Thursday, April 27, 2017

Audio Shiur: The Three Oaths - Why Some People Don't Celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut - and Why They're Wrong

Audio Shiur:
The Three Oaths - Why Some People Don't Celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut - and Why They're Wrong

The three oaths appear in a very famous passage in Masechet Ketubot, and represent one of the basic texts of the anti-Zionist movement. We begin the shiur with a "hook" from Parashat Metzora

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ridiculous Dati Leumi Photoshop of the Week #1

Each week, the Religious Zionist papers (including the many alonei Shabbat) include a slew of ads intended solely for the Religious Zionist public. For that reason, the pictures must be "converted", as they're intended for a specific population. When I worked in advertising and marketing at Orot (I'm now working in Academic Administration), this was a perennial problem, as there simply are not enough (or rather any) stock photos of men and women from the Religious Zionist community. This leads to any number of ridiculous photoshopped pictures, in which its painfully obvious that the original picture has been doctored for RZ purposes.

The inaugural edition of the RDLPotW goes to....Mossad Harav Kook, which is now promoting its annual book fair (which I highly recommend!). In an effort to convince us that we should be reading books with our grandchildren that we buy at the sale, they put this ad in Mekor Rishon:


Anyone with any sort of eye can see that Saba and his little ainekel were not originally wearing kippot, but have had them added digitally. Can't tell? Well finding the original picture wasn't that difficult - after all, they're on the Internet. Here's the original:


It turns out that Zaidie wasn't actually holding a book. He was holding a tablet. 
But that's not the best part. What makes this ad totally ridiculous is that the good people at "mutag" - the ad firm that put together the ad, didn't really pay much attention to the book that Saba is holding. The full picture, in all of its glory, appeared in Olam Katan:


If you look carefully, you'll notice that Zaidie is reading his grandson...the Chiddushei HaRitva. "Come here Davidi...I want to read you a wonderful chiddush on Kim Lei B'drabbah minei!" Really? That' the book they chose to photoshop into the picture? It is for this ridiculous carelessness that I name the "mutag" and Mossad Harav Kook ad the very first (and probably not last) "Ridiculous Dati Leumi Photoshop of the Week".

Mazal Tov.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parashat Shemini - The Argument with Aharon

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Shemini - The Argument with Aharon

Following the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, we learn of a cryptic argument between Moshe and Aharon (and his sons). What were they arguing about? Why did Moshe react so strongly?

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Blessing of Cloth Shopping Bags

At the beginning of the New Year (secular), the Israeli government imposed a new law which required grocery stores to charge ten agurot for the ubiquitous plastic bags distributed around the world. Apparently, the bags were found strewn across the country, and the billions of bags distributed each year represented an environmental disaster that could easily be avoided. Of course we complained, bitterly about the environmentalist overlords sticking their noses into our shopping bags. What would we now use for garbage bags (and diaper disposal)? How would we microwave our food in treif microwaves? Was nothing sacred anymore?

After a few months I'd like to share a few observations:
1. Ten agorot is really not that much money, and yet people (myself included) almost immediately refused to pay for the bags. If you checked (and I did), you recognized that garbage bags of similar size were more expensive than simply paying the ten agorot for the shopping bags. And yet, there I was, buying a box of garbage bags. There must be something psychological that prevents us from paying for something we once received for free.

The Famous Rami Levi Shopping Bag
2. The replacement cloth bags that the chains distributed were a mixed bag. Machsanei Hashuk gave out cheap cloth that can't hold up. On the other hand, Rami Levi...Ah, the Hot Pink Rami Levi nylon bags. They're of such high quality that they've become ubiquitous across the country - at barbecues, school events, picnics, you name it. They're really great. So great, in fact, that Rami Levi stopped making them.

3. While I initially chafed at the law, I immediately began to appreciate some benefits. First of all, the old bags really were terrible, and barely held any groceries at all. You'd have to make trip after trip from the car to the house, back and forth, carrying as many little bags as your hands could handle. They were also prone to breaking. Who hasn't cleaned up a broken bottle of wine or grape juice that resulted from a split nylon shopping bag?

Today I realized that these new bags also save me money - probably a lot. I walked into our local grocery store to pick up a few last-minute items with a single RL bag. This limited me to the number of items that I could carry on my own. In the past, under the old system, I would have gotten a cart and then loaded it up with items that I didn't really need nor want. No longer. Whatever can fit in the bag (and it's a lot) comes home. Less shopping, smaller bills. Perhaps this may be one reason why Israelis spent a whopping 9 percent less this Pesach on food than they did last year (totaling almost 100 million shekels). If I'm right, I'm pretty sure that the grocery chains are rethinking their enthusiastic embrace of the bag ban. They thought it would save them money on bags, which it did. I doubt they imagined it would cost them millions in grocery sales.

So, after a few months, I still like the bags. If I'm stuck, I can always pay the ten agurot for a plastic shopping bag. But we now keep the big bags in the car, so they're always there when we go shopping. They're easier to carry, hold more groceries, are sturdier, rip less often, and save me money. What's not to like?

Oh, and they're probably better for the environment too. That's an added benefit.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Audio Shiur: Haggadah shel Pesach - The Magic of Midnight

Audio Shiur:
Haggadah shel Pesach - The Magic of Midnight

We take an in-depth look at the piyyut "Vayehi Bachatzi Halayla" which is the first song of Nirtzah.


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The Limits of Rabbinic Authority

Photo: Temple Institute
It’s one of the first sections of Gemara we teach to our children in the fourth chapter of Berachot. Yet, the implications of the story are far from childish, and resonate to this very day.

Following the near decimation of the Jewish community in Judea and the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, a small group of Sages gathered in Yavneh to regroup and reform the rabbinic Academy, with the hope of reestablishing a Jewish community that has the spiritual wherewithal to withstand the churning waves of history. Rabban Gamliel HaNasi – the Head of the Academy – took a deliberately authoritarian tact, determined to establish a single communal norm in the face of growing division and within the rabbinic community. To his mind, the rabbis had to unite around a single halachic tradition lest the community render itself apart. And, to prevent just this type of split from happening, he intentionally imposed his authority over the Sages in the study hall, dominating the discussion and discouraging disagreement.

His foil, the great sage Rabbi Yehoshua, clearly disagreed not only with Rabban Gamliel’s rulings, but his tactics. What about the values of dispute, debate and healthy disagreement, which formed the foundation of halachic dialogue? Even in the aftermath of the Churban, was unity worth the cost of silencing dissent and preventing healthy rabbinic debate? Rabbi Yehoshua publicly disagreed with Rabban Gamliel, challenging not only the substance of his rulings but the propriety of his authority.
It is difficult to know how long the dispute raged; the Talmud relates three separate stories (spread across different masechtot) describing disputes related to the Jewish calendar, blemishes on a first-born animal, and finally regarding the obligation to pray in the evening. Yet, the effects of these disputes were cataclysmic, changing the very nature of Jewish scholarship.

The Talmud (Berachot 27) relates that Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed with Rabban Gamliel’s ruling regarding the obligation to pray in the evening. While Rabban Gamliel ruled that one must pray in the evening, Rabbi Yehoshua felt that the prayer is optional. This seemingly minor disagreement led to a major confrontation in the Beit Midrash, in the presence of the entire academy.
When the champions (i.e. students) came in, someone rose and inquired, Is the evening Tefillah compulsory or optional? Rabban Gamaliel replied: It is compulsory. Said Rabban Gamliel to the Sages: Is there anyone who disputes this? R. Yehoshua replied to him: No. He said to him: Did they not report you to me as saying that it is optional? He then went on: Yehoshua, stand up and let them testify against you! R. Yehoshua stood up and said: Were I alive and he [the witness] dead, the living could contradict the dead. But now that he is alive and I am alive, how can the living contradict the living? Rabban Gamaliel remained sitting and expounding and R. Joshua remained standing, until all the people there began to shout and say to Huzpith the Turgeman, Stop! and he stopped.
Rabban Gamliel clearly felt the need to impose his authority with definitiveness and finality. He must have felt that as his earlier attempts to bring Rabbi Yehoshua into compliance with his authority had failed, he was left with no choice but to make a public example of the sage – to insist that Rabbi Yehoshua remain standing, while he continued his lecture. In essence he conveyed the clear message that contradicting the ruling of the Nasi would not be tolerated, even to the point of public shaming. After all, had he not tried to communicate his point to Rabbi Yehoshua privately and failed twice?

Yet, in the eyes of his students and the members of the academy, Rabban Gamliel had gone a step too far. To publicly embarrass a sage over a halachic dispute crossed a line; it transformed the dispute from an appropriate “battle of Torah” into a personal vendetta. It indicated that despite his good intentions, Rabban Gamliel had lost his sense of proportion and had to be reined in. The Talmud relates that as Rabban Gamliel continued his lecture with Rabbi Yehoshua standing at attention, “All the people there began to shout and say to Huzpith the Turgeman, Stop! and he stopped.” Huzpith was more than a translator; he was essentially the loudspeaker. When Rabban Gamliel would teach, Huzpith would shout so that the entire academy could in fact hear the lesson. When they stopped Huzpith, they essentially cut off Rabban Gamliel’s microphone, halting the lesson and preventing him from continuing.

The Talmud relates that the rabbis appointed a new Nasi – Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaria – albeit temporarily. When they appointed an eighteen-year-old to replace their great leader, everyone, Rabbi Eliezer included, understood that he would never really be the true Nasi, and that Rabban Gamliel would soon return to his post. Yet, they inherently understood that despite Rabban Gamliel’s proper intentions, he had taken the imposition of his authority too far. His authoritarian tactics, rather than serving as a cause for unity, now presented an even greater threat to the cohesion within the Beit Midrash.

They recognized that for the sake of unity within the Jewish community, at a time of fracture, division and danger, they had to take the proper steps to reign in their great and revered leader.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Audio Shiur: Megillat Esther Chapter 7 - The Crazy High Point of the Story

Audio Shiur:
Megillat Esther Chapter 7 - The Crazy High Point of the Story

What is Esther's plan as she enters the king's chamber for the fateful party with Haman? How does she think that things will go? Whatever she thinks, things clearly do not go as planned. With the help of some truly sensational Midrashim, we learn just how unlikely the outcome of the Purim story really was.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Audio Shiur: Megillat Esther - Who is Achashveirosh?

Audio Shiur:
Megillat Esther - Who is Achashveirosh?

Achashveirosh is probably the most overlooked major player in the story of Purim. Who is he? Where did he come from? Even more importantly, what was he like? What important lessons can we learn from the answers to these questions?

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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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