Laws of Prayers
By Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Maggid Press and Har Bracha, 2011, 413 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 22, 2012
This book, called in its Hebrew original Peninei Halachah, "Pearls of the Law" or Legal Pearls," is an all-inclusive, easy to read, 413 page book that informs readers of the laws of prayer from the perspective of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed. According to the rabbi, God needs prayers and "without prayer, the world would cease to exist." He is certain that "prayers do not return unanswered." A "person must exert himself greatly in prayer, and not assume that since he is praying, HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the holy one blessed is He = God) must fulfillhis request. Rather, he should continue praying, knowing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu hears his prayers and that his prayers are most certainly doing some good, although how much, and in what way, are unknown."
The book is comprehensive. There are twenty-six sections and each has between three and fourteen chapters. They address subjects such as the fundamentals of prayer (ten chapters), the minyan (prayer group of at least ten male Jews - ten), the place of payer (eleven), the prayer leader and the mourner's kaddish (eight), preparing for prayer (eleven), washing hands in the morning (nine), and many sections addressing specific payers, such as the Ma'ariv prayer (nine). He identifies which practices are customs, and which are considered biblical and rabbinicalenactments.
The rabbi's approach is generally conservative although he often mentions sources that are more lenient and moderate, especially in his extensive notes. For example, although there is a tendency today among modern-Orthodox Jews to allow women to say the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, he feels that "we must object to women saying Kaddish so as not to undermine the power of minhagim (the way that the prayer was recited in ancient times).
He accepts kabalistic notions and what some would consider superstitions, such as ruach ra'ah, which he defines as an "evil spirit" that "rests upon one's hands after sleep and is likely the damage these organs. Only after he washes his hand three times alternately will the ru'ah ra'ah disappear and, subsequently, the danger caused by touching any of his bodily orifices will be eliminated." He spends several pages discussing the "evil spirit," quoting the thirteenth century mystical book Zohar, which he and others think was composed in the second century, and he gives minute directions on how to hold the washing cup and which hand to wash first. Children, he writes, should be taught to wash as soon as they "reach the age of understanding."
Other strictures include the prohibition to eat even a light meal a half hour before stars begin to appear and men should say the evening prayers when the stars appear. Jews should recite two psalms, 91 and 3, before going to sleep because they are "useful in warding off the evil spirits." A "man (is forbidden) to sleep while lying on his back." The rabbi does not explain this prohibition and neither does his source. It appears that the practice was instituted out of respect for God, not to face the sexual organ (which He created) towards Him. But one may read while lying on his back.
Rabbi Melamed is not always strict. He notes that some rabbis insist that women should cover their heads while praying, but explains that the female head covering is a custom and it is acceptable for women not to follow the custom. He notes that the current practice of many Orthodox men to wear a yarmulke (head covering) all day is also just a custom; however he feels that "in a synagogue (the obligation) is greater (and a head covering should be worn by men in synagogues), for it is rooted in law and not just a custom."