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

Naaleh.Com will be offering a series of beginner level classes, called Fundamentals of Judaism. This is a video course focusing on practical Halacha. Now, a newcomer to Jewish observance will have the ability to learn the basic practices of an observant Jew via our new course, “Practical Judaism”. The course will cover all daily observances, from how one wakes up in the morning to how to keep kosher and how to daven.

The course will be taught by Rabbi Jacobson, a leader in beginner’s Jewish education for over 20 years.

If you are not already familiar with our, here is a brief description:

* 100% FREE, thanks to generous sponsorships and grants.
* Staff consistes of top notch teachers such as Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Rabbi Avishai David, Mrs.Shira Smiles, Rabbi Hanoch Teller, Rabbi Hershel Reichman, Rabbi Shimon Isaacson, and others.
* Classes are given as part of a series, not isolated lectures, so students have the opportunity to cover a topic in depth.
* Classes are exclusively given for our site, so they are recorded with online viewing in mind.
* The classes can be enjoyed in a variety of formats, including online streaming, mp3 and ipod downloads, podcasts, and RSS feeds.
* Covers a wide range of topics, such as Tanach, Mussar, Jewish Philosophy, Chassidut, Gemara, Halacha, and more.
* Forums and chat rooms to approved students, to foster a spirit of community learning.

Give a visit.


Kol Halaloshon

Kol Halaloshon has over 120,000 free shiurim available for free download.

Speakers include
Rav Ezriel Tauber
Rav Mordechai Finkelman
Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum
Rav Dovid Cohen
Rav Yisroel Reisman
…and many more

Torah Anytime

Torah Anytime
has free audio and video from:
Rabbi Label Lam
Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Rabbi Mordechai Becher
Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein
Rabbi Jonathan Rietti
Rabbi Paysach Krohn
…and many more

Teach It To Me

Teach It To Me
has free audio from:
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer
Rabbi David Botton
Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro
…and more

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.

A Premature Depth

By Yaakov Eric Ackland

Imagine wanting to be a neurosurgeon and beginning by doing an extended and intensive study of the hypothalamus alone, rather than first studying general anatomy and the principles of medicine, and instead of even studying the general schema of the brain itself. Would you buy a lobotomy, let alone a sophisticated surgery from this person?

Imagine wanting to be a historian of the United States, and starting by spending a year learning all about the city of Cleveland, and the next year learning all about the city of Little Rock, and yet never picking up a general history of the United States, or even a volume about the states of Ohio or Arkansas. Will someone with this strategy ever attain any semblance of comprehensive knowledge, even in, say, 75 years of diligent daily study?

Imagine spending a year or two re-reading and studying Chapter 8 of The Brothers Karamazov both in the original Russian and in translation, along with dozens of commentaries on the chapter by the finest literary critics from the past 125 years without ever having read the rest of the book. Imagine taking daily classes on Chapter 8 given by a professor who had also never read the entire book, but had read chapters 12, 15, and 3 with commentaries. Are you at all likely to ever be able to truly understand the chapter, let alone the book?

These are all obviously poor strategies for success. For not only will one never achieve comprehensive knowledge by such narrow focus, one won’t even have true understanding of the area which he or she is focusing on, because context is everything.

Imagine wanting to be a knowledgeable Jew. Would you attempt a similar strategy to attain your goal? Alas, this same misdirected tactic of “learning in-depth” known as “b’iyun” learning dominates the yeshiva world, both for FFBs and BTs, children and adults. Ever since I became religiously observant, this has frustrated me. The narrow focus on “in-depth” learning (which is a misnomer, as there can be no real depth without breadth) over broad based (b’kius) learning is sadly a recipe for cumulative and individual inadequacy and relative ignorance.

The general disregard for serious study of Tanakh (The “Old” Testament) and Mishnayos (terse densely encoded statements of law) and broad-based Gemara (Talmud) study in favor of in-depth Gemara study is awry by almost any pedagogic gage. It’s putting the ox before the cart. It’s building a castle of sand. It’s like heaping cliché upon cliché in a futile struggle for clarity. We all know that Rambam wrote that first one should learn Chumash (The Five Books of Moses), then Mishnayos, and only then should one learn Talmud. Yet few do it this way, and consequently few ever attain anything resembling comprehensive knowledge and depth.

I think fondly of the 1963 World Book Encyclopedia set that my parents kept in the attic. My favorite thing was a multi-layered diagram of the human body. The base sheet showed the skeletal system. A transparent plastic sheet illustrated with the nervous system would be lain over that, and another sheet showing the musculature would be lain over that. It would have been futile to try to understand how the muscles work without understanding the systems underlying them: without the context. In an imperfect yet useful analogy with Torah, the Tanakh is the skeleton, the Mishnayos, the nerves, the Gemara the muscle, and the practical Halakha (Law), the skin.

To spend a year learning a chapter or two of a mesechta (tractate) without at least having a broad view of all of the Mishnayos of the Gemara is like reading a chapter of a great novel over and over without even having at least read the Cliff’s notes, let alone having read the novel. You might enjoy it, and you might find it intellectually rewarding, and you may feel that you’ve accomplished something significant, and you may even feel that you understand it, but the triumph is in significant part illusory, because you can’t contrast the fraction with the whole.

I’ve talked with Rabbis and others about this, and I’ve heard lots of explanations: how people need to get and stay interested and enthused and thus they need to get into the “heart” of Torah learning quickly, and stay there; how learning Gemara in-depth really trains one’s mind to think meticulously in a Torah way and how it reshapes character; and about the “weakness” of our generation and our “inability” to achieve anything like what our forefathers did. Some turn the question around and point to the Daf Yomi (program for learning a daily page of Gemara) as evidence of widespread and largely superficial b’kius learning, making it the sole representation of breadth learning. Many just say, “Both ways have merit. This way for this person, that way for another.”

Though there are truths in these objections, and though virtually all the people I’ve spoken with are respectable and vastly more learned and pious than I, these seem like weak answers to me. As I’ve illustrated, no matter how stone cold you think you have a line, paragraph, chapter, or masechta (tractate) down, you can’t really have it down if you don’t have comprehensive context. I agree that it is crucial to know how to learn in-depth, but it is more crucial to first have breadth of knowledge, for that’s what truly makes depth possible. Depth should be the ultimate goal, but real depth, not the shallow imitation.

Furthermore, by taking our eye off of the goal of broad mastery, we get bogged down in largely unquantifiable learning, which can be terribly discouraging. We begin to feel that no matter how much effort and time we put in, we’re really just treading water, barely moving forward or making progress, and that we’ll never succeed. B’iyun learning fails because the proper goal has been lost sight of from the very beginning. Even those with the greatest talent, enthusiasm, and diligence can’t succeed if they have been off-course since day one. By emphasizing b’iyun learning, the tacit message is that true mastery of the whole Torah is impossible and thus not worth aiming for. The bochur (student) is demoralized and hobbled from the get-go, even if he isn’t conscious of it.

I’ve found two excellent books which endorse and expound upon the urgent necessity of learning for breadth. The first is “The Meister Plan” by Rabbi/Dr. Tuvia Meister. In one small segment of the book he shows how one can create a plan for covering the entirety of Torah in 10 or 20 years. Although he doesn’t go into extensive detail about the process, there are a number of great learning tips. The focus of the book though is stock investment strategies.

The second book is thorough, inspiring, and walks you through the process of learning systematically with a broad-based approach in order to facilitate true long-term depth. It is called “The One-Minute Masmid,” and it is by Rabbi Jonathan Rietti. He shows the reader how, even if his or her time for learning is very limited, he or she can, through methodical, structured, daily study in very small chunks, steadily accrue the comprehensive broad-based knowledge of Torah that is every Jew’s heritage. (My use of the female pronoun is not so much my being pc, but a very deliberate indicator to women that although “The One-Minute Masmid” is written with the male Torah learner in mind, the strategies within this book are excellent for anyone wishing to build a solid knowledge base in any subject, Jewish or secular. (A great secular book on the subject of how to learn is “How to Read A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler.)

Most crucially and fascinatingly, Rabbi Rietti cites long passages from Torah sources as diverse and as great as The Vilna Gaon, Reb Shach, Reb Chaim Shmuelevits, Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Moshe Feinstein, The Steipler Gaon, Reb Yoel Teitlebaum, Reb Yisroel Alter, Reb Moshe Chevroni, The Chofetz Chaim, The Ramchal, Reb Elchanon Wasserman, The Brisker Rav and more, all in strident advocacy for and defense of the primacy of b’kius learning, including mastery of Tanach and Mishnayos.

One such quote from the Vilna Gaon’s “Even Shlema”:

“First one must full his stomach with Tanach, Mishna, even if he doesn’t know how to explain each Mishna he should learn the entire Mishnayos, then he should continue to fill his stomach with Talmuds Bavli and Yerushalmi, the Tosephta, the M’chilta, Sifra, Sifri, and all the Braitot. Only after this should one engage in pilpul with his colleagues. This is the way of learning Torah. If one changes this sequence of learning, however, and learns first how to dive into pilpul without knowing a single Mishna properly, ultimately he will lose even the little Torah he heard in his youth.”

Finding these books has been tremendously helpful and motivating. They’ve enabled me to power on, albeit slowly and without a support network, to see that comprehensive knowledge isn’t an impossible goal, that I’m not alone in my perception of the misplaced emphasis of the current mode of learning, and that in fact I find myself in some pretty impressive company, such that I’d never merit to rub shoulders with in a million years. I do yearn to find a yeshiva or at least a Rabbi that takes individual students that learns this way, but am resolved to make the best of the way the world is, and still strive for and advocate for change. I don’t seek heated dialogue on this article so much as I hope that all who read this will read Rabbi Rietti’s book before responding hastily, reinvigorate their learning, and give copies to their friends and more importantly, to their Rabbis. As a final thought, the Chofetz Chaim, as quoted by Rabbi Rietti wrote, “One who invests all his energies and mind into mastering a specific area of the Torah while ignoring all other areas of our Holy Torah is likened to a person who spends his entire wealth on an expensive hat, and yet the rest of his body he leaves unclothed!” May we all have success in our learning, and not arrive in heaven virtually naked.

“The One Minute Masmid” is available only directly from Rabbi Rietti. You can contact him at

“The Meister Plan” is published by Mesorah Publications.

Learn Torah for a Refuah Shelaimah for Rabbi Noah Weinberg

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah was recently diagnosed with a serious illness. This article on Aish.Com suggests:

This is an opportunity to galvanize everyone who has benefited from the work of Aish HaTorah in prayer and spiritual action for the sake of Rabbi Weinberg’s recovery.

Here’s what you can do:

First, pray for the complete recovery of Yisrael Noach ben Hinda.

Beyond this, each of us can show the Almighty that we want and need Rabbi Weinberg’s continued guidance by taking one of his core teachings and committing yourself to grow in that area. Every physical action in this world is responded to in kind by the Almighty. Therefore the collective spiritual development will add to the merit of Rabbi Weinberg, and impact the Heavenly scales in his favor.

Here are some of the fundamental principles of Rabbi Weinberg’s teachings that have inspired so many people. Pick an area in which to grow. Whether you work on changing something small or large, every mitzvah performed makes a difference. The key is to make a genuine commitment to change for the better, on behalf of the recovery of Yisrael Noach ben Hinda.

Here are some of the fundamental principles of Rabbi Weinberg’s teachings that have inspired so many people. Pick an area in which to grow. Whether you work on changing something small or large, every mitzvah performed makes a difference. The key is to make a genuine commitment to change for the better, on behalf of the recovery of Yisrael Noach ben Hinda.

1. Focus on your priorities in life.

2. Increase your learning of Torah.

3. Love the Jewish people; fight for the Jewish people.

4. Life is gorgeous; live with joy.

Rabbi Weinberg helped me focus on the importance of the Six Constant Mitzvos. Here is Rabbi Weinberg’s Torah on the subject.

1 – Know There is a God

2 – Don’t Believe In Any Other Power

3 – God is One

4 – Love God

5 – Fear God

6 – Don’t Be Misled By Your Heart and Eyes

Please learn for his sake and yours.


Aish has a new video on their site called Blueprint which shows various interesting people extolling the virtues of learning Torah. Give it a look and perhaps email the link to someone who might find it of interest.

While you’re there, you might want to take a look at this video which humorously captures our fears in the early days of our BT experience and introduces Aish’s new advanced learning site, Pathways.

A Deeper Understanding of Rabbinic Authority

Several years ago, my wife and I had a very intelligent Baal Teshuva at our home many times, who had become observant through one of the Baalei Teshuva yeshivos in Israel. Over time, as he learned that things in Yiddishkeit are a little bit more complex than he had originally believed, he started to get bothered more and more. This was probably exacerbated by his chosen profession and passion, which involved some activities which are not permitted according to halacha, which may have created some cognitive dissonance for him. He is no longer observant, as far as I know right now, and this has bothered me.

One kasha that bothered him and he asked me, and about which I could not adequately answer him at the time, was the following; With the large number of halachos d’rabannan (Rabbinical Laws) that we keep, and the idea of Daas Torah and Emunas Chachamim (faith in the Sages), and the mitzva we have of “לֹא תָסוּר,” not to disobey the sages in every generation, it seems like the idea of rabbinical authority is almost a foundation of everything orthodox Jews believe in. But the truth of that authority seems so weak when there is only one little pasuk that backs it up; Devarim 17:11, “לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ–יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל.” “Do not stray from the thing which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” How can such a brief and unclear pasuk be the source for such all-pervasive power and authority over the whole Jewish people?!

Recently, I was speaking with a local Rav who turned most people’s initial understanding of the relationship between the Oral and Written Torahs on its head. We were talking about how to learn a certain halacha out of a pasuk in the Torah (“בנך הבא מישראלית קרוי בנך ואין בנך הבא מן < העובדת כוכבים> {הגויה} קרוי בנך ,אלא בנה”, Kiddushin 68b). He told me that according to the opinion of Rebbe Akiva, all of the principals, details, and minutiae of halacha were given on Har Sinai to Moshe Rebbeinu. However, the actual parshios, the text of the Torah, was not fully given, according to whatever method, until the end of the 40 years in the desert.

If that is so, then what is the gemara always doing when it figures out how to derive all of the halachos of the mishna from psukim in the Torah? All of those halachos were known anyway from the time of Ma’amad Har Sinai! Why do they bother “learning out” those halachos from the Chumash, when they were known independently of the text of the Torah anyway?

He explains that part of our mitzva of Talmud Torah, learning Torah, is that Hashem gave us all of the halachos, and he also gave us his “notes,” or “shorthand,” for what is written in the Torah. One of our jobs in learning Torah is that Hashem wants us to find all of the hints to all of the halachos that we received orally on Har Sinai in His “notes,” the Written Torah. This means that we are not so much “learning out” halachos from the Chumash, but are rather “learning in” halachos into the Torah! That is how we are zoche to find all of the places where Hashem “hinted” at the halachos in the Written Torah. (The fact that there is machlokes about many halachos and which pasuk to “learn them from” is also Hashem’s will, and is due to human forgetting, and is a separate issue from what I am talking about here.)

One major ramification of this new understanding of the relationship between Torah She’bechsav (Written Torah) and Torah She’ba’al Peh (Oral Torah), is that it totally changes what we would expect to find in the Oral Torah. Those aspects of Halacha which are most obvious and known to the masses of the people, need to be hinted at in the Written “notes” Torah the least!

For example, the halachos of having a lunar calendar tremendously affects our lives, in determining what date our Yomim Tovim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Rosh Chodesh, and Sefiras HaOmer fall out. However, all of that is hinted at in one half of one pasuk in Shmos 12:2, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים!” Whereas the halachos of Tuma and Tzara’as (Vayikra 12-15 ), which hardly ever affect anyone and only the kohanim need to fully understand how to pasken, take up perakim in sefer Vayikra! This can now be understood. The purpose of the psukim in Torah for, for purposes of halacha, is not to be the primary source for how we know these halachos. Rather, they are the notes that hint to those halachos. So just like one needs less notes for things that they understand better already, the Torah needs to say less when it comes to important things that are already well known and part of society. So there is little need for reminders about the halachos of the calendar, something people live with every day, while there is a greater need for hints (more detailed “notes”) to remember the halachos of Tuma and Tahara and Tzara’as, which are not well known and understood on the whole.

Similarly, with our problem regarding “לֹא תָסוּר,” rabbinical authority granted in the Torah, we can now understand that the written Torah is not, its self, granting this rabbinic role and rabbinic power, in which case one could understand why that would seem like a terse and oblique granting of that “power.” Rather, the rabbinical role of protecting and guiding the Jewish people in all generations is an integral part of our lives, and Hashem vested them with that responsibility and the necessary authority to exercise it along with all of the other halachos on Har Sinai. Since it is such an integral part of our Yiddishkeit and our society, like many other well-understood parts of halcha, little “reminding” was needed in Hashem’s “notes”, the written Torah. That is why the reference is so brief.

At least next time this issue comes up with someone, I’ll have a better understanding for myself, so that I will be able to understand the inyan better and be better able to explain it to others next time!

In Defense of Art Scroll

I am no fan of ArtScroll’s historical and hashkafic perspective, but in my opinion, their Machzorim and Siddurim have enabled more Jews to fulfill the mitzvah of Tefilah properly and with some hashkafic perspectives than at any time in Jewish history.No other Sidddur or Machzor contained a halachically proper text, halachic instructions ( i.e. HaMelech HaKadosh, Musaf on Yom Tov) than ever before.

Their Chumash, Mishnah and Talmud have opened the world of learning for many Jews who either use it as a means to get to real Jewish texts or as a reintroduction to Limud HaTorah. ArtScroll deserves a major Yasher Koach for its work on the Mesoras HaRav Machzorim. Instead, we now see where the far LW MO stands on Jewish literacy. Unless it meets that sector’s PC feminist POV and includes POVs of scholars whose views are not part of the Mesorah , they are concerned that ArtScroll is too frum for them. Click here for the Jewish Week’s article. There is also a companion article on a Feminist friendly Bentcher authored by Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut.

IMO, the choice is easy. A publishing company whose Siddur, Machzor, Mishnah and Talmud enables one to daven and learn, even with its Charedi learning Hashkafa, deserves our communal patronage far more than anything published by two feminists whose POV is simply beyond any reasonable definition of MO. Unfortunately their idea of Halacha is every imaginable Daas Yachid opinion, plus the implementation of R’ Rackman’s proposals, which clearly do nothing except be Marbeh Mamzerim B’Yisrael.

Rabbi Herschel Schacter once quoted R Y Gorelick ZTL, that every Adam Gadol has his mishegas, but a mishegunah is someone whose pastime is collecting the mishegas of every Adam Gadol. The nentcher in question clearly fits that description aptly.

The article on ArtScroll almost made it look like ArtScoll was engaged in some conspiratorial or criminal act in its fund raising. It should only be that every mossad and publisher of Jewish works was so successful. Of course, neither article mentioned the Machzorim based on the teachings of RYBS-but I have unfortunately come to expect nothing but the worst about Torah Judaism from the Jewish Week.

The Three Seforim That Have Had the most Impact on Me

I know I’m probably stretching the meaning of ‘seforim’ just a little bit, but I’m taking it to mean any book with Jewish / religious content. It’s a matter of necessity, as the number of ‘traditional’ seforim I’ve read can probably be counted on a couple of hands.

While I love books about Judaism, and I read them voraciously, I just don’t think that my mind is geared towards volumes about measuring what a k’zayos of oreo cookies looks like, or in-depth halachic discussion.

Though I may be stereotyping, I leave that stuff to my husband. And instead, I read books like: Off the Derech and The Science of G-d. These two had a profound affect on me for different reasons.

Off the Derech explores many of the reasons why people leave the faith. It’s a long book, but the main explanation – or at least, my reading of it – is that most people stop being observant because of emotional reasons. Yes, there are a small minority who have difficulties with ‘accepting’ the validity of the Torah, but most leavers come off the derech because they weren’t treated very nicely by people who claimed to be observant.

This really made me sit up and think, particularly in relation to my kids. And it sparked off a real effort in our house to explain the clear separation between ‘looking religious’ and ‘acting religious’ to my five and three year old.

If Off the Derech had a big impact on my parenting, The Science of G-d had an enormous impact, intellectually. Hard as we try to stay above the debate about ‘Creationism’ vs ‘Evolution’, it can be very difficult for a secularly educated, torah-observant Jew to be comfortable about the apparent and fundamental disagreement between science and theology about how our universe began, and then continued.

In ‘educated’ circles, I’d feel ridiculous claiming the world really was created in seven days, for example. In ‘religious’ circles, I’d feel like a semi-apostate for thinking anything else. Then along came Gerald Schroeder, and in a neat, little black volume he happily resolved all these dilemmas. Not everyone agrees with his findings – but then, not everyone has to.

He has a number of incredibly lucid and well-researched arguments which means that if I want to believe in the Genesis version of creation – and I really do – then I no longer have to check my rationality at the door. Schroeder’s book demonstrated that there is no contradiction between science’s account of creation, and our torah.

As well as resolving my personal doubts about the story of creation, it also taught me a very important lesson: if there is a disagreement between what science says and what the torah says, you can bet your bottom dollar that the torah is right.

For millennia, received wisdom was that the universe has always just been here. Jews had to wait 3,250 years for the Big Bang theory to come along and prove that they actually knew what they were talking about.

There are still many, many areas where science disagrees with Jewish theology, but they no longer worry me. Sooner or later the full facts will come out, and there will be more ‘told you so’ moments.

The last sefer is a proper one: Michtav M’Eliyahu, by Rabbi Dessler. The book contains so much that it’s hard to know which parts to highlight. Certainly, the sections on understanding that everything comes from Hashem had a big impact on me. It’s hard to properly motivate yourself when you really grasp that everything does indeed come from Hashem, regardless of our efforts. Finding the right balance between hishtadlut and hisbodedut has been an ongoing effort ever since.

Also, just understanding the level of middot we have to strive to hold ourselves to made me stop being so complacent.

It’s often said that it’s a sign of a good book when you can’t put it down. For me, these three books achieved even more than that: they fundamentally changed my understanding and appreciation of yiddishkeit, and along they way, they also inspired me to try and shorten the gap between what the Torah says, and what I often do.

Looking for Yeshiva Suggestions for a Mature BT With a Passionate Approach to Yiddishkeit

We recently received the followed request for suggestions for an American Yeshiva for a mature BT.

I’ve been shomer mitzvos for about 5 years, and am still struggling to get a foundation in learning. I’m exploring opportunities to step back from full time work and learn in yeshiva. Israel is a possibility that I’m exploring. But it might be best to do it in the States for a variety of reasons. I’m looking for any suggestions you might have about U.S. yeshivot that are appropriate for mature BTs. I’m aware of three possibilities and plan to explore them in the coming months: Ohr Sameach and Kol Yaakov in Monsey, and the Lubovitch Yeshiva in Morristown.

I clearly want a solid foundation of gemara skills, but don’t want to neglect Tanach and m’farshim. And while I have a strong intellectual background (engineering followed by medical school) I gravitate toward chassidus and a passionate mode of prayer and joyous avodas Hashem.

Any suggestions?

Why Aren’t More People Taking Advantage of Mp3s?

On Friday afternoon I had to run about 20 minutes of errands. So before I went on my way, I clicked over to Aish Audio, searched for Lech Lecha and in less than 3 minutes I had loaded a new shiur onto my mp3 player to accompany me on my errands.

Mp3 players with their low-cost, compactness, capacity and the ever increasing wide-ranging shiurim available on the Internet, seem like a no-brainer. Yet as I go about town, I rarely see people with Torah piped into their ears.

So my question is why do so few people seem to take advantage of mp3s and all the audio available on the Internet? Is the technology too overwhelming? Are people uncomfortable walking around with ear buds/plugs in their ears? Is it the cost? Or perhaps people prefer visual over auditory learning?

If the technology is the problem, I would be willing to take some time to try to demystify it, to help people learn more Torah.

Driving from Teshuvah to Simcha

How many years did it take you to realize what was happening in the nusach hatefillah [the prayer liturgy] over the course of Elul and Tishrei? I’ve been at this for more than 20 years now but it was only in the last few years — when my Hebrew got good enough that I was not only no longer breaking my teeth on pronunciation, but was beginning to comprehend even uncommon parts of the liturgy such as selichos and hakofos — that I began to realize these two superficially opposite parts of the prayer service were one and the same thing.

It’s an extraordinary journey we take from the week before Rosh Hashana, when we awake bleary-eyed to push through the penitential prayers of selichos. Actually, for baalei teshuva it’s an extraordinary journey just to figuring the basics of selichos out! I remember as a young pup, being dragged by one of the leaders in kiruv today when he was a kiruv-shul rabbi in Twin Rivers, New Jersey, to the yeshiva in Adelphia, to steamroll the selichos out of those arcane paper pamphlets. Not only was my reading atrocious then, but these obscure paperbacks were positively confusing and compounded the disorientation. I paid my dues and eventually learned my way through the selichos, at least in terms of what goes where and what parts “no one really says,” and for a while I was happy enough to at least be able to do my duty by them.

At the same time I found hakofos, especially the versified encyclopedia of Judaism thrown at us on Hoshana Rabbah, more or less incomprehensible, as I did the services for Yomim Noraim. I spent the first ten — maybe more — years of observance mostly concerned with getting the points on the map right. I realize other, probably more sincere and serious, people have different approaches; they want to understand every word they say before they say it. This can have certain satisfactions, though one of them is not getting the hang of davening or even, realistically, covering as much of the liturgy as one is obligated to. I focused on learning what to say, when, and to pick up the idiosyncracies that cause variation from the what it says even in “dumbed down” English-Hebrew machzorim and compilations which seem to “bulk up” on obscure additions to the service in order to justify their existence.

Something happened, however, over time, which not only helped me appreciate the value of navigating this ocean of words, but also made me glad I had chosen fix my position by the stars and not count the drops of water. But, to drench this metaphor completely — and we will flop up onto dry land the rest of our journey — it could only happen, for me, because I kept paddling furiously. Now that meant, for me, a commitment to lifetime learning following a couple of years of full-time yeshiva. Well, if you learn an hour or two a day, using primary materials, and maybe raise a few yeshiva-educated children along the way, guess what? You learn! By which I mean, you learn some stuff — vocabulary, and halacha, and yidios [concepts] in Jewish sensibility and philosophy, not to mention aggadata [non-halachic Talmudical material] and scripture.

I don’t think there’s any other way to do it besides putting in the mileage. I don’t think all the transliterated, linear machzorim in the world will do it for you. I’m not so sure they even get you on the right entrance ramp… but let me not drive us down a dead end. The point: Okay, you put in your miles of learning and davening, and do your maintenance and of course fuel up at regular intervals, and after a while, guess what you figure out one morning before the summer comes up? Well, what do you think selichos is made up of? Those same yidios — those scriptural references – – those halachic and Talmudical allusions! They weren’t just dreamed up by holy medieval poets — they are made from the raw material of Judaism itself!

And guess what else? What do you think the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is made up of? Not only these concepts and words — but of selichos themselves! It’s the same selichos, only sideways! It takes forever to figure out how to say them, where they go, but once you do, why you can recognize them even when they’re dressed in kittels [white robes worn by some men during High Holy Day services]!

And what is most gratifying of all? Realizing, as you put together the words and the concepts and the patterns and the verses themselves — that over the period of a month, those terrifying, intimidating selichos have been transformed — by time, by the subtle change of season, and by the process of Tishrei — into the joyous simcha-songs of hakofos. The pleading recitations of spiritual misery, recited in a crouch with your head bowed down and your fist striking your chest, are — by the magic of teshuva facilitated by the chagim [festivals] and elucidated (brilliantly, really) by the Sages — transformed into a parade of upstanding, proudly-produce-wielding New Men. The very sins elucidated in the selichos become the merits and praise of the hakofos. It’s one magnificent manifestation of that teshuva process we’ve been hearing about since day one. It’s one that takes work, and an investment in one’s own spiritual and intellectual life, to appreciate. Maybe not just work, but time and commitment, too. It took me about two decades to “get it,” and, well, I’m not all that slow on the uptake, you know?

Could this level of appreciation of our tradition, this multifacted weaving of our entire national philosophy into these magical couplets, possibly have an actual spiritual impact?

Well, could it possibly not have one?

That’s what I am going to try to take away from the Elul-Tishrei intersection as I drive into the rest of the year. The longer we stay on the road, the more milestones we pass. Unlike a drive on Route 95, however, we should do more than recognize the similarity of the rest stops every 50 miles — we eventually learn the way. That means knowing where we’re going, and where we’ve been, and yes, of course, how we’re getting there. Which, as they say, is more than half the … dare I say, “fun”? (No, I am not suggesting the arba minim [four species of Succos] as hood ornaments, okay?)

As we say at the end of Hoshana Rabbah, a guten vinter. With sweet memories of my late-summer spiritual travels I’m putting on my spiritual snow tires, and with God’s help — and that of my family and friends and correspondents — I’ll keep it between the lines!

Back to Yeshiva

Before we go back to Yeshiva I need to give you a little background. Though my parents were not frum, for various reasons they sent me to a Yeshiva day school for first through eighth grades. After eighth grade it was left up to me whether I would travel by train for an hour each way to get to the nearest Yeshiva high school or go to the local public school. I opted for public school and it was probably a wise decision, as during those four years I became frum with the help of NCSY and I also met the girl who was to become my wife.

On a spiritual “high” from a Kumsitz during senior year I decided that I would attend YU. That did not work out so well and I ended up transferring to NYU after freshman year. During the summer between my junior and senior years of college I spent 3 months at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, and with that, came the end of my formal learning.
Read more Back to Yeshiva

Learning How to Learn

A new friend who is moving to Washington DC, to attend college at George Washington University writes the following:

I’m stuck with the issue that I’ve been trying to solve for about a year and haven’t been too successful even after much effort. And I refuse to believe that I am the only one who is dealing with this problem.

Because I grew up as a reform Jew, I never learned how to learn a daf of Talmud. So essentially, I’ve been trying to “learn how to learn”, and I don’t know where to start.

But from here, Chicago, and Israel, which is where I’ve been living this past year, I didn’t know if I should just walk into a yeshiva and ask a rabbi to sit down with me and teach me how to learn from the Talmud.

Does anybody have suggestions or experience on how a new BT who is currently attending college should “learn how to learn”.

The Most Popular Shmuz – Understanding Life Settings

I exchanged emails with Rabbi Shafier of the Shmuz after his return from a Tiferes Bnei Torah Shabbaton, where Rabbi Horowitz joined Rabbi Shafier in inspiring the participants.

I suggested that perhaps we could provide a Shmuz here at Beyond BT, so people can more easily sample it. Rabbi Shafier suggested Shmuz #24, Understanding Life Situations which you can download here.

Here is the description:
It almost seems as if some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, while others are destined to suffer. Why is it is that some people are born with amazing capacity, and others are created so simple? Why is there autism in the world? Why Down Syndrome? If in fact God is just, why not mete out talents and abilities in an equal manner to all people?

Using the backdrop of a famous event brought in the Talmud; this Shmuz focuses us on some of the big picture issues of life, helping us understand “life settings”, as they apply to each person.

1. • Why are some people blessed with success and others not?
2. • Is there a reason for suffering in the world?
3. • What about pain?
4. • What about death?

The Shmuz: Great Free Torah Audio on The Web

My wife and I listen to a lot of Torah Tapes and mp3s. This past year we’ve been introduced to one of the best, practical hashkafa speakers around, Rabbi Barry Shafier at And it’s not just us, many people have told us how much they enjoy and learn by listening to Rabbi Shafier.

Here are some reasons why the Shmuz is a terrific listen:

1) Every shiur starts with one or more questions based on a saying of Chazal or a quote from a Rishon
2) There is lots of well researched supporting material from the disciplines of science, history, sociology, etc..
3) Practical advice on how to apply the lessons learned are always provided
4) Rabbi Shafier uses humor and emotion to captivate his audience
5) The shiur is a good length (45 minutes) and never drags
6) All of the Shmuzim are available for free for download as mp3s or podcasts

Here is a sample write-up of one of the more popular Shmuzim

#10 Questioning G-d: Finding and keeping your Bashert.
Since the time we were little children we were schooled in the idea that, “You’re not allowed to ask questions on G-d”. But is that true? Is it true that a person isn’t allowed to have questions about the way Hashem runs the world?

In this Shmuz we are introduced to the fact that no less than Avrohom Avinu, himself had questions on HASHEM, yet he wasn’t considered a heretic. Understanding what our role is, and what HASHEM’s role is, helps us to understand what is and what isn’t a legitimate question about the way that HASHEM does things.

So check out The Shmuz and let us know what you think.

A list of available Shmuzim follows
Read more The Shmuz: Great Free Torah Audio on The Web

Pirkei Avos for the Baalei Teshuva

There are two sayings of Pirkei Avos that come to mind this week to give us guidance, support and strength as we face the trials and tribulations of the Baalei Teshuva.

The first is that of Yehuda ben Taima, who said, “Be bold as a leopard…”, meaning that we have to be bold to do the right thing, to do what the Torah requires in every situation. It’s often difficult in that we face pressures both from where we came and from our current environment. But we have to go through the process of determining what the right thing is and then be bold and do it, no matter what the challenges. I give thanks to one of my first Rebbeim, Rabbi Tzvi Kramer, for reiterating this lesson time and again.

The second saying is that of Ben Hai Hai who said, “According to the effort is the reward.” For the Baal Teshuva many things that may be relatively easy for those born into observant homes are a real struggle. But the key to Torah Judaism is to constantly grow through our struggle. Every obstacle we face, every effort we make contributes to us fulfilling the purpose for which Hashem put us in this world. This world is one of struggle and the effort we make overcoming challenges, enables us to build our own eternity.

The entire text from Perek 5 is down below.

Here is the link for an English Translation of all six Perakim culled from Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld’s translation and commentary at

Read more Pirkei Avos for the Baalei Teshuva