Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Snow: A Review of Ha-Noten Sheleg

Y. Meiselman, Ha-Noten Sheleg, Be-Inyanei ha-Sheleg veha-Kerach be-Halacha, Holon, 2001, 266 pp.

With winter approaching, a review of a work devoted to the topic of snow is particularly appropriate.  While everyone is familiar with R. Zevin's discussion of the halachik use of snow in his Le-Or ha-Halacha, R. Zevin only took his discussion so far. Today, we now have a work that is entirely devoted to snow and halacha.  This book, which is on Orach Hayyim and volumes on the other sections of Shulchan Orach are planned.  Indeed, the author in his introduction is aware how silly books devoted to a single topic can be and offers some justification for composing this work. This somewhat unique in so far as the author is at least willing to admit and deal with the problems with single subject works.  That is, there is no issue with writing a book on all of hilchos shabbos which incorporate something about snow.  What becomes problematic is when one takes a single subject and merely culls from other books what they have to say about it.  For example, is there any need for a book I once came across that is hundreds of pages on the "halachos" of walking in front of someone praying?  In this case, however, the author appears to have succeeded in producing a valuable work.  


As one would expect with a book devoted to a singular halacha, it covers every possible aspect of snow. The first section collects every mention of snow in Tanakh and the Talmud.  Additionally, he collects stories that are centered around snow. A common theme is that many great people felt shoveling snow was not beneath their dignity.  For example, he has two stories one with R. Chaim Volozhin and the other with the Chofetz Hayyim which are similar.  In both, whenever it would snow all the paths in the morning would be cleared by these great Rabbis.  

The author then ensures that his readers are actually aware of the phenomena that will be discussed so he provides the scientific definitions of snow, ice, and hail.   


The book then turns to the halachik questions.  It covers the obvious ones like shoveling snow on shabbos, using snow for ritual hand washing etc. as well as some more esoteric topics like skiing on shabbos.  Additionally, as appears to be de rigueur today, the final section are questions and responses from R. Chaim Kenifsky. The author explains that many of the questions he asked R. Chaim were not novel and instead asked questions that had been discussed previously - one assumes to see if R. Chaim agreed or disagreed with the prior opinions.  


Although the author claims his book is merely a collection of sources, in fact it is much more.  The author after collecting the various sources on a particular topic analysis the sources and actually is unafraid to come to his own conclusions.  This is especially surprising as so many authors are afraid of ever actually giving a conclusion for fear that someone will think it makes sense and follow it.  Rather, we typically get inane disclaimers on seforim that are devoted to halacha that in fact it is not a halachik work.  Indeed, in the case of this book, in some cases the author appears to disagree with the conclusion of R. Kenifsky.  Because of the author's willingness to actually offer opinions the book is a much more satisfying read, one not only gets a list of sources (many of which should be well-known) but also the reader can begin to see where the potential flaws are and come to their own conclusions.  


Turning to the particulars, the author allows for shoveling snow on Shabbat, salting icy walkways, and even skiing (when he asked R. Chaim about skiing, R. Chaim admitted that he didn't know what it was, the author then showed him pictures of people skiing).  Many of these laws start with a discussion of the well-known pronouncement of the Mahram of Rottenberg that one can urinate on snow on Shabbat.  One area that he takes a restrictive view is not really related to winter but ice.  That is, he questions squeezing or mashing freeze pops or other frozen snacks on Shabbat due to the prohibition of mesarek. 


Additionally, the author expends considerable energy on the burning question for most kids - can one make and throw snowballs on Shabbat. See 7:3 and Miluim no. 3. On this issue there is a split amongst the authorities.  The author in the additions in the back attempts to find additional support for those who allow for making and throwing snowballs on Shabbat.  He also discusses whether one can make snowmen (which he prohibits).  


In all, the book is an enjoyable read that provides the starting point for an serious discussion regarding the halachot implicated by snow. 


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