Hamadrikh: The New Handbook of Jewish Life


All four editions of Hamadrikh: The RCA Lifecycle Guide. From right: 1939, 1956, 1995 and 2023. 

Some eighty-plus years after it first appeared, Hamadrikh, in a new edition, aims at addressing the ever-changing needs of the American rabbinate.

The little black book could be seen in the hands of generations of Orthodox rabbis as they circumcised, bar mitzvahed, married and buried their congregants. 

Compiled by Rabbi Hyman E. Goldin in 1939, it was titled Hamadrikh: The Rabbis’ Guide, and was described as A Manual of Jewish Religious Rituals, Ceremonials and Customs. It included all the required tefillot and texts for every lifecycle event and ceremony in Jewish family life, together with explanations of the halachah and extensive quotations from rabbinic sources.

With nothing similar ever having been written, it found a ready market and sold many thousands of copies.

Recently, some eighty-plus years after it first appeared, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) turned to Rabbi Hyman Goldin’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah of Englewood, New Jersey, and Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky of Congregation KINS in Chicago, Illinois, to compile a new Hamadrikh, “to address the ever-changing needs of the American rabbinate.” Sub-titled The RCA Lifecycle Guide, it has been produced with their customary flair by Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

Rabbi Hyman E. Goldin (1881-1971), a talmudic scholar and educator who was also an attorney, was born in Lithuania and came to the US in 1900. He was the author of over fifty books on Jewish law and tradition such as The Jewish Woman and Her Home, The Jew and His Duties, the Code of Jewish Law (an annotated translation of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) and many other works on mishnah, midrash and the Hebrew language. He also wrote books for children and, as a prison chaplain, he enlisted the help of two convicts to compile and publish a Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo. 

According to his grandson Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, “He was a renaissance man. He dedicated his life to educating the English-speaking Jewish community about their traditions, and his books were the only such works at the time.”

The purpose of the Hamadrikh, Rabbi Hyman Goldin wrote, was to “give the rabbi, or anyone officiating at a Jewish ceremony or ritual, a concise and practical aid that will facilitate the task of officiating.” Beginning with engagement, betrothal and “the nuptial ceremony,” it continued with brit milah, bar mitzvah and the dedication of a new home or a synagogue, through visiting the sick, the deathbed confession and detailed laws of burial and mourning. All this was followed by source material for sermons in Hebrew and in English translation, the exact wording for various halachic documents and a list of the correct Hebrew spelling of first names for men and for women, which are essential for ketubot (marriage certificates) and for gittin (divorce documents). 

. . . the new Hamadrikh is likely to become one of the most thumbed books in [a rabbi’s] library, as there is almost no significant moment in Jewish life that this handbook does not touch.

Rabbi Goldin revised his handbook and published a new edition in 1956. But the succeeding generations brought more changes to Jewish life, and in 1995 another revised edition by Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka was published under the aegis of the RCA. “Times have changed,” wrote Rabbi Bulka in his introduction, citing “new realities . . . such as having a celebration to name a girl, bat mitzvah and adoption, among others.” 

Pointing out that “so many halachic guides are available today,” Rabbi Bulka decided to omit the extensive halachic sources quoted in the Rabbi Goldin volume, with a view to producing a “more compact and more focused” book. 

At the outset of the most recent revision, the intention was to have Rabbi Bulka as a co-editor. Rabbis Goldin and Matanky met with him at an early stage of their planning, but sadly his illness and subsequent passing away forestalled that possibility.

Rabbi Matanky had long believed that a new Hamadrikh was needed as both the rabbis and the laymen of our day are more focused on the details of observance and of synagogue life than those of previous generations. 

“Once the RCA became committed to it,” he says, “I turned to my good friend and colleague, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, to be my partner in this endeavor.” For Rabbi Goldin, it immediately struck a chord. “My grandfather was always an inspiration to me,” he reflects. “To have something where I was continuing his legacy was very meaningful.” 

The two rabbis approached their task with their many decades of experience in the rabbinical trenches, as they like to express it. The process took them about two years from the time they actually started work. But first they sent out questionnaires to RCA-member rabbanim asking what they would like to see in Hamadrikh that wasn’t in the previous edition. 

They decided on two major changes. The first was to restore the halachic material that Rabbi Bulka had left out, rewriting and augmenting it with quotations from more recent responsa. “There are occasions,” says Rabbi Matanky, “where the officiating rabbi finds himself faced with complicated situations and he needs to have the sources at hand to quickly find the answer.” 

It certainly would not be appropriate for him pull out his smartphone and start searching. 

But it’s fascinating to contrast the likely motives for the inclusion of these extensive halachic sources in the original Hamadrikh and for their reappearance in the latest edition. No doubt what was in the mind of Rabbi Hyman E. Goldin when he compiled his Hamadrikh was that the “officiants,” and even some of the rabbis of his generation, lacked a deep knowledge of halachah. Also, many of them were recent immigrants, unfamiliar with the customs of American synagogue life. Hamadrikh guided them to safe ground and probably saved them from many an embarrassing faux pas. 

Rabbi Hyman Goldin (1881-1971) compiled the first edition of Hamadrikh in 1939, selling many thousands of copies.

In the twenty-first century, however, shuls are led by rabbanim with years of yeshivah education and are full of learned laymen who are themselves deeply knowledgeable of rabbinic literature. “The rav today,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin points out, “has to be able to respond to halachic questions and challenges from his balabatim as to why he is doing something—let’s say at a wedding—in a certain way.” The new Hamadrikh gives him all the sources he needs at his fingertips. 

The second change reflects what the authors perceive as a shift in the priority rabbis give to the many roles they play in their congregants’ lives. According to Rabbi Matanky, “Today’s rabbanim tend to devote far more time to preparing and teaching shiurim and answering halachic questions than to the pastoral side of their work.” Accordingly, they may not be sufficiently sensitive to some of the pitfalls that might confront them. 

Based on their own extensive rabbinic experience, the authors added introductions to each lifecycle ceremony. Under the heading “The Rabbinic Road,” they suggest how the communal rabbi should prepare himself for these occasions. “These are not things you necessarily learn in rabbinic training,” says Rabbi Goldin. As an example, he cites meeting with family members right before the funeral of a loved one who has died in very tragic circumstances. His advice is to begin the meeting in an emotionally neutral area by reviewing the relevant halachot with them. “You tell them, ‘Here’s what’s going to be happening over the next day, the next few days,’ and that’s the way to break the ice, because you’re giving them structure.” Then it becomes easier for the rabbi to ask for the emotionally laden personal information he may need for his eulogy.

Even a happy occasion, such as choosing the name of a newborn baby, has the potential to cause serious rifts in families, and “as much as he would like to avoid being drawn into intra-family dynamics,” the rabbi may be asked for his opinion. Citing specific areas of possible conflict, Rabbis Goldin and Matanky counsel the rabbi to be “gentle but firm” in guiding the parents towards “traditionally preferred decisions.”

Societal norms, both in the Jewish world and in the world at large, have changed since Rabbi Hyman E. Goldin published the first edition of Hamadrikh in 1939, and they continue to evolve.

Each rabbi’s copy of the new Hamadrikh is likely to become one of the most-thumbed books in his library, as there is almost no significant moment in Jewish life that this handbook does not touch. Other updates include ceremonies for the dedication of a new home and also of a sefer Torah, a joyous celebration which has become more widespread in recent years. There is also a more extensive text to celebrate the birth and naming of a baby girl, although some may be surprised that a ceremony for a bat mitzvah was not included in this edition.

The entire halachic text was reviewed by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh kollel at Yeshiva University/RIETS and senior posek for OU Kosher, and some details were rephrased based on his recommendations. While there may be slight differences in minhag from one community to another, the observances, ceremonies and halachot set out here are all based on customary Ashkenazic practice and do not reflect Sephardic or Israeli minhagim. The editors were well aware of this. But on a practical level, the inclusion of all the possible variants in this edition would probably have made the book too bulky to hold. A Sephardic edition and a translation into Ivrit remain possibilities.

Societal norms, both in the Jewish world and in the world at large, have changed since Rabbi Hyman E. Goldin published the first edition of Hamadrikh in 1939, and they continue to evolve. The ceremonial formality that was de rigueur then was way out of date when Rabbi Bulka edited his revised edition in the 1990s, and some language that was acceptable at the end of the twentieth century may even cause offense today. Lifestyles have changed, synagogues offer many more and varied services, and the internet has made everyone an expert on every subject. 

Yet the core content of every edition of the Hamadrikh remains the text of our lifecycle ceremonies, which obviously do not change. As such, its pages do not reflect any cultural or societal transformations at first glance. It’s in the halachic presentations and the down-to-earth advice given by its current editors that contemporary realities become evident. These days, shul members expect a lot more from their rabbis, and hopefully the new Hamadrikh will help them continue to succeed.

Rabbi Matanky says he feels great satisfaction in having brought this work to fruition. For Rabbi Goldin, it’s more personal. “I think my grandfather would be proud,” he says, “and that makes me smile.”  


David Olivestone, a member of the Jewish Action editorial committee, is the editor and translator of The NCSY Bencher.

This article was featured in the Winter 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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