Book Review-ish: The 39 Melochos, R. Dovid Ribiat

This book is on my geirut course syllabus; I gather it’s a standard thing the rabbi assigns.  (I wonder how many converts he’s instructed, as some people at Beit Meshugge have a running joke about the size of his curricular reading list.)  It’s a four-volume series covering the various types of Shabbat-prohibited labours by classification relating to the Mishkan (tabernacle) and how to build it or make its components.

All thirty-nine of these prohibited labour types are divided by “orders,” such as The Order of Garments, which pertains to all forbidden labours involved in creating the curtains surrounding the Mishkan, such as spinning, weaving, and sewing, and all the “child prohibitions” derived from there.  This is a really good approach, because it makes the underlying logic of the Shabbat prohibitions extremely clear.  I’m all about systemisation.

The prose is quite readable, and shares with the best technical writing the quality of being information-dense yet easy-to-read.  My only two real quibbles with the writing style are that it’s obvious R. Ribiat isn’t a native English-speaker, and could have used a better editor to clean up some odd locutions and grammatical mistakes, and that some of the content and/or examples are repetitive.  This book is so good, I’d like to see it be even better by eliminating some of the redundant content (R. Ribiat really likes his Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, I think!) and expanding the number and type of the examples. 

That said, it’s a good guide for the serious Orthodox would-be shomer(et) Shabbat, although it does lean very strict, and certain people will want to talk to their rabbis and/or consult other listings of poskim such as Halachipedia to find halachic reolutions to certain questions.  (I believe I’ve already mentioned at least one where I will lean more liberal than Ribiat.)  I’m not sure of Ribiat’s affiliation, but he seems to lean “rightward.” 

Ribiat himself also does advise consulting your local rabbi throughout the text wherever there are complex halachic questions, with which the book does not deal in any real depth, despite its size. There is a lot of material — thirty-nine “parent” types of prohibited labour, plus various “child” types related to those labours either in the Oral Torah or by later rabbinical authorities.  Some of these are absolutely straightforward, but some are really not readily intuitive.  For example, gluing paper is considered prohibited as a result of the prohibition against sewing, and removing the braid in one’s hair is considered prohibited as a result of the prohibition against demolition.  Note to self — find a non-braid way of protecting against the “pre-Shabbat shower-caused Shabbat morning terminally unfixable bedhead.”

I doubt a non-Orthodox convert would derive much use from this book, unless they were interested in observing Shabbat to the letter, especially since at around $300 all in including taxes and shipping (it was thirteen pounds in shipping weight!), it’s not exactly an impulse purchase item, although if your synagogue or local library happens to own a copy and you’re curious, by all means, have a look.  Some of the examples are really quite funny, and some are at Blu Greenberg levels of practicality.  I suspect I’m going to get a lot of use out of it, and that I’ll use it more in the way one uses a reference book than as a single coherent work (although it is that, surprisingly).

My major issue (I can’t complain too much about the price, as well-made hardcover books are expensive, and well-made hardcover books intended for niche markets are really expensive) with this book is that because the volumes contain the complete English text plus a comprehensive appendix of cited sources entirely in Hebrew (surprisingly readable even with my mediocre Hebrew!), each of the four volumes is quite large…

…and it hurts like blazes if you drop one on your foot! 

(Ow.  This is the Voice of Experience speaking.)


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