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Thought for the Day: Hilchos What To Do All Year 'Round From Hilchos Seder

When I first started to become frum, besides not knowing much at all about normative Orthodox Jewish practice, I also didn't know Hebrew.  (I knew the Aleph-Beit and how to pronounce Hebrew writing, but with zero comprehension.)  I therefore was excited to see there was an English translation of the Mishna Brura available.  It was (still is, I think) pricey, so I asked a rav what he thought of it.  His response: If your sophistication in Hebrew is too weak to read the Mishna Brura as is, then your sophistication in learning is too weak to learn the Mishna Brura.  There are plenty of English books on Jewish law and practice, so go learn those.  I, of course, thought "Oh yeah?!  I'll show you!"  So I went and learned Hebrew.

When I finally made siyum on Mishna Brura many years later, it was announced that I was making a siyum on the Orach Chayim section of the Shulchan Aruch with the commentary of the Mishna Brura.  At first I thought there had been a miscommunication; I'd only done Mishna Brura, after all.  Then I realized, "Oh... wait... that is what I did! Cool!"   That, in fact, is what makes learning Mishna Brura much different than learning something like Kitzur Shulchan Aruch or Shimras Shabbos k'Hilchaso, and other s'farim of that ilk that are a compendium of specific, practical psak halacha.  Learning the Mishna Brura, especially trying to understand הלכה למעשה/normative practice, does require a certain level of sophistication and breadth of understanding as a prerequisite.

One of the things I have found helpful in understanding how the Mishna Brura holds as הלכה למעשה is to see what is said concerning that topic in another context.  For example, if you want to know about what to do about bentching when you have already had a dairy sandwich and now want to continue to a flieishig s'uda (why is dairy and not milchig?  I haven't a clue).  You will be able to ascertains the appropriate conduct much easier by looking at kiddush for Shavuos morning than by looking at the section on birkas ha'mazon.

This "trick" works precisely because of the way the Mishna Brura is written.  When discussing the halacha in its main place, the Mishna Brura will be devoting time/space to first explaining the issues as hand, then what both the m'chaber and Rema is saying (i.e., pshat in their words), the point on which their machlokes turns, and often adds the other opinions.  In the midst of all that is his psak.  When in the midst of another topic, however, the Mishna Brura will refer to the topic of our interest as either "and, of course, by they way" or "which is different than the usual case in the following way".  Either way, you discover the usual case and how he comes as with הלכה למעשה.

While learning hilchos Pesach this year, I saw two things in particular that clarified for me the Mishna Brura's position on: (1) whether to sit or stand for kiddush Friday night; (2) a woman doing havdala.  I don't want to spoil the fun of discover for you, but the Mishna Brura does come out to sit for kiddush and that a woman can make havadala.  Bonus: for those who are careful that a woman not drink the havdala wine, she can certainly drink the havdala wine when it is also the first of the four cups (when Pesach falls out on motza'i Shabbos, as the second seder does this year).

The truth is, you still need to ask your rav for הלכה למעשה -- and I already had clarified those issues with my rav in the past -- but it is good to "do your homework" before calling.  It's a completely different conversation; in fact, it's a conversation and not just, "do azoi; anything else?"


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