June 1st, 2014


Book Review: "Laws of Pesach" and "Laws of Prayer" by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Koren/Maggid sent me a review copy of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's "Laws of Pesach", the second volume in their English translation of his series Peninei Halacha, "Pearls of the Law". I was so impressed that I bought my own copy of the first volume, "Laws of Prayer", and this review will discuss both books.

The series is a practical overview of the laws pertaining to a particular subject. Each chapter deals with one particular area in moderate to heavy detail. For example, the "Laws of Pesach" volume has a (long) chapter on Bedikat Chametz, and a separate chapter on Bitul and Biur Chametz.

One things that shines through the text is Rabbi Melamed's ahavat Yisrael. He provides the range of halachic opinions on an issue, indicating where each position comes from, and then emphasizes that all of the positions that he brings have validity, and while he sometimes recommends certain positions he is always clear that if one has a reason --- family tradition, practical considerations, or simply that it will be more meaningful to the reader --- that one should follow a different position.

In other words, this is not a "race to the most machmir" book. I believe that there is a grave risk in books by some other authors and other publishers who take a consistently machmir position: the reader may decide that observing the mitzvot is too onerous. Rabbi Melamed, on the other hand, is clearly aware of what it takes to be a Torah-observant Jew in the real world. He discusses practical situations such as a soldier on duty or one whose schedule forces him to daven on the bus to work. Or, for that matter, simply one whose practice falls somewhere other than the most machmir position on the spectrum.

In addition to the nuts-and-bolts discussion of practical halacha, Rabbi Melamed also explains the origins of the halachot and minhagim. Sometimes these are strictly halachic discussions, such when he explains whether one should try to eat less than a kezayit of karpas. Sometimes they are kabbalistic explanations. What is wonderous to me is that I, as someone who generally has little appreciation for kabbalah, found his kabbalistic explanations to be beautiful and meaningful.

The translators have done an extraordinary job. I do not have the original, so I can't comment on the faithfulness of the translation, but I assume it is true to the original. What is extraordinary is that this does not read like a translation; the English prose soars when it needs to, and is clear and precise when that is what is called for.

The combination of these traits means that these books succeed on many levels. They instruct us in practical details of the halacha, sometimes reminding us of things that we've been taking for granted, and sometimes correcting erroneous habits that we have developed through inattention or mistaken understandings. They inspire us with a new, deeper understanding of the foundations of the mitzvot and how the mitzvot help us live lives connected to God. They remind us that those whose practices differ from ours are neither fanatics nor heretics (as the old joke goes), but pious Jews who are also following divrei Elokim chayyim.

To clarify, not every question is covered in these books. This is not a series of comprehensive seifim, and it is not a substitute for asking one's rabbi for piskei halacha. That is not Rabbi Melamed's goal. Rather, these books cover the most common situations that everyone needs to know about, and they develop an understanding of the halachic and hashkafic framework within which we live.

A technical comment: I'm pleased to see that in the second volume, the notes were moved from the end of each chapter to the bottom of the page. Since these notes go into more depth about the body text, rather than simply present sources, it's great to have them on the same page.

And a personal comment: For the last few years, I have been seeking a book that would help me revitalize my tefillot, which have been tending more towards keva than kavannah. Having now read Rabbi Melamed's "Laws of Prayer", I am once again experiencing in my tefillot meaningful moments of reaching out to our Creator. For that alone, I am grateful.

I eagerly await the remaining volumes in the series.