The Jewish Press: In addition to your weekly Jewish Press columns on Talmud and Choshen Mishpat, you’ve written two books – Ner Eyal 1: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed and, most recently, Ner Eyal 2: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zera’im. What motivated you to write them?
Rabbi Grunfeld: My father, Dayan Grunfeld, was a lawyer, a rabbi, and a writer. He has always been my inspiration. He was the one who told me that one can always do what one sets out to do.
When I was around six years old, my father took me to an imposing synagogue in London. It was built like an amphitheater. I took my place next to him in one of the top rows, from where we looked down on the hundreds of congregants, sitting in hushed silence in the descending semicircles of pews, waiting for the service to begin. Way down below, almost too far for the eye to see, stood the chazzan on the bima, the prayer platform. Next to him, on a stand, were stacks of siddurim, prayer books, piled high.
“Dad,” I said, “I don’t have a siddur.” My father pointed to the pile lying in the depths of the synagogue, many flights below. “They are down there,” he said. “Go and take one and come back upstairs to me.”
“But Dad,” I protested, “I can’t walk all the way down there. Everyone will be watching me every step of the way.”
My father put a comforting hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t be shy. Just do what you set out to do.”
Did the research and writing take a great deal of time?
Yes, but I never stopped thinking about the great novelist Charles Dickens. He too worked in a demanding law firm with non-negotiable deadlines. One of the ways he fulfilled his need to write was by promising himself to have a chapter a week serialized in a newspaper. About fifteen years ago I tried to follow his example. I approached the general manager and managing editor of The Jewish Press, Jerry Greenwald. I asked whether he would allow me to write a chapter of Ner Eyal for the newspaper every week. I told him the purpose of the book was to make the Talmud and its concepts accessible to everyone. Fortunately, Jerry agreed.
What methods did you use to convey Talmudic concepts in a user-friendly format?
Throughout my years at Gateshead Yeshiva and then studying law at both Tel Aviv and London Universities, I was disturbed by the fact that both Jewish and secular law were often presented in a technical manner directed toward connoisseurs. I felt that perhaps one of the keys to understanding the Talmud might be to draw graphic parallels with daily life and illustrate it with childhood anecdotes from my parents’ home.
In what way did your parents’ home inform your writing?
Both my parents were writers. My mother, Dr. Judith Grunfeld, who founded the Beit Ya’akov movement with Sarah Schenirer, led the evacuation of Jewish schools out of London during the Blitz to a small village in the countryside. She wrote a remarkable book based on her experiences and called it Shefford, which was the name of that sleepy little village.
My father was a refugee from Germany. He landed in London in 1933, with no knowledge of the English language. Before long, he became so adept in his ability to express himself in English that by the time he left the London Beit Din, in 1955, he was able to write his classic works The Sabbath, The Jewish Dietary Laws, and The Jewish Law of Inheritance. He also translated into English many of the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
London in the 1950s was the postwar meeting place of Holocaust survivors. They brought with them all their customs and ways, as varied as the towns and villages from which they came. We felt as comfortable in their shtiebelach, makeshift synagogues furnished with rickety wooden tables and white tablecloths, as we did in the institutional dome-vaulted, marble synagogues of the establishment. For us kids, it was like going from one performance to another.
How did you use your experiences from that era to illustrate the topics in your books?
All the chapters of the books are influenced by these experiences. Take for example the chapter on Tallit and Tefillin. There was the image of the London investment banker Dr. Herman Schwab taking his morning stroll home from synagogue wearing his tallit and his round English bowler hat, perched at a precarious slant, behind his tefillin.
Then there was Sir Robert, president of the United Synagogue, who wore an elegant silk blue and white tallit draped over his shoulders, which looked as debonair beneath his top hat as an opera scarf.
There was also Pesach Fabricant, one of the chassidim of the local corner shtiebel. Pesach wore a massive black and white tallit, laced at the top and in the middle with thick bands of silver made out of rows and rows of what appeared to me, as a small child, to be the silvery skin of a crocodile.
As Rav Dovid Feinstein points out in his letter of introduction, your new book, Ner Eyal 2, spans almost all the halachot, including shechitah ((ritual slaughter), the Jewish laws of torts, real estate, business, family, inheritance, as well as the laws of kashrut, Temple sacrifices, family purity, prayer, and much more. Many of these are complex topics you attempted to simplify and condense into a single page.
I was inspired by the precise way in which my father, aided by his legal training, simplified complex issues.
Before my father released his classic work on the Jewish dietary laws, which covers the laws of shechitah, he asked Rabbi Feld to proofread every line to make sure that all the sources and descriptions of the subject were correct.
Rabbi Feld was a tall man with a strong build, a soft voice, and a kind face. He was always impeccably dressed. His knowledge of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Jewish Code of Laws, including the laws of shechitah, was encyclopedic.
Once, when still a little boy, I plucked up the courage to ask him what he did for a living. He bent down and whispered into my ear, “You should know that I am a killer.”
“What on earth did he mean by that ?” I asked my father.
My father then proceeded to explain to me that he was a professional shochet and all that this vocation entailed.
Many years passed before I was able to sit down to learn what the halacha requires of the shochet. Not only was he to master the laws of shechitah and kashrut, not only was it necessary for him to be a man of faith, but he also needed to be physically sturdy and possess a very steady hand to perform the task. My warm memories and respect for Rabbi Feld never left me.
Ner Eyal 2 also covers less popular subjects such as keritot, the laws of premature death by Divine order. Did your father’s example inform this difficult subject in any way?
It did. Early each morning, my mother, still in her housecoat and slippers, would wake me up for school. On a Monday morning one winter, I woke to find her leaning over my bed. She was in her hat and coat and her hands were frozen from the wintry weather.
“Where have you been, Mum?” I asked.
“I have just come back from the hospital,” she said. “Dad was rushed to the emergency room early this morning.”
It took six months of fighting for his life before my father, by now grayer and slower, was able to come home.
Several years later, he invited relatives and friends to celebrate his having reached his sixtieth year, which the Talmud regards as a milestone for having survived the danger of karet. On that evening, he told all those who were gathered there that he had received a midnight hospital “visit” from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He made my father the promise that if my father were to devote the rest of his life to disseminating Rav Hirsch’s writings, my father would survive. It was at that time, at that party, that my father made the pledge to do so.
Your first book, Ner Eyal 1, deals with laws of Shabbat and the festivals. Why did you feel the need to write this book when there are so many other books written on this topic?
There are several laws of Shabbat that are quite difficult to understand. Take for example the issue of whether a person is biblically liable for the forbidden act of extinguishing fire on Shabbat under the following circumstances: He opens the door on a windy day to go out into the street. The inevitable yet undesired result of this permitted act is that candles, lit and placed next to the door, will blow out. Is this person liable for violating the forbidden act of extinguishing fire on Shabbat, even though opening a door to the street is permitted on Shabbat and it was not his intention to extinguish the fire? This situation is referred to in the halacha as “Psik Reishe Delo Neecha Leh.” The topic is discussed at length in the Talmud.
I also tried to personalize the laws of Shabbat by means of vivid childhood memories.
Every Shabbat after shul, my father would take me by the hand, and together we would climb the steep stairs to the second floor of a tenement house in North London. There, in a large oak bed, lay Mr. Lizzack the stockbroker, whom illness had confined to bed for years. My father would pull up a chair and Mr. Lizzack would perk up as they discussed stocks and shares, the parshah, and the state of Mr. Lizzack’s health.
At the end of the visit, my father would bend over Mr. Lizzack. He would pause and say, “Good Shabbos, Mr. Lizzack.” For many years this is what I thought he said until such time as I delved into the laws of Shabbat. The Talmud tells us that one should bid farewell to the sick on Shabbat with the words” “Shabbat He Milizzok,” which means Shabbat should grant you peace from all your pain.
Ner Eyal 2 also has a chapter on the laws and power of prayer. What inspired you to write that section?
Toward the end of the Second World War, an Inter-Faith Hospitality Committee brought children from Europe to England for a short stay of recuperation. Protestant ministers and Catholic priests were sent to the children’s camp to tend to the religious needs of the little ones. My father inquired as whether there were any Jewish children among them. He was told there were none. My father thought that was unlikely. So he immediately decided to visit the children’s camp. Walking through the hall where the children were assembled, he recited the Shema prayer out loud. This bedtime prayer stirred up childhood memories in many small children who carried the Christian names of their wartime foster parents. “Mamme, Mamme,” they cried as they ran to him. “We are Jewish. Take us back to our Mamme please.”
In Ner Eyal 2 you’ve added more chapters concerning the laws of Festivals, which you previously examined in Ner Eyal 1. What made you decide to do so?
There were topics that had not been covered in Ner Eyal 1. There is, for example, a chapter that deals with fasting on Yom Kippur for those of us who fall sick.
As a little boy of seven, I was proud to sit next to my father, the rabbi of the synagogue, on Yom Kippur. It was a matter of grave concern to me as to how long I could survive before having my breakfast. The goodie bag my mother had given me to take to shul beckoned wildly from the rabbi’s office, where I had left it. By 10 a.m. I could stand it no longer. It was already three hours past my usual breakfast time. Many an envious eye followed me as I slunk away to my goodie bag in the office.
Years later, when I visited my ailing father on Yom Kippur, I felt the need to comfort him. He had been obliged to follow doctor’s orders to eat throughout the day. He did so grudgingly, eating one morsel of bread at a time and waiting ten minutes before eating another as dictated by the halacha. I reminded him of what he had told me, as a child, years earlier: “It is a mitzvah for you to eat on Yom Kippur.”
Editor’s Note: Ner Eyal 2: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zeraim and Ner Eyal 1: A Guide to the laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed are available for purchase on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X