Friday, March 10, 2017

Sexuality and Jewish Law

Remember this one?


Well, Yaakov Shapiro has just come out with the third edition of this work. Included in this edition is an index and an additional 15 pages of endnotes.

There is also a website relating to the book:

My first review says it all.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Contemporary Halakhic Problems Vol. VII

Contemporary Halakhic Problems Vol. VII
Rabbi J. David Bleich
Maggid / 525 pp.

Rabbi J. David Bleich and his “Contemporary Halakhic Problems” series need no introduction. There is no student or scholar of halacha who is not familiar with Contemporary Halakhic Problems, and in fact, one is essentially unable to formulate a credible or authoritative view on a halachic issue without first studying the issue in CHP (if, of course, the issue has been covered in the series).

My day was made with the receipt of volume 7 this week.  The newest volume opens with “Passover Questions” including a discussion on what is an annually reoccurring feud here in Beit Shemesh regarding whether water from the Kinneret may be consumed during Pesach. Presenting nine different arguments and considerations (some of which I was exposed to for the first time) Rabbi Bleich concludes that there is no concern whatsoever with consuming water from the Kinneret. In Beit Shemesh, however, the stricter view has prevailed, with the Kinneret water supply being closed off to Beit Shemesh during Pesach with water being supplied from local wells instead.

Other issues that are dealt with include using video surveillance to negate Yichud issues and to declare milk as Chalav Yisrael, both of which have ample authority to permit doing so, contact with wine by non-observant Jews, the halachic weight of vaccinations, a possible kashrut concern with Styrofoam cups, and about a dozen other cutting-edge contemporary issues.

The chapter on entering a church was especially fascinating and relevant. It includes a discussion on whether Christianity is idolatry, entering a church for ceremonial or tourist purposes (Westminster Abbey, Vatican Museum), historical anecdotes of rabbinical figures who have done so, and other issues relating to Christian influence.   

For more information and to order:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Making It Work

Making It Work
A Practical Guide To Halachah In The Workplace
Rabbi Ari Wasserman
Distributed by Feldheim / 524 pp.

I'm just blown away. The "Ari Wasserman" label has simply proven itself once more as being synonymous with excellence in Torah, primarily Halachic, literature.

In this latest volume R' Ari, who should be everyone's role model of a "working Ben-Torah," presents all the thorny issues that Orthodox Jews must face in the workplace. Some of the issues dealt with include yichud, shaking hands with the opposite sex, holiday parties, dina d'malchusa dina, honesty when interviewing, entering non-Kosher restaurants, and much more. Every issue includes real-life stories, mussar, hashkafa, and of course, the halachic issues.

This book is unprecedented in it's style, presentation, and "halachic honesty," presenting all the major halachic views from all ends of the Orthodox spectrum. There may not be a more well-rounded advanced English halachic sefer that is so easy to read and understand. A must-have.

BONUS: "Devarim" of R' Ari's "Hegyonei Haparsha" (Feldheim/ Heb.) is out! Topics include: Eating in public, bishul akum, business competition, exemptions from minyan, releasing terrorists, Dina D'malcuta in Israel, secular court, and much much more! A really exciting volume.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Forgotten Giants

Forgotten Giants: Sephardic Rabbis before and after the Expulsion from Spain
Rabbi Yosef Bitton
Gefen Publishing House / 121 pp.

Although most of us have heard about such Sephardic greats like Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel and Rabbi Yosef Caro, and their accomplishments, the same may not be true regarding such other greats like Rabbi Avraham Saba and Rabbi Tam Ibn Yahya.

As such, Rabbi Yosef Bitton, an author and rabbi living in New York City, has done a tremendous service and Kiddush Hashem by resurrecting the memory of over two dozen Sephardic Scholars from the pre to post Spanish expulsion Era with his “Forgotten Giants”. Although brief, but inspiring, Rabbi Bitton presents the basic biographies of these rabbis, from where they were born to the works they left behind, many of which continue to shape Jewish law today.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention --not unique to the welcome addition of “Forgotten Giants”-- that today’s orthodox produced biographies can generally not be relied upon from a historical or academic perspective to present the entire person, the whole picture. Today’s rabbinic biographies, almost without exception, present their subject as being completely holy and righteous, sin free, from birth to death. This is of course untrue, and in fact, what makes most of these rabbis so great is that they were normal people just like us, facing the same challenges and yetzer haras, and yet they become the great men that they were. The entry on Rabbi Yisrael Najara in “Forgotten Giants”, for example, was interesting and inspiring, and I knew little about the Syrian community of Jobar until reading it. However, there are some very “alternative” biographies of Rabbi Najara that Rabbi Bitton makes no mention of.  While, for various reasons, I don’t fault Rabbi Bitton (or other authors of rabbinic biographies) for presenting his subjects in this matter, I feel it is important to remind readers that while such rabbinic biographies have their place, they are rarely accurate or complete.

Nevertheless, "Forgotten Giants" does a wonderful job of giving us a taste of past greatness and allows us to better appreciate what we have lost.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein
Mosaica Press

Just in time for the upcoming High Holiday season, Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, maggid shiur, and author of other pristine publications, treats us to yet another installment to help us grow in Torah and Yirah in a gentle, engaging, and inspiring fashion.

In “Teshuva,” Rabbi Bernstein offers us 66 short essays covering topics related to Elul, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The essays are all very thought provoking, covering both philosophical and practical matters. There are number of interpretations, explanations, and commentaries of routine High Holiday themes that I have not previously seen. There are also interpretations of the High Holidays prayers scattered throughout the sefer. 

The sefer is extremely enjoyable and easy to follow. It should also be noted that the essays are also easy to “give over” as divrei Torah at the Yom Tov table. In fact, the various short sub-sections of each essay are stand-alone divrei Torah in their own right.

At the time of this writing, I have read all the Elul essays and most of the Rosh Hashana ones. There is no question that “Teshuva” is the best High Holiday primer and inspirational reader that I have seen in years, and probably the best ever that covers Elul-Sukkot in a single volume. With this third volume of his work (or is it the fourth?), Rabbi Bernstien has established a chazaka for producing quality and worthwhile sefarm.

I am attaching some samples chapters below. This will certainly be my shul companion this coming Tishrei. Highly recommended.

Why Do Selichos Start on Sunday?

A number of days before Rosh Hashanah, we begin to add Selichos to our prayers, until Yom Kippur. This custom dates back to the Geonic period, with two customs being mentioned regarding when to start: either from the first of Elul or from Rosh Hashanah.[1]

The Sephardi custom follows this second view. Interestingly, the Ashkenazi custom follows neither of these two opinions. For Ashkenazim, Selichos always begins on a Sunday:

If Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday or Shabbos, then Selichos begin on the Sunday of that week.

If Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, then Selichos begin on the Sunday of the preceding week.


According to the Vilna Gaon,[2] the Ashkenazi custom is actually based on a third practice mentioned by the Ran as the custom of Barcelona.[3] They would begin saying Selichos on the twenty-fifth of Elul — the anniversary of the first day of the creation of the world. (When we celebrate Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishrei and refer to it as the day on which “the world was created,”[4] we are referring to the creation of man on the sixth day. The creation of the world itself began five days earlier, which works out to be the twenty-fifth of Elul.)

The Vilna Gaon explains that Ashkenazi custom concurs with this view in principle, namely, that the first day of Selichos should correspond to the first day of creation. However, it differs in that it opts to mark the day not by calendar date, but by the day of the week, i.e., the first day. This is why Selichos will always start on a Sunday. Apparently, the association of the first day of the week with the beginning of creation is stronger than the calendar date of the twenty-fifth of Elul. This also explains why when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, the Selichos begin on the preceding Sunday — in order to ensure that the number of days between the beginning of Selichos and Rosh Hashanah will total no less than the five days between the creation of the world and that of man.[5]


While Sunday is the first day of the week, it is also the day that immediately follows the Shabbos of the preceding week. The final Selichah on the first day refers to this element of the timing: במוצאי מנוחה קדמנוך We petition You on the morrow of the day of rest. One of the late Rishonim, the Leket Yosher, explains the significance of beginning the Selichos after Shabbos:[6]

"On Shabbos, people are free of work and are able to set aside time for learning Torah. That is why it is good to start Selichos on Sunday, for people are happy due to the mitzvah of learning Torah that they have performed on Shabbos, and also due to the enjoyment of Shabbos, and it is stated: “The Divine presence does not come to rest through lethargy or sadness, rather, only through the joy of a mitzvah.” Therefore, it is good to begin to pray through the joy of a mitzvah; and the author of the Selichah similarly opens with the words, “On the morrow of the day of rest etc.”

These words should have a major impact on how we think of Selichos and the way we say them. While teshuvah is an unmistakably serious business, and it may require us to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves, the overarching tone is one of joy, and that tone is set from the very beginning. Moreover, we are also reminded that the process of teshuvah is not just one of “betterment” or of “cleansing.” It is one of returning to a state of closeness with Hashem, and that is a state that cannot be achieved if we are not in a state of joy, because “the Divine presence rests only through the joy of a mitzvah.”

This optimistic mood will hopefully ensure that the tough moments within teshuvah do not lead us to give way to despair or self-pity, but will rather launch us to a new and close connection with the Divine presence — through the joy of a mitzvah!

[1] See Tur, Orach Chaim 581.
[2] Commentary to Shulchan Aruch 581:1.
[3] Commentary to Rif, Rosh Hashanah 16a.
[4] For example, in the chazzan’s repetition of Mussaf after the shofar is blown, we say היום הרת עולםToday the world was created.
[5] When Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday, there will only be four days of Selichos. However, since the custom of reciting Selichos began when the institution of celebrating two days of Rosh Hashanah was already in place, the amount of days from the beginning of Selichos until the second day (Friday) is sufficient, and it is not necessary to move Selichos back an additional week. For other explanations of the Ashkenazi custom, see Mishnah Berurah 581:6.  
[6] Vol. 1, p. 118.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Moadei Harav

Moadei Harav
Public Lectures on the Festivals by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Urim Publications / 275 pp

Rabbi Shlomo Pick’s "Moadei Harav" is a welcome and refreshing window into the thought, style, and rulings of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. This may very well be the clearest and most readable book on the Rav that offers readers of all levels a glimpse into the world of Rav Soloveitchik's halachic teachings. Most other books on Rav Soloveitchik empathize his philosophy, and they are not always the most reader-friendly volumes.

I found almost all the essays to be practical and of great interest. Except for the entry on the status of Eretz Yisrael ("shem eretz yisrael" vs. "kedushat eretz yisrael") all essays revolve around the holidays (hence the name of the book). Some of the essays I enjoyed most are the status of Kriat Shema on Yom Kippur (a davar shebekedusha?), Pirsumei Nissa of Chanuka (the difference between “revealing” and “demonstrating” the miracles of Chanuka) , the Status of  “Simcha” of the two days of Purim, the status of Purim eve (a detailed discussion on ata kadosh, kaddish titkabel, and shehecheyanu), the Mitzva of Charoset (Rav Soloveitchik's interpretation of the Rambam), and the setting of the date of Shavuot (a look at several rishonim). 

There is an extensive introduction of essays on the Rav and his style of Torah study and Talmudic analysis. This is a quality publication suitable for all.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Poetry of Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon

The Poetry of Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon
A Myrtle in the Desert
(Translated by Daniel Farb)
Gefen Publishing / 102 pages

Although my interest in poetry hovers somewhere between minimal and non-existent, one cannot help from being taken aback by the poetry of Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon. 

Originally written in Hebrew, the volume “A Myrtle in the Desert” has been translated into English by Daniel Farb. (Rav Rimon wrote several other books of poetry, as well. Perhaps they too might be translated someday.) The primary themes of the poems in a “Myrtle in the Desert” are God, prayer, and the Land of Israel. The mystical world features prominently in these poems.

Born in Poland in 1889, Rav Rimon learned in the yeshiva of Rav Reines before making Aliyah at 20 years old. Rav Rimon wrote a style of poetry that although religious in nature --spiritual actually-- its words touched the religious and secular alike. From Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook to Bialik, everyone found meaning in his words, meaning which continues to be relevant today. The close relationship that Rav Rimon enjoyed with Rav Kook had a great influence in him and their writing styles are similar. His grandson and namesake, Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon, is a rabbi in Alon Shevut and a major halachic authority in the religious Zionist sector.

As poetry is not my genre, my brief comments on this work do not do it justice. As even the poetically illiterate me can tell, these poems are very special. They were written in a difficult era for the Jewish people and they bridge the events of fighting for independence from the British to the founding of the State of Israel. More than just poetry, this book is a piece of history.