, his students, was to view the Talmud in a similar fashion. It wasn’t enough to look at a sugya as a given. One needed to understand that it was composed of many layers and efforts. That it bore the markings of all those who had help to fashion it: from the early Sages who studied Biblical texts through the lens of the Oral Law, to the later Rabbis who set it in the space it occupied, in discourse with the long chain of tradition, both intra- and intertextual. This was our goal. To come to the sources of our Torah as craftsman—aware of each brush stroke or nail that went into fashioning the final product.
Rav Shagar was a master craftsman of this kind, for sure. But he was much more. He was an artist. The French-American chef Jacques Pepin once said that a good cook needed to master a long list of skills—from deboning a chicken to thickening sauces. But a chef, he said, needed something else, after he mastered all of this. He needed imagination.
And that is where Rav Shagar truly shined. He was capable of looking at our long chain of tradition and reimagining it as part of the world we inhabit. A world composed not just of Abbaye and Rabba, but of the IDF and Foucault. His brilliance and commitment were something to behold, and he bequeathed his students an appreciation of Torah unique in its depth. What his Torah offered his students was a glimpse of their most inner selves as part and parcel of the epiphany at Sinai.
May his memory be a blessing.