A Review of Shabbat, The Right Way

by Gil Student

Shabbat: The Right Way
Shabbat: The Right Way

The application of Shabbat laws to contemporary circumstances is no simple task. So much of daily life has changed over the past century, not least of which is the blossoming of electronic technology, that the rabbinic discussions are dizzying to the untrained. Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen has selected topics on the laws of Shabbat, explaining simply and concisely the different opinions on the issues and offering practical conclusions. The book is not comprehensive, but instead focuses on highlights throughout the twenty-five-hour Shabbat period. He chooses some basic but interesting topics such as the details of Kiddush—the proper way to fill and hold the cup, whether to stand or sit, and more—and complex subjects such as showering on Shabbat and dancing at a sheva berachot. Rabbi Cohen is at his best when presenting the views of great authorities on the issues of the day. His clarity of language and thinking make him an excellent conduit of the halachic decisors of our day.

The original article appeared in the Jewish Action and can be viewed here.

Two New Books on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by Professor Oscar Mohl

The OU Press has brought out two very significant books on the thought of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The first is by one of the Rav’s illustrious students, Professor Gerald Blidstein, a recipient of the Israel Prize in Jewish Thought, a fellow of Israel’s National Academy of Sciences, and professor emeritus in the department of Jewish thought at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, Israel. The second is by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, a member of the editorial team bringing out the series MeOtzar HoRav: Selected Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. S’oloveitchik published by the Toras HoRav Foundation.

Professor Blidstein takes up major themes in the Rav’s writings, exploring whether the Rav really was a Religious-Zionist thinker, his position as a communal leader reflected in his published letters on public affairs, and his willingness to explore topics like marriage as well as mourning and death. He introduces these penetrating and insightful essays with a personal description of what it meant to be a student of the Rav decades ago:

Most students trembled, I think, not only for fear – Continue reading “Two New Books on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik”

On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations

by Gil Student

Rabbi Daniel Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, rose to fame with the publication of his widely acclaimed and award-winning eight-volume study of Jewish customs, Minhagei Yisrael. One would expect a researcher of customs to defend and preserve them. This makes his recent book, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations, all the more surprising. With a complete command of prayerbook manuscripts and liturgical history, and somewhat less impressive analysis of halachic sources, Rabbi Sperber permits, coming close to advocating, changing blessings and prayers to wordings that are more inclusive of females. Specifically, he allows for the recitation of “Who has made me an Israelite” in the Morning Blessings rather than the standard “Who has not made me a woman” and the incorporation of the names of the Matriarchs alongside the Patriarchs at the beginning of the Amidah prayer. Permission for these deviations is quite extraordinary within the Orthodox community. I leave to rabbis greater than I the evaluation of whether the changes permitted in this book belong in the Orthodox community.

The original review appeared in the Jewish Action and can be viewed here.

Hearing Text Speak to You Personally

by Batya Yaniger 

What I’m about to describe is a learning experience that I believe is different from typical analytical study but also different from using the text in the service of my own agenda. It has something to do with hearing the text speak to me personally, in the same sense that logotherapy posits that reality is speaking to us personally – challenging us, evoking our will to meaning, eliciting our strengths and calling us out of hiding to become who we are meant to be. Similarly the text is one such reality. Study is an intimate encounter.

In fact for a Jewish person reading Jewish texts God’s personal call should come through even more strongly than the call coming through the reality of life. By being so intent on analyzing the text I believe we are missing that call! This is why it’s so important to me to formulate this process.

Here’s what one such learning experience was like:

A new book has just come out titled Stages of Spiritual Growth: Resolving the Tension Between Self-expression and Submission to Divine Will, by Batya Gallant. Although I know I always say this about every book, I feel this book is particularly suited to chevruta(study partner) study.

One day I was reading and contemplating the chapter on gevurah (to predominate/prevail) with a friend. The author describes the spiritual process towards a healthy relationship towards authority and how our preconceived ideas about submitting to authority can make us feel diminished and disempowered…

As we studied the book we went through a process of Continue reading “Hearing Text Speak to You Personally”

Tefila On Demand

by Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen

As to whether Tefila is a request or a demand, the following related article published this month in my latest book, Jewish Prayer: The Right Way, Resolving Halachic Dilemmas (Urim Publications) suggests at times it may be a demand. (See pp.21-22)

Different Approaches To Prayer

Question: Are there different mindsets and approaches to prayer?

Response: Yes.The following response was culled from a taped shiur of HaRav HaGoan R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik,(ZL) Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva University which was recorded over fifty years ago at Congregation Moriah in Manhattan, NY.

The Talmud (Berachot 34b) reports the following:

Rav Gamliel’s son was ill. To pray for his son’s recovery, Rav Gamliel sent two Torah scholars to Rav Chanina ben Dosa. Upon viewing the scholars approach, Rav Chanina went up to his attic and solely prayed for recovery. When they came before Rav Chanina, he informed them that the sick person was already cured. Subsequently, the scholars were able to substantiate not only the cure but also the time the cure took place.

Some issues of concern. Why did Rav Gamliel send two students? Why not one? Why the necessity to send Torah scholars? Also, why did not Rav Chanina wait for the scholars to formally make the request?

Subequently, Rav Chanina ben Dosa became a student of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai. Once Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s son was ill and Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his student, Rav Chanina to pray for his ill son. Rav Chanina ben Dosa put his head down by his knees and prayed and cured the illness.

At issue is the rationale for Rav Chanina’s bizarre mode of prayer.Why did he put his head down by his legs? What message did such a prayer impart? Continue reading “Tefila On Demand”

History and Fiction

by Mordechai Nisan

I remember seeing Yehuda in the library at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. We would exchange greetings, and he would plunge into his reading.  I didn’t know that he was working on a labor of love – a book about Herod.

The story of Herod and the era associated with him is cut from the historical cloth of three primary dates: in 167 BCE the Hasmoneans [Maccabees] fought their way to Jewish independence from under Greek Hellenic rule and the Jewish state arose again; in 63 BCE the Roman Empire quashed Jewish independence; in 47 BCE Herod of Idumean and Nabatean parentage became the governor of the Galilee and then King of Judea in 37 BCE until his death in the year 4.

Herod, as Yehuda’s book grippingly describes, “had to be king.” He was driven by a passion for power and used any and all methods deemed necessary in his view – murdering his own sons, causing the death of his wife, killing rabbis of the Sanhedrin, slaughtering Jews – in order to rule Judea even under Roman authority. His regime was based on terror and cruelty, intrigue and plunder, while yet adorning the country with the rudiments of Greek culture and Roman construction. He built – rather enlarged – the Temple in Jerusalem, the port of Caesarea, roads and theatres, gymnasia and fortresses. One of them, Herodion where he is buried, bears his name until today. Continue reading “History and Fiction”

Chapter 3 from Covenantal Imperatives: Essays by Walter S. Wurzburger on Jewish Law, Thought and Community

Essay excerpt by Walter S. Wurzburger,
edited by Eliezer L. Jacobs and Shalom Carmy

Covenantal Imperatives

Darkhei Shalom1 (on account of the ways of peace) represents a maxim which is frequently invoked in Talmudic literature as justification for a variety of rabbinic ordinances designed to supplement or modify biblical legislation. The range of subjects where the application of this rule has exerted a pronounced impact is rather extensive. But for fairly obvious reasons, it was primarily in areas where the utilization of this principle has affected relationships to the non-Jewish world that the analysis of its meaning and significance has evoked the greatest interest.

The basic question that must be faced is whether the enactments prompted by concern for darkhei shalom should be regarded as expediency measures dictated by the enlightened self-interest of the Jewish community or whether we are dealing in these cases with a supreme ethical principle which transcends purely pragmatic considerations.

Historically, divergent views have been presented on this question. On the one hand, Christian writers, bent as they are on demonstrating the alleged superiority of Christian universalism over Jewish particularism, tend to relegate darkhei shalom to the level of a purely prudential device aiming at facilitating coexistence with the non-Jewish world.

In what appears to be an overreaction precipitated by apologetic fervor, an array of prominent scholars such as Professors Hoffman, Lazarus, and

Lauterbach categorically reject any suggestion that darkhei shalom was intended solely as a device to protect the stability and security of the Jewish community. The ordinances promulgated to advance the “ways of peace,” they argue, were inspired not by purely pragmatic considerations of enlightened self-interest, but rather by lofty ethical principles.

One of the most crucial arguments advanced in support of the thesis that the “ways of peace” represent an overriding ethical principle, and do not merely reflect considerations of expediency, is based upon a Talmudic passage.2

The Babylonian Talmud states that the entire Torah reflects “the ways of peace,” as it is written, “Its ways are the ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”3It has been argued, that if, “the ways of peace” represent an all pervasive distinguishing feature of the entire Torah, how could such a prominent characteristic be relegated to the purely pragmatic level. What is overlooked in this argument is Continue reading “Chapter 3 from Covenantal Imperatives: Essays by Walter S. Wurzburger on Jewish Law, Thought and Community

Jewish Prayer: The Right Way, Resolving Halachic Dilemmas

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel 

Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen has devoted many years to researching and writing on halakhic topics. His latest book is “Jewish Prayer: The Right Way,” Urim Publications, 2012.

This book is composed of a series of questions and answers on basic topics relating to prayer: general orientation to tefilla; the role of the hazzan; synagogue customs; the Shema; the public Torah readings; rules relating to Cohanim; the Kaddish. Rabbi Cohen offers concise and clear answers, drawing on a wide range of halakhic sources.

In his introductory chapter, he offers insights on the significance of public worship based on a fixed text. He explains how the halakhic framework of prayer underscores the value of time, and our ability to appreciate the significance of an ongoing relationship with the Almighty. The Amidah is recited silently as an indication of our personal connection with the Almighty. Yet, the Amidah is formulated in the plural to remind us that we pray not only as individuals, but as members of the larger community.

“To pray is thus not a mere personal dialogue with the Almighty. It is an opportunity to Continue reading Jewish Prayer: The Right Way, Resolving Halachic Dilemmas

A Review of Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships, Resolving Conflicts

by Heddi Keil

When my husband first volunteered me to review Batya Ludman’s book Life’s Journey – Exploring Relationships, Resolving Conflicts, I was a little unsettled. “After all”, I asked myself, “how objective can I be if I review a book written by a very good friend of mine? And worse still, what if I don’t like her book?” But as I ventured into it, my fears were allayed. This is because Life’s Journey is written in very straightforward language, with the author discussing the challenges that people face in life, sensitively, while providing insights and sensible solutions. This book is a road map for people to live more fulfilling, satisfying lives, while bringing them closer to the people they care about.

I couldn’t just kick back and relax though when reading Batya’s book. She asks questions and rouses readers to look at their own life situations. It’s not always easy to peer closely at oneself and the possible disharmony within one’s own household. But if readers can be honest with themselves and recognize that they have problems, then they can benefit from Batya’s well thought-out resolutions.

I interviewed Batya to find out more about her background and her book.

Batya agreed that each article contains “homework”.

“It is there if you want to do it, and if not, you’ll get something out of the chapter anyway”, she says. “In life we are constantly dealing with Continue reading “A Review of Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships, Resolving Conflicts

Innovation in Jewish Law: A Case Study of Chiddush in Havineinu

by Gil Student

Halachah, Jewish law, evolves but only in a limited way. It has a static core whose applications and many details vary based on time, place, circumstance and authority. This dichotomy is often overlooked. Academics tend to emphasize the exceptional cases which do not reflect the larger corpus, while traditionalists reactively focus on the unchanging center. In truth, there is a natural and uncontroversial development that occurs throughout Jewish law. Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, associate professor of law at Emory University and a dayan in the Beth Din of America, studies the rule rather than the exception. He selected the miniprayer called Havineinu, about which there are numerous apparent contradictions within the Talmud. Who can recite it instead of the standard Shemoneh Esrei prayer? Under what circumstances?

Through Rabbi Broyde’s analysis, we see the changes in halachah that occur in the normal course of Torah study, as commentators debate the merits of different interpretations and rule accordingly.

The original review appeared in the Jewish Action in August 2011 and can be viewed here.