Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: Hilchot Tefillah – A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer, By Rabbi David Brofsky


A number of years ago, I was looking to give a series of shiurim on the laws of Kashrut. (You can listen to the entire series here.) I’d studied kashrut intensively for my semichah, and shailot kept me current. But giving a shiur on such a broad topic proved far more challenging, especially since this shiur would be geared towards laypeople, looking for a broader, more general approach to the topics we’d study. If you’ve ever prepared classes like these, you’ll know that the most challenging aspect of preparing the class isn’t knowing what to teach. Rather, it’s knowing what not to teach. What are the classic and critical sources relevant to the topic at hand, and what’s too much inside baseball which will only confuse?
Fortunately, I had help. Several years before, a good friend of mine, Rabbi David Brofsky, had written a series of shiurim on Hilchot Kashrut for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Yeshiva. I quickly downloaded the series, and used his shiurim as the basis for my own. Brofksy gave me exactly what I was looking for: a clear, concise presentation of the sources, comprehensive but concise enough to address the topic at hand without losing the forest for the trees.
I thought of Brofsky’s series when he asked me to review his first (hopefully of many) book, based on a similar VBM series on Hilchot Tefillah. Full disclosure: He sent me a “review” – i.e. “free” - copy of the book, and he’s a good friend, so don’t expect me to trash the book. Nonetheless, I hope that my take on his work will both encourage you to buy it (you’re welcome, Rabbi Brofsky), as well as encourage you to use it in a new and exciting way. (Also, if you want to buy the book, you can find it on Amazon here.)
The most important question you must be asking yourself is: Another book on davening? Why would I need this book? Brofsky himself answers this question in the introduction, explaining that he wrote neither a book of rules, nor a deeper, more explanatory work which focuses on one specific approach. Rather,
Each topic begins with its primary sources… [and] traces the halakhah through the Rishonim and Achronim, including relevant debates among the poskim regarding contemporary applications. At times, historical and philosophical sources, as well as traditional lomdut are woven into each chapter. This sefer, however, is still committed to presenting the “bottom line” practical halakhah.
In essence, he set out not just to write a “how to” book, but a “why do we” book, tracing the sources from their origins, analyzing their halachic and ideological implications, and arriving at a halachic conclusion. In the book, we don’t just learn what the Rosh and Rambam write about a particular issue. Rather, Brofsky delves far deeper, trying to find the underlying logic that brought the Rishon to his specific conclusion. Tefillah becomes not only a set of laws, but a sea of ideology and a window into a deeper understanding of the words we say each and every day.
But that’s also when we run into problems.
Rabbi Brofsky
Over the past few years, I’ve been giving a shiur on Gemara Brachot, and found myself often, if not nearly always frustrated by precisely this problem. Rashba and Rambam will present two diametrically different understandings to a specific topic. Let’s take netilat yadayim (I didn’t read the whole book, OK?) as an example. According to Brofsky, Rosh understands netilat yadayim as a “preparatory act before prayer,” while Rashba sees it more as a “gesture expressing sanctification of the day.” These two visions of the halachah should manifest themselves in the final psak. And yet, as Brofsky writes, “interestingly, R. Yosef Caro seems to codify all of these reasons, at least optimally.” So, while the theoretical understanding does indeed offer a deeper sense of appreciation for why we wash our hands in the morning, the discussion carries very little weight in the practical halachah. It’s not one or the other (or a gezeirat hakatuv). Rather, the final halachah often ends up far messier than the clean, neat lines that the Brisker methodology laid out for us. That’s not to suggest that the lomdus is lacking, but rather that while it’s important and meaningful, it doesn’t often translate into the world of practice.
Moreover, the book is divided by topic, and not necessarily organized in a manner that encourages looking up practical questions. I asked my wife to suggest a question on Hilchot Tefillah, and she asked me, “What are the guidelines for a woman who wants to daven but is pressed for time?” Good question. Brofsky does address the issue. But he didn’t make it easy to find. I had to know that I’d find it in the chapter on “The Obligation to Pray”, and he only addresses the Shemoneh Esreh, not which brachot of Keriat Shema she must or must not recite. Rather than a “Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer”, it’s more of a “Thorough Look into the Halachic Methodology of the Laws of Tefillah.” But I don’t see that as a negative.
The beauty of this sefer is that it can and should serve as a guide to study the laws of Tefillah in depth. In essence, he’s taken the time to write out his shiurim in a clear, lucid manner. I found myself wishing that he had given me the sources in Hebrew (with the English translation) at the beginning of each chapter, along with some leading questions. The book would then serve as a wonderful guide to the study of Halachah, offering first a chance for self-discovery, and then the ability to “listen” to a wonderful shiur afterwards.
Another book might clearly lay out what specific prayers a woman must recite each morning. But most other books will not explain the underlying issue of whether Tefillah is a mitzvat aseh she’hazeman grama or whether Shemoneh Esreh is a manifestation of the obligation to pray mid’orayta. Brofky’s book cares enough to give you that detail of background information, not in footnotes, but as an integral part of the work.
On the back jacket of the book, the blurb encouraging you to buy the book says,
This book is ideal for anyone looking to understand Jewish prayer. Students, teachers, rabbis and laypersons should have this book in their home and synagogue libraries for quick reference and extensive study.
I wouldn't have included the words “quick reference.” It’s not a quick book in any sense. That halachic work already exists in numerous forms. It’s been written dozens of times by talented talmidei chachamim. The deeper book of halachic analysis, necessary for extensive study, didn’t really exist for the English public, until now.  I think Rabbi Brofsky is really onto something. He has written a source book for a generation of teachers looking to teach the laws of tefillah in depth, and opened up the world of deeper halachic study to those unschooled in the sophistication of analysis common to a seasoned yeshiva student.
So, when you buy the book, don’t buy it to look up a quick question. It’s not the best book for that. But if you buy it and learn (not read) it, you’ll not only come to a new understanding of tefillah, but will also grow in your personal prayer as well.