Category Archives: seforim

The bottom line in Judaism

On Monday, I finished listening to an amazing shiur from Rabbi Michael Skobac, the Director of Education and Counselling for Jews for Judaism (Canada).  The shiur, titled “THE FOREST BEYOND THE TREES: What is Judaism’s Bottom Line?” is available for streaming or downloading here.

As Jews, there are things we learn and things that our teachers view as “givens”.  I remember going though my entire freshman year at Yeshiva University’s James Stiar School without being taught the importance of working on oneself (mussar, with a lower-case “m”).  It wasn’t until my first night seder in a yeshiva in E’Y that I opened Mesillas Yesharim and realized there is a bigger picture than observing mitzvos.  It wasn’t until I read about a started listening to shiurim on Bilvavi Miskhan Evneh by R Moshe Weinberger and learning the Bilvavi seforim that I understood the importance of building a relationship with our Creator.  Unfortunately, I tend to over complicate things.  Rabbi Skobac does not.  In a clear, understandable way with examples that hit home, his shiur introduces the listeners to the real deal!  The reason that Hashem created us and what the big picture is in life for each Jew.  Some of the things discussed on the mp3 are based on teachings from the first chapter of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh vol I and this shuir not only opens up one’s soul to those teachings, but allows you to listen to a master educator.  Regardless of your affilation or observance, listening to this shiur is an excellent use of 53 minutes.

R Skobac has also authored the following Jews for Judaism publications, available for viewing downloading here:
Missionary Impossible: Counter-Missionary Survival Guide
The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective

Tomer Devorah shiur #3 now online and no shiur this Sunday

The third shiur from the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago’s Tomer Devorah chabura is now online here.  That’r right.  If you are not working the day after Thanksgiving go ahead and download it or stream it.  It’s titled “Noseh Avon-Give people time to change” and what R Etan Ehrenfeld ties in from Rabbanu Yonah changed much of how I approach my own middos and avodah.  Remember, the chabura will not be meeting this Sunday, as R Ehrenfeld is out of town.

R Yisrael Salanter’s insight and patience with others


“Before I started learning Torah, I thought the whole world was deficient except me. After I started learning, I saw that the whole world consisted of sinners including me. Now that I’ve learned some more, I realize I’m a sinner and I must judge the rest of the world favorably.”

“When I first started learning Mussar, I wanted to change the world, but found it was hard to do that, so I tried to change my town.  I couldn’t change my town, so I tried to change my family. I wasn’t able to change my family and finally I realized that I could only change myself.”

These quotes are both attributed to R Yisrael Salanter.  I know there are other variations out there, as well.

I found myself thinking of these quotes in shul this past Shabbos morning.  Why?  Because I found myself losing my patience and getting frustrated.  It was good thing that this week, thanks to the Tomer Devorah chabura I’m involved with, I’ve been working on patience/tolerance.  We learned that even when a person uses free will and make the choice not to serve Hashem and commit an aveira, Hashem never stops being patient.

My take on both of the “quotes” of R Yisrael Salanter is that it all starts and stops with me.  RYS starts off by saying that when he started learning and ends off with how he must judge others and/or change himself.

People will do what they will do and it may go against halacha or what I view as common-sense derech eretz and it stinks, but patience is key.  By exercising that middah we emulate Hashem and attach ourselves to him.  I know there are many areas that I fall short in, but Hashem’s patience with me is everlasting.

That being written, it’s not always easy to look the other way, hoping that someone will eventually get a clue.  While not a fan of confrontation, I am a fan of finding a proactive way to fix problems that doesn’t involve complaining to myself.  Sometime, like, now, the only fix is to attempt to set an example, even if I am the only one who notices the effort I put forth in regard to being patient.

Tomer Devorah shiur #2 now online

The second shiur from the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago’s Tomer Devorah chabura was just posted online, here. The shiur, “Mi Kel Kamocha, Patience and Anger“, discusses the first middah.  Rabbi Etan Ehrenfeld touches on the importance how Hashem is always patient with us and says over in important teaching from Rav Dessler zt”l.  Take a listen and if you’re in Chicago, come to Congregation KINS this Sunday and join us from 8pm-9pm!

Tomer Devorah shiur #1 now online

Rabbi Etan Ehrenfeld

The first shiur from the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago’s Tomer Devorah chabura was just posted online, here.  The shiur, “V’halachta B’drachav”, is based on the the Ramak’s intoduction to the sefer and Rabbi Etan Ehrenfeld brings in an article from the Rav and Sefer HaMitzvos in helping to understand the how we can be similar to our Creator.  It’s worth a listen and is a great way to prepare for this Sunday’s class at Congregation KINS from 8pm-9pm!

Am I a shadow?

האדם ראוי שיתדמה לקונו ואז יהיה בםוד הצורה העליונה צלם

It is proper for man to imitate his Creator, resembling Him in both likeness and image according to the secret of the Supernal Form.

I believe this is not an accurate translation of the words, and is not a Jewish translation on a conceptual level. The root of the word “tzelem” is “tzeil,” which means shadow. A shadow reveals the contours of an object in an indirect way,

Palm Trees in Chicago

Erev Rosh Hashana many shuls in the Chicagoland area received wonderful bookmarks from the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago.  One side of the book mark stated:

Yom Kippur
13 Attributes of Devine Mercy
How can I emulate these Devine
attributes in my life?
Based on Tomer Devorah of
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 16th c.

Well, the YU Kollel has an answer to, “How can I emulate these Devine attributes in my life?”
Starting this Sunday, November 6th from 8pm-9pm at Congregation KINS you can join Kollel Fellow Rabbi Etan Ehrenfeld and start learning Tomer Devorah.  This sefer was first published in 1588 and one of the seminal muusar works.

Personally, I’ve had a copy of it for years and looked at it from time to time, but never really got into it.  I’m very excited about being able to learn ideas from it in an informal setting, such as this chaburah.  I hope you’ll join me!

In memory of Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen a"h

I just read the article below (posted with permission from the author) by Rabbi Shafran about Reb Yosef, author of THE UNIVERSAL JEW, entering the Olam HaEmes. I am stunned. His sefer is a favorite of mine and I constantly find myself picking it up (after hearing about the sefer from R Gershon Seif years ago).


Rabbi Avi Shafran
The first notice, shortly before Rosh Hashana, came from “Tehilla.” The subject box of the e-mail read: “Baruch Dayan HaEmet/URGENT, YOSEF PASSED AWAY!” and the message began: “I can’t believe this rabbi. I can’t believe he has left us. He was so concerned for me and my family….”
Tehilla is not her real name. She is a non-Jewish resident of a Muslim country, and is married to a Hindu man. But she is a “Noahide,” a person who has accepted the Torah’s universal “Seven Commandments” for humankind. In fact, she studies the works of, among others, the Chofetz Chaim, and pines for the day for when her adult sons, who are following in her path, will find wives ready to do the same. And for Moshiach’s arrival.
Yosef was Yosef ben Shlomo Hakohen, an American-born Jewish returnee to Judaism (his original family name was Oboler) who lived in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and who made it his life’s work to bring Jews closer to their heritage and to be a source of encouragement and direction to non-Jews who have found their way to realizing the Torah’s truth.
And so the anguish at Yosef’s unexpected passing was felt not only by Tehilla but by countless people around the world, in the strangest of places, who had benefitted from his writing—and, in many cases, his personal interaction with them.
I never had the honor of meeting Yosef in person but knew him from numerous electronic conversations we had. He was a remarkable man. In fact, I had begun asking him about his background and work, hoping one day to make him the subject of an Ami interview. Now, sadly, I can share only the few facts I came to garner; and, incomparably sadder still, not in an interview but an obituary.
Yosef, the child of leftist social activists, discovered Torah in his youth and was captivated by a deep desire to reach out to Jews who shared his parents’ convictions, to help them better understand the true raison d’etre of the Jewish nation. “I wanted,” he wrote me, “to help them to understand that it is through the study and fulfillment of the Torah that we make our contribution towards a better world.”

In 1995, Feldheim published Yosef’s “The Universal Jew: Letters To a Progressive Father From His Orthodox Son,” telling the tale of his parents’ dedication to the poor and underprivileged, and about his own personal journey, which led him to dedicate his own life to outreach. The following year, in a Jewish Observer article entitled “And He shall turn the Hearts of the Fathers to the Sons,” Yosef reprised some of that story. And he established “Hazon—Renewing Our Universal Vision,” a study program/Internet resource that touched untold numbers of hearts and minds.
In one of his many communications to his followers, Yosef quoted Rav Avrohom Yoffen, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Bais Yosef-Novardok, as noting the significance of the fact that our forefather Avrohom is the archetype of both kindness toward others and intolerance for idolatry. The latter, he explains, is based on a belief that various forces in nature are in competition with one another. That antagonism, he continued, is paralleled in, and connected to, human beings’ alienation from one another. Avrohom Avinu embraced lovingkindness to counter that disaffection, and he fought idolatry to undermine its root cause.
That well describes Yosef’s life-mission itself.
On Yom Kippur, “Tehilla” lit a yahrzeit candle for Yosef, who left no blood-relatives.

I remember how she expressed her feelings about meeting and corresponding with Yosef and other Jews who have offered her encouragement and guidance. “With all the sufferings [the world has] inflicted on you all,” she once wrote, “I still cannot fathom how magnanimous you all are in being a light to all nations.
“After meeting your people [by e-mail], I cannot understand how such a warm, compassionate and humane people can be so persecuted and so misunderstood.
“All I can pray is when Hashem decides it’s time for all your sufferings to be over, He will show us Gentiles the compassion we failed to show you all.”
“Soon G-d is going to say ‘enough’ to your tears…”
And to hers as well, may the day come soon.

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

To receive essays like the one above when they first appear, as well as other columns I write, like”Gleanings” (a synopsis of some unusual media articles from the previous week with poignant comments appended) and “News and Analysis” (a detailed treatment of a recent news story) – not to mention a wealth of other interesting reading – subscribe to Ami at .

Learn one of seforim that inspired R Yisrael Salanter starting Nov 6th in Chicago

New chaburah/group learning starting Nov 6th. Come learn the sefer Tomer Devorah with Rabbi Etan Ehrenfeld (from the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel) and discover how to emulate the traits of Hashem!
First published in 1588, Tomer Devorah is a classic kabbalistic and mussar sefer. In 1858 R Yisrael Salanter republished it to include the first appearance of his, now famous, Iggeres HaMussar.
Starting next Sunday, Nov 6, 8PM-9PM at Congregation KINS in West Rogers Park, Chicago. Please feel free to email me for details:

The Rav and the Rebbe

Published in Song of Teshuva,  a commentary on Rav Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah by Rav Moshe Weinberger and adapted by Yaacov Dovid Shulman.

Rav Weinberger tells over the following story (pages 134-135):

When Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik went to a farbregen (a Chassidic gathering) on the occasion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s eightieth birthday, he was very impressed by the Rebbe’s brilliance and erudition.  But on the the way home, Rav Soloveitchik said that there was one thing with which he did not agreee.  When he offered the Rebbe a l’chaim (a toast), the Rebbe said, “Now the descendants of R. Chaim Volozhiner and the family of the Baal HaTanya have come together.”  Rav Soloveitch said that this was not true.  They had come together earlier, when Hitler had put the Chassid and the misnaged (the opponent of Chassidism) together in the same oven.  That was when we realized that there is no difference between one Jew and another.

It should not take someone who hates and persecutes the Jewish people to remind us that there is no difference between Jews on the level of the soul.  We must appreciate that the sould of every Jew is inseparable from the Congregation of Israel.”>Follow my blog with Bloglovin