Book Review: The Laws and Concepts of Niddah
By Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky
Edited by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman
Reviewed by Rabbi Ari Enkin
I have to confess: When I was first invited to write a review on Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky’s new sefer, I was somewhat skeptical that the sefer would offer something new or unique to understanding the laws of Nidda. Being quite familiar with the other popular English sefarim written on the subject, which on the whole are competent and thorough, I was concerned that the content and educational value of such works had already been well accounted for.
I was wrong.
While one will indeed find most of the topics dealt with in this new volume in other sefarim, the presentation is definitely unique and refreshing. R. Sobolofsky hits the road running at the start of every chapter seizing his reader’s attention and arousing his interest for the topic at hand. Throughout the sefer, the author presents the relevant Talmudic sources, expands on them with rishonim and achronim, and delivers the material right through to its practical application. Although the sefer is somewhat limited in the number of authorities cited, both in the main body of the text and footnotes, the major authorities on every issue are presented. In some chapters, the more lomdish issues are presented in a separate box which allows readers the option of exploring the material a little deeper as they are introduced to the inner workings and methodologies of the poskim and on what basis they render their decisions.
In the slightly more than 600 pages, the first half the book is what can be called the primary text, with the second half consisting of a Hebrew section which expands on the original sources cited throughout the primary text. For example, a R. Akiva Eiger, Maharam Schick, or even a Talmudic reference that is cited in the primary text is presented in full in this section. However, not all sources from the primary text are cited in this section and there is no clear indication in the primary text if a particular source is among those included for expansion in the Hebrew section. More organization and correlation between the primary text and the Hebrew section would have been of more service to the reader. For example, the corresponding chapter divisions in the Hebrew section are to be found randomly on the page and not in a header of some sort, making it a little harder to quickly find the chapter one is currently studying in order to seek the expanded source.
R. Sobolofsky often cites the origins for different concepts and halachot, something not always as thoroughly found in English language sefarim. For example, many readers may be unaware that the regulations of chatzitzot concerning the mouth, ears, nose, and other orifices derive from an unlikely source: mincha offerings. In the event that one’s mincha offering contained the required quantities of flour and oil but were not actually mixed together, the offering remains valid. This is based on the principle of kol haraui l’bila ein bila me’akevet bo, as long as the offering had the potential to be mixed properly, the fact that it wasn’t doesn’t invalidate it. Similarly, as long as the water of the mikva could have entered the orifices (due to the absence of any chatzitzot) it does not matter that it didn’t actually enter. So too, those unfamiliar with some of the Talmudic background from masechet Nidda and other sources will appreciate being introduced to Ifra Hurmiz, the Sar Mikutzi, Yalta, and the anonymous scholar who was not careful to observe the harchakot.
There is a major, welcome, feature of this sefer that is absent in most other halacha sefarim in general and hilchot Nidda sefarim in particular, and that is a sense of empowerment. While most halacha sefarim available today are full of disclaimers such as “one cannot derive halachic rulings from a sefer”, “one must ask a Rav before deciding anything oneself”, and “nothing should be considered halacha l’maaseh without guidance from a Rav”, Rav Sobolofsky seems to courageously break away from this model offering readers the option of choosing for themselves. To cite but two examples: In a discussion regarding a woman who had her hymen surgically removed and is certain not to bleed upon the first act of intercourse, R. Sobolofsky notes that some poskim still require the couple to separate following their first act of intercourse as is the case with all other virgin brides, while the Maharsha and R. Moshe Feinstein are lenient. R. Sobolofsky sates “In general, one has a right to rule leniently on these matters, because it is a Rabbinic prohibition that is involved” (p.92) thereby allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions in this area. So too, in a discussion regarding the permissibility of a couple carrying heavy objects together while the wife is a nidda, R. Sobolofsky notes that there are varying opinions but asserts that “one has the right to rely on R. Ovadia Yosef” who is lenient on the matter. The author does not hesitate to include paragraphs at the end of most chapters that are entitled “Practical Guidelines”, “Practical Rulings” and “Contemporary Applications”. While there is no disagreement that difficult and complex decisions must remain the exclusive domain of the Rav, rarely does an English halacha sefer harmoniously weave together issues that the layman may rule for himself alongside those that must be decided by a Rav with such a smooth flow throughout the text.
It is also worth noting that there is an academic and halachic honesty within the presentation. For example, R. Sobolofsky readily concedes that there is “no compelling Talmudic source” for harchakot, while asserting that they are nonetheless authoritative and binding. There are also discussions of delicate halachic issues not previously cited in such English-language publications, such as R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s chiddush regarding blood that emerges from the uterus but flows out of the body through a tube, suggesting that it does not render a woman a nidda.
Another most welcome feature of this volume is the inclusion of the rulings of R. Hershel Schachter, R. Mordechai Willig, and R. Yaakov Neuburger. This appendix is a valuable and significant contribution to halachic discourse. Make no mistake, the rulings of these rabbis, many of which are original and might even be labeled “radical” by some, are not kulas or heteirim but rather ikkar hadin, l’chatchila rulings based on their da’at Torah as they take into consideration the needs and realities of our community, many of which are often dismissed by other contemporary poskim. I hope that this work will be the first of many to disseminate the rulings of these poskim and that they find their way into many homes across the globe.
Written in an academic yet accessible manner that inspires as it educates, The Laws and Concepts of Niddah is truly a worthwhile contribution. Likewise, I am certain that the “RIETS Practical Halacha Series” will be an exciting collection of English halacha sefarim.
Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the general editor and halacha columnist of the highly acclaimed halacha website “Torah Musings” and has authored numerous English sefarim on halacha. His next English halacha sefer, “Ramat Hashulchan”, which deals with over 100 halachic issues, is due to be released in July. email@example.com
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