Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Review: ספר קושיות (Rabbi Yaakov Stal)

Review: ספר קושיות (Rabbi Yaakov Stal)
By Rabbi Eliezer Brodt
Recently a new sefer hit the stores called ספר קושיות. The publisher, Rabbi Yaakov Stal, is well known, having already established his name with his editions of two seforim by ר' יהודה החסיד one called ספר גימטריאות and another called אמרות טהורות חיצוניות ופנימיות. Like his previous works, once again he has done a great job. I would like to discuss his latest book a bit.

While Rabbi Stal was working on his various projects a friend introduced him to a recently discovered manuscript which was in the form of questions and answers. His interest raised, he immediately began working on editing it for print. Unfortunately, when he was close to finishing the sefer, another more complete manuscript was found forcing him to go through the whole volume again comparing, correcting, and adding the additions. (A third manuscript has been located, but he was not able to see it as it resides in a private collection). The result of all this labor is this beautiful sefer titled ספר קושיות.

The author of the קושיות is unknown, but based on various ways of identifications he seems to be from the time period of the תלמידים of the מהר"ם מרוטנברג thus dating the book to approximately the 14th century. The way this was deduced was by examining which works the author quotes. Not finding any quotes later than the רא"ש, it can be assumed that the author is from the same era. Along these lines, Rabbi Stal composed a list of all sources quoted by name thereby showing that the author had been heavily influenced by חסידי אשכנז, thus giving the reader yet another clue as to the identification of the author

The idea of the sefer, in short, is explanations of accepted halakhot and minhagim as well as various מדרשים ואגדות. These explanations are all posed in the form of questions and answers. Some of the answers are very simple; straightforward quotes from the Gemara; others are more interesting, questions that no one else discusses. The range of topics is amazing; there are 392 questions and answers some of the 392 topics include a few parts. The topics are about many areas such as תפילה, שבת יום טוב, קבורה, מילה and נישואין.

While some of the topics the author does not add much to what has already been said by earlier sources, many times he adds interesting points. There are also many things that Rabbi Stal could not find any similar sources to (I will give examples soon). All in all, this sefer is very interesting and easy to go through, many of the topics are things many people are curious about. The sefer comes included with an extensive index; with just a quick perusal one is appraised to the many interesting topic there are in the sefer.

I would like to give a partial list of some of the things found in this volume; just to give one a taste of this wonderful work.

First, in the area of מנהגים that we have other sources for include: wearing white on שבת (pg 24), covering the knife during ברכת המזון (pg 73), how many נרות one should light ליל שבת (pg 85), candles by the חתונה (pg 209), the order how one should cut his fingernails (pg 130) and burning the לולב with the חמץ (pg 168).

Second, topics that, as of now, this sefer is the only source for include: hitting the עדים during the קידושין (pg 8), putting ashes on ones head ערב תשעה באב (pg 136), signs how to tell if an animal is כשר (pg 190), that a חתן should not go to the בית הקברות during שנה ראשונה (pg 206) and if one is sitting in the bathroom and hears someone learning he has to cover his ears (pg 221).

In other areas there are many gems of great interest such as אברהם was מגייר הגר before marrying her (pg 270). Another point of interest is a discussion of the sources for the names of the months (pg 75-79). (I really would like to include much more but I want to save some of these gems for the reader to see himself.)

The footnotes are beautiful; Rabbi Stal attempts to reference almost everything relevant to the topic discussed in the body of the text. He provides the בעל הקושיות sources, and expounds on what the בעל הקושיות is trying to add. He includes all the cross-references in חז"ל through the help of the Bar Ilan Responsa program (which he uses expertly). He also cross-references all the ראשונים who deal with these topics; here we can see Rabbi Stal's great knowledge and בקיאות in many ראשונים not searchable on any computer program to date. One can only find this by going through these seforim and indexing the מציאות as he finds them. He does the same with theפיוטים and נוסחות התפילה quoted by the author; all annotated against the best editions printed to date. Aside from this, Rabbi Stal has beautiful discussions on many topics, such as whether persons in גיהנם rest only on שבת or on Yom Tov as well, (pg 59), why the תפילה והוא רחום was written (pg 27-31) and why one should use הדסים for בשמים (pg 38).

Another point of interest worth mentioning are the many nice points provided from Prof. Simcha Emanuael, a recognized authority in the field of unknown manuscripts. Many of these points are from otherwise unknown sources in manuscripts.

It is often stated that it's much easier to criticize someone else's efforts rather than doing so oneself. Further, in this case critique was particularly difficult, as (Full Disclosure:) Rabbi Stal is also a good friend. Still, I would like to point out two issues with his work on this sefer.

A point I feel lacking is that while at times he does the reader the favor of referencing articles on the topics that the ספר קושיות discusses, many times, however, he failed to reference relevant articles. For example, when discussing the topic of fasting during אלול he quotes extensively from the classic article of Professor יעקב גרטנר (pg 49) but when talking about the מנהג of throwing wheat on theחתן (pg 174) he fails to mention the extensive article by ר' בנימן המברגר in שרשי מנהג אשכנז (volume 3, pp. 392-429). There are two answers why Rabbi Stal did not quote this article. One, unfortunately when he works he does not have all his seforim in front of him. Two, had he quoted all of the interesting sources on each topic, this sefer would have been 1000 pages long, so he had to cut down the sources. This leads me to the next criticism; the length of the notes.

While talking with ר' שמואל אשכנזי regarding this sefer he mentioned the following point. The footnotes although they are good and very interesting many times the same exact thing could have been written shorter. He said that we find this ability to write in an exact way was very hard even many ראשונים did not have this ability such as ר' שמואל בן חפני גאון הר"י ברצלנוני and the אברבאנאל. The most famous person who excelled at writing very little and including everything in his words was רש"י. The main reason why Rabbi Stal did not do such is simple editing takes a lot of time (more time than writing lengthier) which he wants to use to put out more works. So in the end, the lengthy footnotes could have been better served by including more material but at the same time careful editing.

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