Book Review: The How & Why of Jewish Prayer
By: Israel Rubin
Arba Kanfot Press, 731 pp.
Reviewed by: Rabbi Ari N. Enkin
The only way to begin a review of such a sefer is with one word: Wow! This is just an amazingly thorough and competent work. It might just be that the title is misleading. A better title might have been “The How, Why, When, Where, If, Theories, and Explanation of Jewish Prayer”.
The content is simply exhausting and all-encompassing. The author has left no stone unturned in explaining prayer, synagogue, and all matters relating to liturgy and the synagogue. The pearls, tidbits, factoids, and explanations are outstanding. He quotes writers and scholars from across the orthodox spectrum and from every possible source, including flyers, websites, and of course books. I think there might have even been one or two citations from lectures he heard.
To offer but a superficial glimpse into the Table of Contents and the topics that are covered: Introduction to prayer ( including an extensive discussion on the development of prayer), routine of prayer, kavaana, the siddur (development and structure), the synagogue, a latecomers guide to catching up, and common postures and gestures. There are also separate chapters for each and every single section of the daily prayers making it a practical guide for everything from Modeh Ani in the morning to Kriat Shema at night. There all also nine different appendices that deal in depth with issues such as: the different berachot recited on various occasions, symbolism is prayer and rituals, lifecycle events, and more.
The author is clearly obsessed with the proper pronunciation of Hebrew in prayer. Not only is there an entire chapter which deals with issues of proper pronunciation and dikduk, it is an issue that is sprinkled throughout the sefer at every available opportunity. There is also a chapter devoted to nusach and how to conduct oneself when one’s personal nusach is different than that of the congregation. Perhaps the author’s emphasis on detail in dikduk explains why the transliterations follow a convention that we are not used to (e.g. “sh’Hecheyanu”, “Mi Sh’Gemalecha”, “O’Halecha Ya’akov”, “Anna b’Cho’ach”). I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Eliezer Ben Yehuda had scoured many rabbinic texts, including those of the rishonim, to ensure that modern day Hebrew would properly conform to authentic dikduk. Those with an interest in such matters will find a wealth of discussion and sources.
There is also an especially interesting chapter on the various names of God, their meanings and their usages. In one such discussion the author vigorously argues that the word “Jehovah” cannot possibly be a translation of the “Y-H-V-H” and hence there is nothing halachically problematic with referring to the religious group “Jehovah’s Witnesses” when appropriate.
One of my favorite chapters was the one on “The Synagogue” complete with a section on “Advice for the Congregants” including: “Shul is not a carpentry workshop. Don’t bang seats and box lids”…”Gabbaim are not our slaves. Please put Siddurim, Chumashim, and other sefarim away properly”…”Shul is not an election rally. Don’t shout out yahser ko’ach.”…”The Netilat Yadayim room is not a club house for Kohanim and Levi’im” and others. Oh yeah, and don’t ever let the author catch you pacing during davening….this seems to be of one of his “yaharog v’al ya’avor”.
The sefer is similar to “A Guide to Jewish Prayer” by R. Adin Steinsaltz though it is written in a much more introductory style. The sefer is deal for beginners and ba’alei teshuva and should be mandatory reading for those undergoing conversion. It is also somewhat reminiscent of “The Jewish Book of Why” by Rabbi Alfred Kolatch with the user friendly accessibility and explanations similar to the “Idiot’s Guide” series. Nevertheless, even the advanced davener will benefit from the author’s insights, philosophies, and explanations all culled from a variety of sources that can inspire and improve anyone’s prayers. We can all use a refresher from time to time.
I was exceptionally impressed that such a sefer was written by a great-grandfather with an advanced secular education but no formal rabbinic credentials to his name. I feel that this something that should be widely publicized as it might just encourage others to do the same. In fact, encouraging working, non-rabbinic, Torah scholars to write sefarim is something I write about in my most recent sefer “Ramat Hashulchan” which was released less than three months ago. This aspect makes the sefer an even more welcome addition to my library.
The author’s background makes this very much a sefer “By the people, for the people” type of work drastically different than the mainstream rabbinic halacha sefarim we are used to. It is written in a very informal and almost conversational manner as if the author is explaining the siddur and Jewish prayer while seated with his arm around your shoulder. However, the style and narration is sometimes over colloquial and ecclesiastical for my taste (e.g. “Grace After Meals”, “Worshippers”, “Benedictions” etc.) very reminiscent of the halacha sefarim of the Eighties. Indeed, the author has been working on this sefer for over fifteen years which certainly dates us back to the yesteryear of halacha sefarim. The author is a member of Rabbi Avishai David’s Beit Shemesh community who issued his Haskama to the sefer.
“The How & Why of Jewish Prayer” has certainly made its mark as a formidable and commanding contribution to the study of Jewish prayer and related matters. I am sure I will be referring to it time and time again.
For more on the sefer and to order a copy see: http://www.arbakanfot.com
Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues and author of “The Dalet Amot Halacha Series” (4 Vol.). He welcomes books of a halachic nature for review on the Torah Musings website. firstname.lastname@example.org
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