Gesher HaChayim – A Series on Aveilut

One of my favourite parts of my second semester at NYU this last year was a weekly learning group of students on the topic of Aveilut – the laws and practices surrounding death and bereavement in Jewish life. All recordings and source sheets are here.

In my experience there is no comparable area, where the connection is so clear and deep between the legal exposition of the topics in the Talmud and Halachic codes and the profound philosophical questions of mortality, suffering and the meaning of life. Thus in many of the classes we studied not only the relevant gemarot and responsa but works such as Gesher HaChayim of Rav Tikochinsky and Out of the Whirlwind by Rav Soloveitchik which make explicit the connection between the legal and the philosophical/emotional.

The first classes deal with the practices that surround regular cases of death and bereavement in Halacha such as aninut, shiva, and burial, whilst the latter classes deal with more exceptional or contemporary cases such as the development of the view of suicide in Halacha and the use of dead bodies for medical research.

Uploading these shiurim on the eve of Rosh Hodesh Av, the final shiur on the topic of historical aveilut and mourning for national catastrophes might be of particular interest.

  1. Introduction To Aveilut – recording here and source sheet here.
  2. Aninut: After Death, Before Burial – recording here and source sheet here.
  3. Aveilut Shiva: Nature and Obligations – recording here and source sheet here.
  4. Lo Talin: Burial in Halacha and Jewish Thought – recording here and source sheet here.
  5. Of Kaddish and Keriya: Mourning for Parents– recording here and source sheethere.
  6. Medical Research vs. The Dignity of the Dead – recording here and source sheethere.
  7. Purim and Aveilut– recording here and source sheet here.
  8. Suicide: A Halachic History – recording here and source sheet here.
  9. Historical Aveilut: The 3 Weeks, Omer, and Yom HaShoah – recording here and source sheet here.




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Elie Wiesel, Mosheh, and Moving on from the Waters of Strife

A piece for Parshat Chukat in memory of Elie Wiesel.

Great books capture something vital about what it is to be human. I feel a debt to an author when their work has given me a new way of thinking about life. The book, once absorbed, becomes a part of the way I look at the world, a new tool with which to decipher mysteries. Few books have had more of an impact on me than Elie Wiesel’s Night, the chronicle of the author’s time in Auschwitz.

Beyond the book’s overall impact on me (which I once wrote about elsewhere) it gave me an insight into understanding a part of the book of Bamidbar and a crucial moment in the life of Mosheh Rabbeinu that had always perturbed me. Whenever I read this portion of the Torah I now remember Night.

In my own internal world, it seemed both eerie and fitting that the Torah passage appears in parshat Chukat, – this week’s reading in the Diaspora and last week’s in Israel – in such close proximity to Wiesel’s passing. Given that he was as much Jewish educator as Holocaust witness, it seems appropriate to share this idea now. Continue reading

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B’Zot Yavo Aharon El HaKodesh: Of Distance and Proximity, Passion and Complexity. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein: One Year On

Friday night derasha given at on May 6th 2016, Parshat Aharei Mot, and nearly a year since Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s passing.

Shabbat Shalom everybody

בזאת יבא אהרון אל הקודש

A plausible reading of the first verse of our parsha presents us with an idea so shocking and counter-intuitive, that until it was pointed out to me, I had never thought to read the verse in that way:

אחרי מות שני בני אהרון בקרבתם לפני ה’ וימותו

And it was after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they came close to God, and died.

They came close to God… and died! Continue reading

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Mosheh: The First 80 Years

The first two-thirds of Mosheh’s life all take place within the four chapters of Shemot. What were the experiences that affected the young Mosheh, and why does Hashem choose him as his agent of liberation? What does Mosheh do for all those many years in Midyan? And if it is justice that drives Mosheh why is he so hesitant to return to Egypt when offered? Most intriguingly, why does Hashem try to kill Moses on the eve of his return to Egypt?

Audio here and source sheet here


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Winter Torah in The UK

It’s been a wonderful semester of Talmud Torah at NYU. I have uploaded many of the shiurim here and a number are on the NYU Kollel site too.

This coming week I am excited to present at Limmud UK. You can see the whole programme here, and below are the source sheets I have prepared for the talks I’ll be giving. I hope you enjoy them!

Moses – the first 80 years (and that time Hashem tried to kill him)

Rav Yohanan b. Zakai and Rabbi Akiva Responding to crisis – two 1st century models for thinking about Zionism in the 21st century

‘Who Can Know The Thoughts of Man…’– A Halachic History of Suicide – From Josephus to the Hatam Sofer

The Theological Politics of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Yishayahu Leibowitz

If you won’t be at Limmud I’ll also be speaking about the the origins of Olam Haba in Jewish thought, at my old stomping ground, London School of Jewish Studies, on January 3rd with my friend, colleague, mentor and teacher Maureen Kendler. Details below


LSJS start the year with a shiur


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Three Hanukah Pieces

Lacking its own section of the Talmud or Biblical work I always struggled to find pieces to teach on Hanukah. So if you have found yourself in the same situation, here are three pieces spanning the range of Tanakh (Bible), Halakhah (law) and Machshava (Jewish thought/philosophy) that I have taught this year at NYU.

Tanakh –  Mizmor 30, Hanukah, and Yosef – on the connection between the piece from Tehillim (Psalms) traditionally read over Hanukah, the festival, and the stories of Yosef (this is the final installment of our In The Beginning… series on Bereishit). Audio here, source sheet here, write up here

Halakhah – Rav Soloveitchik identified Hallel as the primary motif of Hanukah. In this shiur we examine the Rambam’s treatment of Hanukah and Hallel, and the dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban over whether Hallel is de’oreita or derabanan in origin. Audio here, source sheet here

Machshava – Rav Yitzchak Hutner was one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the 20th Century. Here we learn a classic piece of his on Hanukah from his work Pahad Yitzchak – in which Rav Hutner connects the period of Hanukah with the origin of mahloket (dispute) in Israel, and advances the intriguing thesis that sometimes ביטולה היא קיומה – the annulment of Torah can in fact lead to the greater glory of the Torah. Audio here

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In The Beginning…#7 ‘And Yehuda recognised…’

Parshat Vayeshev begins the cycle of Yosef stories that go from Ch.37 until the end of Bereishit. The story of Yehuda and Tamar in ch.38 however appears to interrupt the flow, introducing a completely unconnected narrative.

So what role does the story of Yehuda and Tamar play? Is it actually an interruption or does it perhaps hold the key to understanding the story of Yosef and his brothers as a whole, and in particular the development of Yehuda from villain to hero.

Audio here and source sheet here

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In The Beginning #…6 The Voice of Yaakov and The Hands of Eisav

A shiur covering Toldot, Vayetze and Vayishlach – trying to uncover the meta-themes of the stories of Yaakov and Eisav.

Yitzchak faced a terrible choice. Selecting the tough, strong son who can ensure the family’s physical survival will come at the cost of the family’s religious heritage. But choosing Yaakov, the son ‘who dwells in tents’, the more refined soul spiritually, may imperil the family’s physical survival.

Here we present a classic piece by Rav Yoel bin Nin, one of the great Tanakh teachers of our generation, whose thoughts on power and morality provide a compelling reading of the Tanakh text along with a relevant political message for our times.

Audio here and source sheet here

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In The Beginning… #5 Yitzchak’s Identity PtII – Repetition vs. Revolution (Toldot)

Our class last week focused on the sadder/darker side of Yitzchak’s personality. This week we track the single chapter of Bereishit devoted exclusively to Yitzchak as the active protagonist – ch.26 of Bereishit at the heart of Parshat Toldot.

What is the role of those who come after the revolution? Do they re-invent the wheel and smash the idols once again – or do they just repeat? Or is there some middle path available?

Audio here and source sheet here

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In The Beginning…#4 – Yitzchak’s Identity ptI – The Crisis

Yitzchak is an anomaly – one of the Avot, and the building blocks of the nation, but with far fewer stories where he is the active character than either his father or his son.
In this first shiur on Yitzchak that covers the end of Vayera to the end of Haye Sarah we will look at why Yitzchak is absent at his own betrothal, the effect of the Akeidah on the relations with his father, and the first meeting between Rivka and her new husband.

Audio here and source sheet  here

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