Thursday, February 28, 2019

Avodah Zarah 20b-22a

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   20b,     21a,     21b,     22a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

R. Ovadia Yosef & Secular Jews

Listen to last night's class, "R. Ovadia Yosef & Secular Jews," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Listen to our halakhah class, "The Status of Today's Mehalelei Shabbat" here.

2) Read Adam Ferziger's analysis of Binyan Sion's teshuvah (Source 1) and several other related decisions of R. Yaakov Ettlinger, in chapter 4 of Exclusion and Hierarchy, here.

What are the Berakhot on Egg Halot and Pizza?

Listen to last night's class, "What are the Berakhot on Egg Halot and Pizza?" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Derekh HaShem 4.10-11

Listen to this morning's class on Derekh HaShem here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Parashat Ki Tissa: Dialogue

Thoughts on Ki Tissa 2019
Click here to view as PDF
As his forty-day rendezvous with God drew to an end, Moshe received the luhot:
And He gave Moshe when He had finished speaking with him on Har Sinai the two tablets of the Covenant, tablets of stone written by the finger of God. (Shemot 32:18)
Those days were filled with deep dialogue, and now – “when He had finished speaking with him” – Moshe was handed a physical manifestation of Torah. Receiving the luhot, then, represented the shift from a spoken mode of transmission to one that was textual. The luhot were, in the words of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “the permanent residue of a dialogue between God and man.”[1]

Descending Har Sinai and encountering the panicked people of Am Yisrael, however, Moshe reflected upon the dangers of a system that could potentially deemphasize presence and dialogue. It was, after all, Moshe’s absence that inspired het ha-egel:
And the people saw that Moshe lagged in coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aharon and said to him: “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” (32:1)
And so, Moshe then “flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (32:20). Realizing the importance of personal involvement to the Torah’s transmission and fearing the danger of a potentially “impersonal” growth by means of the “speechless” luhot, Moshe sought their immediate destruction.

The Hakhamim famously portrayed the altered reality that resulted from smashing the luhot: “If the tablets had not been broken, Torah would not have been forgotten in Israel.”[2] Surprisingly, however, Ibn Ezra cited from R. Saadia Gaon, who contended that the second luhot were in fact greater than the first ones that he smashed.[3] Basing himself on several midrashim, Nessiv explained that the second luhot differed from the first by introducing the reality of Torah she-be-al peh – the Oral Law. While Moshe received a vast knowledge of Torah and its laws at the time that he received the first set of tablets, the possibility of future interpretation and creative commentary, as transmitted from teacher to student, was born only with the second luhot.

The first luhot were “God’s doing” (32:16), which represented an explicit reception from God and the impossibility of forgetting. The second tablets, in contrast, were crafted by Moshe (34:1) and prone to the human reality of forgetting, thus emerging as the forebearer of oral transmission.[4]

Indeed, in the aftermath of het ha-egel Moshe seemed focused on the restoration of God’s presence amongst the people. He moved the Tent, and named it “Ohel Mo’ed – the Tent of Meeting”:
And Moshe would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, far from the camp, and he called it Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Meeting). And so, whoever sought God would go out to Ohel Mo’ed which was outside the camp. (33:7)
And the nation understood and appreciated his own dialogue with God:
And so, when Moshe would go out to the Tent, all the people would rise and each man would station himself at the entrance of his tent and they would look after Moshe until he came to the Tent. And so, when Moshe would come to the Tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stand at the entrance of the Tent and speak with Moshe. And all the people would see the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the Tent, and all the people would rise and bow down each man at the entrance of his tent. (33:8-10)
Am Yisrael then learned that transmitting the Torah entailed more than merely passing down a text; it required presence and dialogue:
And God would speak to Moshe face-to-face, as a man speaks to his fellow. (33:11)

In her best-selling book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle pointed to a particular digression that has emerged with our smartphones. The invention of the first telephones, she observed, enhanced our long-distance expressions of emotion by moving us from the impersonal texts of letters and telegrams to sharing our actual voices. Our smartphones, in contrast, depersonalize even our short-distance expressions of emotion by replacing our voices with the words and letters of text-messages, emails and Twitter posts. Turkle quoted a friend, who remarked: “We cannot all write like Lincoln or Shakespeare, but even the least gifted among us has this incredible instrument, our voice, to communicate the range of human emotion. Why would we deprive ourselves of that?”[5]

The failure of the first luhot stemmed from feelings of absence – Moshe’s immediate disappearance from the people, and the potential of God’s transcendence “when He had finished speaking with him.” And so, the creation of the second luhot and all that then ensued were meant to restore those lost feelings of communion and conversation. In a world that increasingly reverts to a reality akin to the first luhot, perhaps it is time to contemplate the enduring lesson of the second tablets and restore presence and dialogue to our lives.

[1] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York, NY, 2001), pg. 399.
[2] Eruvin 54a.
[3] Commentary of Ibn Ezra (ha-kassar) to Shemot 34:1, s.v. pesol.
[4] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, HaAmek Davar to Shemot 34:1, s.v. ve-katavti.
[5] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York, NY, 2011), pg. 207.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Avodah Zarah 18a-20a

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   18a,    18b,    19a,    19b,    20a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Derekh Hashem 4.9

Listen to this morning's class on Derekh HaShem here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read our devar Torah for Parashat Yitro 2016, related to the central topic of the class, here.

2) Read the "proper" version of the story I referenced, regarding the Gr"a and birkot ha-Torah here.

3) In Source 3 we read about "חכמה יוונית," and mentioned my friend Eliyahu Krakowski's article, "How Much 'Greek' in Greek Wisdom?" Read it here.

4) In Source 4 we mentioned the opinions regarding reading Zohar without understanding. See: a) R. Yaakov M. Hillel's discussion of this matter in his Ad HaGal HaZeh, as well as his citations of b) Shivhei HaAri and c) Hida's Moreh BeEssba.

5) Read Gershom Scholem's "The Meaning of Torah in Jewish Mysticism" here. See specifically pg. 37-44 for his discussion of Ramban's commentary in Source 5.

6) Read a related article that I wrote several years ago, בביאור החילוק שבין תושב"כ לתושבע"פ ולימוד כנתינתה בסיני, here.

Parashat Tessaveh: Man-Made

Thoughts on Tessaveh 2019
Click here to view as PDF
The Hakhamim detected many similarities between the construction of the Mishkan and creation of the World. Understanding the verse “God, I love the habitation of Your House and the place where Your glory dwells” (Tehillim 26:8) as a reference to this connection, they pointed to several common themes between each day of creation and the Mishkan.[1]

Indeed, the Torah paralleled Creation to the Mishkan by using several similar words and themes. “And God saw all that He had done, and behold, it was very good” (Bereshit 1:31) took place as creation ended, in the way that the Mishkan’s building drew to a close with, “And Moshe saw all the work, and behold, they had done it – as God had commanded, so they had done” (Shemot 39:43). The Torah then summarized creation, “The heavens and the earth and all of their host were completed, and God completed on the seventh day His workmanship which He had done” (Bereshit 2:1-2), much as it did with the Mishkan, “All the labor of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, was completed…and Moshe completed the workmanship” (Shemot 39:32, 40:33). And both events ended with a blessing: “God blessed the seventh day” (Bereshit 2:3); “And Moshe blessed them” (Shemot 39:43). Commentators have long noted these (and several other) similarities, suggesting that they hint at a connection between Creation and the Mishkan.[2]

Beyond the linguistic parallels between Creation of the World and the construction of the Mishkan, however, the Torah connected the initial description of Adam and Hava in Gan Eden to the structure and functioning of the Mishkan. Thus, for example, both the Garden and Mishkan are oriented eastward (Bereshit 3:24, Shemot 27:16). R. Samson Raphael Hirsch furthermore noted the unique appearance of “keruvim” as guardians of the way to the Tree of Life (Bereshit 3:24) and atop the wooden ark which housed the figurative Tree of Life – luhot (Shemot 25:17-22).[3]  Adam, as well, was tasked to “work and guard” the Garden (Bereshit 2:15), which was identical to the levi’im’s role in the Mishkan (Bemidbar 7:8). And the description of the menorah bears an uncanny “tree-like” character – with seven “branches” adorned with petals, almond blossoms and other botanical elements (Shemot 25:31-40).[4]

The Torah’s message seems clear: construction of the Mishkan represented a recreation of the World and a return to Gan Eden.

Taken in this context, then, the Torah’s repeated warnings to the kohanim regarding bodily exposure in the Mishkan and the elaborate details of their clothing is somewhat surprising. The final verse in Parashat Yitro warned: “And you shall not go up by steps upon My altar, that you may not expose your nakedness upon it” (Shemot 20:23). And Moshe was later instructed: “And make them linen breeches to cover their naked flesh, from the hips to the thighs they shall be” (28:42). The command of dignified attire for the kohanim is understandable. Repeated warnings about indecent exposure, however, is more difficult to comprehend.

Envisioning the Mishkan’s recreation of Gan Eden, this matter is further perplexing. The Torah succinctly described the lives of Adam and Hava prior to sin and banishment: “The two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed” (Bereshit 2:25). The concepts of shameful nakedness and clothing were only conceived after eating from the ess ha-da’at and meriting banishment from the Garden – “And the eyes of the two were opened…and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (3:7). Why, then, would the construction of a sanctuary built to “restore life in Eden” focus on the negativity of nakedness – the very concept that distinguished life after the Garden from that beforehand?

Perhaps the answer to these questions lies in a better understanding of the very sin that brought forth Adam and Hava’s discovery of their shameful nakedness – eating from ess ha-da’at. Prior to eating from that tree, they inhabited a world that was created for them, yet not by them. Their sole task was the maintenance and upkeep of the Garden. But the desire to eat from the tree – to “become as gods knowing good and evil” (Bereshit 3:6) – was their will to create on their own.

Eating from the Tree, then, introduced the concepts of process and procedure to the life of mankind. The world no longer rested in wait of their immediate utility and consumption, but rather necessitated the arduous journey toward self-creation. Whereas Hava was informed of future birth pangs and the pain of bearing children (3:16), Adam learned that the ground’s essence would change, “Thorn and thistle shall it sprout for you” (3:18), bearing bread only “by the sweat of his brow” (3:19).[5]

Adam and Hava’s introduction to their new reality came by means of understanding their nakedness. They now realized that full exposure would negatively bypass the mode of process that they sought, and that nakedness would circumvent the necessary steps to revealing the hidden. In the world of process and creation which they had then commenced, Adam and Hava were ashamed of their nakedness, and “they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (3:7).

Constructing the Mishkan as a physical space for God’s dwelling took place within mankind’s world of self-creation. Contrary to Gan Eden, which was a place created by God, the Mishkan was now created by man. Indeed, whereas the verb “a-s-h” (עשה) is used seven times to describe God’s actions in Creation, it is used over two hundred times in context of the people’s actions in constructing the Mishkan.

It is no wonder, then, that as God detailed the plans for building the Mishkan, he forbade nakedness there and instructed the crafting of fine clothing. Cognizant of the historical significance of clothing, Moshe then understood that the various garments which the kohen would now don symbolically marked the unique reality of a man-made sanctuary for God.

[1] Midrash Tanhuma: Pekudei 2: “On the first day [of Creation] we are told, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Bererhit 1:1) and it is written, “He spreads the heavens like a curtain (ka-yeria)” (Tehillim 104:2). Concerning the Mishkan, what does it say? “You shall make curtains of goat skins (yeri’ot izzim)” (Shemot 26:7). On the second day, we find, “Let there be a firmament,” and the concept of division appears, as it is written, “Let it divide water from water” (Bereshit 1:6); concerning the Mishkan it is written, “And the parokhet will divide for you” (Shemot 26:33)…”
[2] See, e.g., R. Amnon Bazak’s “A Return to the Garden of Eden” <>.
[3] Commentary of R. Samson R. Hirsch to Bereshit 3:24).
[4] For some recent analyses of the many parallels between Gan Eden and the Mishkan, see, e.g., R. Bazak’s “A Return to the Garden of Eden,” Lifsa Schachter’s “The Garden of Eden as God’s First Sanctuary” in Jewish Bible Quarterly 41:2 (2013), pg. 73-7, and R. Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA, 2017), pg. 189-93.
[5] For a related description of this concept, see our thoughts for Sukkot 2018, “Process.”

Friday, February 15, 2019

Avodah Zarah 16a-17b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   16a,     16b,     17a,     17b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Have the "Times Changed"? (1)

Listen to last night's class, "Have the 'Times Changed'? (1)" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

Listen to "Have the 'Times Changed'? (2)" here.

Returning From a 'Medical Mission' on Shabbat

Listen to last night's class, "Returning From a 'Medical Mission' on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read R. J. David Bleich's article, "Returning from Missions of Mercy on Shabbat," here.

2) Look at the source sheet on this topic (pg. 1-12) from the Olamot website, here.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Derekh HaShem 4.5-8

Listen to this morning's class on Derekh HaShem here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

Read our devar Torah for Parashat Terumah 2017, related to the final topic of the class, here.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Avodah Zarah 13b-15b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   13b (2),    14a,    14b,    15a,    15b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Choosing the "Lesser Evil"?

Listen to last night's class here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Transition Sunglasses and Suntanning on Shabbat

Listen to last night's class here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Derekh HaShem 4.1-5

Listen to this morning's class on Derekh HaShem here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read our devar Torah for Parashot Matot/Masei, related to the final concept that we discussed, here.

2) Read Melila Hellner-Eshed's brief discussion of Zohar's concept of "turning darkness into light," in A River Flows From Eden, here.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Parashat Mishpatim: Na'aseh Ve-Nishma

"Na'aseh Ve-Nishma"
Thoughts on Mishpatim 2019
Click here to view as PDF

And he [Moshe] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that God has spoken we will do (na’aseh) and we will hear (nishma).” (Shemot 24:7)

The Hakhamim taught that Am Yisrael’s declaration of “na’aseh ve-nishma” (“we will do and we will hear”) was a statement of ideal dedication. Defying the instinct to first hear the commands before committing to their adherence, the nation was then inspired to immediate action. Their ability to utter “na’aseh” before “nishma” was, in the eyes of the Rabbis, an expression of absolute devotion.[1] It was, in a way, reminiscent of Avraham’s adherence to God’s first command of “Go forth (lekh lekha)…to the land I will show you” (Bereshit 12:1), and a forebearer of their future wanderings in the wilderness “by God’s word” (Bemidbar 9:18). The activity in these several situations preceded the full knowledge of the particulars.

The worthiness of this approach is difficult to understand, however, as it seemingly debases each of the respective connections to God. In contrast to the strength of a commitment that is grounded in understanding, an uninformed dedication appears naïve or shallow, at best. What, then, was the “greatness” of na’aseh ve-nishma?

Aristotle wrote that the highest pursuit of intellect was theoria, or thought which is “useless,” as it serves no higher aim other than itself. He wrote: “To seek from all knowledge a result other than itself and to demand that knowledge must be useful is the act of one completely ignorant of the distance that from the start separates things good from things necessary.”[2] Whereas “necessary” knowledge is the thought and ideas that inspire another outcome, “good” knowledge stands independent of consequence.

As the philosopher Hannah Arendt probed the deficiencies of modern man, she noticed “his trust in the all-comprehensive range of the means-end category,” in his belief that “every issue can be solved and every human motivation reduced to the principle of utility.”[3] She realized, in other words, that our thoughts and actions ignore the “good” and focus instead only on the “necessary.”

Indeed, we spend most of our lives in anticipation of “the next stage” and absent from the precious present. As neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky sarcastically commented: “We study hard in high school to get admitted to a top college to get into grad school to get a good job to get into the nursing home of our choice.”[4] Our lives – from the time we grow out of playing games until the day we retire – are burdened by the constant strain of evaluating our actions by the outcomes they produce.

Hannah Arendt wrote: “Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants.”[5] And a life steadfastly committed to a connection with God focuses not on a particular “conclusion” to our individual “stories,” but on the experience of that connection itself.

Every moment along Avraham’s journey to that “place of God’s choosing” was imbued with the intrinsic meaning of connection to God. Instead of the “final destination” inspiring his every step, Avraham was driven by the independent meaning of each step. And Am Yisrael’s confident declaration of na’aseh ve-nishma was likewise a commitment to appreciating a connection to God through action. Although they would only perceive the broader meaning of their deeds in hindsight – nishma, they were nonetheless moved by the independent experience of connecting to God through action – na’aseh.

Na’aseh ve-nishma must remain an ambition for us on our own journeys through life. It is the call to divert our attention from the potential “outcomes” of a life of Torah and focus instead on the experience itself.

[1] See, e.g., Shabbat 88a.
[2] Aristotle, Aristotle’s Protrepticus, sec. B41. Cited by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule, in Action Versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters (Chicago, IL, 2018), pg. 66.
[3] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL, 1998), pg. 305.
[4] Robert Sapolsky, “This Is Your Brain on Metaphors,” New York Times “Opinionator” blog, Nov. 14,2010. <>
[5] Arendt, pg. 192.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Entering a Church

Listen to this morning's class, "Entering a Church," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read R. Shlomo Brody's brief summary of this topic in his A Guide to the Complex:Contemporary Halakhic Debates, here.

2) Read R. J. David Bleich's analysis here.

3) View the source sheet on this topic from the Olamot website here.

Avodah Zarah 12a-13b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   12a,    12b,    13a,    13b (1)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.