I definitely cannot claim to be a big “maven” in halacha sefarim; that’s more my husband’s domain! But when The Monthly Halacha Discussion crossed my desk, I was immediately enraptured. Yes—enraptured! It’s more than a halachic guide; it’s a smorgasbord of countless topics, all explored in a forthright, clear, and, most importantly, authoritative manner that afforded me, the non-maven, bite-sized tastes of practical Jewish law. From the laws of Sheva Brachos (there are laws of Sheva Brachos? Don’t you just serve fancy food? J) to the laws of Tzedakah, Cooking on Shabbos, Business Halachah, Davening, Yom Tov, Challah, Netilas Yadayim, Aveilus, and nearly every other topic imaginable.
I was privileged to interview Rabbi Doniel Yehuda Neustadt, creator of the Halacha Discussion Series, to learn how his unique format came into being and how it has revolutionized the understanding and execution of multiple aspects of Jewish observance.
RP: Can you tell our readers about how you came to write your unique Halacha Discussion Series?
RDN: The Halacha Discussion Series was the brainchild of my good friend, Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum. Several years ago, he began producing a weekly publication of divrei Torah on the parsha—a practice he continues to this very day! These divrei Torah eventually were published as the Peninim al Hatorah Series, under the auspices of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. Rabbi Scheinbaum approached me with the idea of writing a weekly halachah column related to a thought outlined in the weekly parshah. I agreed and the project took off from there. For the first few years, my “Halacha Discussion”, as it came to be known, was published together with the Peninim, but eventually it evolved to become an independent publication. Eventually, after many years, the individual columns were compiled into four separate books, now known as the Halachah Discussion Series.
RP: Your style is very clear, authoritative, and decisive. Is it geared towards a certain audience?
RDN: What I have always attempted to do is to give over a clear presentation that can be understood by every person, regardless of their background knowledge. I wanted even the most novice reader to come away with practical knowledge of how, exactly, to conduct him or herself in every area discussed. At the same time, the column also appeals to people with more depth and breadth of knowledgeable and who have studied the material previously in its original sources. They can still find many angles that they may never have encountered previously.
RP: When there are many opinions presented on a certain topic, how do you decide which one to uphold in the final ruling you present?
RDN: The halachic process has always been filled with debates and arguments, and each posek develops a formula for how to deal with issues that are a machlokes among the poskim. In actual practice, the way the final ruling is presented would depend on the exact case. Sometimes, we follow the majority opinion, other times we follow the accepted custom, while still other times we have no choice but to bring down several opinions without a clear-cut ruling since none is available. In cases of this last nature, people have to choose which opinion to follow, depending on the level of stringency they want to adopt for themselves and their family.
RP: Are there certain topics that lend themselves well to your Halacha Discussion format and others that just don’t? Can you give us an example?
RDN: Mostly I choose topics that apply to the public at-large, shying away from more individual or “personal” topics that would only concern a minority of readers. However, I also like to focus on halachic issues which are not so well-known to the public, or that have not been clarified well by the poskim and thus leave many people scratching their heads about what to do in actual practice. Many times I write about subjects that I detect people’s interest in, based on the number of questions I receive about it.
RP: Does your Halacha Discussion Series change the way people learn halacha, or is it a supplementary aid?
RDN: Certainly it is only supplementary. Nothing is a substitute for the real thing—learning halacha from the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries and the magnificent seforim of Sheilos u’Teshuvos that were authored by the greatest halachic authorities of our age. My series just helps people find the right sources and clarifies some obscurities which may remain even after one studies the material to the best of his ability.
RP: Have there been shailos asked that were difficult to research or had no precedence in classical or contemporary sources?
RDN: Of course—all the time! I was recently asked a shailah about whether a woman can use her own hair to make a sheitel for herself. This is not something discussed by any of the poskim. There are many such questions asked.
RP: So what is the halachic process in ruling on these kinds of questions?
RDN: They require lots of research, trying to find a similar shailah, looking for a precedent in the seforim. That is the basis of the halachic process—finding precedent, finding some kind of discussion that can be brought to bear on this new subject until it is properly clarified.
Rabbi Neustadt serves as the Yoshev Rosh Va’ad Harabonim in Detroit, Michigan. He was Rav of Young Israel of Cleveland Heights for seven years and also served as the principal of Yavne Teachers College in Cleveland, OH. His books include The Weekly Halacha Discussion, The Daily Halacha Discussion, and The Monthly Halacha Discussion, which was recently made available after being out of print.