Review of Innovation in Jewish Law in Shofar

by Daniel P. Aldrich

Innovation in Jewish Law: A Case Study of Chiddush in Havineinu, by Michael J. Broyde. Jerusalem and New York: Urim Publications, 2010. 163 pp.

The vast body of Jewish law—halacha—is timeless and unchanging, yet displays a dynamism that allows rabbinic scholars to respond to new social, technological, and economic situations over millennia. As the author points out, “Though the Torah is G-d given, halacha is neither static nor stagnant” (p. 133).

In this new, well-written book by Michael Broyde, the author takes a case-study approach to tease apart the interplay between the timelessness and dynamism of halacha. He argues that within the canon of Jewish law, the most “significant form of change is innovative interpretation,” or chiddush. To provide evidence for this, Broyde chooses to focus on a single prayer, known in Hebrew as Havineinu, which is an “abstract, abridged form of the Shemonei Esrei” (p. 5), literally “The 18,” made up of blessings set down by the Anshei Knesset HaGadolah (the men of the Great Assembly). While the Amidah (Standing Prayer) has become the standard text recited by Jews around the world, the Havineinu was a rabbinically recognized alternative. Beginning with the writings in the Mishna and the Gemara (Oral Law), through the Rishonim (later generations of scholars), the Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135–1204), the Rif (Yitzchak al-Fasi, 1013–1103), the Bach (Rabbi Joel Sirkes, 1560–1640), the Taz (David ha-Levi Segal, 1586–1667), and modern rabbis such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), Broyde traces how generations of poskim (halachic decisors) have handled this abbreviated form of prayer, arguing that decisors use two main methods—“harmonization” and “ruling”—in their interpretation of Jewish law. The ways in which rabbis interpreted the appropriateness of the Havineinu reflect a singular, unchanging law which is refracted through changing social and technological conditions.

While the law is unchanged, conditions allowing or dictating its use have, and hence poskim must understand both the law and their own times to illuminate the proper course of action.

Broyde begins with two statements from the Oral Law—the Mishna itself in Mesechet Brachot 4:3 and a parallel discussion among the rabbis on page 29a of the same folio. It is clear from these original sources that the Jews should not recite the Havineinu prayer under standard conditions—if so, under what circumstances may one recite an abridged form of the Amidah? The rabbis of the Mishna focus on various factors, including sha’as ha’d’chak (pressure, whether because of a worker’s obligations to an employer or because of potential danger) and “shortness of speech” (p. 59) (meaning the contents of this prayer are better understood than the longer one, and that it can be said with more feeling and intention than the standard Amidah). While there initially seems to be disagreement about the conditions under which the Havineinu should be said, “all these commentaries reach amazingly uniform rulings” (p. 66) on what should be done.

The book shows how changes in technology (such as the introduction of the printing press), social circumstances (flexible work environments, better education for the average Jew, and a lack of danger) “made it easier or even more practical for one to recite the full Shemonei Esrei” (p. 121). As a result, by the twenty-first century the Havineinu has fallen into disuse, and the standard siddurim (prayer books) in North and South America and Europe often do not have its text. However, soldiers and law enforcement personnel in modern Israel regularly face the all-too-real dangers of kidnapping, terrorist attacks, and suicide bombings and hence have use for such a prayer. With their time and attention limited, they still connect to the Almighty, but through this abbreviated text. As a result, siddurim in Israel regularly carry its full text along with instructions on when to use it.

This book serves as an excellent text for undergraduate classes on Jewish studies which seek to understand the process of halachic decision making. It makes good use of tables to elucidate the often complex and nuanced arguments put forth by participants in the arguments. Additionally, Innovation in Jewish Law provides original sources (in Hebrew) alongside English translations—a very useful feature for students seeking to improve their Hebrew. Its length makes it quite approachable even for introductory undergraduate seminars.

I have a few quibbles with the book. First, it could have been strengthened by the inclusion of biographical details about the halachic decisors when they first appear in the first three chapters. While Chapter Four does include birth and death dates for these scholars, it would have helped to have this information earlier in the text so that readers can better understand the process of mesorah (tradition) and innovation over time.

Next, Broyde argues that changes in Jewish law have been primarily incremental (cf. p. 150)—but the example of the re-introduction of the full text of the Havineinu in modern Israel siddurim involves a recent, radical shift which was only possible after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. A fuller discussion of this shift would have been beneficial to readers. Finally, a brief, comparative look at other areas of incremental change in Jewish law—even if only through “shadow cases” of more politicized or controversial topics—could have solidified the core argument.

This book provides a new framework for future researchers who can seek to elucidate other examples of incremental shifts in Jewish law. In an era when far too few of us understand the mesorah that we have received, this book helps to put the often overlooked work of our rabbis in historical and social perspective.

This review appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of  Shofar (Vol. 30, No. 1).

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