Monday, June 18, 2007

Review - New Volume of Peskei Teshuvos on Mishna Berurah

Over the centuries, throughout our rich history, every time there has been a codification of halacha of any sorts there has been some opposition; the examples abound - the Rif who was opposed by the Bal Hamaor; the Rambam who was opposed by the Raavad. Even after that the Shach and Taz were also not accepted right away. One of the (many) reasons for this opposition was a fear of giving the law “to the simple people” who would then stop asking Rabbanim their questions as they could find the answers themselves in these works.

Another type of secondary source for halacha can be catagorized as likutim (collections). For example this catagory would include commentaries on the Shulchan Orach such as the Keness HaGedolah, Be’er Hetiv, and Sharei Teshvah. With these sorts of books there was an additional fear that the halachos might be not always be quoted correctly and people will fail to check the sources themselves. That fear appears prescient as in recent times many contemporary works err in the way they quote sources – making it almost impossible to even check the original sources. Some Gedolim even write in there haskamos on these works the author is a good person "but as this is a halachic work I can not back everything he says."

An awareness of the above concerns is illustrated by the story surrounding the Shmiras Shabbas K’hilchasa. This sefer quotes literally thousands of pesakim of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. After seeing the unexpected success to this sefer, R. Shlomo Zalman sat in a room a few hours a day for a few years and reviewed everything making sure anything quoted from him was one hundred percent accurate. This resulted in the third volume of Shmiras Shabbos K'hilchasa. Unfortunately, many works the authors themselves do not double check there own work let alone have a great person review it.

Today, there is no lack of books whose purpose is to be a repository of knowledge on a single topic. For instance, we have books devoted solely to the laws of washing one’s hands, how to bow properly (690 + pages), laws of lechem mishna (348 pages), the yarmulke (112 pages), and the list goes on. As it takes an almost heroic effort to write an entire book of hundreds of pages on but a single, minor topic, in most of the aforementioned cases, the authors indeed put forth a valiant effort to obtain anything and everything that, in the slightest way, remotely impacts on their selected topic.

Relatedly, there is another category of book, in which the author collects everything which discusses yet another book. The book that epitomizes this category of works is called Piskei Teshuvos al’pi Seder HaMishna Berurah (hereinafter “PT”). PT collects and addresses anything and everything which discusses the Mishna Berura. Just as the authors of the first category of books mentioned above go to great lengths, so too did the author of PT glean material from the most obscure sources on some of the most arcane topics.

At the turn of the century two excellent works were written almost the same time one on the whole Shulhan Arukh and one on just the volume of Orach Chaim. One is the Arukh Hashulhan and the other the Mishna Berurah. Each have their benefits (as will perhaps be discussed a different time) however, both were of great necessity as halacha is an endlessly complicated topic which, at that time, was especially evident. Before WWII the Arukh Hashulhan was much more widely accepted than the Mishna Berurah but after the war the Mishna Berurah became the more accepted one. What precipitated this change is unclear, some want to attribute it to the influence of the Chazon Ish who writes that the Mishnah Berurah is like the lishkas hagaziz etc. This is a rather ironic reason in that the Chazon Ish takes issue with the Mishna Berurah hundreds of times. Be that as it may today the more widely used work is the Mishna Berurah. There is even a Mishna Berurah cycle completing the whole Mishna Berurah every few years. However, as the years go by halakha has become larger especially with modern technology applications and the like, making it very hard for one person to master it all. The truth is throughout history there were various Gedolim that were experts in specific areas but not in everything - today such specialization is happening more and more.

As a result, R. Rabinowich came up with a great idea. He decided to put together all the newer sources according to the order of the Mishna Berurah. This idea of collecting the modern sources was actually one of the original goals of the Mishana Berurah as he writes in his introduction – to include all the recent literature from the seforim printed after the Sharei Teshuvah. R. Rabinowich’s work is the PT.

The first volume he released was on the laws of Shabbos. This first volume suffered a bit being the first born child. The sources were not that comprehensive and it did not cover many of the recent issues. The next volume, on the six volume of the Mishna Berurah, did get a bit better in the sources area. After that, the volume on fifth volume of Mishna Berurah came out here the sources got even better (as it much easier to put out a work on this volume thanks in part to the seforim Vayagid Moshe and Seder Arukh). After this he came out with a volume on the second volume of Mishna Berurah which he really out did himself on the sources. And recently the volume on first chelek on the Mishna Berurah came out.

The problem with this work is not that it does not have a wealth of information but rather one has to be careful to double check the sources to see if he quotes the pesak right and if he understood it.

So, thus far, five volumes of the PT have been published – the most recent, fifth volume covers volume one of the Mishna Berura. It is a very popular book. This latest volume was sold out in Israel within a week of publication and a distributor in the US ordered some 5,000 copies. R. Ovadia Yosef in a recent photograph in the Mispachah newspaper has a copy of the book on his table! This new volume of the PT weights in at a mere 995 pages. Readers may wonder how someone could write close to 1,000 pages on the first volume of the Mishna Berura alone? We now have our answer – it can’t be done.

The PT has a numerous flaws. First, the introduction. We are told that it is imperative to closely examine the words of the Mishna Berura because not doing so, “God forbid, could cause a person to err in the minutia of the laws and correctly interpreting them.” (p. 36). This statement is astounding. In the remainder of this volume’s introduction, there is no similar imperative to examine closely, or even cursorily look up, the many books the PT quotes. For that, we are expected to rely upon R. Rabinowich (the author of the PT) for his interpretations of the many, many books quoted – of course, he assumes that there is no need to double-check his work. However, if one were to go directly to Rabinowich’s collection without first reading the Mishna Berura, then one virtually is guaranteed to err. As we shall see, then, if one wants to avoid erring in a matter of law and its minutia, one should look up every single citation in the PT, as many are demonstrably wrong as will be explained below.

The PT instructs that when reading about unheard of laws, “one should make sure to test it logically.” (p. 37). So one would assume that the PT applied the same caveat when he was writing his book – unfortunately he does not. For instance, the PT informs us “that righteous and holy people have the custom [to wear a yarmulke] even when they are in the bath [mikvah] and only when they actually immerse do they remove it.” (p. 26). Or that it is a law that “one must close the door when using the restroom.” But, thankfully, the PT also informs us that “in cases that it is very dark or no one is around one can be lenient and not close the door.” (p. 29). Or, this gem, for example: one needs to wash his hands before invoking God’s name after “touching a Nochri, Yehudi Mumar . . .” but also, thankfully, that is “not an absolute obligation, [but that] one should be careful and strict whenever possible.” (p. 58). And this advice is vital, to be sure: one should not reveal more then necessary when using the bathroom – “however, that which is necessary not to soil oneself or the bathroom floor, or toilet” is permissible. (p. 28).

The PT also suffers from a lack of completeness. For example, the PT has a few columns on the custom of shuckelin (swaying) – but misses many of the sources. (p. 418) (See E. Zimmer, Olam k’Minhago Noheg pp. 72-113 for the sources). Or the entry related to the placement of the Ten Commandments in a synagogue (p. 17-18) -- while the PT has a few sources, the bulk are missing. (See R. Goldhaver, Minhagi Kehilot (pp. 45-47) for a much more complete and balanced set of sources).

Next, we have the PT’s comments on the obligation to wear a yarmulke. The PT first quotes the passages in the MB, which in turn quotes the well-known opinion of the Turei Zahav, that not wearing a head covering is a halachic violation. The PT explains the violation is of the command be’chukosheihem lo sei’leichu. Unfortunately, the PT fails to cite anyone who disagrees with that opinion, including, most notably, the Vilna Gaon in his Biur haGra (Orach Hayyim, siman 8 – which is quoted in the famous first teshuva in the Iggeres Moshe). The PT does manage, however, to cite the same Gra to obligate a “complete covering of the head”?! (p. 24 n. 55). In addition, the PT does not cite, or even mention, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann’s view that follows the Gra. It is not only in this section that the PT appears to be blissfully unaware of the Gra's view. Later in the book, where the PT discusses what someone should do if he prays by accident without a head covering, the PT makes no mention of the Gra’s view. (p. 719) Obviously, the Gra’s opinion on that topic is relevant, even if one were to hold that the Gra’s view is not optimal in the firs instance (i.e., in a post facto scenario, perhaps one can rely upon it).

Not only is the section on yarmulkes lacking in very important sources, it also completely distorts history. The PT makes the amazing statement that one must wear a yarmulke which is “noticeable” and, furthermore, that “this is what all Jews have done forever, in every generation.” (p. 24-25). This is absolutely not the case. There is a long history of even well known rabbis not wearing yarmulkes (or head coverings) at all, let alone ones that are capable of being seen from all sides. One example is a well known portrait of R. Hirsch. In that portrait, R. Hirsch appears bare headed. Of course, there are two possibilities – that he is actually bareheaded or that he is wearing a wig which gives the impression that he is bareheaded (and thus not complying with the PT’s requirement that a yarmulke be a “noticeable covering”). In either case, then, the PT’s absolutist claim is wrong. Not only is the PT’s ruling contrary to historical sources, it is erroneous with respect to halachic sources as well. There are numerous other examples where people either did not wear noticeable head coverings or they went completely bareheaded. Although the PT doesn’t have know about R. Hirsch, he should know that in fact R. Moshe Feinstein explicitly allows for someone to wear a non-obvious head covering. R. Feinstein allows for the wearing of a toupee which (if one has a decent one) will not be obvious.

In support of the position that one must wear a “noticeable covering,” the PT explains (p. 24 n. 57) that this understanding is premised on the prohibition of women wearing wigs. His “logic” is that because both women and men have obligations of head coverings, what is mandatory for one gender, must be for another. Although the PT cites to some sources holding that a wig is insufficient for women, as everyone knows there are many other opinions – as evidence by common custom today – which permit women to wear wigs. No such sources are cited or mentioned in the PT.

There are other similarly misleading statements throughout the PT. For example, the PT discusses the custom which some have to recite L’Shem Yichud prior to performing mitzvoth. He says that “as there are deep secrets in this recitation, there are some who disapproved of this custom . . . [H]owever, this custom has been justified and if Jews are not prophets, they are sons of prophets.” (pp. 63-64). This gives the erroneous impression that the concerns of those who disapproved of such recitations are no longer an issue. The source for this idea, inter alia, is the Siduro shel Shabbos. (p. 63 n. 21). It is correct that that sefer does justify this custom; however, many authorities, both before and after the Sidduro shel Shabbos, have strongly held it is inappropriate to recite this formulation. In no way did that sefer settle the issue.

The PT claims there is a tremendous obligation to wash one’s hands right after getting out of bed even before putting his feet on the ground – he notes a failure to comply is punishable by death. (pp. 5-8) First, he says that this stringency is based on the Zohar(which we do not actually have) , however, he failes to mention that it doesn't appear in the Gemara or early poskim. Furthermore, buried in a footnote in passing he cites to the Gra who said that after the death of the Ger Tzedek the particular ruach ra which produces the stringency of the washing is no longer present. Nor does he even quote the Sheti Yados (already highlighted by the Hatam Sofer in his notes on Shulchan Orach) that one should not take the death penalty idea literally.

The PT also discusses the issue of reciting partial verses of the Torah and rules that this is not a problem “as it is already known that we are not concerned to split sections and even verses we find many times.” (p. 243) To whom is the PT referring (by use of the word “we”)? Indeed, there are some people who maintain the custom to not split verses. Most famous, perhaps, is the statement of R. Hayyim Volozhin regarding the veZos HaTorah passage when showing the Torah to the congregation.

Aside from misleading statements, there are some statements in the PT, out of which I can make no sense. For example, the PT discusses whether to use a patach or tzerei for the first two words of kaddish. (p. 506). He records that in R. Emden’s siddur and in the Siddur haRav, there is a patach, but “in all the other siddurim it is with a tzerei.” (Id.). First, what does the PT mean by all? Did he check every single siddur, both in published and in manuscript form? Or does he mean the siddurim at his shul or that he had on his bookshelf? Readers are left to guess because the PT does not elaborate further. Similar ambiguities (e.g., statements like “most siddurim”) abound. In any event, the PT is 100% wrong. In historical terms (i.e., how the siddurim vowalized the words in question), the custom up until the 18th century was to have a patach. (For a listing of the siddurim and the history see my article in the latest Ohr Yisrael).

Another example of this type of misstatement is in the PT’s discussion about praying where a married woman’s uncovered hair is visible. First, the PT states “we find that many achronim are lenient in this matter.” But, he then continues: “however, the majority of achronim” disagree. (p. 600). Who is the majority? Is the PT referring to contemporary persons or historic achronim (the period generally is considered to extend from approx. late 15th early 16th century until today)? Additionally, those in the “minority” include R. Moshe Feinstein, the Ben Ish Chai, the Oruch haShulchan, the Seridei Eish – and those are just the ones listed in the PT. Perhaps there are cases where usage of the term “majority” is appropriate but what about when there are such distinguished authorities in the “minority?”

Another example of the necessity to check the PT’s sources is the entry relating to the use of musical tunes whose origins were not Jewish. There, the PT misquotes the Kerach shel Romi. The PT says that even the Kerach shel Romi holds when a tune is specific to idolatry, then it cannot be used. (p. 470 n. 209) But, if one looks up the source, that sefer actually says the opposite.

The above represent some of the issues in the latest volume. I have not gone over the entire 995 pages with a fine tooth comb, but I have no doubt that there are numerous other examples of the kind discussed above. The biggest problem with the PT is, in fact, as Dayan Weiss states in his approbation: that the PT “has lovingly been accepted among klal yisrael.” [He also states that he greatly enjoys the PT.] While it is admirable that people are interested in expanding their knowledge, such efforts should not be at the expense of quality. This appears to be a clear case of trying to make available as much as possible irrespective of the content. Moreover, what is particularly troubling about the above discussed examples is that the PT consistently highlighting either chumrahs or outlandish and dubious “laws.” Relatedly, it seems that the PT’s the errors of omission always manage to omit out sources which would temper or obviate some of the more stringent statements found in the PT. This displays an ideological bias in favor of stringencies over leniencies (or in many cases over actual historical practice).

* I want to thank R. Eliezer Brodt for writing the introduction to this post.

1 comment:

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