Reviews by: Rabbi Ari Enkin
Peninei Halacha: The Laws of Prayer
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (Translated by: Atira Ote)
Maggid / 412 pp.
Peninei Halacha: The Laws of Prayer, is a translation of the first volume Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s incredibly popular (here in Israel, at least) halachic work of the same name. Until now, Rav Melamed’s works have been largely inaccessible to the Anglo “learning” community. I believe that there are two primary reasons for this. One reason is probably because Rabbi Melamed is a senior figure in the Israeli “dati-leumi” world, rendering his sefarim off-limits, or “off- shelves,” at least, in chareidi yeshivot.. Additionally, and more significantly, Rav Melamed writes in modern Israeli Ivrit rather than the traditional “lashon kodesh”, which many Anglo scholars find tedious and sometimes intimidating.
For the first time, Peninei Halacha is available in English beginning with the volume on prayer. For those unfamiliar with Rav Melamed, he presents halacha in a magnificent and unprecedented manner. In Peninei Halacha, the laws of prayer are presented in twenty-six chapters addressing different prayer-related topics, such as “The Minyan,” “The Place of Prayer,” “Preparations for Prayer,” “Nusach,” and more. There are also chapters on each of the sections of the morning prayers, from waking up in the morning to Korbanot, Pesukei D’zimra, Kriat Shema, and the Amida, through to the end of the morning service. There are also chapters on Mincha, Maariv, and the Bedtime Shema. Each chapter contains many subsections discussing specific issues of that topic, all of which is noted in the Table of Contents.
Rav Melamed doesn’t simply cite sources, but rather, he skillfully weaves together a variety of sources in order to present the halacha as he feels it should be observed. There is thorough treatment of philosophical, historical, and other non-halachic issues as part of every chapter: why we pray, the meaning of prayer, what the morning netilat yadayim represents, all about the ru’ach ra’ah, etc. Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Yemenite customs are cited throughout. There is no other halacha sefer –and certainly not a halacha series — like it.
There are very thorough and scholarly endnotes at the end of every chapter. These notes include Talmudic sources and their commentaries, along with the rulings of halachic authorities throughout the ages. The translation is impressively smooth and flawless making for a very pleasurable read. An index corresponding to chapter numbers in the Shulchan Aruch, as has become nearly universal today in halacha sefarim, would have been an appreciated addition.
One of the exceptionally informative chapters is on the often evaded korbanot. Not to fear, however. As the author explains, although the recitation of korbanot is certainly important, it is not truly obligatory. In fact, it was never officially instituted by chazal. Nevertheless, the reasons for the various components of the korbanot section are clearly explained from a historical, practical, and kabbalistic perspective. Indeed, there some very interesting and widely unknown explanations.
The author does not hesitate to make bold or unpopular rulings when appropriate, which is a refreshing feature of Rav Melamed in general, and the sefer in particular. That being said, readers will quickly note that Rav Melamed does not make these rulings because he seeks to rule leniently or stir controversy. Rather, it is because he believes such rulings to be both urgent and true. To cite but one example: In a discussion regarding permitted interruptions during the birchot kriat shema, he notes that in the Talmudic era, and even through to the era of the Shulchan Aruch, it was permitted to respond to (and often initiate) greetings to respected and/or feared individuals. The author then correctly notes that consensus among halachic authorities is that these halachot are inapplicable today. This is because nowadays “distinguished people are not insulted when they are not greeted. Therefore, no permission is granted to interrupt in the middle of Kriat Shema and its berachot in order to address a distinguished person or a person who must be revered.” But, Rav Melamed adds, “[nevertheless], a ba’al teshuvah, whose parents do not understand the value of his prayer, is permitted to say “shalom” to them.”
Other halachic highlights include: Non-religious Jews should be counted towards a minyan though they should not be invited to lead the prayers; those who don’t understand Hebrew can choose whether to pray in Hebrew (along with its inherent benefits) or to pray in the language one understands; is the creation of nusachot was a good thing or would we have been better off simply reciting personalized prayers three times a day; all nusachot were created equal – there is no nusach superior to the next; one who regularly prays in a synagogue that uses a different nusach from one’s own is permitted to change to the synagogue’s nusach if one wishes to do so; if talking is widespread in your synagogue then find a different synagogue to pray in; one should be wearing a belt in one’s pants when praying; don’t pray vatikin if doing so will make you tired and ruin your day; if there is no Levi then a firstborn should wash the Kohen’s hands; those who missed the Torah reading in the morning can assemble together and read it in the afternoon.
Hopefully, with the English translation of Peninei Halacha, Rav Melamed’s rulings and authority will be available to a much larger audience. It’s detailed, yet clear, making it easy to understand and appropriate for scholars and layman alike. We are fortunate to finally have access to Peninei Halacha in English.
Sages of the Talmud
Urim / 345 pages
By: Rabbi Mordechai Judovits
Sages of the Talmud is an encyclopedic work on 400 Talmudic sages that are found on the pages of the Talmud. The various sages are listed in alphabetical order. After the sages’ name, it is noted in which century he lived and whether he was a Tanna, Amora, Babylonian or Palestinian. The listing continues with stories and anecdotes which help the reader understand the sage’s personality and the social environment in which he lived. Their rulings, ethical teachings, and famous sayings are cited, as well. In some cases bibliographical information is also included, especially regarding the lesser-known sages.
For example, the entry on Pinhas ben Yair states:
Rabbi Pinchas was a son-in-law of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and his student for many years. He lived in southern Israel, not far from Ashkelon, and was active in the mitzva of redeeming prisoners…It is said of Rabbi Pinhas that never in his life did he eat bread that was not his own…R. Pinhas b. Yair said, “Zeal leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity. Purity leads to self-restraint, and self-restraint leads to sanctity.
The Talmudic sources for all such stories and sayings are cited. Entries range from a single paragraph up to several pages, depending on the prominence of the sage and his frequency of appearance on the pages of the Talmud.
Most people do not know when each of the sages of the Talmud lived and what the outside world looked like at that time. Many don’t even realize that there were hundreds of years between the earliest and latest sages of the Talmud. This is true even regarding different sages who are found on the same page of Talmud! And so, what is exceptionally unique in this work is that at the end of every entry, not only are the dates when each sage lived included, but readers are directed to an appendix at the back of the book which lists the historic highlights of regional events that took place during that time. For example, at the conclusion of the entry on Rava, we are told he lived between 250 and 350 CE. Turning to the pages that discuss these years at the back of the book one will find historical tidbits such as:
• Gallus became Roman emperor in 251 and was assassinated in 253
• Valerian attempted to recover the territories lost to King Shapur of Persia, but was captured by Shapur in 259 and held captive until his death ten years later, in 269
• Aurelian was assassinated in 275
• In 325, several hundred bishops led by Constantine attended the first meeting of the council of Christian churches in Nicea
• During Constantius’s reign, two Roman generals who were active in Judea, Gallus and Ursicinus, did not respect the Jewish religion at all, demanding that the Jews supply them with fresh bread on the Sabbath and leavened bread on Passover.
Although the entries are very interesting, educational, and satisfying, in some cases a slight expansion to include additional factoids and tidbits would have made the book even more exciting. For example, the entry on Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia could have included some information on his relationship to Jesus and the latter’s departure from Torah observance. It would also have been a nice touch to include the folklore on Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair’s donkey, in his entry. An alphabetical Table of Contents or Index of the sages included in the book would have been a handy addition.
Sages of the Talmud is a valuable reference book for every home. It is very useful to have a single volume in which one can look up the name of any sage and immediately learn the fundamental information about and teachings of that individual. There is also an appendix listing significant places in Babylonia and the Land of Israel and some details on the significance of these places and who lived in them. The introduction to the book includes an interesting discussion on why the sages of the Talmud had, more often than not, Babylonian names rather than traditional biblical ones, among other issues of Talmudic interest. Even those less “Talmudicly-inclined” will enjoy and appreciate the words of wisdom of our sages and their teachings. Truly a worthwhile contribution.
The Guide to Traditional Jewish Observance in a Hospital (PDF)
By: Rabbi Jason Weiner / 109pp
Rabbi Jason Weiner has performed a valuable service by compiling a guide to halachic observance when in hospitals and similar settings. The Guide to Traditional Jewish Observance in a Hospital magnificently presents the many halachic issues that both patient and visitor/caregiver must be aware of. Areas covered include: Shabbat, Holidays, Food, Prayer, Interactions with the Opposite sex, Kohanim, and Post Mortem Care. In addition to the Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura, rulings related to contemporary and detailed medical issues are based largely on the Lev Avraham and Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata. In fact, the style and arrangement is quite similar to that of Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata.
Halachic highlights include: mental health issues often assume the same halachic status as physical health issues; better to turn on LCD and LED lights on Shabbat rather than standard incandescent light bulbs when needed; better to mark patients records on a computer rather than writing with ink; even a patient who is not dangerously ill may press the ‘call button’ for assistance if done in a shinui; patients discharged on Shabbat can go home by means of a non-Jewish driver; one may carry inside a hospital on Shabbat even if the city is not surrounded by an eruv; when faced with a choice it is better to have surgery on Yom Tov rather than Shabbat; for mishlo’ach manot trade meals with another patient.
Halachic issues relating to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where the author serves as rabbi, are presented in a grey box alongside the corresponding halacha. For example, in the section on Kiddush, a grey box appears advising readers how to arrange for kosher wine, grape juice, and bread at the Medical Center. In the section on the use of an elevator on Shabbat the corresponding grey box lists where the Shabbat Elevators are located in the Medical Center and how they work.
The material is well organized and clearly presented. It is a very handy guide for those who need to know these halachot. To order the book, contact Jason.email@example.com.
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