Friday, June 24, 2022

Shelach: Challah as a Consequence of the Cheit ha'Meraglim

This week's Torah content has been sponsored by Naomi Mann in honor of Rabbi Moskowitz zt"l, whose shloshim is this week.

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Shelach: Challah as a Consequence of the Cheit ha'Meraglim

The Cheit ha’Meraglim (Sin of the Spies) is recounted in Bamidbar Chapters 13 and 14. Chapter 15 interrupts the narrative to present a series of seemingly random and unrelated mitzvos. One of these is the mitzvah of hafrashas challah (separation of dough). We are obligated by Torah law in the Land of Israel to separate a portion of our dough “for Hashem” (Bamidbar 15:9) – that is, to give to the kohanim.

Sforno explains this sequencing of the chapters by positing that challah – indeed, all the mitzvos mentioned in Chapter 15 – only became necessary as a result of the Cheit ha’Meraglim. He writes:

After the Cheit ha’Meraglim, challah also became necessary in order for [the Israelites] to be worthy to receive blessing in their homes, as it is stated: “you shall give the first portion of your dough to the Kohen, to bring a blessing to rest upon your home” (Yechezkel 44:30).

Sforno’s comments raise two questions: (1) How does challah make us worthy to receive blessing in our homes? (2) Why did this necessity for challah only arise after the Cheit ha’Meraglim?

An answer to the first question is provided by the Sefer ha’Chinuch (Mitzvah #385):

At the root of this mitzvah lies the reason that since man’s sustenance is by food, and most of the world lives on bread, the Foundational Being wanted to make us meritorious through a constant mitzvah with our bread in order that blessing will dwell it in through the mitzvah and we will earn merit for our souls. As a result, the dough is nourishment for the body and nourishment for the soul. Additionally, [the purpose of the mitzvah] is so that the ministering servants of Hashem can live (i.e. be sustained) by it – those who are constantly engaged in His service, namely, the kohanim – without any toil at all. For with the terumah (i.e. the kohen’s portion) from the granary there is toil for them, to pass the grain through a sieve and to grind it, but here [in the case of challah] their allotted portion comes to them without difficulty at all.

The Ralbag (toeles #8) provides two similar explanations which differ slightly from the Sefer ha’Chinuch:

The first benefit that comes from [the mitzvah of challah] is to call attention to the fact that all good things come to us from Hashem; this is why He commanded that we give a portion to Hashem from the first of our dough in the Land of Israel, to teach us that Hashem gave us the Land which yields produce in abundance. The second benefit that comes from [this mitzvah] is common to all the priestly gifts, namely, that Hashem desires that the kohanim be free to be involved in Torah and to grasp its deepest ideas, so that they can teach His judgments to Jacob and His Torah to Israel; for this reason, He desired that their bread and water be provided in a dependable manner.

Although the major fault of the Israelites was their lack of trust in Hashem, they were also guilty of undervaluing the Land He intended to give them. This is clear from their outcry: “Why is Hashem bringing us into this Land … would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” (Bamidbar 14:3), to which Yehoshua and Kalev responded: “the Land that we traversed to spy out is very, very good … it is a land flowing with milk and honey!” (ibid. 14:7-8). In other words, if the Israelites’ only problem was their fear that the inhabitants of the land would kill them, then Yehoshua’s and Kalev’s repeated assertions about the Land’s goodness would be irrelevant. Evidently, they did not adequately appreciate Hashem’s gift of the Land.

The mitzvah of challah is a reminder of the true value of the Land Hashem gave us. It reminds us that we depend upon Him for our physical sustenance, and it also reminds us of the purpose of our physical existence – to live a life devoted to His service. This necessary reminder makes us worthy of His blessings.
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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Leo Tolstoy, Eishes Chayil, and Caring What Others Think

This week's Torah content has been sponsored by Naomi Mann in honor of Rabbi Moskowitz zt"l, whose shloshim is this week.

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Leo and Sophia Tolstoy



Leo Tolstoy, Eishes Chayil, and Caring What Others Think

The following quotation is attributed to Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy: "If you care too much about being praised, in the end you will not accomplish anything serious ... Let the judgments of others be the consequence of your deeds, not their purpose.” This advice bears a striking resemblance to the final pasuk of Eishes Chayil at the conclusion of Sefer Mishlei. Here is that pasuk in context:

Her children arise and laud her; her husband, and he praises her, [saying]: “Many daughters have been successful, but you surpass them all.” Popularity is false and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears Hashem, she should be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her actions praise her in the gates. (Mishlei 31:28-31)

Shlomo ha’Melech’s “give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her actions praise her in the gates” corresponds precisely to Tolstoy’s “Let the judgments of others be the consequence of your deeds.”

There are people who are obsessed with what others think. These are the people who, in Tolstoy’s words, “Let the judgments of others be … their purpose.” These are the same people whom Shlomo ha’Melech warns about the falsehood of popularity and the temporary nature of beauty. There are other people who have reached such a high level that they don’t care at all what people think. They are the ones whom the Rambam characterizes as “serving Hashem out of love,” who “act in line with truth because it is true” (Rambam, Laws of Teshuvah 10:2). They are neither elated by praise nor are they distraught by disapproval.

Tolstoy and Shlomo are both allowing their audience to care about what people think, provided they do so in a healthier way. This is why Tolstoy warns against “[caring] too much about being praised,” and permits his audience to attend to the judgments of others, as long as those judgments aren’t the purpose of their actions. Likewise, Shlomo is talking to a woman who values praise, and whose children and husband regularly praise her. He merely warns her not to fall for the criteria of praise held by most women, but instead, to value being praised as God-fearing (i.e. one who acts based on wisdom), allowing the long-term benefits of her actions to speak for themselves rather than clamoring for approbation in the present.

This is a realistic approach. Caring too much about praise is guaranteed to end in disaster but attempting to quit one’s addiction to praise “cold turkey” is equally foolhardy. As social animals, we are hardwired to care what others think. Any attempt to override this by sheer force of will is bound to backfire. The transition to lishmah (doing what is good for its own sake) must come about gradually and organically. The trick is to find middle-ground strategies to facilitate that transition. Another excellent example of this can be seen in the words of Socrates to his student, Crito, who was concerned with his own reputation:

But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many? … We must not regard what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say. And therefore you begin in error when you advise that we should regard the opinion of the many about just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable.

Socrates doesn’t tell Crito, “You shouldn’t care what anyone thinks!” nor does he say, “Just do what’s right and ignore everything else!” Instead, he invites Crito to imagine truth, goodness, and justice in the form of an actual person’s opinion – a “man who has understanding of just and unjust” – and urges him to care about what that person would say. The Torah accomplishes the same thing by personifying Hashem and urging us to care about how we appear in His eyes rather than in the eyes of man. Such is the way of Torah: not to quash the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination), but to channel it and direct it towards a higher end.
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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

When Hashem Prefers Telling Lies Over Doing Miracles

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Artwork: Teyo Verada (artist unknown)
When Hashem Prefers Telling Lies Over Doing Miracles


After taking the monarchy away from Shaul, Hashem charges Shmuel ha’Navi with the mission of anointing a new king, saying: “Fill your horn with oil and go; I will send you to Yishai of Bethlehem, for I have seen a king for Myself among his sons” (I Shmuel 16:1). Shmuel asks: “How can I go? Shaul will hear and will kill me!” Hashem responds: “Take a heifer and say, ‘I have come to bring an offering to Hashem.’ Invite Yishai to the feast and I will tell you what to do, and you will anoint for Me whom I shall tell you.”

In other words, Hashem instructed Shmuel to lie. Shmuel did not come to Bethlehem to bring an offering to Hashem, but for the express purpose of anointing a new king. Why did Hashem advise him to do this? How could He advise a tzadik to lie? Why didn’t He miraculously protect His navi from all harm? Ralbag answers these questions in his “lessons” section:

The 14th lesson pertains to ethics, namely, that it is not considered to be a deficiency [of character] for a navi to lie in order to save his life. You see that Hashem advised Shmuel to say, “I have come to bring an offering to Hashem,” even though he really only came to anoint a king from the sons of Yishai.

The 15th lesson is to teach us that a person should not rely on a miracle, even though he is exceedingly perfected and clings to Hashem [in his righteousness]. You see that Shmuel, despite his high level [of perfection], was afraid that Shaul would kill him, and sought strategies to avoid this, saying: “How can I go? Shaul will hear me and kill me!” He did not rely on a miracle, even though he was going by the command of Hashem, for Hashem’s will is that a person should strive to save himself based on the most probable course of action, since Hashem will not do a miracle unless it is absolutely necessary.

Radak extrapolates the same lessons as the Ralbag, but ties the two points together. He writes: “We find that even when Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu makes a promise to a navi or a tzadik, nevertheless, [these individuals] will be careful when going to a place of danger.” Radak cites the well-known example of how Yaakov Avinu feared Eisav and took precautions, even though he was on a mission from Hashem to return to Aram Naharayim and was promised that Hashem would be with him. Likewise, David fled for his life from before Shaul even after being anointed as king. Gideon, Yehoshua, and others acted strategically in waging wars, even though they were doing so at the behest of Hashem. Radak explains:

The reason [for all this] is that even though Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu does miracles and wonders for those who fear Him, [these miracles] mostly proceed in accordance with the laws of nature. Thus, Yaakov feared Eisav and Shmuel feared Shaul in accordance with the laws of nature, [reasoning that] if he anointed a king during [Shaul’s] lifetime, he would need a strategy for how to go, and this was his question: “How can I go?” Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu answered him: “Take a heifer with you” …

Our Sages learned from this pasuk that it is a mitzvah to distort [the truth] for the sake of peace, for Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu told Shmuel, “Take a heifer with you,” thereby showing him that it is not proper for a person to go to a place of danger and rely on a miracle, as it is stated: “do not test Hashem, your God” (Devarim 6:16).

To put it bluntly: Hashem would rather advise Shmuel to tell a lie than to do an unnecessary miracle for him.

I used to wonder why more frum Jews – especially boys and men – don’t learn Tanach with the classical commentators. The more I learn, the more I begin to suspect I know the answer: they can’t learn Tanach with the classical commentators without undermining their own beliefs about how Hashem does and doesn’t work. How many Jews go about life thinking that Hashem will protect them because they consider themselves to be righteous, or because they’re on a mitzvah mission? How many Jews give lip service to notions of “hishtadlus” but privately believe that Hashem would never allow them to fall into harm? But the ways of the tzadikim and neviim in Tanach are different. They harbor no illusions about guarantees of divine protection. Instead, they rely on their God-given wisdom to strategically implement God’s will.
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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

On Reading the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah Like a Love Letter

This week's Torah content has been sponsored by Naomi Mann in honor of Rabbi Moskowitz zt"l, whose shloshim is this week.

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close-up of the Oxford 577 Huntington 80 manuscript
"checked against my book - I, Moshe, son of Maimon zt"l"











On Reading the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah Like a Love Letter

This article is part PSA and part rant. For the past two years I’ve given a Rambam shiur in yeshiva four days a week. Time and again I’ve stressed the importance of using a critical edition of the Mishneh Torah based on accurate manuscripts, rather than relying on the standard Warsaw-Vilna printed editions owned by most Jews. Here’s an excerpt from R’ Yosef Qafih’s [1] introduction to his edition of the Mishneh Torah in which he explains why the standard editions are so unreliable:

The errors and deficiencies of the printed texts were well known, so much so that the printed books were used to characterize a mistaken person: when someone said something incorrect on some subject, they would respond "you are like a defoos (printed text)," and point out the correction. These matters were inscribed on my heart, and I grew up with the assumption that there were two types of Maimonides texts in the world: that of the Yemenite manuscripts and that of the printed book.

Qafih goes on to write about how the Rambam updated the Mishneh Torah throughout his lifetime and how the Yemenite scholars made every effort to incorporate these emendations into their copies. With the printed texts, this did not happen.

… in the printed texts, only a few of the changes which Maimonides himself inserted in his book appear, since only a few reached the early printers. Some of the emendations which Maimonides added he wrote in the margins on the side, and the copyists did not pay attention to the correct placement and inserted them in the wrong place, causing much trouble and difficult questions in the understanding of Maimonides’ words … The "editors" tried to deduce changes. The Mishneh Torah was subjected to severe editing by the printers, and various editors who made emendations of style, language, the structure of sentences and the division of halachot … to the extent that there is hardly any halacha that has not been emended. I know of no other book that was so severely emended … every third or fourth rate scholar who thought himself capable of doing so would presume to try his hand at making emendations and corrections according to his own understanding.

Mark Twain once quipped: “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” Kal va’chomer for a book which contains not only transcription errors, but willful emendations made recklessly by unqualified individuals. And the Twain quotation doesn’t do it for you, consider this analogy given by Mortimer J. Adler in How to Read a Book (1940):

If we consider men and women generally, and apart from their professions or occupations, there is only one situation I can think of in which they almost pull themselves up by their bootstraps, making an effort to read better than they usually do. When they are in love and are reading a love letter, they read for all they are worth. They read every word three ways; they read between the lines and in the margins; they read the whole in terms of the parts, and each part in terms of the whole; they grow sensitive to context and ambiguity, to insinuation and implication; they perceive the color of words, the odor of phrases, and the weight of sentences. They may even take the punctuation into account. Then, if never before or after, they read.

The Rambam most certainly wrote the Mishneh Torah with love: love for Hashem, love for His Torah, and love for all Jews, “small and great,” for whom it was written. His book should be read like a love letter. And if you wouldn’t trust a transcription of a love letter knowing that its text was mangled, manipulated, and revised by scores of strangers, then don’t even touch the standard editions of the Rambam. I cannot, for the life of me, understand those talmidei chachamim who continue to use the bad versions of the Mishneh Torah. I’m tempted to chalk this up to ignorance or laziness, but I can’t tell whether doing so counts as being dan l’chaf zechus (giving them the benefit of the doubt) or its the opposite.

Do you know what is not an excuse? Accessibility. The most accurate version of the Mishneh Torah is the new edition published by R’ Yitzchak Sheilat, available in its entirety for free on AlHaTorah.org. A close runner-up is R’ Yohai Makbili’s edition, which has a free app for iPhone and Android. Use these. Use them in good health. And don’t die of a misprint.

[1] Rabbi Yosef Qafih (1917 – 2000) was a Yemenite scholar who translated and published critical editions of the Rambam’s works. The 20-page introduction to his critical edition of the Mishneh Torah can be found here, translated into English by Michael J. Bohnen.
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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Monday, June 20, 2022

An Example of My Idiosyncratic Brand of Spirituality

This week's Torah content has been sponsored by Naomi Mann in honor of Rabbi Moskowitz zt"l, whose shloshim is this week.

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Artwork: Golden Hind, by Cyril Van Der Haegen





An Example of My Idiosyncratic Brand of Spirituality

This past Friday I made my annual summer pilgrimage back to the Pacific Northwest. After waking up super early on Shabbos morning, I decided to daven at home. I was in the middle of saying my post-shacharis Ashrei when something stirred in my peripheral vision. I turned and – behold! – outside the picture window, not 15 feet away, stood a baby deer, munching on leaves from a tree in the front yard. When I moved closer, the deer froze and looked sharply in my direction, whereupon we made prolonged motionless eye contact for what felt like a full minute. Once the deer perceived that I wasn’t a threat, it continued eating and I resumed my recitation of Ashrei while watching it eat.

It then dawned on me that the contents of the pesukim I was reciting were unfolding before me in real time: “All eyes [look] towards You with hope, and You give them their food in its time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Tehilim 145:15-16). My mind went to the Radak’s explanation, which I had taught earlier this year:

"All eyes [look] towards You with hope": Likewise, he said: "all [the animals] hope towards You" (ibid. 104:27), for You created all the earthly creatures and You created their food - some eat grass, some eat seeds, and some eat other animals - and their eyes all depend on You and hope towards You, "and You give them their food in its time" through the chain of causality [in nature]. He said "in its time" in the singular because each and every species has its own time when its food comes about. He said "they hope towards You" [because] even though [these animals] lack knowledge, they instinctively yearn for their fixed portion that is given to them, and we [humans] are the ones who know that their hope is towards You, for You are the One Who prepares and provides.

I’ve recited these pesukim three times a day for as long as I’ve been Jewish, but it wasn’t until that moment that I felt like I was actually praising Hashem. I felt close to Hashem, as described towards the end of Ashrei: “Hashem is close to all who call Him, to all who call Him in truth,” which the Radak explains to mean, “with mouth and heart-mind [1] in harmony.”

This experience was amplified by the fact that it was Shabbos, a day about which the psalmist writes: “For You have gladdened me, Hashem, with Your deed; about Your handiwork I will sing joyously. How great are Your works, Hashem; [how] very deep are Your thoughts!” (Tehilim 92:5-6). Radak explains:

“For You have gladdened me” – On the Shabbos day You have gladdened me in my contemplation of “Your deed” and “Your handiwork,” which is the world and everything in it. On the Shabbos day, when I am able to contemplate, then I will rejoice. This is a reference to the natural sciences. When I contemplate [science] and apprehend through it whatever I apprehend, I will rejoice and sing joyously with my heart-mind. And since each thinker contemplates the work of God [with his own heart-mind], therefore he said, “You have gladdened meI will sing joyously,” in the singular.

There are many models of spirituality [2] within Judaism: the ecstatic religiosity of Hasidism, the mystical practices of Kabbalah, the existentialist yearnings of Rav Soloveitchik, and much, much more. To each their own. As for me, in these recent years I have found great fulfillment in my ongoing (re)discovery and (re)cultivation of an intellectual-emotional spirituality grounded in Sefer Tehillim, as elucidated by the philosophical Rishonim (i.e. Radak, Meiri, Sforno) within the framework of the Rambam’s approach to Torah. An explanation of what this entails is beyond the scope of this article. But if the experience I described above resonates with you, then I encourage you to learn Tehilim towards this end.

[1] The Hebrew word “lev” can mean “heart,” “mind,” or both, depending on the context. I recently heard Tara Brach use the term “heartmind,” and although it’s awkward to use a made up term, it really does capture the sense of the Hebrew.

[2] In my fiery youth, I used to privately refer to the term “spirituality” as “the s-word.” It’s not that I objected to the concept itself. Rather, I objected to its typically vague usage across the entire spectrum of religiosity. That's why I avoid it ... except in this article.

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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Etzba Elohim: The Finger of WHICH God?

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Photo: Hubble image of a Bok globule in the Carina Nebula nicknamed "The Finger of God"





Etzba Elohim: The Finger of Which God?

The first miraculous sign that Moshe performed before Paroh was the transformation of Aharon’s staff into a snake. This sign was replicated by Paroh’s sorcerers (Shemos 7:11). The first (ibid. 7:22) and second (ibid. 8:3) of the Ten Plagues were also replicated by the sorcerers, but not the third: “The sorcerers did the same with their magic, to draw forth the lice, but they could not … The sorcerers said to Paroh, ‘It is the finger of God!’ Paroh’s heart was strong, and he did not heed them, as Hashem had spoken” (ibid. 8:15).

The phrase exclaimed by the sorcerers was “etzba Elohim.” This is commonly understood to be a concession on their part, and an acknowledgment that this was from Hashem. Rashi, for instance, interprets their words to mean: “this plague was not done with magic; it is from Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu” (Rashi on Shemos 8:15).

There is a glaring problem with this explanation: the Divine name used by the sorcerers is “Elohim,” but this whole time, Moshe has been speaking in the name of Hashem (i.e. the Tetragrammaton). Indeed, when Moshe first approached Paroh in the name of Hashem, Paroh responded: “Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, nor will I send out Israel” (ibid. 5:2). But during the second plague, Paroh was already sufficiently familiar with Hashem to the point where he said: “Entreat Hashem that He remove the tzfarde’a from me and my people, and I shall send out the people that they may bring offerings to Hashem” (ibid. 8:4). If the sorcerers intended to admit to Paroh that this was Hashem – the Deity Whom Paroh, himself, had just acknowledged by name in the last plague – why would they say “etzba Elohim? Why not “etzba Hashem?

In light of these difficulties, the Ibn Ezra (ibid. 8:15) concludes that “etzba Elohim” was not an acknowledgment on the sorcerers’ part that the plague was sent by Hashem. Rather:

They said to Paroh: “This plague did not come via Aharon on behalf of Israel to send [Israel] forth; rather, it was a plague of Elohim, in accordance with the arrangement of stars over the mazal (Zodiac sign) of Egypt.” I have already explained that Paroh did not deny the Creator, but only [the deity] “Hashem” that Moshe mentioned to him.

Malbim (ibid.) sides with the Ibn Ezra on this matter and explains the pesukim in an even more radical way:

When you look through all these parshiyos you will never find Paroh or the Egyptians calling Hashem by the name “Elokim” but only by the Tetragrammaton. The name “Elohim” was, for them, a reference to the celestial order or to their gods – not to the God of Israel Who was called by the Tetragrammaton. [The only time] they used the name [Elokim] is when they said, “go and offer sacrifices to your Elokim” (ibid. 8:21) – meaning “Elokei Yisrael” (the God of Israel), and not simply “Elohim.” Thus, it is clear that when they said, “etzba Elohim,” they were not referring to the God of Israel, [for if they were,] they should have said “etzba Hashem hu” or “etzba Elokei Yisrael.” Since this plague came without warning, they thought that it didn’t come from the God of Israel for the sake of Israel, because if so, Moshe would have been informed of it [by God] and he would have warned [Paroh] in advance. [Rather,] they said that this plague was sent to them by the God of Egypt, whom they referred to by the unqualified name “Elohim” (lit. “God”) … It is for this reason [that the pasuk subsequently says,] “Paroh’s heart was strong and he did not heed them,” because there was no need to be afraid anymore, for his fear had passed [in light of the sorcerers’ words].

According to this interpretation, there is no indication in the pesukim that any faction of Egypt – neither the sorcerers nor Paroh – acknowledged Hashem’s miraculous intervention until the fourth plague, when Hashem informed Paroh in advance: “I will make a distinction between My people and your people” (ibid. 8:19). It was only after the fourth plague that Paroh said: “Go, bring offerings to your God … entreat for me!” (ibid. 8:24). The fourth plague was Egypt’s first acknowledgment “that I am Hashem in the midst of the land” (ibid. 8:18).

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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Tzfarde’a: The Plague That Lasted Forever

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Artwork: Lurking Crocodile, by Donato Giancola

Tzfarde’a: The Plague That Lasted Forever

Ask the average Jew to identify the species involved in the second of the ten plagues, and they’ll likely answer “frogs.” However, a few commentators interpret the word “tzfarde’a” to mean “crocodiles.” Saadia Gaon bases his interpretation on the account of the plagues in Sefer Tehilim: “He sent wild beasts into them which devoured them, and tzfarde’a which destroyed them” (Tehilim 78:45). He explains: “I interpret tzfarde’a as crocodiles because frogs don’t kill, whereas this [tzfarde’a mentioned in the pasuk] kills.” Ramban (Shemos 10:14) cites this opinion in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel. Ibn Ezra (ibid. 7:27, Second Commentary) brings it up as a possibility which he ultimately rejects. Rabbeinu Bachya (ibid. 10:19) also mentions this view.

The most emphatic crocodile advocate is the Abravanel, who marshals a number of proofs – too many to paraphrase in a 1-page article. His main argument is based on Moshe’s statement: “The crocodiles will depart from you and from your houses, and from your servants and your people; only in the River will they remain” (ibid. 8:7). The Abravanel writes: “How could [Moshe] say ‘only in the River will they remain,’ which indicates that they would remain exclusively in the Nile, when croaking frogs are found throughout all the rivers of Egypt, and also in all the streams and ponds in the world?” He acknowledges that crocodiles eventually made their way outside of the borders of Egypt, but staunchly maintains that prior to the plague of tzfarde’a, crocodiles were not present in the Nile, and were only brought there by the plague. He then goes on to spell out the implications of the pasuk:

Moshe said, "only in the River will they remain" because he saw that Paroh suffered greatly from the crocodiles, and therefore, in order to intimidate him, he said, "only in the River will they remain" – in other words, so that they will occasionally come up by the will of the Creator (blessed is He) as a reminder that the great crocodiles came into the Nile River by the decree of Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu as a punishment for the Egyptians; for this reason, He wanted the crocodiles to remain in the river of Egypt as a reminder, so that the offspring born to the later generations would know that this is the tzfarde'a that Hashem (blessed is He) brought to the Nile to destroy the Egyptians. This is why Moshe repeated, "only in the River shall they remain," for this was a new phenomenon, that the crocodiles would remain perpetually in the river of Egypt, in the manner of, "a memorial He made for His wonders" (Tehilim 111:4).

We Jews memorialize the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim through the laws of the Torah: Pesach, matzah, maror, and sippur (telling the story). According to the Abravanel, the Egyptians also received a memorial – one that was preserved in the laws of nature: the perpetual presence of crocodiles in the Nile. This stands to reason: we were one intended audience of the plagues: “in order that you recount in the ears of your children and your grandchildren how I made a mockery of Egypt, and the signs that I placed in their midst, and you shall know that I am Hashem” (Shemos 10:2). Egypt was the other audience: “in order to show you My power, and in order that My Name should be proclaimed throughout all the land” (ibid. 9:14). We received reminders for all generations in the form of mitzvos; so too, Egypt received a reminder for all generations in the form of a lasting plague.

Sforno (ibid. 8:6) also holds by the crocodile theory, but offers a different explanation as to why they remained in the Nile after the plague was removed from Paroh and his people:

in order that you know that there is none like Hashem, our God – for there is no power that can introduce a new change in nature except for a limited time, but the crocodiles which [remained] in the River [resulted from] a [permanent] change in the nature of the River.

In short, the Abravanel held that the purpose of this everlasting plague was for future generations – to preserve the fear of Hashem, and to remind them of the plagues. Sforno held that the purpose of this perpetual plague was for the present – to demonstrate that only the Creator can introduce a permanent change in a natural entity.

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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Even If We Are All Wise, Understanding, Elders, Those Who Know Torah

The content on this podcast has been sponsored by my Patrons on Patreon. The total cost of maintaining my five podcasts in 2021 amounted to over $2000 - all of which would have come out of my own pocket were it not for your generosity. Thank you for helping me make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone!

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this article, and click here for an audio version. Note that there are hyperlinks to PDFs of the two essays referenced in the article.

Cairo Geniza manuscript, date unknown

Even if We Are All Wise, Understanding, Elders, Those Who Know Torah

In the Avadim Hayinu section of the Haggadah we say: “Even if we are all chachamim (wise), all nevonim (understanding), all zekeinim (elders), all yod’im es ha’Torah (knowers of the Torah), we are commanded to recount Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt).” What do each of these terms mean? Moreover, what is the hava amina? In other words, what might we have otherwise assumed if the Haggadah did not include this statement? The Rashbatz (R’ Shlomo ben Tzemach Duran, 1361-1444) answers both questions:

Lest you [erroneously] say that this mitzvah is only for the tinokos (kids), to teach them what they don’t know, but this telling is unnecessary for one who knows this – therefore we say: “even if we are all chachamim,” who have heard this from our fathers; “even if we are all nevonim,” who can understand (i.e. derive or infer) one principle from another; “even if we are all zekeinim,” who have known this for many years; “even if we are all yod’im es ha’Torah,” who think deeply into Torah every day, and from our reading of the Torah, we recount Yetzias Mitzrayim – even with all this, we are obligated in this telling on this night.

According to the Rashbatz, people can be classified into five levels based on their knowledge of Yetzias Mitzrayim:

1) tinok: one who is utterly ignorant of and unacquainted with the basic facts of Yetzias Mitzrayim

2) chacham: one who has been taught ideas about Yetzias Mitzrayim; this person is a dependent learner

3) navon: one who is capable of going beyond the level of chochmah (i.e. received knowledge) by deriving chidushim (novel insights) on their own; this person is an independent learner, or a creative thinker

4) zakein: one who has engaged in these ideas on the level of chochmah and tevunah for many years; this person has internalized these ideas, and made them real by “living” them

5) yode’a es ha’Torah: one whose knowledge of these ideas is so thorough and so deep that even their daily Torah study connects back to the principles of Yetzias Mitzrayim

Of these five, the last is the hardest to grasp. What does this type of Torah study look like? Thankfully, I have learned Torah from two individuals who exemplify this level, and they’re both named Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The first Rabbi Sacks (a.k.a. Rabbi Yoni Sacks) was my Chumash rebbi in yeshiva. His approach to Torah is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He approaches Torah as a unified system, with the Rambam’s Thirteen Ikkarim as the foundation and the Mishneh Torah as an organized Torah regimen. His “Level 5 Torah” can best be seen in his essay, Torah’s Place in Redemption and the Quest for Malchus Shamayim. There he explains how Chazal’s injunction “in each and every generation a person is obligated to see himself as though he left Egypt” applies not only on the night of the seder, but to the way we conceive of ourselves year-round. Rabbi Sacks endeavors to show how the entire Torah system, in all its manifold detail, connects back to the first principles embedded in the Yetzias Mitzrayim narrative, as part of the ongoing mission to redeem ourselves from Egypt in every generation.

The second Rabbi Sacks (a.k.a. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l) served as the Chief Rabbi of the UK from 1993 to 2013. He has published dozens of books, written hundreds of articles, and given countless shiurim. His unique approach to Torah, which he refers to as Torah v’Chochmah, seeks to harmonize the teachings of the God-given Torah with human wisdom – “the universals of man’s intellectual quest” – using our God-given intellect. His “Level 5 Torah” is best exemplified in The Jonathan Sacks Haggada: Collected Essays on PesaŠł•. In each of these essays, Rabbi Sacks explains how the principles of Yetzias Mitzrayim shaped the Western World throughout history, and how its ideas continue to be relevant today. My favorite of these essays is Building a Society of Freedom.

These are but two examples of what it means to be yode’a es ha’Torah. The challenge posed by this line in Avadim Hayinu is to develop our own way of seeing the ideas of Yetzias Mitzrayim in our daily Torah study.

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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Chad Gadya: A New Song with an Ancient Theme

The content on this podcast has been sponsored by my Patrons on Patreon. The total cost of maintaining my five podcasts in 2021 amounted to over $2000 - all of which would have come out of my own pocket were it not for your generosity. Thank you for helping me make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone! 

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Artwork: Cloudgoat Ranger, by Adam Rex




Chad Gadya: A New Song with an Ancient Theme

The author of Chad Gadya is unknown, as is the date of its composition. The first verified publication of this song was in a haggadah printed in Prague in 1590. An earlier handwritten version was found in the back of a 1526 haggadah, also printed in Prague. An even earlier version was reported by Rabbi Yedidiyah Weill (1721-1805) in a now lost siddur manuscript dating back to 1406 in Worms. He “heard” that it was found “hidden in the walls of the Beis Midrash” of Rokeach (1176-1238) who established that it “be sung on Pesach night for all generations.”

Many interpretations of Chad Gadya have been offered over the centuries. One of the more popular explanations is that each figure in the song represents one of the regimes that oppressed us throughout our long history. The goat is the Jewish people. The cat is Assyria. The dog is Babylon. And so on. I would like to suggest a different interpretation – one based on an older and inarguably greater song whose theme is central to Yetzias Mitzrayim.

Shiras ha’Yam opens with the verse: “I will sing to Hashem, ki gaoh gaah; horse and rider He cast into the sea” (Shemos 15:1). It is difficult to translate “ki gaoh gaah” in a manner which captures the nuances of the Hebrew. The root G.A.H. denotes “greatness,” “grandeur,” or “exaltedness.” Therefore, it would be accurate to translate the phrase as: “for He is exceedingly great.” However, G.A.H. also carries a connotation of “proud,” “haughty,” and “boastful,” and the terms “gaavah” and “gaon” are used in Biblical Hebrew to mean “arrogance” and “pride.” As odd as it sounds, it would be equally correct to render “ki gaoh gaah” as “for He is exceedingly haughty.” What does the verse mean? How can we make sense of this strange ambiguity?

R’ Yosef Albo (Sefer ha’Ikkarim 2:14) proposes a solution, which he supports with Targum Onkelos’s non-literal translation of our verse: “We will sing and give thanks before Hashem, for He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him; horse and rider He cast into the sea.” R’ Yosef Albo writes:

Indeed, we find Scripture ascribing gaavah (pride) to Him, even though this is a despicable character trait in man, as it is stated: “every haughty heart is an abomination to Hashem” (Mishlei 16:5). The reason for this is that it is not proper for man to take pride in any perfection or in any superiority, for everything comes from Hashem, and it is not fitting for man to take pride in anything that does not [truly] belong to him … Therefore, gaavah is only fitting for Hashem, since everything comes from Him and not from anyone else. It is for this reason that Scripture ascribes it to Him, saying: “Hashem reigns; He dons geius (pride)” (Tehilim 93:1), and Moshe said: “I will sing to Hashem, ki gaoh gaah,” which Onkelos translates as, “for He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him.” Therefore, if someone prides himself on that which does not belong to him, it is proper that that superiority be removed from him in order to demonstrate that glory and superiority do not belong to that person himself, but are from Hashem, by His will.

When Bnei Yisrael saw the Egyptian charioteers at Yam Suf, they were afraid. Even after witnessing Hashem’s omnipotence as displayed in the Ten Plagues, they still regarded their former masters as powerful beings worthy of fear. It was only after Hashem drowned the Egyptian army in the sea that Bnei Yisrael acknowledged the truth of Hashem’s supremacy – that “He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him.”

Perhaps this is the central idea of Chad Gadya. Each stanza introduces a more powerful entity. This powerful entity appears to be a genuine threat until it is defeated by an even greater one. Ultimately, we arrive at the recognition that Hashem is more powerful than all of them. “Who is like You among the powers, Hashem?” (Shemos 15:11). Not only is this a major theme of Yetzias Mitzrayim, but it also pairs well with the symbolic interpretation mentioned above. When we, the Jewish people, are faced with fearsome oppressors, it can be easy to feel that the situation is hopeless. But we must remember our relationship with the True Power, and turn to Him, believing: “God is my strength and my salvation … Hashem will reign forever and ever” (ibid. 15:2,18).

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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Purim 5782 – A Theory Connecting Purim to Yom ha’Kipurim Which is NOT Based on Specious Linguistics – Part 2 (An Answer)

The Torah content for the remainder of Adar II has been sponsored by David Campbell, and is dedicated "in honor of Rabbi Schneeweiss and all those who work to produce a grounded and thoughtful Judaism."

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Purim 5782 – A Theory Connecting Purim to Yom ha’Kipurim Which is NOT Based on Specious Linguistics – Part 2 (An Answer)

The haftarah of Yom ha’Kippurim opens with the pasuk cited by the Rambam in Hilchos Megilah 2:17. The navi then goes on to answer the question asked of Hashem by the Jews at that time: “Why did we fast and You did not see? Why did we afflict our souls and You did not know?” (ibid. 58:3). The navi answers:

Can such be the fast I choose: a day when man merely afflicts himself? Can it be merely bowing one’s head like a bulrush and spreading sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast and a day of favor to Hashem? Surely, this is the fast I choose: to break open the shackles of wickedness, to undo the bonds of injustice, and to let the oppressed go free, and annul all perversion. Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor [to your] home; when you see a naked person, clothe him; and do not hide yourself from your kin. Then your light will burst out like the dawn and your healing will speedily sprout; your righteous deed will precede you and the glory of Hashem will gather you in. Then you will call and Hashem will respond; you will cry out and He will say, “Here I am!” If you remove from your midst perversion, finger-pointing, and evil speech, and offer your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then your light will shine in the darkness, and your deepest gloom will be like the noon. (ibid. 58:3-10)

The message is clear: no matter how devoutly we fast and cry out in prayer, Hashem will not respond until we repair our relationships with our fellow human beings. One can only enter the realm of bein adam l’Makom (between man and God) through the gate of bein adam l’chaveiro (between man and his fellow man).

This theme is certainly appropriate to Yom ha’Kippurim: a day on which we appeal to Hashem to accept our prayers, our fasting, and our teshuvah. But what does this have to do with Purim? According to the Rambam: everything! In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, at the end of the list of mitzvos, Rambam explains the central theme of Purim and identifies its basis in the Torah itself:

… the Prophets, along with Beis Din, instituted and commanded us in the reading of the Megilah in its proper time in order to recall the praises of Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu and the salvations He did for us, that He was near to our salvation, in order to bless Him and to praise Him, and in order to make known to the coming generations that that which was stated in the Torah is true, as it is stated, "For which is a great nation that has a God Who is close to it, as is Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him?" (Devarim 4:7).

Purim memorializes the most dramatic instance in history of Hashem’s promise to be “a God Who is close to [us] … whenever we call to Him.” The Megilah clearly states that the Jews fasted at the behest of Esther in response to the threat of Haman. We can infer that this fasting was accompanied by prayer and teshuvah as well. But the narrative in the Megilah alone might lead us to make a grave error, namely, to assume that fasting and prayer are enough to warrant a response from Hashem. But they are not enough, as Yeshayahu and all the other neviim have reminded us throughout the ages.

This, I submit, is the thematic connection between Purim and Yom ha’Kippurim. Both days share the theme of calling out to Hashem in hopes that He will answer us. Both, therefore, are in need of the reminder that Hashem only responds to those who “walk in His ways” (Devarim 11:22), “to bring life to the spirit of the lowly and to bring life to the heart of the oppressed” (Yeshaya 57:15). Perhaps this is why the mitzvos of mishloach manos and matanos la’evyonim were instituted: to remind us, on a day commemorating Hashem’s response to our outcry, that we will only merit such a response if we promote love and peace between our fellow Jews and enact righteousness and justice on behalf of the oppressed.
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If you've gained from what you've learned here, please consider contributing to my Patreon at www.patreon.com/rabbischneeweiss. Alternatively, if you would like to make a direct contribution to the "Rabbi Schneeweiss Torah Content Fund," my Venmo is @Matt-Schneeweiss, and my Zelle and PayPal are mattschneeweiss at gmail.com. Even a small contribution goes a long way to covering the costs of my podcasts, and will provide me with the financial freedom to produce even more Torah content for you.

If you would like to sponsor a day's or a week's worth of content, or if you are interested in enlisting my services as a teacher or tutor, you can reach me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail.com. Thank you to my listeners for listening, thank you to my readers for reading, and thank you to my supporters for supporting my efforts to make Torah ideas available and accessible to everyone.

Be sure to check out my YouTube channel and my podcasts: "The Mishlei Podcast""The Stoic Jew" Podcast"Rambam Bekius" Podcast"Machshavah Lab" Podcast"The Tefilah Podcast"  For the full guide to all of my Torah content, click here