Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Birkas Ha-Chamah Books

With the once-every-twenty-eight-years opportunity in a few weeks of reciting birkas ha-chamah (see this post: link), I'd like to take the opportunity to review and compare two recent books about the subject. Bircas HaChammah (henceforth Bircas) by R. J. David Bleich was originally published 28 years ago and has now been revised and republished (I haven't compared the second edition with the first for changes). Once in 28 Years: The Blessing of the Sun: Birkas Hachamah (henceforth Once) is a new book by R. Moshe Goldberger (interestingly, his name appears nowhere on the book except as the copyright holder).

Both books give an overview of the relevant laws and the text for the ceremony of birkas ha-chamah. However, they differ in so many respects that even on those two issue they are different. In general, I would describe Bircas as a reference text for this mitzvah and Once as an inspirational book based on the mitzvah.

Click here to read moreBircas was written by one of the leading Torah scholars in the world, who also has advanced secular education and, in addition to being a rosh kollel, teaches in law school. His books deals with every minute aspect of the mitzvah, including the complex calendrical issues and the evolving/expanding liturgy associated with it.

Once is cute. It is a small book that has 28 chapters. The first two chapters deal with the textual sources for the mitzvah and its laws. The other 26 address ways to learn life lessons from the mitzvah and its liturgy. The book comes with a laminated card that has the birkas ha-chamah service on it. It is worth comparing this with the service in Bircas to see the difference.

The service provided by Once is minimal -- Psalm 148, the blessing, Kel Adon, Psalm 19 and Alenu (followed by Kaddish). Bircas has a six-page bibliographic note on the development of the service and then the very long service in three different fonts -- big for the minimal service, medium for additional readings, and small for the esoteric prayers. While it is important for a reference work to have all of the possible prayers, it makes it difficult to use. I suspect that most people will simply see the passages and just read all of them, much like people do with the lengthy tashlikh service in the Artscroll machzor. However, as a reference, Bircas is an incredible goldmine of useful information (e.g. who wrote Alenu? see page 176).

The section of laws in Once is 7 small pages. It has the basics of what you need to know, with only one opinion for every ruling rather the "some say this and some say that". No footnotes. Bircas has 34 pages of laws, with footnotes and super-footnotes (footnotes to the footnotes). It has just about every opinion on every subject, with long lists of obscure sources.

Bircas has astronomical charts with 13 columns of relevant times for many cities across the world. It also has lists of dates of birkas ha-chamah throughout history. Once has no charts.

But Once has very pointed, inspirational lessons that can be learned from aspects of the mitzvah. What have you done in the past 28 years (assuming you are old enough to remember that far back)? How have you grown? What have you learned from the sun's regularity? Etc. etc. These are good questions to ask and the author masterfully extracts them from the mitzvah of birkas ha-chamah. Bircas might have these questions also but if it does, I got lost in the details and passed over them.

So, to sum up, I see Bircas as an essential reference work and Once as an important tool for getting the most out of this rare occasion.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More