Monday, February 13, 2017

Want to Sell More Jewish Books? Give them Away for Free.

As the Mishnah Yomit cycle nears the conclusion of Seder Zeraim, I found myself looking for a resource that could help visually represent some of the more confusing aspects of Masechet Shabbat for my MishnahYomit video series on YouTube. (This is a great opportunity to join the program! Shabbat begins next Monday, February 22nd!) By the way, the website, Mishnah.co, will finally be up very soon! Last Friday I was in Yerushalayim for a Shiva visit, and took the opportunity to browse a Sefarim store to see what I could find. I found a wonderful series that I had known about called "Mishnah Behirah".

In Israel, people consider this a "youth" Mishnah series. I think that's far from the truth. Yes, there are pictures, but often pictures represent the very best way to visualize a complex idea. In addition, the series includes wonderful charts that display the information in the Mishnah in an organized fashion. I'm really into charts - and will often take a Mishnah and make it into a chart just to understand it better. So I bought the Mishnah, hoping to share some of the visuals on the Mishnah videos.
In the past, I would have just taken pictures and shared them without asking. I have recently become more careful about using other peoples' information without permission, so I called the Chorev publishing house in Jerusalem to ask permission to use their pictures. (Naively, I was hoping that they'd share the pictures with me, so that I wouldn't have to take pictures of the page...) The answer was immediate: No. We don't give permission to anyone to use our images. We've invested a great deal of time, effort and energy in compiling and producing this series, and we don't share it with anyone ever. After futilely trying to argue my case for about ten seconds, I gave up. My videos will have to include my own pictures, or whatever I can find on the web. I won't be using their pictures without their permission.

From one perspective, I understand their point of view. After all, if they would let me use their material, they might as well let everyone use it. Heck, they might as well just put up a website and give away their material for free! Why would anyone then buy their books?

Yet, I believe that in today's day and age, their logic - rather than saving them money - is actually costing them money in sales, publicity and distribution. My proof? Peninei Halachah from Rav Melamed.

If you haven't heard of this series, Peninei Halachah is, by far, the most popular set on Halachah in the Religious Zionist community in Israel today. Its popularity stems first and foremost from the fact that Rav Eliezer Melamed is a great posek blessed with a gift of not only communicating the halachah, but also explaining the beauty and logic behind the halachah. Over a period of many years, Rav Melamed wrote a weekly column in the B'sheva weekly paper which ultimately grew into the Peninei Halachah series sold around the world (a few volumes are even available in English). Yet, despite the fact that the books are sold for money, the entire text is available for free over the internet, on his website as well as in a free Android app. I would argue that rather than hinder sales, his free distribution model is precisely what has made his books so popular and boosted his sales significantly - in the unique market that of Jewish religious texts.

Most people don't read through Judaic texts straight. You don't buy a five volume set of Chumashim and then read through them. You use them when needed - as references. Sure, your daughter might be studying Shemot in high school. But we buy the full set of Mikraot Gedolot, and leave them on the shelf to be used when necessary.

With the advent of the internet, I imagine that people have been buying fewer and fewer books. And newspapers are indeed dead as we used to know them. But the religious Jewish community still needs its books for two reasons: despite the ubiquitousness of the web (and the fact that I teach Mishnah via YouTube), there's still no substitute for the actual book itself. Truth be told, I really don't enjoy reading on a Kindle that much. And there's always Shabbat - when we do a good chuck of our learning. So, despite the fact that the entire Kehati is available for free download for your phone, people continue to buy Kehati Mishnayot. I'll learn on my phone if I'm stuck somewhere. But I'll always prefer studying in an actual book - whatever the size.

This was my argument to the Mishnah Behira guy: Rather than hurting your sales, if you give away your material, more people will know about the books, and more people will then buy them to study a particular masechet. Of course some people won't. But in the end, I believe that good Sefarim have a future in the small market that is the religious community, and that rather than hurting a publisher, giving away access to material can actually be an important tool that drives sales of the books themselves. Who knows? If you get popular enough, maybe a well-known foundation will give you millions of dollars to publish your series online.

If the web has taught us anything, it's that nowadays, there's more than one way to sell a Jewish book.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo - Metaphysical Systems Running the World

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bo - Metaphysical Systems Running the World

An unusual Midrash quoted by Rashi leads us to a number of different teachings of Chazal that relate to a broader question: are there innate systems upon which the world functions? Did Paroh know about them? Did Chazal believe in them?

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Parashat Va'era - the Leadership of Moshe vs the Leadership of Aharon

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Vaera - the Leadership of Moshe vs the Leadership of Aharon

The Torah seems to repeat a number of apparently innocuous verses, also switiching the order in which Moshe and Aharon are listed. Is this simply innocuous repetition, as Rashi implies, or is the Torah communicating something far more important?

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

One of My Favorite Parshah Riddles: Elastigirl in the Torah

During my pulpit years in Oak Park, I would ask a Parshat Hashavua riddle before the Torah reading. While I have forgotten most of them, one that I remember well and is one of my favorites is the following: Which member of the Incredibles appears in Parashat Shemot? The answer of course: Elastigirl. Where does she appear? In Rashi's commentary.

The Torah tells us that when baby Moshe is placed into the Nile and found by the daughter of Par'oh, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ, which literally means that, "she sent her maidservant, and she took it." The word אמה here means "Maid." Rashi, after giving the plain meaning, adds another explanation based on the Midrash in the Gemara in Sotah.
Our Sages (Sotah 12b), however, interpreted it as an expression meaning a hand. [The joint from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger is known as אַמָּה, hence the cubit measure bearing the name, אַמָּה, which is the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.] Following [the rules of] Hebrew grammar, however, it should have been vowelized אַמָּתָהּ, with a dagesh in the mem. They, however, interpreted אֶת אֲמָתָהּ to mean her hand, [that she stretched out her hand,] and her arm grew many cubits (אַמוֹת) [so that she could reach the basket].
Thus, Par'oh's daughter was the original Elastigirl - who stretched out her arm a great distance to bring the baby Moshe into her arms!

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot: From Elastigirl to Excalibur - Moshe's Origin Story

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot: From Elastigirl to Excalibur - Moshe's Origin Stor

According to Ramban, in the span of one verse the Torah skips sixty years of Moshe's life. What happened during all that time?

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayechi - The Essence of Yehudah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayechi - The Essence of Yehudah

Entrenched in the language of Yaakov's blessings to Yehuda are truths about his past, his suspicions of his sons, and even about the secret of pure souls trapped in evil. Get ready for a mind-blowing thrill ride!


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Friday, January 6, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parashat Vayigash - Yosef's Revelation

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Vayigash - Yosef's Revelation

What does Yehuda's speech tell Yosef that he did not already know? Why does Yosef then reveal himself?

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Parashat Vayeshav: Sharing in the Pain of the Goldin and Shaul Families

Fallen IDF soldiers Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin
During Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, which was aimed at halting the rain of Hamas rockets and mortars on Israel’s southern population, Hamas captured the remains of two soldiers who were killed in action. Staff Sgt. Oren Shaul was killed when an anti-tank missile destroyed the armored personnel carrier in which he was traveling, and Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was captured during an attempted kidnapping when terrorists emerged from a tunnel in the Gaza Strip, was declared killed in action by a special IDF commission. For over two years now, Hamas has refused to return the remains of either Shaul or Goldin, holding them as bargaining chips to extract concessions from Israel. As we learn from this week’s Parashah, a parent’s inability to bring a child to his final resting place can cause terrible emotional trauma.
After Yosef’s brothers decided not to kill him but instead sell him into slavery, they devised a plan to convince their father than Joseph had been killed. They took the special “Coat of Many Colors” that Jacob had weaved specially for Joseph, dipped it in goat blood and sent the coat to their father, who recognized it immediately. Yaakov arrived at the only logical conclusion: “It is my son’s coat; an evil beast has devoured him; Yosef is without doubt torn in pieces.” (37:33) Following a prolonged mourning period, Yaakov continued to mourn for his beloved Yosef. Although his children tried to console him, “he refused to be comforted,” and declared that he would mourn for Yosef for the rest of his life. Commentators wonder why Yaakov refused to be consoled, even many months after Yosef was lost. While no parent ever fully recovers from the loss of a child, why did the sands of time fail to dull Yaakov’s pain even many months later? Rashi, (on verse 35) quoting the Midrash, explains that “the living cannot be consoled for the living.” Somehow Yaakov sensed that Yosef was not truly gone forever. Yet, Rashi’s comments point to a truth about a parent who must mourn without the ability to bury a child. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein explained that, “According to many psychologists, seeing the body carries great significance for a number of reasons: First, witnessing death allows a person to comprehend its finality, and its unalterable nature. A normal human being cannot comprehend such a final and absolute fact until he sees the dead with his own eyes. Secondly, a person who has not seen the death with his own eyes can continue to hope that perhaps, maybe, maybe—the dead remains alive. Perhaps it is an inconclusive rumor...It is possible that Yaacov hoped whether consciously or unconsciously, that in the end it will turn out that Yosef is indeed alive.” Yaakov could not be consoled because he never experienced the psychological and emotional closure that comes with the trauma of burying his son. Therefore, the pain does not ebb, but instead remains a constant anguish that never fully dissipates.
It is this pain that the parents of Goldin and Shaul have suffered for the past two years. Since Israel declared the two soldiers killed in action, the families, and especially Simcha and Leah Goldin, have campaigned tirelessly for the return of the two sons’ remains to Israel for proper burial. This past June, following a request from the Goldin family, Israel’s Defense Ministry officially changed the classification of the two soldiers to “fallen soldiers with the status of missing prisoners.” Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul were previously classified as “fallen soldiers whose burial place is unknown,” and the family felt that the earlier official status “sent the message that Israel viewed Hadar’s case as closed even though his body had not yet been recovered.” In September, the Goldins traveled to the United Nations in New York to lobby the international community to pressure Hamas to return their son’s remains. According to the Israeli news website Mako, at a conference late last month marking the 30th anniversary of the abduction of IAF pilot Ron Arad, Major General Hagai Topolansky, head of the IDF's Personnel Directorate, acknowledged that there has been a “stagnation” in the negotiations with Hamas. “After two years, we still do not see a way forward,” he said.
I don't pretend to know how to resolve this terrible situation. Today Israeli policy is to withhold the bodies of Hamas-affiliated terrorists, clearly in a bid to compel Hamas to release the bodies of its fallen soldiers. I trust that the government really is doing all that it can in this challenging situation. At the same time, we must share in the suffering of the Shaul and Goldin families, who not only made the ultimate sacrifice protecting and defending the Jewish people, but must now live through the anguish that Ya'akov avinu himself suffered, unable to bring their sons to their final resting place.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - What's the Plan?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeshev - What's the Plan?

On the way to meet his brothers, we learn of a strange meeting with between Yosef and an unidentified man who points him in the right direction. Who is this strange man, and why does he help Yosef at all? The answer reveals a great deal about the development of Jewish history, and the way despots justify their tyrannical behavior.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Audio Shiur - Parshat Vayishlach - Projecting Power

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach - Projecting Power

The different responses - and seemingly contradictory responses from Yaakov and his sons towards the abduction of Dina leads us to important conclusions about the use of power in the world.

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