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.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Spirituality and Intimacy: Where Heaven and Love Meet

Spirituality and Intimacy: Where Heaven and Love Meet
Rabbi Raphael Aron
Mosaica Press / 196 pp.

Rabbi Raphael Aron, a Chabad Rabbi from Melbourne with a proven record of experience and expertise in the world of “Love and Judaism,” has released yet another title on the subject.

In Spirituality and Intimacy, the author presents many different facets of marriage, intimacy, and child rearing, explaining Judaism's position on the issue from philosophical perspectives. The book does a great job in highlighting the beauty of each of these issues. This is true even regarding the temporary restrictions between husband and wife that can frustrate a relationship. The author weaves material from a variety of Torah sources and genres highlighting comparisons, metaphors, and symbolism from other areas of Torah and observance.

For example, the are citations from throughout scripture on romance in Judaism, a comparison between the restrictions of marriage and the restrictions of Shabbat, marriage modeled on various biblical couples, a woman’s distinct role and capabilities based on biblical precedents, the airport as a model for the monthly cycle, the ideal manner of sexual activity based on a variety of unexpected sources, and much much more.

Spirituality and Intimacy does not touch upon the realm of halacha, but rather, simply endeavors to show the beauty of Judaism’s approach to intimacy with the hope that it will help readers revitalize their relationships. The presentation, purpose and content of the book brings to mind the words of the Mesillat Yesharim “I have not written this book to teach you things that you do not already know, but rather to remind you of things that you do know, and that are clear to you. But precisely because these things seem so clear, we forget them and ignore them, and seldom give them our attention.” And this, the book does quite nicely.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Kippah

The Kippah: All About Yarmulkes, Judaism, and Life
Rabbi Moshe Becker
Mosaica Press / 126 pp

A project whose proceeds are being put to tzedaka, the Kippah is an absolutely lovely presentation of everything one needs to know about the importance of wearing a Kippah. The book's goal is to inspire those "on the fence" to begin wearing a Kippah and to further encourage those who already do.

Every chapter presents the Kippah from a different aspect of rabbinic literature, citing the original sources in both Hebrew and English, and then elaborating upon them in an especially gentle, clear, and thorough manner. For example, chapter one cites the Talmudic sources, chapter two cites sources in the rishonim, chapter three cites the relevant halachic sources, and so on.

The book is small-size, very easy reading, and handy to have as a permanent reference guide. It is definitely required reading for your friends and neighbors who may not yet be wearing a Kippah and are in need some inspiration to begin doing so.


N.B. I strongly disagree with the author's theory on p.91 that wearing a baseball cap in place of a kippa may be problematic according to the Mishna Berura due to concerns of ma'arit ayin, similar to the concerns with wearing a tupee in place of a kippa. There is no source to suggest that there is a need to appear Jewish by means of one's head covering. v'kan ain hamakom l'ha'arich