Shabbos Guides

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by R. Gil Student

I. Shabbos Isn’t Simple

I have a working theory that the complexity of a halakhic topic is inversely proportional to the length of its treatment in the Written Torah. When more will not be enough, less is better. The laws of Shabbos, whose thirty nine categories of labor only begin to describe the Torah’s requirements, are only mentioned in general in the Bible, with but a handful of exceptions. Instead, the Oral Torah leads the way.

The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, the nineteenth century concise code of Jewish law (which we discussed here), seems to take a similar approach and only offers highlights of Hilkhos Shabbos rather than a comprehensive treatment. However, writers of popular compendia of religious practice have stepped up to fill in the gap. The lamented passing of R. Yehoshua Neuwirth, arguably the author of the greatest such book in the twentieth century, offers us the opportunity to think about the genre and discuss a number of examples published over the past few decades.

To be sure, popular compendia on Hilkhos Shabbos are nothing new. A recurring observance of this nature demands intricate familiarity of its guidelines. R. Avraham Danziger, author of the Chayei Adam, wrote Zikhru Toras Moshe in the late eighteenth century to help older boys learn the laws of Shabbos. This book is an excellent resource for adults, as well. More recently, R. Gedaliah Felder’s Yesodei Yeshurun (vols. 3-5), published from 1958 to 1965, covers the laws of Shabbos in a popular format, adding important rulings of his own on contemporary issues. I would like to limit our discussion here to R. Neuwirth’s Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah and a few–certainly not all–similar Hebrew and English books published since.

II. Strict or Lenient?

Three decisions stand out to me as crucial in writing a popular work on the laws of Shabbos. The first is the level of stringency. Do you want to rule strictly, to prevent the unsophisticated public from making mistakes? Or do you want to rule leniently, because the broader public should not be subject to anything not absolutely required. My own preference is that an author call it like he sees it, but that only pushes the question to the personality of the author: does his training and temperament tilt him toward leniency or stringency?

In evaluating a book, I often find it difficult to decide whether the author is strict, lenient or neither for a few reasons. First, what is mainstream? Sometimes it is cultural, the norm in a particular community which is difficult to determine from a distance. At best, you can compare similar books and determine relative approaches–this book is stricter than the other.

Second, an author can be lenient in one place and strict elsewhere. You have to do a broad comparison of many different rulings to establish a pattern, or lack thereof. Additionally, you have to compare the text to the footnotes. Are the conclusions different, as often happens? Does the author explain why he is ruling strictly or leniently, based on a local reason or a broad approach? Because of the complexity of this evaluation, I leave it for others with more interest in this particular issue, without discounting its importance.

III. Order and Depth

A second consideration is the structure of presentation. The Tur, followed by Shulchan Arukh and commentaries, teaches the laws of Shabbos in rough order of the day. It starts with the laws of Shabbos preparations, proceeds through the order of the evening, onto the morning and afternoon, filling in laws where appropriate and then adding more at the end that had no obvious place. The result is quite confusing. I often tell people that they cannot learn the laws of Shabbos from the Mishnah Berurah because, for a novice, the presentation is so confusing. Any commentary to Shulchan Arukh must follow this order, although the Mishnah Berurah and Arukh Ha-Shulchan mitigate the confusion by adding periodic overviews.

Another approach is to teach each of the thirty nine Shabbos labors separately, with proper introductions, overviews and miscellaneous sections. The Chayei Adam follows this approach with much success. A third approach is to organize the laws entirely by topic, based on contemporary experience rather than Shabbos chronology or technical labor categories. As we shall see, most guides today follow one of these last two approaches.

The third consideration is depth. A Shabbos guide that teaches detailed law after detailed law can serve as an excellent reference work but makes for dry reading. It is too boring to read from cover to cover. An overview that teaches general principles may oversimplify. Every author must find a balance between comprehensiveness and readability.

IV. Hebrew Shabbos Guides

R. Yehoshua Neuwirth’s Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah was a groundbreaking and lasting contribution for a number of reasons. The book follows a topical order and provides overviews of sub-topics followed by comprehensive detail. Written in Modern Hebrew, its footnotes provide ample resources for scholars plus–importantly–a plethora of oral rulings from the important scholar, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, that for decades were unavailable elsewhere. Additionally, R. Neuwirth dealt with many technological issues that arose in the mid- to late-twentieth century. His book was not only accessible to a broad readership but also valuable to scholars, leading it to become a classic that has survived for decades.

In contrast, R. Yaakov Posen’s Kitzur Hilkhos Shabbos, originally published in 1974, is brief and follows the order of the thirty nine labors. His language is concise but remarkably precise, offering many details to scholars that novices will not even notice. He focuses on applications of the laws to contemporary life (of the 1970s), addressing technological developments as well. This short book seems to have been largely forgotten, despite its sustained value.

V. English Shabbos Guides

The first detailed English treatment of the Shabbos laws of which I know is R. Shimon Eider’s Halachos of Shabbos. Similar to R. Neuwirth’s Hebrew book, R. Eider’s organizes the laws according to topic and contains many otherwise (at the time) unknown rulings by important authorities. Personally, I always found the book boring but an important tool for both laymen and scholars. It has largely been surpassed by newer English books.

R. Simcha Bunim Cohen’s six volume series on the laws of Shabbos follows a combination of topical and labor organization. Generally speaking, within each topic the author arranges material by labor. He presents overviews of each subject and then detailed laws. However, unlike R. Neuwirth and R. Eider, R. Cohen provides (to my recollection) very few unpublished rulings of famous authorities. This makes his volumes less valuable to scholars, despite his extensive footnotes. On the other hand, he addresses technology of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. His language is also very readable.

R. Gersion Appel’s second volume of his Concise Code of Jewish Law, published in 1989, remains unique among English Shabbos guides. This book follows both the labors and topics, somewhat duplicatively. What R. Appel innovated was a way to be both comprehensive and interesting. His main text is a straightforward explanation of the detailed laws, which can become dry. Unlike other books in this genre, the Concise Code‘s footnotes are intended for the general public and discuss issues of popular interest. The text has the details and the easily identifiable footnotes contains the highlights, i.e. the practical applications. You can flip through the book and the footnotes will answer many of your questions. Detailed sources are then provided in endnotes.

Another unique aspect of R. Appel’s book is his canon of authorities. The books already discussed quote almost exclusively from Ashkenazic Charedi halakhic authorities. R. Neuwirth’s selection is somewhat broader. In contrast, R. Appel quotes extensively on R. Yitzchak Herzog and R. Chaim David Halevy (and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, when available), in addition to standard Charedi scholars like R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Yitzchak Weiss and R. Moshe Stern.

I am happy to say that this book has been revised and updated by R. Daniel Goldstein and is scheduled for republication by OU Press. I have a not insignificant role in this publication.

VI. A Different Hebrew Guide

R. Eliezer Melamed has published three volumes of Peninei Halakhah on Shabbos, part of a larger series on Jewish practice. Like some other works, R. Melamed arranges the laws by topic. However, in my opinion, his organization of topics surpasses all others, allowing for extremely easy navigation (he also provides his books for free on his yeshiva’s website: link).

Additionally, unlike the other books mentioned, he has very few footnotes. His book is meant to be a popular guide. Instead of footnotes, he took the unusual step of publishing an additional volume with essays discussing the sources and explaining his line of reasoning at length (he calls it harchavos, expansions). This substitution is, in my opinion, a great improvement content-wise on footnotes but it causes logistical difficulties. When I use his book, I have to take two with me off the shelf–one with the text I am using and another with the sources. Significantly, R. Melamed engages extensively with Religious Zionist and Sephardic authorities whose voices are often inexcusably ignored in guidebooks. I believe the text, without the expansions, has been translated into English for publication.

VII. Conclusion

I realize that I have only discussed some of the many available books. I selected those that I believe are excellent and with which I am sufficiently familiar to describe them. However, even from this limited selection we can see the ingredients for a successful halakhic guide in a crowded market.

As any educator knows, in order to teach a subject you have to be organized. Writing about a complex topic like the laws of Shabbos requires not just expertise but also organization. You need a successful lesson plan on how you want your readers to learn both the big picture and the details. You also need to balance between speaking to experts and novices. Dayan Posen’s book succeeded solely on his excellent pedagogy.

You also need to address contemporary issues. You cannot teach the laws of Shabbos as if we are still living in 18th century Lithuania. And if you provide original material, new rulings by respected authorities or even citations from important but often ignored authorities, you will add enduring value.

(Adapted from a post in June 2013)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Perhaps this is not exactly on topic, but since R’ Ribiat’s 39 Melochos book is popular, could you add a few of your thoughts about that?

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