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The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year    by Scott-Martin Kosofsky order for
Book of Customs
by Scott-Martin Kosofsky
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

This book was inspired by the Yiddish Minhogimbukh, originally printed in Venice in 1593. It details the history of such 'books of customs' that were produced in Europe between 1500 and the mid-1800s. These volumes used 'spare, telegraphic prose' and were written in Yiddish, mainly for 'women and "men who were like women", meaning men who were not literate in Hebrew.' Although the writings of the original Minhogimbukh were simple and unadorned, they did assume that the reader was versed in, and had a knowledge of, the Bible, the basic commandments, the main prayers and the cycle of synagogue services.

Kosofsky has resurrected this age-old book of lores and customs. As he points out, memorizing the prayers, synagogue cycles and such was, and is, a fundamental part of the education of Jewish boys, but the Minhogimbukh offered bits of talmudic lore and customs, rituals and prayers, as well as illustrations that 'featured the zodiac and the seasons of farm life, giving it an additional role as a kind of Jewish "Old Farmers Almanac."' The author has adapted the Minhogimbukh concept to modern use, adding historical perspective and insight, as well as current application. The original woodcuts are themselves works to be treasured, illustrating the rituals for the entire Jewish year, from the days of the week and the Sabbath, to the months, with their zodiac sign, and the festivals. According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who wrote the Foreword, The Book of Customs is a holy book. Over the centuries, Jews have relied not only on their scriptures but also on the various customs to fully understand and appreciate their faith. Over time, the customs gradually change to reflect the dominant mores of the society at large, to mirror the scriptures in a modern context.

This is what Kosofsky has tried to achieve in The Book of Customs, interweaving strands of Torah and custom that respond to the needs of the current generation, who are less than fully literate in Rabbinical knowledge. Many of the customs of Jewish life, such as the breaking of a glass at the conclusion of a wedding, are not detailed in the scriptures but they are just as important to the Jewish community as anything in the religious texts, and adhered to just as strictly. This book is an interesting piece for anyone outside the Jewish faith, but will surely prove to be an important publication for modern Jews, tying together historical detail and modern interpretations of the Minhogimbukh.

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