“Peninei Halakha: Laws of Shabbat, Vol. 1 and Vol. II” by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed— Learning Why and Observing

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Melamed, Eliezer. “Peninei Halakha: Laws of Shabbat, Vol. 1 and Vol. II”, translated by Yocheved Cohen, Elli Fischer, series editor, Maggid Books, 2016.

Learning Why and Observing

Amos Lassen

“Peninei Halakha” is a comprehensive series of books on Jewish law applied to the world of today and published by Maggid Books. In this series, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s well organized, clear, and concise writing style takes us from principle to practical detail, to readers of all backgrounds. It is no wonder that this is such a popular series in Israel and now we are lucky enough to have the series translated into English. Some of you may remember the review that I recently did of “The Laws of Kashrut” another volume in the series.

I grew up in a world of Judaism where you did what you were told and you never asked why and I am sure that I am not alone in that. I am not sure what the reason is for never asking why and I still find it interesting to think that many Jews are not aware why our holidays begin the evening before or why we must have ten of a minyan and ever why we have two candles and two challot for Shabbat. Having been an academic for most of my life I have never been to shy to ask a question but that is not true of my Judaism. Perhaps it is because we do not want to feel stupid in front of others or quite simply perhaps we just did not care why. It looks like we may never have to ask again because this wonderful new series has the answers. I study Torah every day for at least an hour—the phone is turned along with everything else and I go into my own little world. I am quite sure that if I were to answer the door with my kippah on my head there would be strange reactions but so what—that is my time to spend with my faith. So here it is late Saturday evening and Shabbat is still another week away and I have just closed volume one of “Laws of Shabbat” in which all of my questions were answered. I am not strictly “Shomer Shabbat” but there are certain things that the atmosphere of Shabbat brings to me. I must admit that I look forward to it every week from the lighting of the candles (and yes I now know why there are two) to Havdalah and a return to routine. It certainly is harder to observe Shabbat here then it was when I lived in Israel but since I live in Brookline, Massachusetts with its large Jewish community, I can tell when Shabbat is nearing.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed tells us in the introduction that many who wish to keep Shabbat properly find themselves in a bind because of the many laws whose meaning is not understood. Then there are the laws that are in dispute. In that case, Shabbat instead of being a time of joy and pleasure becomes tense and this is because many do not know the foundations of the laws for Shabbat.

The rabbi here attempts to explain those laws and emphasize the underlying rules and principles of those laws. He also shows how the details of those laws relate to the spiritual. Volume one contains fourteen chapters, each on a specific topic. Volume two contains another fifteen chapters. At the beginning of each chapter, the reasons and principles of each topic is explained (something like a preview to a movie but much more detailed. This approach allows us to explore the Judaic principle of “Zachor”, the positive mitzvoth about sanctifying Shabbat and this leads us to the mitzvah of “Shamor” that deals with the negative commandments. For explanations the rabbi uses the Gamara, the Shulhan Arukh and Mishnah Torah of Rambam.

Alright—I hear saying but that is so complicated. It is not complicated in that the rabbi is leading through it all and it only becomes hard to understand if you chose for it to be thus. I remember my father’s words—explore Judaism as it is, looking for explanations will confuse you just listen and understand. I was raised in an Orthodox home but now belong to a reform congregation. I have a wonderful background of which I am very proud and love to study my religion. Some say I am an Orthodox Jew in a reform world and yes that may be true but above all else, I am a Jew and always proud to say so.

In these two volumes there is a lot to learn and Rabbi Melamed follows these accepted rules of halakhic decision making: “Halakha follows the majority with the majority referring to the opinions accepted by the majority and not the majority of available books, When a given law is disputed or in doubt, if there is a Torah law, we are stringent; it is rabbinic, we are lenient”.

Now in case you are curious what the chapters are I will name a few and let you know that each chapter has a major heading and then a series of subtopics. The Rabbi has done amazing work here and books are a pleasure. We have a chapter on food preparation, on personal grooming, on separating, on Havdalah, on lighting candles, on Torah study and prayer, on electricity and electrical appliances, on agriculture and animals, on children, on learning and on prohibition and these are only a few. The indices are complete to the latter and should you have a specific question, all you need do is flip pages.

I find myself just flicking through in a moment of leisure and having a wonderful reading experience. I do not just want to recommend these to you, I want you to run out and them now. You will be as enthused as I am.



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