The Jewish Book of Why
Alfred J. Kolatch. Penguin Books, $15 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-14-219619-9
This book is for Jews and Gentiles alike, offering an encyclopedic compendium of concise, cogent explanations of Jewish rituals and practices. Kolatch, a rabbi and author of Great Jewish Quotations, treats every facet of Jewish religious observance, including births, weddings and funerals, sabbath and synagogue, holidays from Passover to Purim and the intricacies of the Jewish calendar. He teases apart the variations that distinguish different Jewish communities and denominations, and carefully notes whether a practice derives from the Torah, the Talmudic law or custom. Kolatch's catechistic format fields queries about the grand imponderables (""Why is marriage such an important institution in Jewish life?"") and the most exquisite niceties (""Why do some people remove their tefilin after concluding the Amida, and then immediately put on a second pair for the balance of the service?""). In answering such questions, he sticks to Jewish law and history; on the particularly vexed issue of Kosher dietary rules, he rejects speculation about nutritional or sanitary benefits and insists that their rationale lies in the Divine injunction of""holiness"" and the Jews' destiny as a people apart. While there are alternatives to some of the explanations offered here, Kolatch writes in an erudite but straightforward style, providing an intelligent, loving introduction to Jewish tradition and culture.
Reviewed on: 03/03/2003