Thursday, April 30, 2020

Torah Speech & Torah Thought

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Yom HaAssmaut: Celebrating the Present

Celebrating the Present
Thoughts on Yom HaAssmaut 2020
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Many have argued that it is inappropriate to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel prior to its “final redemption” by Mashiah. Indeed, even we who celebrate Yom HaAssmaut rejoice only the athalta de-ge’ulah – “the beginning of redemption,” as we admit that there is actually more to come. Imagine a prisoner celebrating their freedom before leaving the grounds of captivity. How premature! Since anything might still happen, everyone would agree that the prisoner should only rejoice once out and away from the prison gates. Why, then, do we celebrate a state of independence which is still incomplete?

Several thousand years ago, Am Yisrael sang shirat ha-yam as they left Egypt. When exactly did they sing? Owing to the pesukim’s ambiguity, the Hakhamim disagreed about whether the people sang as they traversed the sea or only afterwards.[1] It is easy to understand why they may have sung only after crossing the sea. It was, after all, a song of thankfulness to God for His redemption from their oppressors. Singing during the splitting of the sea, however, is hard to comprehend. Why would the people sing before experiencing a complete and final salvation?

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggested that the fear and anxiety felt by Am Yisrael as they crossed the sea, with their sense of fate hanging in balance, underwrote the song that they then sang. “The meeting of terror and joy, destruction and birth, takes the people beyond the normal places of speech,” she wrote, “It takes them…into silence.” And it is from that emotional constriction upon ordinary speech that the song was then conceived.[2] While singing after keriat yam suf is a rational decision, singing during the crossing is emotionally charged.

In 1954, Ezriel Carlebach, the legendary editor of the Israel newspaper Maariv, traveled to India. He later summed up the difference between Western and Eastern mindsets, recalling a brief conversation with the prime minister of India at that time. As the two discussed the diplomatic complications of the time, which seemed difficult to overcome, Carlebach remarked, “Well, the question is what to do.” The prime minister gazed at him for a while, and then said, “You see? That is a typical question for a European.” “How so?” Carlebach asked. “Well,” he replied, “an Indian would have asked ‘What to be?’”[3]

If shirat ha-yam was sung after splitting the sea, it answered “What to do?” If it was sung during the crossing, however, it addressed “What to be?”

We tend to live our lives focused upon the past and future, in total neglect of the present. The “past” and “future” are easy to wrap our heads around. We can remember history and reflect upon its various lessons. And we can speculate about the future and prepare for its arrival. Appreciating the present, however, is a daunting challenge. It is difficult to seize a time that fleetingly shifts from one moment to the next.

Instead, we plan. We focus on how achievements at school will affect our future, how success at work will build income, and how proper investments will support retirement. And in so doing, we neglect the experience of life itself. Avoiding the emotions of fear, excitement, anguish and joy which make up “the present,” we hand over our most basic expressions of humanity to the stable and stoic states of predictability and complacency.

Medinat Yisrael has a long road ahead to its “final redemption.” The concerns regarding its state of politics, religion and security abound. But Yom HaAssmaut doesn’t celebrate the past, nor does it rejoice over the future. Instead, it embraces the present. We gather together as a nation on this day, ignoring “What to do?” and asking instead “What to be?” We celebrate the current reality, tapping into its wellspring of emotions and using them to draw closer to God.

[1] See Sotah 30a and Mekhilta: Beshalah 82. See R. Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, Meorei HaMoadim vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 1997), pg. 75-76 and Meorei HaMoadim vol. 2 (Jerusalem, IS, 2001), pg. 52-54. And cf. R. Barukh Epstein, Torah Temimah: Shemot 14:22.
[2] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York, NY, 2001), pg. 216-218.
[3] Ezriel Carlebach, India: Account of a Voyage [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv, IS, 1986), pg. 266. Cited by R. Yaakov Nagen, Be, Become Bless: Jewish Spirituality between East and West (New Milford, CT, 2019), pg. 1-2.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Yom HaAssmaut in Halakhah

Listen to a class on "Yom HaAssmaut in Halakhah" here.

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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Yom HaAssmaut: Celebrating the Present

Listen to today's class, "Yom HaAssmaut: Celebrating the Present," here.

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Nefesh HaHayim 1.17

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.17 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Reading Tehilim at Night

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Yom HaShoah: Choosing Freedom

Choosing Freedom
Thoughts on Yom HaShoah 2020
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Viktor Frankl, the well-known Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, observed that many of the men whom he encountered in the concentration camps were singularly focused on retrospective thought. Attempting to escape from the ‘trapped present,’ they obsessed over the days and years prior to their imprisonment with dreams about their ‘free past.’ “But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger,” Frankl wrote, “It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.” Laying before them was an opportunity to “make a victory of those very experiences, turning life into an inner triumph.” Mistakenly believing that the “real opportunities” of life had already passed, however, many of the men ignored the challenges that lay in the present, tragically vegetating in the deadly atmosphere of the concentration camps.[1] 

Fellow survivor and psychotherapist Edith Eger expressed a similar idea in her award-winning memoir, The Choice. “Freedom lies in examining the choices available to us and examining the consequence of those choices,” she wrote, “The more choices you have…the less you’re going to feel like a victim.” She reflected upon her experiences in the concentration camps, realizing that “at every selection line, the stakes were life and death, the choice was never mine to make,” but even then, “I could choose how I responded, I could choose my actions and speech, I could choose what I held in mind. I could choose whether to walk into the electrified barbed wire, to refuse to leave my bed, or I could choose to struggle and live.”[2] 

Dr. Eger was, in fact, echoing the lessons of her late mentor Viktor Frankl, who likewise observed:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action…Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress...Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually…It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful. [3]

Frankl later founded the psychological field of logotherapy, which guides people to finding a sense of freedom even as they suffer.[4] He distinguished between responsibility – which is imposed from the outside, and responsibleness – which is freely chosen. “Responsibleness means inner discipline,” Joseph Fabry explained, as “we respond not because we are forced to, but because we so decide.” And while our lives often feel predetermined by hereditary genes, drives, emotions, and early childhood experiences, coupled with specific environment and economic conditions, logotherapy asserts that we may still retain a source of freedom – the ability to choose how we respond to our particular situation.[5] 

This coexistence of responsibility and responsibleness manifests itself in the life of a shomer missvot on a constant basis, as well. On more than one occasion, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l spoke about the dual nature of missvot. He noted that there are two aspects inherent to the religious gesture in Judaism: ‘strict objective discipline’ and ‘exalted subjective romance.’ Both are indispensable. While tefilah, for example, is performed by uttering the words of prayer, it is only fulfilled by drawing forth our personal thoughts and emotions. And while rejoicing on the festivals is performed by eating meat and drink wine, it is only fulfilled through the internal feelings of joy and happiness. R. Soloveitchik remarked:

Feelings not manifesting themselves in deeds are volatile and transient; deeds not linked with inner experience and soulless. Both the subjective as well as the objective components are indispensable for the self-realization of the religious personality.”[6]

R. Isadore Twersky z”l likewise wrote, regarding the missvot, “The objective act is standard and unchanging; the practice is various and multifaceted.”[7]

Although the laws and strictures of halakhah impose responsibility upon us, they likewise invite us to discover the freedom of responsibleness, by recognizing our internal feelings and expressing them in the performance of missvot.

It is perhaps relevant, in the context, the way that the Hakhamim noticed the difference between how “Noah walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9) and “Avraham “walked before God” (24:40).[8] Noah was the paradigmatic listener. “Walking with God,” he heeded the divine responsibility to build and ascend the ark. Avraham’s actions, in contrast, stemmed from the higher-level source of responsibleness. “Walking before God,” he intuitively chose his way in life based upon a deep understanding of the “way of God.”

Dr. Eger remembered her visits to two Vietnam paraplegic veterans on one particular day. The first patient, Tom, lay on his bed, curled up in a fetal position, cursing God and country. “He seems imprisoned,” she wrote, “by his injured body, by his misery, by his rage.” Entering the room of the other vet, Chuck, she found him out of bed and sitting in his wheelchair. “It’s interesting,” he told her, “I’ve been given a second chance in life. Isn’t it amazing?” He brimmed over with a sense of discovery and possibility, realizing that while sitting in the wheelchair his eyes are closer to sight of beautiful flowers planted in the yard and the looks in his children’s eyes. “Every person is part Tom and part Chuck,” Eger wrote. “We are overwhelmed by loss and think we will never recover a sense of self and purpose…But despite – and really, because of – the struggles and the tragedies in our lives, each of us has the capacity to gain the perspective that transform us from victim to thriver.” [9] 

The current state of affairs of our world grants us, again, with the choice of imprisonment or freedom. We can, on the one hand, give in to the objective difficulties that have been leveled upon us by this pandemic. By doing so, we will chain ourselves up to a life of bondage and servitude. Acknowledging the tough responsibility imposed upon us, however, we can still choose a path of responsibleness by determining our attitude and perspective in the weeks ahead. By doing so, we will be choosing to be free.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston, MA, 2014), pg. 67-68.
[2] Edith E. Eger, The Choice: Embracing the Possible (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 253 and 205.
[3] Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 61-63.
[4] See, e.g., Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 106-107.
[5] Joseph B. Fabry, The Pursuit of Meaning (Charlottesville, VA, 2013), pg. 108-11
[6] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed (Jersey City, NJ, 2000), pg. 40. Cf. R. Jacob J. Schachter, “Halakhic Authority in a World of Personal Autonomy,” in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (New Milford, CT, 2012), pg. 171-172 fn.45.
[7] R. Isadore Twersky, “What Must a Jew Study – And Why?”, in Visions of Jewish Education (Cambridge, UK, 2003), pg. 52.
[8] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 6:9, s.v. et.
[9] The Choice: Embracing the Possible, pg. 177.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Starting Time for Sefirat HaOmer

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.16 (2)

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.16 (2) here.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Pesah: Light from the Darkness

Light from the Darkness
Thoughts on Pesah 2020
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The last three plagues which were leveled upon the Egyptians shared a common theme: darkness. The eighth plague, the locust, “darkened the ground” as it rained down upon Egypt, making it “impossible to see the earth” (Shemot 10:16, 5). The ninth plague’s “darkness over the land of Egypt” was so strong that “no one saw his fellow and no one rose from where he was three days” (21, 23). And the tenth and final plague, makat bekhorot, took place at “about midnight” (11:4) – a time of absolute darkness. Whereas the previous seven plagues seemingly happened in the light of day, these last three were pronounced by a blinding darkness. Why?

At some point during these last three plagues, a peculiar encounter took place between Moshe and Pharaoh. Responding to Moshe’s demand that the entire nation accompany him in leave of Egypt, Pharaoh said: “May God only be with you the way I would send you off with your little ones! For evil [ra’ah] is before your faces” (10:10). What did Pharaoh mean by the “evil” that lay ahead? Was he actually looking out for the safety of the nation? Citing from a midrash, Rashi suggested that Pharaoh was in fact referring to the Egyptian sun god, “Ra,” and warning that Am Yisrael’s departure would end in doom, at the hands of the “all-powerful” Ra, god of the Sun.[1] 

Throughout ancient Egyptian history, the sun god was considered the head of the pantheon. “It was regarded as the first king of the land from whom all the pharaohs were descended,” Nahum Sarna wrote.[2] The Egyptians believed that Ra was the “creator god.” They understood creation as an act of differentiation, naming and definition. And since light allows the distinction of one thing from another, they considered light to be the creative power that maintains the world.[3] “Thus, the last three plagues should be seen as an attack on the Egyptian’s most central beliefs,” R. Ari Kahn wrote, as they “were direct attacks on the Egyptian sun god.”[4]

Fascinatingly, in the very midst of what the Egyptians had experienced as the dread of darkness, “All Bnei Yisrael had light in their dwelling places” (10:23). And a similar scene repeated itself at Yam Suf – “And there was the cloud and the dark, and it lit up the night” (14:20). While the Egyptian’s vision at the sea was obscured by the pillar of cloud at night, Am Yisrael marched forward to the light of the pillar of fire.[5] Furthermore contrasting the Egyptians’ experience of the their god’s demise, it was specifically at Yam Suf that – finally – “Yisrael saw the great hand that God had performed against Egypt” (14:31).

What emerges, then, is that Am Yisrael’s first national experience of God’s illuminating light arose in the context of a pervasive darkness. Whereas the Egyptians instinctively understood darkness as utter destruction, Am Yisrael experienced it as the perfect setting to behold God’s emergence.

Jewish mystical tradition maintains that God’s initial creation of light “emerged from the darkness which was hewed out by the strokes of the Most Secret.”[6] He first surrounded the world with darkness, “until light emanated, split the darkness, and radiated.”[7] The kabbalists explain that the “light from darkness” is in fact a concept which underlies the whole of existence: “There is no light except that which issues from darkness…There is no worship of the blessed Holy One except from darkness, and there is no good except from evil.”[8]

The great psychotherapist Wilfred Bion followed this notion of drawing forth light from darkness in his clinical practice. He would first “cast a beam of intense darkness”,” by allowing the client to obscure their issue by means of incoherent thoughts and misunderstanding. Bion would only then chime in, suggesting a thought or insight which could “glitter in the darkness.”[9] And while contemporary psychotherapist Estelle Frankel admits to feeling threatened at times in her life and practice by “the challenge of not knowing,” she finds consolation in the wise and humorous words of actress Naomi Newman: “Nothing natural or interesting goes in a straight line. As a matter of fact, it is the quickest way to the wrong place. And don’t pretend you know where you are going. Because if you know where you are going, that means you’ve been there, and you are going to end up exactly where you came from.”[10]

Our current lives feel increasingly threatened by the “darkness of Egypt.” We are overwhelmed by a world of uncertainty. Unable to predict tomorrow’s news and events, we are driven to panic and stress. Learning from our history, however, we should instead be reminded that our greatest discoveries have emerged from the very depths of darkness.

Our tradition teaches that there always exists a light, flickering ever so dimly, in the distance. We might only catch sight of it, however, by first enduring the darkness. Remembering that Am Yisrael found hope in the same darkness that led the Egyptians to despair, we must dispel our current anxiety and courageously march forward into the darkness. We will do so, of course, in anxious anticipation of the illuminating discoveries that loom therein.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 10:10, s.v. re’u.
[2] Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 79.
[3] Racheli Shalom-Hen, in The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel (New Milford, CT, 2019), pg. 58.
[4] R. Ari D. Kahn, Echoes of Eden: Sefer Shemot (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 84.
[5] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 14:20, s.v. va-ya’er.
[6] Zohar I:31b. Cited and translated in Gershom Scholem, Zohar: The Book of Splendor (New York, NY, 1967), pg. 6. See, as well, Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 1:4, s.v. va-yar.
[7] Zohar I:30b. Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition vol. 1 (Stanford, CA, 2004), pg. 183.
[8] Zohar II:184a. Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition vol. 6 (Stanford, CA, 2011), pg. 33.
[9] See James Grotstein, A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to Psychoanalysis (New York, NY, 2007).
[10] Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder, CO, 2017), pg. 165.

Monday, April 13, 2020

"Half-Hallel" After the First Days of Pesah - Why?

Listen to today's class, "Half-Hallel After the First Days of Pesah - Why?" here.

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.16 (1)

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.16 (1) here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Is it a Missvah to Eat Massah Throughout Pesah?

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Pesah: Perspective

Thoughts on Pesah 2020
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On most years, I speak from the pulpit at the end of Arbit on the first night of Pesah, briefly reviewing the various requirements for eating and drinking at the Seder. Finishing the definitions of kazayit and revi’it, I remind everyone that the importance of these shiurim notwithstanding, the primary focus of this night is on the shared involvement of all family members in the reenactment of yessiat Missrayim. In other words, the measurements of the food and drinks do not represent a “means to themselves,” but rather make up the necessary ingredients for an exalted experience. Let us, this year, delve deeper into what that means.

The task of sublimating our human desires into spiritual realities is one of Judaism’s central challenges. Malbim, the great 19th Century exegete, likened our life’s duty to that of the alchemists of old, who sought to transform base metals into precious silver and gold. “Man, throughout his life, must undertake the process of alchemy to change [his physical self] into a transcendent spiritual entity,” he wrote, “This process is achieved through thoughts and actions, for through them, [man] can separate from physicality and become a transcendent spiritual entity.”[1]

It has long been noted that the tunes of many of the traditional Syrian pizmonim were adapted from non-Jewish songs of festivity and passion. In addition to a broader halakhic analysis regarding the permissibility of doing so, several rabbinic authorities pointed to a particular beauty in the transfer of the melodies from a “realm of impurity” to one of “sanctity.” [2] By channeling tunes once composed in praise of hedonistic passion to a context of divine yearning, many of the Syrian pizmonim characterize this specific ideal of our worldly endeavors.

Jewish mystical tradition furthermore maintains that God’s light shines most in our world of relative darkness, in contrast to the Upper Worlds of manifest light. “The purpose of the soul entering this body is to display her powers and actions in this world, for she needs an instrument,” the Medieval kabbalist R. Moshe de León z”l wrote, “If she is not fulfilled both above and below, she is not complete.”[3] R. Adin Steinsaltz likewise explained that “matter can be a vessel to contain the Infinite, which the spirit, with its greater vulnerability, cannot be.”[4]

I have always felt that many of the missvot performed on the first nights of Pesah are exemplary features of bringing forth holy sparks from a material world.

Why do we drink four cups of wine at the seder? “The rabbis lived in a world where people regularly drank wine at festive occasions, and those who could afford it, even more regularly,” Joshua Kulp wrote. Basing himself on a scholarly proposition that four cups of wine was once considered the appropriate quantity of wine for a ritual celebration, Kulp suggested that the ritual role of the cups familiar to us at the Seder is the Rabbis’ adaptation of an already accepted practice of festive drinking.[5] Our practice of structuring the Seder around the four cups, then, represents the repurposing of drinking wine from an act of self-indulgence to one of religious significance.

Our mention at the Seder that one must state and explain the reasons for the missvot of Pesah, massah and maror is likewise telling. HaRambam’s recording of this law in the context of sipur yessiat Missrayim teaches that these foods must be used as props for our colorful “restaging” of the Exodus from Egypt.[6] It emerges, then, that food – the icon of pleasure-seeking – encounters sanctity at the Seder.

“You can mend the cosmos by anything you do – even eating,” the great kabbalist R. Yisshak Luria (the Ari) z”l once remarked, “Do not imagine that God wants you to eat for mere pleasure or to fill your belly…the purpose is mending.”[7] The food at the Seder is transformed even beyond fulfillment of an eating-missvah;  it is entirely reappropriated to serve as an entry-key into the transcendent experience of leaving Egypt. Raising the massah and maror, pointing at them and mentioning their significance transports us to a spiritual time and place far beyond that of our present-day situation.

We are currently living through a particularly turbulent time period. What relevant message can we incorporate from this understanding of the Seder to our contemporary lives?


Consider the context of our “relived” experience of freedom after more than two centuries of servitude. Instead of madly storming into the open-access pleasures of the world, we approach them with a careful search for latent sanctity. We sensitively craft a general perspective that meets the challenges of a life of freedom.

The lesson of perspective is ever-important today. Open your eyes and search for the potential positive that is nestled away in our world now transfixed on misery and gloom. Discover the personal growth awaiting your solitude, realize the family members awaiting your attention and find the suffering people awaiting your kindness.

Shift your perspective, ignite the “sparks of light” from within, and let them radiate this world of utter darkness.

[1] R. Meir Leibush b. Yehiel Mikhel Wisser, Commentary of Malbim: Bemidbar 19:1. Cited and translated by R. Aryeh Leibowitz, The Neshamah: A Study of the Human Soul (Nanuet, NY, 2018), pg. 161.
[2] See R. Jacob S. Kassin, Introduction to Shir UShevahah Hallel VeZimra (New York, NY, 1964), pg. 9-10. See, as well, e.g., R. Ovadia Yosef, Yehaveh Daat vol. 2 (Jerusalem, IS, 1978), no. 5 and Yabia Omer vol. 6 (Jerusalem, IS, 1986), no. 7, and R. Meir Mazouz, Bayit Ne’eman vol. 1 (Bnei Brak, IS, 2015), no. 35. And for a brief English survey, see R. Shlomo M Brody, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates (New Milford, CT. 2014), pg. 174-176.
[3] R. Moshe de León, Sefer HaRimonim, ed. Elliot R. Wolfson (Atlanta, GA, 1988), pg. 106.
[4] R. Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, The Long Shorter Way: Discourses on Chasidic Thought (New Milford, CT, 2014), pg. 255.
[5] Joshua Kulp, The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary (Jerusalem, IS, 2009), pg. 171-174, and Shamma Friedman, Tosefta Atiqa Pesah Rishon (Ramat Gan, IS, 2002), pg. 405-411. Listen to our class on this topic, “The Four Cups: A History,” at
[6] HaRambam, Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Hamess UMassah 7:5. Listen to our class on this topic, “Pesah, Massah & Maror,” at
[7] Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 149.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Fast of the Firstborns & Siyum Meals on Erev Pesah

Listen to today's class, "The Fast of the Firstborns & Siyum Meals on Erev Pesah," here.

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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Virtual Tefilah & Berakhot

Listen to today's class, "Virtual Tefilah & Berakhot," here

Follow along with the sources here.

For further learning:

1) Listen to the class "Finding Your Place at a Minyan" here.

2) Listen to the class "Hearing the Megilah from a Deaf Person, with a Hearing Aide or a Microphone" here.