I must say that, once again, First comes in first place. Every chapter in Mitchel First’s new book is chock-full of insights on history, liturgy, and Hebrew.
Mr. First’s book appeals to the scholar and layman alike. The section on liturgy delves into things we take for granted and explains their origins. For example, Mr. First tells us why we say the Haftarah, Shema in Mussaf Kedushah, and Mizmor Shir Chanukas HaBayis at the beginning of Shachris.
He draws from a broad spectrum of sources, running the gamut from the Complete ArtScroll Siddur and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan to the maskil Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai (Torczyner) and the scholarly works of Dr. Yisroel Ta-Shema. Mr. First’s judicious use of manuscripts makes his research all the more meaningful, especially when he brings to light overlooked variations.
He asks questions like why in Grace After Meals we refer to G-d’s “full, open, holy, and abundant” hand; what is the word “holy” doing there? When talking about some of the blessing of Birkas HaShachar, he compares those blessing to similar statements made by ancient Greek philosophers.
Mr. First is not scared of offering creative, original explanations and rejecting what scholars before him understood to be fact. As a word of caution, I should note that Mr. First sometimes pushes the envelope on what is considered acceptable in Orthodoxy.
Segueing to his linguistic prowess, I am in awe of the way Mr. First seamlessly parses Hebrew words by using both traditional and non-traditional sources. His approach is almost unparalleled in contemporary works.
Mr. First’s Modern Orthodox affiliation broadens the Overton window, allowing academic sources into the foray alongside traditional ones. His etymological discussions refer to the research of Hayyim Tawil (who wrote a lexicon of Ancient Akkadian), Ernest Klein (who wrote an etymological dictionary of the various strands of Hebrew), and Matisyahu Clark (who wrote an etymological dictionary of Hebrew largely based on the ideas of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch).
In his section on the holidays, Mr. First again tackles some of the phrases and ideas we take for granted and sheds new light on their meaning – e.g., what does “Yom Teruah” mean? Where did the word Maccabee come from?
From time to time, Mr. First also gives us short biographical details of the people he cites, filling the book with interesting historical tidbits.
Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, I must mention Mr. First’s good sense of humor – if you can call puns “humor.” As is evident throughout his awesome work, Mr. First has his way with words. One might even call him “a way-word Jew.”