by Israel Drazin
(Shabbat the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas at Amazon.com)
The Jewish Sabbath, called Shabbat in Hebrew, is the most important day on the Jewish calendar. It recalls that God created the world and that God revealed laws, such as the Shabbat itself. Jews stress the staying power of Shabbat: more than a Jew keeps Shabbat, Shabbat keeps the Jew.
Shabbat has both positive and negative rules, procedures and ceremonies that Jews should practice, such as enjoying the day by wearing the finest clothes and eating and drinking good food and drink, and behaviors Jews should avoid, such as lighting fires, driving and working. The rabbis counted thirty-nine basic prohibitions, but both the positive and negative rules contain many minutiae. Rabbi Cohen addresses over 70 questions focusing on how various rabbis felt that these rules should be implemented. Rabbi Cohen states that he decides religious questions only after reviewing “proper religious sources” in an impartial manner without any preconceived desire to decide the issue leniently or stringently.
Here is an example of his methodology: When guests are present at the Friday night meal when a blessing is said over wine, called Kiddush, may a man say the blessing for all or must each male make the blessing for himself and his family? Rabbi Cohen cites seven opinions. Some prefer a single blessing while others contend that each man should make his own Kiddush. One of the seven rulings states that the solution depends on personal preference. In this case, Rabbi Cohen concludes the issue leniently: “preference should be granted to one person to recite Kiddush on behalf of everyone.”
But Rabbi Cohen is not always lenient. For instance, he writes that a woman may recite the Friday night Kiddush for her husband and family. However, even though the technical halakha allows this, she should not make kiddush for non-family members since this, according to some rabbinic decisors, would be a breach of the rules of modesty.
Some may also see a stringency in the following example: although a Jew may violate Shabbat to save a person’s life, it is preferable that the Jew ask a non-Jew to perform the act since &8220;it is possible” that the person being saved is not in real danger and, if there is no fear of death, Shabbat should not be violated for that person.
Other subjects discussed include the different practices of how to begin the Friday night Kiddush and whether it is obligatory to say Kiddush on Shabbat morning. Although Jews prefer to avoid mentioning God’s name, Cohen says that it is permitted when singing the Shabbat Zemirot, “songs.” However, he writes that if the stanza is repeated, the word Hashem, “the Name,” should be substituted in the repetition. Cohen allows inviting Jews to one’s home on Shabbat even if one knows the person will violate Shabbat by driving to the home, but only if the purpose of the invitation is to guide the invitee to become more religiously observant.
Women, he writes, may apply lipstick on Shabbat. People may shower with hot water on holidays but may not bathe. Children over age five may not play ball on Shabbat. Some authorities permitted using a dishwasher with a timer on Shabbat, others disagree, and Cohen offers no opinion. One may not ride a bicycle on Shabbat, but one may ride in a rickshaw bicycle driven by a non-Jew.
Some synagogues announce that the observance of Shabbat should not start before a certain time. They differ about the time. Some rabbis say it is one hour and fifteen minutes before sunset. Other rabbis contend it is one hour and fifteen minutes before stars are completely visible. However Rabbi Cohen writes that there are rabbis who allow Jews to start Shabbat much earlier.
Some readers may feel that Rabbi Cohen leans toward making stringent decisions and emphasizes the prohibitions rather than the enjoyable aspect of Shabbat. Some readers may be bothered by some responses. For example, one reason for saying the Kiddush in synagogue on Friday night is the mystical notion that it helps heal eyes. Another example is the question why do many families eat fish at the Friday night meal? The answer is that since animals are associated with a mitzvah of proper slaughtering, but fish are not since they do not require ritual slaughtering, we associate fish with the Shabbat, which is a mitzvah.
Some of Cohen’s rulings are generally ignored even by very observant Jews, such as the prohibition to greet people by saying Gut Shabbat, meaning “have a good Shabbat,” before the time when Shabbat could begin.
Readers reading the many different rabbinical opinions on the various questions may ask why there are disagreements and what does this say about the significance of the rulings that are made, especially if Rabbi Cohen’s ruling is stringent. Why not follow the lenient view? They may also wonder why some customs, which began fairly recently, have become obligatory. They may note that virtually all of the rabbinical rulings mentioned in the book are from rabbis who lived in the post-talmudic period, mostly during the past five hundred years, and discuss issues that did not bother the talmudic rabbis, such as wishing someone Gut Shabbat. They may also recognize that many rulings were made because of concerns about something extraneous to the matter at hand, as the case of the woman reciting the Kiddush, mentioned above.
Be this as it may, some readers will be guided by his rulings and all will find the conflicting rabbinic views rather interesting.
The original text of the review may be found here.