Book Review Roundup II
Reviews by Rabbi Ari Enkin
By Rabbi Berel Wein
Maggid / 180 pages.
In yet another masterpiece, Rabbi Berel Wein takes readers on theme-based journeys through the ages. As the title suggests, the premise of Patterns in Jewish History is that “history repeats itself” and “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Each of the fourteen chapters analyzes a different feature in the Jewish historical experience. For example, there are chapters that focus on “Women,” “The Land of Israel,” “Messianism and Mysticism,” “Economics, Wealth and Poverty”, and more.
Perhaps the most important chapter, in terms of what has had, and continues to have, the greatest effect on our nation, is the chapter on “Acculturation and Assimilation”. Unfortunately, these two concepts are often confused and misunderstood. “Acculturation” has almost always been complimentary to Jewish life; “Assimilation” has always been tragic.
As Rabbi Wein explains:
Acculturation was necessary in order to allow Jewish life to exist and even flourish in an exile dominated by non-Jewish inimical powers. Acculturation occurs regarding dress, language, secular studies, food, mannerisms and societal mores. Assimilation however reflects a deep desire to be less Jewish and to blend in completely with the surrounding environment and society….Assimilation doomed and dooms Jews to eventual demographic extinction.
Although many try to deny it, the Jews have always been influenced by their surroundings, and these influences made their way into the community and even the home. For example, while there was no intermarriage in Egypt, the nation could not shake off the influence of Egyptian culture and its pagan values. In fact, some commentators write that it was for this reason that the generation that left Egypt was not brought into the Promised Land. And the trend continued throughout history: Kings of Israel, Ezra and his intermarried flock, the Samaritans, Alexander the Great and Greek acculturation, and more. The communities of Spain, Italy, Holland, and, of course, Germany, were all centers where the battles for acculturation –and sometimes assimilation- were waged. The Rambam is probably the greatest example of victory in this battle in his dual roles as a rabbi and physician to the Sultan — not to mention his extensive Torah and secular education. Readers will be made to ponder when and what we should take from the larger non-Jewish society and which things we must forcefully reject. As history has shown us, it is a fine line down a slippery slope.
Those who believe the Jewish people are one big, common, united, and happy family are well, wrong. The Jews have never been a united family. In fact, divisiveness and separation has been the norm. The chapter on “Groupings and Movements” will take you through: the twelve tribes, the Levites who enjoyed exclusion from slave labor in Egypt, and Reuven, Gad, and Menashe who broke away from the nation to live in the trans-Jordan. After the death of Joshua it was a constant free-for- all and the tribes did not work together for the welfare of the nation or the country. The Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and every other fragment, sect, cult, and tribe that the Jewish people have known are presented. Sorry folks, the Jewish people have never been united or even too fond of each other at that.
I especially enjoyed the chapter on “Customs and Traditions” where the author shows how the observance (and rejection) of halacha and minhag has affected the Jewish people throughout the ages. Among the customs that are dealt with include: kapparot (embraced by the Chassidim, modified to the use of coins by the Lithuanians), Kitniot, gebrokts, and aveilut. We also learn how such customs drew “lines in the sand” by uniting and dividing families (and continue to do so!). It would be remiss not to mention that our minhagim were not always of Jewish origin, as readers will discover. There is also some discussion on how and when we apply “minhag mevatel halacha” – when customs can override law.
Patterns in Jewish History is a fascinating, wholesome, and well-rounded educational trip into our people’s history. It is brief and concise yet densely packed with valuable details, history, and information. It just hits you in the face with how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Really an enjoyable book!
650 pp. / Michael Haruni / Nevarech Publications
I was immediately taken aback by the beauty and structure of the new “Nehalel beShabbat” siddur. This nusach Ashkenaz siddur, containing all the relevant prayers for Shabbat, is extremely unique and represents a fresh new dimension in the publication of siddurim. Similar to the “Nevarech” bencher, the Nehalel siddur is packed with extremely powerful and stunning full-color glossy photographs. Each photograph compliments the prayer that appears on the page. The words of the prayer that correspond to the picture are highlighted, bolded, or otherwise stand out. The photographs are intended to assist the worshipper in finding inspiration in the words he is reciting.
Here are a few examples of the synthesis between the photographs and the prayers: One of the photographs that accompanies Lecha Dodi features a panoramic nighttime view of the Old City of Jerusalem with the words “v’nivneta ir al tila” highlighted. Indeed, there are dozens of photographs of Jerusalem, the Old City, the Temple Mount, and the Kotel that are dispersed throughout the siddur and feature at various mentions of Jerusalem. The Hashem Malach immediately following Lecha Dodi has a picture of giant roaring waves with the words “mikolot mayim rabim…” highlighted. The Kiddush page features large clusters of grapes on a vine corresponding to “borei pri hagafen”. In birchot hashachar, the blessing “hamechin mitzadei gaver” features Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.
As part of the Shir Hama’alot that follow the Shabbat afternoon mincha, Tehillim 123 features the infamous Nazi-Era photograph of a rabbi wearing tefillin being taunted by Nazi soldiers on the streets of Poland with the words “rabat sava la nafsheinu; hala’ag hashananim habooz l’gei yonim”. There is also a prayer for the government of the United States of America (featuring the seal of the president of the United States) and for The United Kingdom (featuring the Royal Seal). There is an index at the back of the siddur which identifies and explains each photograph.
This siddur is extremely Zionist in nature, complete with the prayer for the State of Israel and the soldiers of the IDF. It also has a prayer for soldiers still missing in action, not to mention a special Harachaman for the soldiers in the Birkat Hamazon. So too, many of the photographs are of Zionist themes, such as the famous Ben Gurion Declaration of independence, Kibbutz and kibbutznik related photographs, as well as highlights of modern aliyah (e.g. “v’hu yolicheinu komemiyot l’artzeinu”).
There is an extensive introduction to the siddur that addresses the philosophical and halachic issues relating to having photographs in a siddur. It would be remiss not to point out that many of the photographs in the siddur include women, and in some cases, the sleeve lengths and neckline exposure do not meet halachic consensus.
The “Nehalel” Siddur certainly offers readers a colorful and alternative prayer experience. The typeset is exceptionally crisp, clear, and well-spaced making for a very pleasurable read. The English translation is an impressive merge of modern and ecclesiastical English. The “Adonai” transliteration rather than the more common “Hashem”, “God” or “Lord” is an important feature for those who pray in English. Women are well represented with their own zimun, a misheberach and baruch shepetarani for bat mitzva girls, and more. Even those who, for whatever reason, will choose not to use the Nehalel Siddur for regular worship will still find it to be an attractive showpiece and “coffee table” item.
Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of “The Dalet Amot Halacha Series” (5 Vol.) and the General Editor and Halacha columnist at Torahmusings.com. He welcomes books for review on the Torah Musings website. firstname.lastname@example.org
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