Reviewed by Yona Reiss
Many volumes have been published on the shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, who served as the pre-eminent rosh yeshivah at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University for over forty years. Sefer Shiurei HaRav on Tefillah and Keriat Shema, in Hebrew, is a welcome addition to this corpus. It is not only a collection of the Rav’s shiurim, but an unmistakable labor of love from one of his most devoted students. The beautifully crafted essays are a symphonic blend of poetry and prose, of insight and inspiration.
The result is an exquisite volume that appeals to both the mind and the heart. This is immediately apparent in Rabbi Menachem Genack’s introductory essay, in which he writes of how the Rav viewed talmud Torah as an expression of tefillah in the sense that both constitute “standing before Hashem,” and how he epitomized this concept in his noble demeanor and disposition while imparting Torah to his students. Rabbi Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, poignantly writes how during the dark periods of the Rav’s life, the exercise of learning and teaching Torah served as a sweet and reassuring song of prayer. He further notes how the Divine Presence was palpable when the Rav opened up his mouth in front of his legions of students and presented the fervent prayer of his talmud Torah.
It is this inextricable connection between prayer and Torah learning that forms the basis of this volume. Rabbi Genack observes that the Rav devoted special attention to the shiurim he gave on the subject of tefillah, precisely because the fusion of prayer with talmud Torah formed the essence of “sheleimut” (wholeness) in the service of Hashem.
Significantly, the poetic flavor of the introduction permeates much of the text, which includes fifty-two essays encompassing the Rav’s insights into Birchat HaTorah, Keriat Shema, tefillah, Keriat HaTorah, the sanctity of the synagogue and other related topics, and enables the reader to experience both the Rav’s lomdus and the religious romance infused in his analyses.
This quality is evident in the opening essay exploring the Rambam’s apparent understanding of two different elements of Birchat HaTorah: a “matir” to permit the enterprise of learning Torah and a fulfillment of the need to integrate the blessing over Torah with the experience of learning it (based on Devarim 32:3). The essay also develops the theme of Torah learning as an expression of song (based on the Rambam’s evocation of the verse in Eichah 2:19 “kumi roni b’laylah” as a reference to talmud Torah). This notion of the dual nature of Torah study, of synthesizing its liturgical components with its fulfillment, highlights the spiritual experience the Rav attached to talmud Torah.
Other essays deal with the Rambam’s understanding of the two daily recitations of Keriat Shema as one mitzvah; the unique status of the berachot of Keriat Shema serving as an integral part of the mitzvah of its recitation; the notion that the mitzvah of tefillah has no time boundaries because “worship of the heart” is a constant requirement; and the theme that accepting Shabbat is another manifestation of preparing to stand before the Divine Presence and therefore requires the same protocol in terms of washing one’s face, hands and feet as the preparations for prayer.
The ideas in the volume are presented with remarkable clarity, numerous proof texts, elegant language, clearly demarcated subheadings and helpful indices. The Rav’s brilliant discourses are magnificently conveyed through a style that is as clear and precise as the substance of the shiurim. In addition, Rabbi Genack has contributed many footnotes that elaborate upon the themes in the text in a thoughtful and erudite fashion.
The sefer, not surprisingly, is replete with “Brisker Torah” containing a number of “cheftza-gavra” distinctions (e.g., both recitations of Keriat Shema comprise one mitzvah from the perspective of the gavra, but each unit of recitation has separate significance from the perspective of the cheftza; Tefillat Arvit is a “reshut” from the perspective of the gavra, but has the status of a “tefillat chovah” from the perspective of the cheftza) and many insights from the Rav’s grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, zt”l, and the Rav’s father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, zt”l.
One of the insights quoted from Rav Moshe Soloveitchik describes how the mitzvah of tefillah is both triggered through an obligation of “worship of the heart” and fulfilled through the “worship of the heart.” Similarly, this sefer was undoubtedly inspired by a heartfelt appreciation of the words of Torah that the author was privileged to hear from the Rav, and was elegantly executed in the same spirit of genuine affection. The end product is a volume that presents a wonderful opportunity for students and scholars to experience the sublime magnificence of the Rav’s Torah legacy.
Rabbi Yona Reiss is the dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University.