Book Review: The How & Why of Jewish Prayer

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 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:

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. [email protected]


About Ari Enkin

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 of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot.


  1. “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”

    In shul? Otherwise, see melachim II 4:35 “vayashav vayeylech babayis achas heyna veachas heyna” and radak and ralbag ad loc

  2. Cool! I will certainly take a look.

    Ari Enkin

  3. r’ybs was anti-pacing iirc due to prayer being a romantic rebdevous with the shechina (would you pace on a date?)

    “In fact, encouraging working, non-rabbinic, Torah scholars to write sefarim” -iiuc there have been many in the beit medrash over the years who disagree.


  4. Of course there are those who disagree. Thats part of the attitude to “Keep the people ignorant so that the rabbis retain full control”.

    …Dont get me started.

    Ari Enkin

  5. Given the author’s obsession with dikduk he surely would have called pacing in shul a “y’hareg v’al ya’avor.” Unless he encourages summarily executing people caught pacing.

  6. …Those were my words/addition.

    Ari Enkin

  7. It was unclear to me from this review the extent to which this book has scholarly value: ie. Does it make extensive use of sources and compare various opinions? Do the sources include hebrew? etc, etc.

    I think it would be helpful if the author’s website would include excerpts more than a few paragraphs long.

  8. Most rulings and directives are not sourced. When sources are cited it is usually the Mishna Berura.

    Ari Enkin

  9. R’ Ari:

    I hope you mean “the content is simply exhaustive,” because if it’s exhausting … well, let’s just say I have enough to tire me out without buying a book to complete the job. 🙂

  10. “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

    R. Chaim Brisker was also against this practice. He once jokingly referred to the Mishna which states that one of the miracles in the Beis ha Mikdash was Omdim Tsefufim U’Mishtachavim Birvacha. Now the second part was clearly a miracle, but why mention the first part? What was so miraculous about that? Said R. Chaim (jokingly), because people naturally want to pace around, and yet, out or respect for the BHMK, they all stood still, Omdim Tsefufim. That was a real miracle!

  11. MJ,
    You beat me to it.

  12. Regarding “Advice for the Congregants” – according to your description that list of advice seems to be taken verbatim from R. Shlomo Aviner. Is he quoted?

    See here

  13. Yitz-

    Somebody is indeed quoted. I dont have the sefer handy to check just right now, but if I recall correctly the citation was from Torah Tidbits, but I could be wrong.

    Ari Enkin

  14. It has been brought to my attention that Rabbi Moshe Tendler and Rabbi Dr. Fred Rosner have ruled that it is forbidden to say “Jeh**a’s Witnesses” or the word “Jeh**va”.

    While Israel Rubin’s arguments are convincing, I felt it worthwhile to mention the alternative view owing to the seriousness of the matter.

    Ari Enkin

  15. In reponse to Yitz Tendler, I was unaware that the source was “Torat Harav Aviner”. On page 95 of my book, in the footnote # 58 I give credit to the Torah Tidbits , whose permission I obtained to quote this advice.

    On page 58 of my book, I quoted from Torah Tidbits “Advice for Congregants”. I obtained permission from Phil Chernofsky. The footnote #58 clearly gives the credit to TT.

    My face is red! Had I been aware of Rav Aviner’s article, I would surely have requested permission to reprint. At any rate, thanks for calling it to my attention. I sent a letter of apology to Rav Aviner.

    Israel Rubin

    I hope that you will accept my apologies.

  16. . SD on September 6 raises three points:

    1) The” extent to which this book has scholarly value”.

    The author has made no claim about the scholarly value of this book. SD would do well to read the book, especially the introduction and aim of the book. Such a reading is sure to offer much more than he can afford to miss. Tangentially, while identifying the value of scholarly output is important in today’s world of information overload, new approaches have surfaced to focus on some of the many dynamics that should be considered when assessing the value. Hopefully these new methodologies should harmonize with traditional approaches for a more complete value assessment. Regrettably, a book review is an inadequate basis for such an evaluation.

    2) his second point, “does it make extensive use of sources and compare various opinions? Do the sources include Hebrew? Etc., etc.”
    Again, SD would do well to read the book. There are well over 1000 footnotes. The original manuscript contained over 1300 pages of text, including Hebrew. The most difficult and painful task was to trim down the book to its present size of 730 pages. All of the Hebrew was edited out along with many sources. Many factors went into this decision, primarily consideration for the target audience.

    3) SD’s final point is to expand the excerpts on the web site. The excerpts are mere teasers and not intended as a substitute for the text.

  17. Shalom!
    I am Rav Aviner’s “Ozer” and the translator of his writings into English. I passed your e-mail along to Rav Aviner and he said that it is no problem and you have his permission to use it. The most important thing is that it helps Klal Yisrael. He requested, if possible, to send a copy of the book. He would love to see it.
    If you are able to send one please send to:
    Mordechai Tzion
    Mitzpe Nevo 114/3
    Maale Adumim
    and I will bring it to him.
    With Torah blessings from the heart of Jerusalem –
    Mordechai Tzion
    Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim
    under the leadership of Ha-Rav Shlomo Aviner Shlit”a

    For Torah comes forth from Tzion,
    and the word of Hashem from YESHIVAT ATERET YERUSHALAYIM

    —– Original Message —–
    From: Israel Rubin
    To: [email protected]
    Cc: Rabbi Ari Enkin
    Sent: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 7:10 PM
    Subject: How and Why of Jewish Prayer

    Dear Rav Aviner,

    On page 95 of my book, I quoted from Torah Tidbits “Advice for Congregants”. I obtained permission from Phil Chernofsky. The footnote #58 clearly gives the credit to TT.

    One reader called to my attention that your website had “How to Daven without Bothering Others” which in essence is what appeared in Torah Tidbits.

    My face is red! Had I been aware of your article, I would surely have requested permission from you to reprint.

    I hope that you will accept my apologies.

    Israel Rubin
    23 Asher Street
    Beit shemesh

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