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.

Meta-Genealogy: What I wish the software did better

So I've been doing this genealogy thing now for about 18 months now, and there are a few things that I wish worked differently. I'd love to hear feedback from others who may have suggestions about other tools that I should look into.

First: I've come to the conclusion that the common data model is backwards. We assert "facts" about people, and then we're supposed to back those up with sources. But I think we'd have better results if we started by cataloging and transcribing sources, and then asserting "facts" from them. That's probably too hard for most people to wrap their brains around, but it would solve two problems: First, it's too easy to enter a "fact" with the best of intentions of getting around to the tedious step of adding the source info later, and never getting back to it. Second, and more pressing, sometimes what you start with is a (virtual) pile of source documents, and your task is to organize them into a network of relationships. Managing those is difficult at best.

Second: I want a fast plain-text fuzzy search. "Hmm, this naturalization record has the address 62 Common St., that sounds familiar." Right now, I'm actually doing most of my work in Emacs. It doesn't represent everything nicely, but it's fast and it represents anything that I can type.

Third: I want to have a "trust chain." That is, for every "fact" that I assert, I want to be able to assign it a probability score: 100% means I'm certain it's true (I was at my own wedding and know my own name); 0% means I have no idea if it's true or not, but I encountered the assertion somewhere, -100% means I'm certain that the assertion is incorrect but I'm including it to show that I've encountered it, evaluated it, and rejected it.

(For example, an otherwise wonderful tree of my mother's father's family that a cousin spent decades researching introduced a spurious twin sister three generations back by accidentally combining two records for different people. I've contacted the cousin and he agrees that it was a mistake -- but dozens of people have downstream copies of his tree. So I want to indicate on my tree that that individual doesn't exist, not just have her omitted from my tree which could be considered ambiguous.)

And then I want to be able to assign a "trust factor" for other researchers whose trees are loosely liked to mine. I want to get notified when they make changes -- and I want the trust factors multiplied. So my otherwise very reliable cousin would have a trust factor of 90%, while someone I barely know might only have a trust factor of 50%. Then if my reliable cousin has marked a "fact" as 50% reliable, while the unknown quantity marked a "fact" as 90% reliable, they'd both show up as 45% reliable in my summary of things to look at and consider importing. (Of course, when I import that "fact", I'd get to assign it my own level of trust.)

Fourth: I want to be able to divide my tree into segments, and grant different people different permissions depending on what part of the family they belong to. I'm doing some great collaboration with my Werdesheim cousins, but they don't need full access to my Bissinger data. 'Nuff said.

Fifth: I want a lot more flexibility in how I visualize my data. I want to be able to apply filters and templates of my own design in generating reports. I want a real API into my data so I can write scripts to extract things.


Genealogy: Major progress on the Werdesheim family

Over the last two months, the team of descendants working on the Werdesheims of Mielec has made some amazing progress. We took a long hard look at the list of "loose end" records, and managed to fit about half of them into one of our six main branches. We've made contact with more "lost" branches -- in fact, we now have contact with at least one descendant of each of the six main branches and we are all comparing notes and research.

From a record-keeping perspective, the biggest find was that Ben-Zion Werdesheim, the patriarch of what I had labeled "Branch 6", came to New York with his second wife, took the Americanized version of his name "Benjamin Wertheimer", and had five more children here. (We had not previously known anything about him except that he had 5 children in Mielec, 2 of whom moved to New York.) Not only did that help us make contact with his descendants, it also gave us our first break in the "1840 wall." Collapse )

Review: "Derash Yehonatan" by Rabbi Shalom Hammer

Koren/Maggid recently sent me a review copy of Derash Yehonatan: Around the Year with Rav Yehonatan Eybeshitz by Rabbi Shalom Hammer.

The Author's Preface begins with these words of introduction:

Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz, Dayan of Prague, and later rabbi of the the 'Three Communities' ... was an outstanding eighteenth-century talmudist, halakhist and kabbalist.... I discovered Rav Yehonatan's works a few years after I began my professional career as a teacher and rebbe... While parts of the commentary were difficult for me to understand because of their kabbalistic nature, typical of many of Rav Yehonatans books, I was enthralled by their richness, linking all of the varied disciplines of the Torah.... Discovering Rav Yehonatan's mastery in addressing a midrash, linking it to a portion of the Talmud, connecting it to a teaching of the Zohar, and then concluding with codified laws in the Shulchan Arukh was an awe-inpiring experience.

Why, then, does Rabbi Hammer's book both please me and frustrate me so?

Rabbi Hammer has structured his book around the Jewish calendar; each chapter takes as its theme one holy day and consists of a series of brief essays, bringing down a teaching of Rabbi Eyebeshitz that relates to that theme. Many of these essays taught me something I did not know before, or suggested a new perspective on a text that is overly familiar.

The book is well-written and, I think, is intended to be read one chapter at a time, just before or during each of the relevant days. It will take a place on my shelf of resources for when I am asked to deliver a dvar Torah.

One thing that I found off-putting, though, was that the structure of the essays was not what the Author's Preface seemed to promise. Instead, they seemed to follow the modern style of rabbinic essay: an establishing sentence that identifies a source text, then an extended quote from that source, then a question raised by that quote, then a series of brief observations that address the question, all wrapped up in a few pages and then on to the next. (I believe that this structure comes from a generation that came of age learning from the essays of Nechama Liebowitz zt''l.)

Rabbi Hammer has recast Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings in his own voice; these essays give the setup and then continue "Rav Yehonatan attempts to explain...", "Rav Yehonatan answers these questions..." Some essays are followed by a postscript labeled "Author's Note"; but that makes me even more unclear what the difference is between Rabbi Hammer re-writing Rabbi Eyebeshitz in the third person and Rabbi Hammer adding additional thoughts in these postscripts. (I would have preferred the Author's Notes to be typographically distinct -- perhaps in italics, or a narrower margin -- which might have helped me to keep Rabbi Hammer's voice, as himself, distinct in my mind from Rabbi Hammer's voice, teaching what Rabbi Eyebeshitz wrote.)

The approach that Rabbi Hammer has used certainly gives him the opportunity to make Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings more accessible to a general audience, and that is a good thing. By breaking Rabbi Eyebeshitz's commentaries down into shorter pieces, and by selecting those aspects that are not esoteric, Rabbi Hammer has produced a book from which anyone can learn. This comes at a cost, though: it is also a book that in some ways is indistinguishable from any of the other myriad collections of commentaries.

I kept wanting to break through the page and get at least one taste of pure Eyebeshitz, at full length, in faithful translation with explanatory footnotes. Perhaps that could have been an appendix. The Author's Preface, which I quoted above, made me eager to taste of the brilliant "linking" and the elaborate all-inclusive structure that Rabbi Hammer describes; instead, I felt like I was being given a series of disconnected glimpses.

Derash Yehonatan is a good book. I just wish it had been a great one.

Book Review: "The Laws of Cooking and Warming Food on Shabbat" by Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Koren Publications / Maggid Press recently sent me a review copy of The Laws of Cooking and Warming Food on Shabbat, by Rabbi Mordechai Willig. This is the second volume in "The REITS Practical Halakhah Series".

Each chapter in this book -- some brief, some longer, as the material requires -- discusses the various positions surrounding one particular aspect of the subject. For example, there are several chapters about whether a kli sheini cooks its contents, depending on whether they are solid, water, or other liquids. Each chapter is backed up by extensive source material in Hebrew in the back of the book. Many of the issues are as old as the Mishna, but some are as new as modern technology can make them. (Is there a problem if your hot-water urn has a glass sight-tube? Can you reheat food on Shabbat if the food was originally cooked in a microwave oven, which is not halachically fire?)

The genius of this book is that Rabbi Willig explores the underlying halcahic constructs that inform the piskei halacha that the sources bring. This of course is how the Talmud works: given opposing sets of halachic decisions by some number of rabbis, the author tries to deduce, from the shape of those decisions, how each decisor views the halachic and physical realities involved. It is a joy to see Rabbi Willig propose test cases and tease apart the underlying structures.

In many cases he does not even provide a definitive answer, since there is room for different rabbis to interpret the halacha differently, and one should be asking one's rav, not a book.

In other words, this is not a "quick reference" book that gives quick (and safe) answers for the lay Jew. That ground has been masterfully covered by the Shemirat Shabbat ke-Hilchata. Instead, what Rabbi Willig has provided us is much more profound: an insight into how the different schools of thought understand the nature of Shabbat, the nature of food and food preparation, the nature of halachic divisions into the permitted and the prohibited, and how these spheres intersect.

It is clear that this book is adapted from shiurim that Rabbi Willig has given at REITS. In fact, my main frustration with the book is that it's not always clear when a cited source is going to be quoted in full in the back of the book; I feel like the material is intended to be followed the way it would be in a shiur, with a source packet in hand and with the reader's attention being directed first to the original source, then to the maggid shiur's explanation of it, then to the next source, and so on.

I soon figured out that the right way to read this book is to read a chapter, then read the sources, then came back and read the chapter again. Each chapter does end with an clear and brief summary of the issues considered in the chapter and what the major opinions are on them. That helps, but not as much as integrating the source material with the main text would have.

And I'm afraid I must disagree with the series title: This is not a book about practical halakha. While I am glad to see that Koren/Maggid/REITS/YU sees a need for a more centrist alternative to the more reflexively machmir books that are out there, this does not address that audience. A pashut yid looking for a practical guide to the laws of cooking and warming food on Shabbat will not find their questions answered here.

To stress: That is not Rabbi Willing's fault, and it is not a fault in this book; it is a mismatch between what this book is and how it is being positioned in the marketplace of ideas.

But for those with an interest in the halachic process and in gaining a deeper understanding of how the halachic mind grapples with questions that we take for granted week in and week out, this is an excellent book worthy of space on your shelves and in your thoughts.

Memories of my Oma

Today (i.e., tonight and tomorrow) is the 21st Jahrzeit of my Oma, Frieda (Friedmann) Bissinger. I wanted to capture some memories that I have of her; I suppose that this technically qualifies as a genealogy post, in that I'm recording family history. But today I'm not going to talk about her origins in Germany, or the story of her escape in August 1939 to England, or how she came to America. I'm not going to trace her family line back N generations. Nor am I going to talk about those last hard months of her life.

Today is a day for reflecting on the love in my relationship with my Oma. Collapse )

One Mystery Hunt thought for now

Hunt was awesome -- the best in my memory. Delightful theme, but more importantly the puzzles had been really well edited and testsolved and factchecked, and it showed.

At wrapup, the editorial director explained their overall philosophy, which included "Make the Hunt more enjoyable by smaller teams." She then added "I'm not sure how well that worked out."

It worked out amazingly well.

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