The Torah Teaches Us How to Think

From – The Path of the BT by Rav Itamar Shwartz.

As we mentioned, a person is divided in general, into three parts: actions, feelings, and thoughts. Often a person’s feelings seem very positive to him, even as his outward actions tell a different story. How many secular Jews say, “In my heart, I serve the Creator. I am a good Jew.” He helps everybody, even thieves. In his heart a person thinks that if he has good feelings, everything is fine.

Chazal said,[7] “Anyone who is compassionate to those who are cruel, will end up being cruel to those who are compassionate.” But what can I do if I feel in my heart that it’s good to be kind to those who are cruel as well? Is that a good feeling, or not? According to my logic, is it good to have mercy on a cruel person? Sure. Such a person is the most miserable person around. He is cruel! He is terribly unfortunate.

But Chazal teach us that a person should not always go where his natural instincts may lead him. The emotions need another source of direction. How do I know which feelings are positive and which are negative? According to how it seems to me? Not at all. If there is no brain, then the heart is not a true heart either. The emotions, too, are not the proper emotions. In order to know whether our feelings are correct, we need to learn, and if we learn, we will know what our feelings should be. In that case, let us begin with the learning.

An average person living in our world, whose place is not in the beis medrash, who is not part of the Torah world, barely uses his mind. A majority of people, obviously, think about what to do, what not to do, when to get up, when to buy things and what to buy, but the brain is barely put to use. A small percentage of people study in various institutions of learning, and their brains are also at work. But how long do they “stay in” learning? Two or three years, maybe even four or five? During the course of a lifetime, are they constantly learning? It is very rare to find, in the outside world, people whose brains are working at learning during their entire lifetimes. In the best case scenario, they may be learning for several years.

On the other hand, a person who sits in the beis medrash, his brain must continue to toil until his dying day. There is never a time when he is exempt from studying Torah. Whether he is young or old, whether he is healthy or ill, as the Rambam[8] says, he must learn Torah until the day he dies.

In order to understand this, we first need to understand the power of Torah learning. So long as a person is on the outside of the Torah world, he has no inkling that to become part of that world involves building a world of the intellect.

He thinks that to become a baal teshuvah means to do whatever must be done. Whatever the Rav tells him to do, he’ll do. It would be wonderful if everyone did that! But that’s only a small part of becoming a baal teshuvah. You cannot remain bound to the Rav like a child tied to his mother’s apron strings; obeying everything he says. In the beginning he will tell you what to do, but little by little, you must build and begin to think yourself.

When you enter the world of Torah, it’s not only a change in what to do and what not to do, as we mentioned earlier. An additional, basic change (that must be made) is to understand that “Yisroel were His first thoughts to be created.”[9] Chazal said, “Who did Hashem, so to speak, think of to create first? The Jewish Nation.”

In other words, the power of the Jewish nation is that they are ‘the first of the thought.’ They are the true power of thought that exists in Creation! That is the secret of the holy Torah; that it is the wisdom of the Creator, given specifically to the Jewish nation.

The Torah is made up of three parts. One part of Torah is the commandments that a Jew must fulfill. That is the aspect of fulfilling the Torah in action. The second part of Torah is to study it. The Torah is wisdom, it is a body of knowledge. The third part of Torah is to build the emotions based on true thought patterns.

Entrance into the world of Torah is, on the one hand, entrance into a world of action. What must I do, and what is forbidden to me? That is true. But another part of the world into which he has entered, which is often unclear at the beginning of the path, and is also often unclear in the middle of the way, and even sometimes until the end, is that he has entered a world that builds the power of thought in a person.

It is clear that entrance to the world of Torah means building something new in the brain. This is similar to building a new home. Everyone, upon entering the world of Torah, whether he is a young child growing up, or someone who has led a superficial existence, and then enters into it, must understand one principle. On the one hand, we must build up our active fulfillment of the laws– what is permitted, what is forbidden, what are we obligated to do. On the other hand, he is building a new home! In the words of the passuk,[10] “Through wisdom is a house built.” In a deep sense, building the mind of a person is like building a home inside of him.

To build a brain means that a person understands, first of all, that the business of Torah is not only to learn in order to do, although it is the main thing. In addition, however, he understands that he learns in order to build his intellect.

Introduction to Learning Gemora

In July 2009, my Partners in Torah chavrusa wanted to learn Gemora. We started learning the second perek of Bava Metzia about returning lost objects. We used Art Scroll for the basic flow and translation and then we discussed in depth on each step of the Gemora. It caused a good deal of brain pain and he enjoyed it.

Here is the outline I prepared when we got started.

1) Purpose of Torah Study
– Understand the practical law and the commandments
– Seeking the essence, relationships and connections of all things, in every area of life, in this world and beyond.

2) Components (See Appendix)
– Written Torah – 24 Books – Torah (5), Prophets (8), Writings (11)
– Oral Torah – Mishna, Talmud
– Commentaries, Halachic Works

3) Chain of Transmission
– Moshe, Joshua, Elders, Prophets (Described in the 24 books of the Written Torah)
– Great Assembly, (transition from Written to Oral Torah)
– Tannaim (literally the “repeaters”) are the sages of the Mishnah (70–200)
– Amoraim (literally the “sayers”) are the sages of the Gemara (200–500)
– Savoraim (literally the “reasoners”) are the classical Persian rabbis (500–600)
– Geonim (literally the “prides” or “geniuses”) are the rabbis of Sura and Pumbeditha, in Babylonia (650–1050)
– Rishonim (literally the “firsts”) are the rabbis of the early medieval period (1050–1550) preceding the Shulchan Aruch
– Acharonim (literally the “lasts”) are the rabbis of 1550 to the present.

4) Two Elements of Talmudic Study
– Understanding the steps of the discussion as described in the Elements
– Trying to discern new insights and a deeper understanding of the principles (Havana)

5) Seven Elements in the Steps of Talmudic Discussions
– Statement – an idea is expressed
– Question – requesting for information
– Answer – responding to a question
– Contradiction – disproving a statement or idea and totally refuting it
– Proof – presenting evidence from which the truth of a statement or idea is apparent
– Difficulty – pointing out something untrue or unpleasing about a statement or idea
– Resolution – turning aside a difficulty against a statement or idea

6) Understanding the Steps
– A Gemora statement consists of a subject and a predicate, which is information about the subject. For example, Women are obligated in the mitzvah of kiddush. Women is the subject and “obligated in the mitzvah of kiddush” is the predicate”.
– The Gemora often chooses unusual cases to highlight the boundaries of the subjects and predicates and the principles involved.
– Rashi’s commentary helps us understand the cases and the steps.

7) Deeper Understanding
– Torah learning often involves reconciling contradictions within the Gemora.
– Tosfos’ commentary points out additional contradictions from other Gemoras and reconciles contradictions.
– This process of reconciling contradictions gives us a deeper understanding of the principles.

Originally published July, 2009

Appendix (Mostly from Wikipedia)
Read more Introduction to Learning Gemora

The Power of Great Torah Teaching in Great Neck

When my wife and were becoming observant, more that 25 years ago, we lived in Manhasset Hills on the North Shore of Long Island. However much of our initial Torah growth occurred in Great Neck under the tutelage of Rabbi Yaakov Lerner and Rebbetzin Abby Lerner of the Young Israel of Great Neck. I would drive about 10 minutes every morning to attend Rabbi Lerner’s weekday 6:00 AM Gemora shiur, followed by Shacharis. It was too far to walk, so on Shabbos I davened in a minyan in the basement of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Searingtown.

I still remember to this day Rabbi Lerner’s amazing ability to teach a Tosfos in a way that a beginner like myself at the time, could understand. In addition to his teaching and Rabbinic responsibility at the YIGN, Rabbi Lerner has been running Project Identity since 1981, which provides beginners classes in Torah, Reading Hebrew and Prayer. Our initial connection to Rabbi Lerner was through Project Identity.

I saw Rabbi and Rebbetzin Lerner at the Chupah of a Manahasset Hills friend’s daughter this past Sunday. We do run in to each other on occasion, but we spent some extra time talking, and he updated me on the amazing growth of YIGN and some of the amazing Baalei Teshuva that have joined the Shul. Many are extremely successful professionals who have directed their talents and passions to Torah and Communal Service.

One of the most amazing thing about Rabbi Lerner and Project Identity, is there is no active Kiruv, just the teaching of Torah and the sharing of our wonderful heritage with Jews who have not had that opportunity. Of course many people, like my wife and myself, become more observant and are helped in that journey, but the connection is established through the teaching and learning of Torah.

With the “search for truth” kiruv of the 60s, 70s. 80s, and the more self-centered “happiness kiruv” of the 90s, 00s. 10s waning, perhaps it’s time to focus on the pure unadulterated teaching of Torah. The one small wrinkle is that Rabbi Lerner’s love, and passion and skill at teaching Torah, are is difficult to match. It would be useful for the community to model the teaching skills of our great communal Rabbis so we can try to teach it to others.

The Mystical Magic of “When The Ox Gores the Cow”

The following story appeared in Rabbi Frand’s parsha archives:

I will tell you over a story that I heard from a prominent individual who works in Jewish Outreach.

When he was he was newly married, and studying at a Rabbinic seminary in Israel, he couldn’t afford an apartment in the desirable sections of Jerusalem. Therefore he bought one in what was then an outlying section, in a building where he was the only observant, religious Jews. All of the other residents were Israelis who were not religious. He went over to them and started building relationships. He invited every one of them to come once a week to his apartment to learn. After trying, he finally got several to come to learn, but he had not picked a topic.

What would he learn with non-religious Israelis? In a certain sense non-religious Israelis are even more removed from Judaism, and have more negative attitudes towards Jewish learning, than unaffiliated Jews in America. So he deliberated his options: something philosophical, like Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, or a work which discusses the Jewish faith in comparison to others, like the Kuzari… he didn’t know what he was going to learn.

He went to morning prayers and there, as Hashgocha (Divine Providence) would have it, he met the famous Uri Zohar. Uri Zohar was Israel’s foremost entertainer: comedian, television game-show and radio talk-show host, social satirist, movie star, and film producer, and an icon of modern Israeli secular society. Then, in the midst of his career, he turned towards religion, eventually becoming fully observant. [For more information, read Waking Up Jewish by Uri Zohar, which is available through Genesis Judaica.]

He asked Uri Zohar what he should learn with these neighbors. R’ Uri asked him, “What are you learning in Yeshiva?” The Rabbi responded that he was learning Bava Kamma. Uri Zohar told him “Learn with them tractate Bava Kamma”.

The Rabbi looked at him incredulously and said “Bava Kamma? The ox that gores a cow; The Pit; The Ox; Fire that damages?… This will turn people on to Judaism?”

To which Uri Zohar responded “My dear friend, you don’t believe in Torah! If you can question and doubt that learning with them tractate Bava Kamma is going to bring them back — then you don’t fully believe and appreciate the power of Torah.”

Learn pure, unadulterated, “the Four Major Types of Damages” (Arba avos nezikin). You do not need to learn philosophical works such as Kuzari and Moreh Nevuchim. Learn about the Ox that gores the cow. It does something to the soul. It is mystical. It is magical. It is the nourishment that the soul thirsts for, and a teacher needs nothing more.

To this day, what does the Rabbi learn with beginning adult students? Tractate Bava Kamma.

That is what this Medrash says about Aharon. He returned sinners to Torah study. The power of Torah will prevail.

Ad kann l’shono (end of his story).

I am afraid that I share the same doubts with the Rabbi in this story. Having grown up on the Talmud since grade school, I don’t have the perspective of being exposed to it for the first time as a thinking, questioning adult, and it does surprise me to hear that learning “Arba Avos Nezikin” as someone’s first exposure to learning Torah would stir their soul. This represents a significant paradigm shift for me. So I would love to hear corroboration, comments or otherwise from those coming from a different perspective than me.

Originally published on Feb 19, 2009

Enhance Your Talmud Learning Skills With a Free App, Free Videos and a Three in One Translation

In Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal) explains that the most powerful positive spiritual influences are brought into this world through the learning of Torah. The deeper one understands Torah, the more powerful the spiritual influence brought down. One of the primary ways to get a deeper understanding of Torah is the learning of Gemora.

If you would like to enhance your Gemora Learning Skills there are some new tools to help you. The first one is the release of the Way of Torah, which contains new translations of three of the Ramchal’s works on learning, thinking and speaking in one volume:
The Way of Reason
The Book of Logic
The Book of Words

The book was translated and annotated by Rabbi David Sackton and Rabbi Chaim Tscholkowksy and contains many colored charts and an extensive glossary to help you learn these invaluable works. At a 1ist price of $39.00 the sefer is a must have and you can purchase it from Feldheim directly for $35.99 or from Amazon at list price.
Rabbi Tscholkowsky has just release a free new Android and Apple app aimed at making Talmud study fun. It teaches the 350 main Aramaic terms used in the Talmud and can be played in four languages: English, French, Spanish and Hebrew. Here is the link for the Android App. For the iPhone you can search the App Store for Talmud Quest.

Please leave a favorable comment on the app site. If you know anyone who would be interested in the app please forward them the links below. The app was designed to play on any screen resolution from 800×480 and above. Rabbi Tscholkowsky would enjoy hearing your comments about the app at
Rabbi Tscholkowsky also has a site called where there are tens and tens of free videos on
Introduction to Talmud
Ways of Reason
Book of Logic
Book of Rhetoric
Ways of Talmud

Thanks to Rabbi David Sackton and Rabbi Chaim Tscholkowksy for these wonderful works to enhance our Talmud learning.

Life is Too Short – So Why Waste Precious Time

It’s week 2 for Pirkei Avos and in Mishnah 20, Rabbi Tarfon said, “the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”

The Maharal explains that this Mishna refers to learning Torah and since life is too short we cannot afford to waste time given the magnitude of Torah, our limited ability and Hashem’s expectations. The Mishnah does not demand the impossible since a human cannot be expected to be an angel, devoid of physical limitation. However, we are expected to emulate spiritual beings in terms of energy and dedication. The Maharal points out that to waste the limited resources that we do have is a sin. Rather we must be diligent and focused in our studies as if we intend to finish the Torah.

Most of us are far from this level and we have to grow step by step, so a reasonable commitment to learn 5-10 minutes more a day or perhaps spend some time on Pirkei Avos this week. As the Mishnah points out, the reward is great, so it’s well worth the effort.

Here is the rest of the Pirkei Avos for Chapter 2:

1. “Rabbi said, What is the proper path that one should choose for himself? Whatever is glorious / praiseworthy for himself, and honors him before others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) like a severe one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the pleasure received for sinning compared to the punishment. Consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you – an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”

2. “Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will in the end result in waste and will cause sinfulness. All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of the community’s forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own.”

3. “Be careful with authorities, for they do not befriend a person except for their own sake. They appear as friends when they benefit from it, but they do not stand by a person in his time of need.”

4. “He used to say, make His will your will, so that He will make your will His will. Annul your will before His will, so that He will annul the will of others before your will.”
Read more Life is Too Short – So Why Waste Precious Time

Must You Blog Thirty Days Before Pesach about Pesach?

Rabbi Welcher gave a shiur last week about “Thirty Days Before the Chag” and three ways that Gemora is understood. Go download it and give it a listen when you have the chance.

Pesach is the holiday which requires the most preparation, has the most mitzvos, and affords us the opportunity to make significant spiritual strides. Like most valuable things in life it requires preparation and right now we’re at the 21 days mark and counting.

Spiritual growth requires effort, but if we put in the effort, the connection and growth will come. The main thing that prevents us from making smart efforts is the world of distraction that we live in. Even if we can’t overcome all the distractions, we can choose to gather some moments and invest them in learning and preparing for Pesach.

Amazon has a great selection of Haggadahs, that can be delivered to your door this week. Why not pick one up and start your Pesach spiritual preparation today.

The Tefilla Gathering and Going Beyond Ultra

I went to the Tefilla Gathering on Sunday in the Wall Street area. It was a tremendous Kiddush Hashem as 40,000 Jews gathered peacefully to pray. The next day a friend emailed me this Voz Iz Neias link with my picture and the following caption:
Ultra Orthodox men in downtown Manhattan protesting the plan to require the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army. The Atzeres Tefillah was attended by thousands form across the tri-state region.

There were a few problems with the caption:
1) There’s a misspelling in it.
2) I wasn’t there to protest, but rather because I understood this as a prayer gathering for a better resolution of the problems facing the Jewish people in Israel, specifically in regard to the draft issue. That’s how my Rav framed it.
3) Coming from an Orthodox publication, I probably did not fit in to their understanding of the word Ultra.

But then I thought a little more about the definition of Ultra. If it means people who believe in the primacy of Torah as the guiding force in our lives and our communities, then I’m definitely Ultra. And the Ultra (primacy of Torah) label also fits a lot of Rebbeim I have had the pleasure to learn from and grow with, who were educated in Yeshiva University and other Modern Orthodox yeshivos.

In todays parlance Ultra is a dividing word, but just beyond the term is the uniting concept of Torah defining and driving our collective lives. We certainly need to discuss potential solutions to problems that exist in our communities, but when we are Torah centered we can remain united in our search for solutions.

Why Not Get Yourself an Internet Parsha Rebbe

Many observant Jews believe in the primacy of Torah and the necessity to never stop learning and growing. However, it’s often hard to find the right class at the right time by the right teacher. If you’re looking to learn the Parsha, your problem is solved. You can find yourself an Internet Parsha Rebbe.

I’ve been listening to Rabbi Ari Kahn for over a year. I love his breadth of sources, his choice of topics, his development of the shiur and the fact that his New York sense of humor is still intact many years after leaving the American shores for Eretz Yisroel. I also really appreciate that he makes his shiurim easily accessible for free on his web site.

Even though I don’t commute to work, I get to listen to 2-3 of Rabbi Kahn’s shiurim a week on the way to and from Shul and while stretching and getting dressed in the morning and evening. I’ve also added Rabbi Daniel Feldman and Rabbi Herschel Schacter who have many free shiurim available on that treasure house, known as There are 10s of speakers there, each with their own style, delivery and approach to teaching parsha.

If you like a fast paced, Chassidish sourced shiur, you might want to try Rabbi Sitorsky. Another good free source with a variety of speakers is Torah Anytime. Google will direct you to many other free Torah mp3 sites, as well as sites that still charge.

Hearing a parsha shiur from a teacher is a fantastic way to learn and with the great availability and affordability of audio on phones and other portable devices, why not sample a few shiurim to find your personal Parsha Rebbe.

Should Jews be Paid to Study Torah?

I signed up this year to participate in a Bet Midrash program for international students studying abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The program pairs local English speakers with students to study in a one-on-one chevruta. I had participated in a similar program as a young professional back in Washington, D.C. and got so much out of it that I committed to studying full-time for a year in Israel. Feeling like I also want to share Torah with others, I was excited for this opportunity. Plus, I’ve been looking for a weekly chevruta anyways.

It turns out that there is another program that also sets up students with a chevruta, but it pays them and their partners to learn. I’m familiar with this arrangement. I recall being approached as a college student to participate in a weekly learning program, at the end of which I would receive $800. Not bad money, especially for something I was interested in. But, the money offer turned me away. I’m suspicious of a product that can’t sell itself!

In encouraging fellow Jews to come closer to Torah, why do we feel we have to provide a financial incentive? I’ve heard two basic arguments:

1-Busy people need to choose wisely how to spend their time, and if you offer a financial incentive, it allows them to dedicate time to Torah instead of a part-time (or full-time, but I’ll get to that later) job.
2-Paying a stipend for someone to learn is widely accepted in the secular world (academic scholarships and stipends), so why should it be so for religious studies?

I haven’t had an answer for a while, though my gut instinct still wouldn’t accept it. Here is what I think makes offering money for Torah study problematic:

1- While it’s true that we need to be judicious in how our time is spent, $800 really wouldn’t offset the income from a small part-time job, and there are a lot of things one can learn from working, especially when studying already all day long.
2- Torah study in and of itself is free. There is no cost to going to a local synagogue, private or public library, and sitting down with a sefer, or reading many Torah articles online or listening to shiurim. In fact paid shiurim are a pretty modern phenomenon (I’m not against those by the way).
3- Paying someone to learn full-time requires its own discussion, but I believe that the kollel lifestyle of learning all-day long, for protracted periods of time, especially at the expense of serving in the army in Israel, is against what the Torah explicitly says. (Let the barrage of comments begin!)
4- Paying someone to study Torah is different than an academic stipend, because academic stipends are conditional – you need to be receiving certain grades, produce a thesis (which then becomes property of the university), etc. Paying someone to study and expecting nothing in return than to listen to the material provided, is different.
5- When you’re paid, you’re beholden. There are 70 faces to the Torah, and when one explores freely, they have access to 70. When you’re paid to come to shiurim, you’re going to be fed a certain outlook, and it’s more difficult to challenge someone when he is holding a check.

Not everyone is going to buy, but I believe that the Torah sells itself. By being a mensch, a good person whose ways are influenced by the Torah’s teachings, and by opening up our hearts and our homes to fellow Jews, many will be attracted in a much more authentic way.

The Challenge of Learning Time Allocation

By Ilene Rosenblum

Compared with 2009, in 2010 I was a total Torah study slacker. On the one hand, I know that I need to, well, cut myself slack. I’m a working woman, and a kallah at that! It would seem though, that now, more than ever, would I need some structure and guidance that I’ve found in the past from the wisdom of tradition.

Part of it is also burnout. At the end of a long day in front of a computer screen, I don’t want to stress my brain more by pulling apart some text, or listen to a shiur. In fact, even when reading an interesting novel or non-fiction book in English, I find myself dozing off, usually after no more than 10 minutes. Blame it on insufficient sleep or an inability to sit in front of a book and concentrate on that one task, in the age of internet interactivity, but it’s my reality.

There’s another issue at stake too. Given the time crunch and lack of focus/sleepiness, what do I do with my limited resource for printed media consumption in my spare time. Part of me feels that I should study some more Torah, as part of my wanting to become more knowledgeable about Jewish practice and being able to make educated decisions about what I do or don’t do. Another part of me says די כבר, enough already. You went and made some pretty drastic lifestyle changes and live in an environment with mostly observant Jews. Shouldn’t you learn about something else?

The question is “why?” My secular, liberal arts education would tell me that it’s important to understand and appreciate people of different cultures, who live differently than you do, and to have a working knowledge of politics, literature and science. But, day-to-day, it doesn’t matter to me much whether I can tell you about the British government or have read One Hundred Years of Solitude (I tried, but boy was it difficult keeping track of multiple characters with the same name!)

If I want to study Torah, and only Torah, why not? In fact, there are those who claim that the knowledge and wisdom imparted in the Torah is so vast that it is all-encompassing. That is in part why ultra-Orthodox men will sometimes not learn more than a rudimentary level of mathematics, science, foreign languages, and so on (Women are not obligated to learn Torah and some need to learn secular work skills in order to find jobs to support the family.) Learning something else would be bittul Torah, wasting time better spent in Torah study.

To what extent do we learn something new from reading the Torah through each year and bring something new to it ourselves? And to what extent should we be spending time spreading our reading wings to texts never encountered before?

Our sages teach that there is endless wisdom in the Torah. A section of the Talmud, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, says that you can find countless chiddushim in the Torah.

בן בג בג אומר הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולה בה (פרק ה משנה כב)א

It’s true that many of the laws and stories encompassed in the Torah’s teachings, particularly in the Gemara, seem to impart a much more advanced level of knowledge about human biology, psychology, and even hard science than contemporary documents and that they might be considered even “progressive” by the standards of non-Jewish cultures at the time they were penned. But are we not supposed to explore God’s creation for ourselves?

There is so much Torah I wish to study. I haven’t even gone through what I consider to be the very basics of studying the books of the Tanach. But at the same time, delving into minutiae of halachic debate or reading ancient stories doesn’t always seem like the most valuable use of my time. Were I to only study Torah, I would be ignorant of a lot of the world around me. Some would find that to be a good thing.

I’ve wondered quite a bit how much the experience of growing up in Israel is different than growing up in the United States. For one thing, how is it that all of your schoolmates and neighbors are Jewish? If you study Judaism all day long, are around Jews all day long, and you’re hardly exposed to other types of people, or at least people of other races and religions, what happens when you go abroad? What happens to your intellectual development and decision making? Is your religious faith and observance strengthened or weakened?

I’m really grateful to be living in a country and a more specifically a city where I can easily meet friends for a kosher lunch and the buses wish you a Purim Sameach during the month of Adar. It’s hard to ignore the Jewish cycle here. But I’m also thankful for having the experience of having to make a real sacrifice in order to find kosher food, go store-to-store hunting down candles, and to incorporate Judaism into my life when the world around me doesn’t stand still on Friday night.

Ilene writes at

Mishnayos Yomi – It’s a Great Idea

The new Mishanayos Yomi cycle start on Sunday July 4th with Masechta Berachos.

You learn 2 mishnayos a day and you can finish all of Shas in 5 1/2 years.

It’s not hard and it’s a great accomplishment.

There are audio files here which take only 5 minutes per day.

Rav Grossman also has audio files of the entire Mishna.

And here’s the schedule for the remainder of 5770.

The site also has some good resources.

You can download the entire Blackman translation of the Mishnayos at

Here’s the entire Mishna online in Hebrew.

Why not start now, you won’t regret it.

Rabbi Shimon Green on Loving to Learn Torah

Rabbi Shimon Green gave a unique shiur on loving Torah and helping our children love Torah. You can download it here.

True Torah is pleasant to learn. Locking our children into Torah is not a true path. Torah is sweet and pleasant when properly taught and understood.

Humility is the starting point of learning. When somebody disagrees with our ideas, our starting must be to try and understand that person’s point of view. A true ben Torah is always interested in what the other person has to say.

Torah has the ability to connect us with that which is greater than us, namely Hashem. Torah can constantly expand us.

Please listen to the entire shiur.

Translated Text of Pirkei Avos – and What Are The Most Popular Sayings

As many of you know, there is a widespread Jewish custom of learning Pirkei Avos in the six week period between Pesach and Shavous. Some have the custom to keep on learning a perek a week until Rosh Hoshana.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of Beit Shemesh, Israel has an excellent commentary to Pirkei Avos over at

A few years ago, to facilitate review of Pirkei Avos, I cut and pasted Rabbi Rosenthal’s translation into a document so that I could print off the perek of the week and keep it in my wallet for review. Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the man administering, and other spreading Torah projects was gracious enough to allow the document to be downloaded here.

Here is the link for the English Translation of Pirkei Avos.

Almost everybody knows certain sayings from Pirkei Avos, such as “He (Hillel) used to say, if I am not for me who is for me, if I am for myself what am I, and if not now when.” I was wondering what people thought are the most popular sayings and why they think they are so popular.

Here is the translated text of the Second Perek of Pirkei Avos.

1 “Rabbi said, What is the proper path that one should choose for himself? Whatever is glorious / praiseworthy for himself, and honors him before others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) like a severe one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the pleasure received for sinning compared to the punishment. Consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you – an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”

2 “Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will in the end result in waste and will cause sinfulness. All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of the community’s forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own.”

3 “Be careful with authorities, for they do not befriend a person except for their own sake. They appear as friends when they benefit from it, but they do not stand by a person in his time of need.”

4 “He used to say, make His will your will, so that He will make your will His will. Annul your will before His will, so that He will annul the will of others before your will.”

5 “Hillel said, do not separate from the community, do not trust yourself until the day you die, do not judge your friend until you reach his place, do not make a statement which cannot be understood which will (only) later be understood, and do not say when I have free time I will learn, lest you do not have free time.”

6 “He (Hillel) used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are involved excessively in business will not become a scholar. In a place where there are no men, endeavor to be a man.”

7 “He (Hillel) also saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it: ‘Because you drowned you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.'”

8 “He (Hillel) used to say, the more flesh the more worms, the more property the more worry, the more wives the more witchcraft, the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more slaves the more thievery. The more Torah the more life, the more study the more wisdom, the more advice the more understanding, the more charity the more peace. One who acquires a good name acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah acquires a share in the World to Come.”

9 “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai received [the transmission] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say, if you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself because you were created for this.”

10 “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai had five [primary] students. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi the Priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.”

11 “He (Rabban Yochanan ben (son of) Zakkai) used to list their praises (the praises of his five primary students). Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos is a cemented pit which never loses a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya fortunate is she who bore him; Rabbi Yossi the Priest is pious; Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel fears sin; and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an increasing river.”

12 “He used to say, if all the sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Hurkenos on the second side, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name, if all the Sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale with even Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos among them, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on the second side, he would outweigh them all.”

13 “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a good way to which someone should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said a good eye; Rabbi Yehoshua said a good friend; Rabbi Yossi said a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said one who considers consequences. Rabbi Elazar said a good heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”

14 “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a bad way which a person should avoid. Rabbi Eliezer said a bad eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said a bad friend. Rabbi Yossi said a bad neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said one who borrows and does not pay back. One who borrows from a person is as one who borrows from G-d, as it says, “A wicked person borrows and does not repay, but the Righteous One is gracious and gives” (Psalms 37:21). Rabbi Elazar said a bad heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”

15 “They (the five students of Rabban Yochanan – see above Mishna 10) each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer said: The honor of your fellow should be as dear to you as your own. Do not get angry easily. Repent one day before you die. Warm yourself before the fire of the Sages. But be wary with their coals that you do not get burnt, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”

16 “Rabbi Yehoshua said, an evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of another person remove a person from this world.”

17 “Rabbi Yossi said, let your fellow’s property be as dear to you as your own, prepare yourself to study Torah because it is not an inheritance to you, and all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven.”

18 “Rabbi Shimon said, be careful in reading the Shema and the prayers. When you pray, do not regard your prayers as a fixed obligation, rather they should be [the asking for] mercy and supplication before G-d, as the verse says, “For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, great in kindness, and relenting of the evil decree” (Joel 2:13). Do not consider yourself a wicked person.”

19 “Rabbi Elazar said, be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic. Know before Whom you toil. And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor.”

20 “Rabbi Tarfon said, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”

21 “He (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say, it is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be given much reward, and faithful is your Employer that He will reward you for your labor. And know that the reward of the righteous will be given in the World to Come.”

First published April 27, 2006

How to Learn Hebrew: A Guide for Ba’al Teshuvahs who Can’t get to Yeshivah

By Ari Mendelson

For many a Ba’al Teshuvah, the classic works of Jewish thought are a sealed book. From time immemorial, the international languages of Jewish scholarship have been Hebrew, Aramaic, and a Hebrew/Aramaic blend. However, few Jews who grew up outside of Orthodoxy or outside of Israel have had the opportunity to learn these languages in their youth from a teacher.

Many who come to Judaism later in life, thinking that they are neither young enough nor smart enough, do not even try to learn the language. Others have tried repeatedly, but failed in their quest to learn Hebrew. I finally succeeded in learning Hebrew on my fourth or fifth try (I lost count). And I learned it well enough to read and understand Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Mishnayos, and even Gemara with the Rashi and Tosafos! And I did it all on my own without professional instruction in a Yeshivah. And I did it without a genius IQ, just good technique and persistence.

Learning any foreign language is a tall order for any adult, especially one who is not in a place in which he can immerse himself in the language. With proper technique and persistence it is within reach of nearly anybody. With this article, I will instruct the reader in the most efficient techniques to master the language of our sages. All the reader need supply is the persistent effort to make the techniques pay off.

I will begin with the assumption that the reader can recognize nothing more than the various Hebrew letters, and proceed to outline the steps necessary to get from that point to the mastery of enough Hebrew to learn the classic Rabbinic texts without a translation. I will further assume that the reader, for one reason or another, cannot, take the time off to learn Hebrew in an Orthodox Yeshiva, as I myself was, unfortunately, never able to do.

What you will need

# A basic list of Hebrew Vocabulary (one which contains a couple of hundred of the most common Hebrew words).
# A siddur
# The “Learn Hebrew” program from Rabbi Shalom Gold available at
# The Super-Memo computer program available at
# The five volume Ruben Alcaldi Hebrew-English Dictionary.
# Practical Talmudic Dictionary by Yitzhak Frank
# Siyata L’Gemara (Aiding Talmud Study) by Aryeh Carmell
# Ezra Melamed’s dictionary of Talmudic Aramaic.

If you are serious about learning Hebrew, you will need to invest some money as well as your time. The above materials are carefully chosen to give you the most bang for your buck, so to speak.

Stage 1

Learning to read Hebrew well enough to say the prayers in Hebrew even without comprehension

So, you can recognize the Hebrew letters. You know what each letter’s name is, and what sound it makes. You can also recognize all of the vowels. Trouble is, that you can hardly sound out the words. As a result, you say your daily prayers in English. You want to be able to say them in Hebrew. But the thought of spending two hours sounding out the words of one prayer inspires nothing but dread.

The good news is that, with proper technique and persistence, you will be saying all of your prayers in Hebrew within six months. There are four things you must do.

First of all, DO NOT SOUND OUT THE WORDS out loud. Sound out the words in your head. Once you can say the word in its entirety in your head then you should say the entire word out loud
. This will be of great help in remembering the word for the future. After all, which would be easier: to remember four things such as “Miss” and “Siss” and “Sip” and “EE” or to remember one thing “Mississippi.” Same goes for Hebrew words. If you constantly sound out the words, but never actually say the entire word, it will be harder to remember the words you said when you say them again tomorrow.

Second, take the process slowly. Tomorrow morning when you do the Shema or the Amida in Shacharis, say the first line, and only the first line in Hebrew. Do the remainder of the prayer in English. When this becomes easy, then move on to the second line. When this is easy, move on to the third, and so on. The prayers are finite. Eventually you will be able to say the whole thing in Hebrew, and rather easily. I did this myself in my early twenties, and was able to completely say all of the prayers in Hebrew within three months. I also taught several people this technique, and they reported similar results.

The third thing is to do this every day. Remember, only persistence will pay the dividends.

The fourth thing is to listen to others speaking Hebrew. I benefited greatly from listening to the lectures of the late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein. He switches back and forth from English to Hebrew constantly (and doesn’t always translate his Hebrew) but his lectures are very interesting and you will learn a lot while you learn what the Hebrew language sounds like when it is spoken with the Ashkenazic pronunciation. See: If you want to learn to pronounce as the Sephardim do, check out this site:

Stage Two

Building Basic Vocabulary

One major advantage to saying your prayers in Hebrew is that you will constantly see the same words over and over. If you look over to the translation, you will soon be able to recognize a few words and know what they mean. Getting a basic vocabulary list of biblical Hebrew will help you learn even more. If you learn only a few hundred of the most common words, you will soon be able to understand most of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. To learn the REST of the words will take persistence effort and technique.

Step Three

Mastering the Grammar

In the twelve and a half years that I have been interested in learning Hebrew, I have purchased several books that offered to teach Hebrew. None of them helped much at all. The only source I have ever found that teaches Hebrew grammar in a way that I was able to understand it and master it was the video program produced by Pirchei Shoshanim available at It teaches everything from the grammar of the “nekudos” (the Hebrew “vowels”) to the construction of words from three letter roots.

Step Four

Getting the feel for how the language is used

If you want to learn to understand the Hebrew you read, you must read Hebrew. Do so frequently. Of course, you will, at first, need to read only things that have been translated into English. Read the Hebrew. Then read the English. Try to figure out which words in Hebrew are equivalent to the words in the English translation. You will soon get a feel for how the language is used.

Step Five

Mastering Advanced Vocabulary

As I said earlier, I would estimate that only a few hundred words are enough to understand about half of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. The other half of those words on that page come from a much larger pool of vocabulary. You will have to learn a whole lot more words to master those.

The way to find words for your vocabulary lists is to read Hebrew, and look up the words that you don’t understand immediately. Mark those words down. I will tell you what to do with them later. But this is how you will collect all the words you need to truly master Hebrew.

Of course, there is a big problem with trying to look up words that you find in a written text of Hebrew. If you look up the precise sequence of letters that you found in the text, you may not actually be able to find it. You see, the Hebrew language is based on the expansion of three letter roots into various forms. The root functions as a basic kernel of meaning. By expanding the word, one can make that kernel mean a wide variety of things. One can make the word into a verb a noun, or an adjective just by adding prefixes, suffixes and infixes, and by adding vowels in various ways. You must figure out what that three-letter root is. Sometimes, the three letters of the root do not appear in the word you actually see before you. This is because some Hebrew words drop or switch letters from their root. Rabbi Gold’s videos will help you make sense of this.

When you finally figure out the three-letter root, enter that root into your vocabulary lists. You will likely also have to enter several of the nouns, verbs and adjectives that are associated with that root. In Reuben Alkaldi’s dictionary of Hebrew, there are long lists of words that are associated with the root word. You may find some important vocabulary in those lists.

And that’s just the beginning. Hebrew roots may convey a basic kernel of meaning, but that same three-letter sequence may have quite a few different meanings. You must remember them all if you truly want to master Hebrew. With patience and good technique, you will learn them all.

The most powerful tool I have ever used to master large volumes of vocabulary is a program produced in Poland called Super Memo, which is available at I cannot recommend the program highly enough. If there ever was a secret to the success that I have had in learning Hebrew, this program was it. I will teach you to use the program to maximum efficiency.

The way that Super-Memo works is that people forget material in a predictable way. If you review the material too often, you will waste your time. If you don’t review the material often enough, you will forget everything. Super-Memo keeps track of when you reviewed your vocabulary last, and how well you did on each word. It then quizzes you on the right words at the right time to make the most efficient use of your time. For more details see:

Here’s the best way to use Super-Memo to learn Hebrew.

First of all, you should learn how to convert your keyboard to one on which can type in Hebrew. You can do this by making a few changes in Windows (in the “Regional and Language Settings”). Print up a diagram of the Israeli keyboard, and learn to touch-type with it. Don’t hunt and peck, but touch-type. Your investment of effort in learning to touch-type in Hebrew will save you quite a bit of time in entering your vocabulary into Super-Memo. It is a bit of a hassle switching back and forth from Hebrew to English Keyboards, but it’s a small price to pay to learn to read G-d’s Torah. I found that it is easiest to read the display if the font size is enlarged to twenty-point font, but preferences on this are sure to vary.

Second, you put in all of the definitions of a particular root into the program in the “answer” section.

Third, you will need to learn how the different words are used. In both Alcaldi’s dictionary and Rabbi Frank’s dictionary, example sentences from the Tanach or the Talmud are often provided which contain the word you have looked up. I usually enter that sentence into Super-Memo with the translation of that sentence as the answer. By so doing, I get to see the word I’m trying to learn more times as the program quizzes me, and I get to see how the word is used. Both of these factors help to master the vocabulary. Also, if a particular word has many definitions, an example of the word used in each meaning is very helpful in remembering all of those pesky definitions.

I would recommend that anybody interested in learning Talmud or other rabbinic writings enter every vocabulary word presented in Carmell’s “Aiding Talmud Study” and Perlmutter’s “Tools for Tosafos” as well as every abbreviation. Abbreviations are quite important in reading many Rabbinic texts. You will know an abbreviation when you see it. They contain a single quotation mark somewhere within the letters.

I would recommend entering all of this information, but I would recommend that you take your time and absorb what you are trying to learn before putting in the thousands of words and definitions that you will need to truly master the language. Enthusiasm and persistence are important, but patience is as well.

The last tip I have is to enter mnemonics in the answer section. As I previously explained, Hebrew words are based on three letter roots, which are converted into other grammatical forms. Trouble is that many of those three letter roots differ only slightly from other, totally different, meanings. It is helpful to come up with mnemonics to remember which definition is which. And it is best to write those mnemonics in the answer section of the Super-Memo program so that you can use the mnemonic to remind you of how to think if you get the word wrong in your study session.

Now you know exactly how you can go from novice levels to fluency. Let’s just see how far you can push your knowledge and proficiency. I bet it’s farther than you ever dreamed possible.

Transitioning to Torah and Tefillah

The Yomim Noraim period has ended and what a whirlwind it was. From Rosh Hoshana through Yom Kippur the call of the hour was intensified Tefillah. From there we transition to a focus on the mitzvah performance of Sukkah and the four species and the added joy and festive meals of the Yom Tovim.

Now it’s 6 months until Pesach and thank G-d we have the spiritual high points of Chanukah and Purim to get us through the winter. But what about today. Rabbi Michael Rosensweig points out that Shemini Atzeres was meant to transition us back to the spiritual staples of Torah and Tefillah.

With Shabbos soon upon us we have the weekly parsha to keep the spiritual flame lit. Perhaps it’s a good time to undertake the obligation of Shnayim Mikra V’echad Targum or reading the Torah portion twice and the Targum’s explanation once.

The Shulchan Aruch says that you can read Rashi’s commentary and the Mishna Berurah says that you can read a translation which explains the portion according to the commentaries of Rashi and other sages based on the Gemora. It’s possible that if you read the Art Scroll Chumash commentary you fulfill your obligation, but ask your local Rav and if that’s what is doable for you, it’s still a great idea. Please note that there are a number of excellent translations of Rashi and Art Scroll has a translation of the Ramban for Bereishes, Shemo and Devarim.

So perhaps now is the time to focus a little more on learning the Torah inside, focusing on the text itself and the basic explanation to keep our spiritual growth going.

Some Great Free Torah Audio & Video Sites

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Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Friendship, Parenting, Ayin Tova, Making Changes

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller came to Kew Gardens Hills on May 6th and 7th and we (Mark and his wife) were priviledged to host her for part of her stay. She is one the most clear thinking people in the Orthodox world as well as a wonderful speaker and writer.

Please download these mp3s and avail yourself of her wisdom.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Friendship – can be downloaded here.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Parenting – can be downloaded here.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Ayin Tova – can be downloaded here.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller on Making Changes – can be downloaded here.