Thursday, October 30, 2014

Join Me for a Live Radio Broadcast TODAY!

I just got word that I'll be a replacement guest on the first episode of Rabbi Eliyahu Fink's new radio show! Please pray for me that I avoid an attack of my Foot in Mouth Disease.

Join us at 1pm Eastern time or you can listen to the archived version later! Listen at

The topic is what the conversion process should look like and if Bethany Mandel's Convert's Bill of Rights accurately represents the experience of conversion candidates today.

(Again, I'm sending this from my phone while traveling, so I apologize for the briefness or any typos.)

UPDATE: Here is a direct link to the archived podcast.

Rabbi Pruzansky's Blog Post Told in Memes

I have not been as vocal as I should have been about the conversion/exploitation of women balagan lately. I can blame starting my own law firm, and that's part of it, but it's all so complex, and I didn't know what I could add to the conversation. A fire has finally been lit under me, but I'm traveling, so I hope to publish something longer soon. In the meantime, my phone can provide a short post that sums up the most-shared article I've seen on these issues: a blog post by Rabbi Pruzansky announcing why he's stepping down from heading the Bergen County, NJ, conversion program:

I'd make that a pretty link, but my phone and I are having technological difficulties. 

Let me sum up that blog post for you: 

And then the overwhelming public reaction: 

I'll highlight some of the issues without going too in-depth right now:

Sexism: Don't worry your pretty little head, girls, we rabbis know best. If you feel that you were exploited, manipulated, or sexually harassed and you don't live in DC, then you're probably just over-sensitive or whiney and wanting a quickie conversion. Tough luck, honey.

More sexism: even talking publicly to women about these issues is a good enough reason to drop your mic and walk off the stage. Sure, oppose women as "quasi-rabbinical figures," but sitting on a committee that will make recommendations (no guarantee the RCA will actually accept those recommendations) is too much. We can't let women tell rabbis what to do, no way no how, even when they're just making non-binding recommendations.

Women can't change conversion halacha: besides the fact that many of the examples the rabbi shares about conversion are not halacha (one year minimum process, for example), he totally misses the fact that this committee will have almost nothing (if anything) to do with halacha. It's about derech eretz. But derech eretz is self-evident, just like abusive behavior, right? If that were true, someone forgot to tell newlyweds. Men and women generally have trouble communicating even in the best of circumstances, much less in such an unequal power dynamic as orthodox conversion. 

Total disregard for conversion candidate emotions: the Mikvah isn't what makes this rabbi uncomfortable, it's the hatafat dam brit (circumcision part of conversion). You know what's wrong there? He only mentions HIS reaction to it, not how the person feels. That's hella disconnected from the reality of conversion candidates. 

Nationality analogy: sure, America makes you live here for five years before letting you become a citizen. Did you know that during those five years, you can't work, send your kids to school, or date? Oh wait, they don't. Your life is not on hold according to the whim of one human being with no oversight. (I used to think there is oversight, but now I know better.)

Hm, that turned out a lot longer than expected. My thumbs hurt.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

UPDATED: Need Some New Dance Moves for Simchat Torah?

I know, you've already mastered all the smooth moves you need for a Jewish event: you can dance in a circle both clockwise and counterclockwise! But maybe you want to switch it up, or maybe the dance circle is moving too painfully slow and you're tired of stepping on other people's toes.

Or maybe you have a different problem. Maybe you're the person who runs away or who tries to fade into the wallpaper when dancing is involved. Perhaps this video is even more important for you... for when people peer pressure you into dancing or just outright drag you into the dancing area.

There's a YouTube video for everything.

Her best advice? "Have a dancing face. Put some attitude into it!"

My only criticism? There were so many great cheesy dance moves left out!  You can't leave out the Roxbury or the Sprinkler or the Cabbage Patch. But I admit that the video would never end if we included them all.

So rather than do that last-minute cleaning or cooking, I want you to turn up the music and get funky instead. You need the practice so that you can bring it on Friday.

What's your favorite cheesy dance move? Mine is the buttfloss dance. And yes, that is actually a video of me. Shameful, I know.

Unbeknownst to me, my friend Reina posted 5 MORE Simchas Torah dance moves for you! She's a dancer and dance teacher, so you should probably take her advice!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

UPDATES A GO GO: Reporters and Detectives Seeking to Talk to Freundel Converts

Just passing this along as an FYI.

Steven Weiss of The Jewish Channel is looking to talk to people who converted under Rabbi Freundel in DC. If you're not already aware, Freundel has been arrested on charges of voyeurism related to an alleged camera in the mikvah. The most detailed story I've seen is in the Forward.

You can contact him through Facebook or email him at steveniweiss at gmail. Here is his Facebook post:
I've been working on an investigation into Rabbi Barry Freundel for many months, and I hope to publish the first installment tonight/tomorrow. I've been speaking about it in vague terms until now, never naming any specific rabbis, but the cat is now out of the bag. So, if you haven't spoken with me, and have anything substantive to share about the rabbi, the conversion process, the RCA, or similar, please message me and we'll talk. I'm granting carte blanche off-the-record status to anyone who reaches out to me; anything you tell me will be as if it's going into a black box, and will never be spoken or written of by me until and unless we reach a further agreement in which you explicitly grant me such permission.
Please share this status far and wide.

If you converted in DC, you are probably worrying about the validity of your conversion. In short, I don't believe you have reason to worry. And if you are still concerned, there are ways to arrange a geirut l'chumrah, but I think that is overkill (as a general rule, of course) unless you are asked to do one. However, you may be contacted by the police if any footage of you (Gd forbid) surfaces during the investigation.

The JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency) is also looking to talk to RBF converts. Contact Gabrielle Birkner at gbirkner (at)

If you believe you may be a victim, please send a photo of your face, your name at the time of conversion, and any other relevant info to George Desilva (MPD) at
george.desilva (at) Footage may go as far back as 2010 or even earlier, though the charges currently only go back to June 2014.

More reporter info:

Amanda Borschel-Dan, with the Times of Israel

Suzanne Pollak, Senior Writer at the Washington Jewish Week

What Is an Av Beit Din?

When you start corresponding with a beit din (whether to ask for an application or after submitting your application), you will generally be talking to the Av Beit Din. So what is he and what does he do?

Av Beit Din translates roughly as head of the beit din. Av generally means father. 

Depending on how big or small the beit din is, the Av Beit Din is generally the rabbi who oversees the program and its practical details. He is your contact person, the one you will email with questions or concerns. Your Av Beit Din could be different from your friend's even if you're using the same beit din, but that is unusual. 

He may be paid and working in an official, full-time position. He might work part-time. The beit din may have a support staff or there may have a rabbinic intern or it might just be this rabbi. He might even be a volunteer, doing this in addition to a pulpit position or other full-time position.

He will usually not be the "highest ranking" rabbi on "your" personal beit din. Usually, at least one rabbi with "name recognition" will be included on your personal beit din because that's how our society works unfortunately. Ugh, that was a lot of air quotes. Bear with me here.

Overseeing conversions is generally not seen as a "sexy" field that the community appreciates, and it takes a ton of time and energy that could be spent publishing papers or giving talks. Appreciate the professional recognition that your Av Beit Din may be foregoing by choosing to work with conversion candidates. Even better, it's often thankless work that opens him to criticism if a convert or candidate goes off the rails. Who do people criticize first? The gatekeeper, who also happened to have the most contact with the person.

Of course, none of this guarantees he will be warm and fuzzy and fun to hang out with. You may not even like him. But you don't have to like him. Really. That sounds depressing, but it's actually a very freeing thought: if you aren't best friends, that doesn't reflect on who you are as a conversion candidate or as a Jew. This is essentially a business relationship. (Likewise, remember that this is a business relationship when you feel the need to overshare with your rabbi. That's not your relationship; avoid TMI when possible.)

Generally, you should not take matters over his head. If you like another rabbi on your beit din better, I'm sorry, but you should still keep the Av Beit Din assigned to you as your point of contact. That's his role in this process. The information will go to him anyway, so by involving a second rabbi involved with the beit din, you're making more work for everyone involved. Unless you have a really good reason, stick to the Av Beit Din when you have official business for the beit din. Of course, if there is a serious problem with the Av Beit Din or the beit din as a whole, find out who you need to talk to instead. (Easier said than done, I know. We'll talk about that another day.) Very few problems are that serious, and most of the ones that are involve potentially illegal and definitely unethical conduct. I'm not talking about a personality clash or "that was unfair."

Hopefully your relationship with the Av Beit Din will be a source of strength and positivity to you. But don't get upset if it's not. Keep your eye on the prize.

Can you think of anything I forgot?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Problem: You Must Own the Lulav You Are Shaking on the First Day(s) of Chag

Unfortunately, this "problem" is already over for this year, but I want to address it now in case someone thinks it applies to all of chag. And of course, it'll be here, ready for you as a reminder before Sukkot of 2015.

Owning the Lulav Set

On the first day(s) of chag, you must "own" the lulav and etrog you wave. That means one day in Israel, and two days elsewhere. Shorthand: whichever days are celebrated as "yom tov." In theory (no longer in practice), the second day might actually be the first day because of an error in spotting the New Moon. You can borrow a set the rest of the days without issue, so long as it's kosher. Remember a) that some people have higher standards for what makes a set kosher, and b) being a plant, it can get damaged easily through use.

Where do we get this ownership rule? From Leviticus/Vayikra 23:40: "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period."

But that doesn't sound right because you see that many families share one lulav set. So how does that work? Legalisms, that's how. I'm a lawyer, so you can trust me when I say that legalisms are not restricted to Judaism. That doesn't make me feel any better when I feel that a legalism is silly, so know that you're not alone.

"Borrowing" a Lulav Set

So here's what you do if you need to "borrow" a lulav. Find someone willing to let you use his set. Some people won't - I've seen it, but I can only guess at reasons. Most likely, it is a fear that you will break it and make it unusable. As we said above, they're easily damaged, and it can be hard, if not impossible, to replace them during chag.

Once you have a kind person who will give you his set, the person will "give" you the set "as a gift" (conditioned on its return). Because, you know, you might try to keep it, so we have to protect the owner against this possibility. Jewish law allows something to be a "gift" even if both parties know it should be given back. However, if you are borrowing from someone who is unfamiliar with the halacha, this doesn't work. The person must intend to "give" it to you, not just "lend" it. With just a little awkward conversation, you can make sure that you both understand what it happening. (If you are concerned that the person thinks you're "just borrowing" it, remember to be kind and tactful if you want to clarify the halacha. Don't just assume, and don't be a jerk about it. The person who doesn't know the halacha is the person you should be most kind to.)

You use "your" set, then you "gift" it back to the original owner. 

Special "Borrowing" Situations

So...what if there is more than one person who needs to "borrow"? You make a chain! Easy peasy.

What if you're part of a family that has one set? Generally, because men are the ones obligated in the mitzvah of lulav, the set "belongs" to him. Women can do the mitzvah (and are encouraged to do so), but at the end of the day, he's on the hook, so it should be his. So what if the husband isn't home and someone asks the wife or an older child to borrow the set? It's valid if the "real owner" would have given it if he were there. A minor child can't give the set. 

Who is the "presumed owner" in the home of a single mom? If there is a child over the age of bar mitzvah, he has a high obligation than mom. In a house of daughters and/or sons under bar mitzvah, the owner is presumably the one who purchased it. 

What about roommates? I'd assume it is owned by the person who bought it, and a roommate cannot give it to another. Of course, you can always come to another arrangement.

Can you give someone else's if it's left on the seat at shul? No, don't be a jerk. 

When Kids Are Involved under bar or bat mitzvah. That's a great question too. In Israel, this isn't a problem. Since you only need to "own" the set for one day in Israel, the parents bentch lulav, then "give" the set to a kid because children should practice (this is called chinuch). The kids can share it as they wish since they are not yet obligated until bar or bat mitzvah. 

Outside Israel, there's a problem because the adults need to "own" the lulav set on Day 2. The kids don't have the halachic ability to "give" the set to a parent because they can't make contracts and transfer property. That means that once a parent gives the set to a child on Day 1, the child cannot return the gift to the parent for his use on Day 2, when he must still own the set used. What does the parent do on Day 2?

A better question: why is the parent "giving" the ownership of the set to a child in the first place? Since it's chinuch and the child is not yet obligated, then the parent can lend the set. So I don't understand why this is a question in the first place, but the Gemara says it is, so it is. I have seen an argument that the child would be making a bracha in vain if the child were not "given" the set, but since the child is not obligated whether he owns it or not, I would think that the bracha is "in vain" regardless, but we say it anyway because it is chinuch. ...And this is why Rav Moshe Feinstein says the best case scenario is to buy a set for each of your children, if that is feasible. I'm not going to give you a "this is what you do" for this situation because my research shows that there is a lot going on here, and people may rule differently. So...ask your rabbi if this case applies to you. (But when in doubt, you can always get another person to "give" you his set.)

This seemed like it would be such a simple blog post, right? You know when you say a word so many times that it loses all meaning? I feel that way about "lulav" right now.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What is the Symbolism of the Lulav and Etrog?

The lulav and the esrog might be the strangest-looking ritual in Judaism, but there are some common symbolisms you should know. There are two major "theories" of what they represent, so let's go through them! That way, you won't be caught unawares this chag. And then we'll discuss two more symbolic theories so you can sound like you totally know what you're talking about and have been discussing Sukkot's deeper meaning for ages.

Parts of the Body

Once you know this analogy, you can actually see it (at least I do). And if that doesn't make this weird ritual even weirder, I don't know what will.

Etrog: Heart
Palm Branches: Spine
Myrtle: Eyes
Willow: Mouth

As you use the lulav and etrog to worship Gd, so do all of these parts of your body worship Gd.

The Four Types of Jews

Since unity is one of the major themes of Sukkot, we look at the lulav and etrog as a collection of the various types of Jews. However, I think this particular symbolism is more likely to make you disparage another Jew than bring unity. 

Each "person" is classified according to his learning and his deeds. A nice taste symbolizes learning, and a nice fragrance symbolizes one's good deeds. 

Etrog: Has taste and fragrance, so this represents a Jew who is learned and practices good deeds. 
Palm Branches: Taste and no fragrance, which represents a Jew who is learned but does not do good deeds. (See, you just thought about who might fit that bill, didn't you? That's why I don't like this exercise. #BadMiddos)
Myrtle: No taste but fragrant, so this is the simple Jew who does good deeds.
Willow: No taste and no fragrance, so I guess that makes it the rasha of the group. But perhaps the one who is learned and does not do good deeds should be considered even more a rasha because he should know better?

I prefer to look at this analogy as being parts of ourselves. In certain mitzvot, you may be the etrog, and in others, you may be the myrtle. But on the other hand, maybe you're the willow for mitzvot you don't understand, and maybe you're the palm branches when you feel defiant of a mitzvah you know.


As a bonus, here is another symbolic meaning of the 4 species: they represent the agricultural abundance in Israel and Gd's role in creating it. Each items is tied to a particular habitat in Israel, and water is required for each. As we enter the winter, so begins the rainy season in Israel. In fact, this begins the time of year when we daven for rain in Israel during the Amidah 3 times a day. (Don't forget to add those parts!) This symbolism leads to people call shaking the lulav a "rain dance," and that's too pagan for my tastes.

Unified Field Theory

Yes, you read that right. We're going to dive into theoretical physics! (One of my favorite subjects!) 

I don't trust myself to summarize this theory, so you should just read it here from Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman (it's very short, I promise). But here is the general idea:
"By shaking the four species outward to the six directions of space and then bringing them back to our hearts, we unify and sanctify space within time."

Does any of this symbolism resonate with you? Tell us about it!

Chag sameach!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Basic Timeline for a Three Day Yontif

As you probably learned over Rosh Hashanah, three day yom tovs require a lot of logistical awareness. I thought it might be a good idea to write it out to help you plan the 3 day chag coming up this week. However, this timeline is written for 3 day chagim generally. Always double-check the times in your shul's newsletter or other zmanim calendar (examples: MyZmanim, the OU Calendar, and the Chabad Calendar), and make sure you write them down!

Wednesday Night

Make an eruv tavshilin, if you will need to cook food for Shabbat on the yom tov
Remember to light a fire that will last until Friday night candlelighting (yartzheit candle, gas stove, etc)
Locate your machzor; it's so helpful.
Light candles and make shecheyanu blessing at normal candlelighting time, but you can light until the start of the evening meal if you light from a pre-existing flame (bracha, then light, no eye covering)
Note: I'm told that Sephardi women don't make a bracha on yom tov candles. So if that doesn't apply to you, skip it.
Mincha for weekdays
Maariv for festivals


Shacharit may start earlier than normal, remember to check
Mincha may be longer than normal
Maariv will be later than normal (after three stars, but exact timing can differ significantly by community)
Light candles from a pre-existing flame after the time of 3 stars, but you can light with a bracha so long as people are still awake and could benefit from the light (bracha, then light, no eye covering)
On Rosh Hashanah, make a shecheyanu blessing, but wear something new and have that newness in mind (there are other ways to fulfill the "newness," but this is often the easiest)
Remember to let the match extinguish itself


Shacharis may start earlier than normal, remember to check
Light candles from a pre-existing flame at normal candlelighting time (light, cover eyes, then bracha - like normal)
Remember to let the match extinguish itself
Mincha may be longer than normal
Shortened Kabbalat Shabbat because you're transitioning from "holy" to "holy"
Maariv at normal time


Note: you need to eat your eruv tavshilin items before Shabbat ends - check the latest time according to your community
Regular Shabbat shacharit with festival additions, if applicable
Shabbat lunch
Regular Shabbat mincha with festival additions, if applicable
Seudah Shlishit, if you do that
Weekday Maariv with Motzei Shabbat additions
Regular Havdalah, but check your machzor just in case

In total, you need to plan for as many as 7 meals: 
Wednesday dinner, Thursday lunch, Thursday dinner, Friday lunch, Friday dinner, Shabbat lunch, Shabbat Shalosh Seudas (not everyone does this)

I hope this is helpful!

Monday, October 6, 2014

How to Pronounce Sukkot

Succot, Sukkot, Succos... but for some reason, you never see it written Sukkos. 

Don't rely on the "How to pronounce Sukkot" video on YouTube. It's a computer voice with a British accent that is actually trying to say Sukkos. Don't bother with this other computer-generated-Brit sound file either and for the same reason.

Accented Syllable
There is actually not an accented syllable difference between Hebrew and Americans using Sephardi pronunciation: SuKOT. When you get into American Ashkenazi-speak, the accented syllable changes: SUKkus.

A minor difference you may have noticed above: I only included one K in the Sephardi pronunciation. You don't hear Suk-KOT, instead you hear Su-KOT. The Ashkenazi Americans have a K sound in both syllables: SUK-kus. 

Hebrew Vowels
The U is pronounced "oo" as in "suit." The O is pronounced as a long O sound, like "coat."

American Ashkenazi Vowels
The U is pronounced "uh" like book. The second syllable is not pronounced like "us" the word, but it's very close. I can't think of an English word, but there is the Yiddish word shtus (silliness, nonsense, stupidity, junk/crap as a value judgment). Maybe this vowel sound doesn't exist in English...

But whatever you do, don't pronounce it "suck-it." That's one of my favorite "Oh no, what did I say?!" moments ever, and this time, it wasn't me!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Is Daf Yomi and How Does It Work?

Daf Yomi is the practice of studying one page of the Talmud daily in a seven year cycle. By "page," we mean two "normal pages" front and back of one sheet of paper, also known as a folio. One page a day for a total of 7.5 years. And at the end, we throw a big party known as the Siyum HaShas! Agudath Israel of America throws the "main" American party, but you can find local siyums and larger ones in Israel and other countries. [I would link you to Agudath Israel's website, but there is none. I'll save you from that hour of confused Googling I had about a year ago.]

Some other Daf Yomi-related words to know
Daf: Page, as we said above. A page in the sense of a folio.
Amud: One half of a folio; or what you would normally call "one page."
Seder: Order. Plural is sedarim. Groups tractates on a similar topic together. For example, we are about to start Seder Nashim (women), which includes seven tractates dealing with women, marriage, divorce, vows, and family life. These six groupings are transferred from the groupings of the Mishnah,  the foundational text of the Talmud.
Masechet: Tractate, which basically means book. It's a subsection of the Talmud determined by the tractate of Mishnah it covers, which is broken down roughly by the subject matter. The plural form is masechtot
Siyum: Means "completion," but usually refers to a party or meal thrown to celebrate the completion of something religious, generally a tractate of Mishnah or Talmud.
Shas: Another name for Talmud (or Mishnah by itself?). It's an acronym for shisha sidrei, 6 seders/orders.
Rashi: Rashi's commentary on the Talmud is printed on the inside margin of the Talmud page. Rashi is primarily interested in "what is the plain meaning of this word or phrase (the pshat)?" If a person studies only one commentary on Talmud, it is the Rashi. Even if you don't "study the Rashi," you can often find useful information there when you have a question.
Tosafot / Tosefot / Tosafos / Tosefos: A commentary written after Rashi's that is printed on the outside margin of the Talmud page. It was written by many people, the baalei haTosefot, and seeks to harmonize the Talmud across tractates, which is contrary to Rashi's "localized" notes. Even though the Tosafists respected Rashi (and included his sons-in-law and grandson), they don't hesitate to correct Rashi when they disagree with his interpretation.
Gemara: Talmud is made up of both Mishnah and Gemara. Gemara is a later commentary/elucidation of the Mishnah, and both are included on the Talmud page. The words Talmud and Gemara are often used interchangeably. 

What is studied in the Daf Yomi?
For the most part, the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) is the basis of Daf Yomi. However, there are a few masechtot of Mishnah that don't have a corresponding tractate in the TB. In those few cases, we temporarily shift to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). 

There is a greater push for studying the Talmud Yerushalmi. There are Yerushalmi Yomi calendars and programs, but they aren't standardized and coordinated with each other like the Daf Yomi cycle. However, because the Yerushalmi is shorter than the Bavli, the cycle lasts 5 years.

Who learns Daf Yomi?
Men and women both study Daf Yomi, though many more men do than women. However, there are men out there who don't think any orthodox women study Daf Yomi (or Talmud in general), and there are many of those who believe women are halachically prohibited from doing so. Those conversations can get awkward fast, as I learned from the perplexed and/or horrified stares I sometimes got when this would happen during my full-time study last year:
"Oh, so what do you do?"
"I'm learning Gemara."

How do you learn Daf Yomi?
While traditionally studied in Hebrew, you can learn the Daf in English (as I am doing now). It's not perfect, but Daf Yomi is a quick overview of the Talmud. It is not in-depth study, nor is it intended to be an in-depth study. And don't feel bad if (when) you fall behind, because that happens to most people at one point or another. And some people, like myself, live perpetually behind.

Many people attend an in-person class on the Daf, but there are literally dozens of podcasts and online shiurim you can listen to at your convenience. Most last approximately an hour, but there are shorter versions available. Rav Etshalom's Daf Yomi shiur (also available as a podcast) was highly recommended to me, and it averages 15-20 minutes. Shiurim fill in the gaps in the text and help you make the connection to related ideas in other parts of the Talmud, in halacha, or in history.

I used to be afraid of Daf Yomi. But then I saw the blogger Dov Bear post a question on Facebook last year (paraphrased from memory): "How many and which tractates have you *actually learned*? Daf Yomi doesn't count." I had never realized how cursory the Daf Yomi study program really is, especially for those who struggle with Hebrew and Aramaic. So don't be afraid of tackling Daf Yomi, even for just a short masechet. Give it a shot and see what it's like!

How to learn Daf Yomi in English
Locate an English version online, which will likely come from the older Soncino version. The English isn't so "modern," but it's usable. You can find it for free as a PDF at or in Kindle versions on Amazon (a complete list of the masechtot available on Amazon is available here).

The English versions available online don't have the Rashi (and certainly not Rashi translated into English), but you'll often learn more about Rashi's statements in the shiur. If you want to study the English version of Rashi (and Tosefot?), you will need to get actual Talmud books. The new Koren series (or the older version, Steinsaltz) is the most common method today for English learners. Each Koren masechet is released in time for its position in this Daf Yomi cycle. The Koren is written by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and thus, is basically an updated version of his older set (with more bells and whistles and explanations, I'm told).

Each day, read the appropriate Daf and listen to a shiur or podcast that is easy for you to understand. If you aren't following the discussion because of many Hebrew or yeshivish words, look for another. There are many you can understand without Hebrew or yiddish knowledge. Most people listen to the shiur after reading the Daf, but there is no rule that says you must do it that way. Learn in a way that makes sense for your brain.

You may want to switch up the shiurim you listen to or listen to a longer shiur when a Daf particularly interests you. You can also find shiurim that cover an entire topic or the entire tractate in order to get a feel for the forest instead of focusing solely on the trees.

I've created a page here on the blog to bring all these resources together for beginners who wish to learn Daf Yomi in English. You can click "Learn Daf Yomi in English" in the header above (or in this sentence).

Where are we in the Daf Yomi cycle now?
You can always find the current page or mesechet on a Daf Yomi calendar. They're available all over the web. You can even add the current Daf to your Google calendar with Calendar ID:

Tomorrow (Monday, October 5, 2014) is the first day of Tractate Yevamot in the current Daf Yomi Cycle. This is the first tractate of the Seder Nashim (women), which deals with marriage and divorce.

Yevamot is one really interesting tractate in the Talmud Bavli. It's very difficult, primarily because you'll have to figure out family relationships that more closely resemble a soap opera more than life today. Bigamy, incest, and levirate marriage, oh my. It lays the foundation for the laws of marriage and divorce that follow in other tractates of Seder Nashim. 

Want to learn something else? 
There's a great calendar that compiles many different learning cycles on one calendar. But be warned, the website is very basic and not always as functional as you might want in 2014. 

If you want a simple yearly study of Torah, consider the following ideas:
Parsha study each week will get you through the Torah in one year. We're about to start Bereshit, so what better time to begin??
Studying approximately 2 chapters of Neviim and Ketuvim (NaCh) a day will allow you finish the entirety of Tanakh in one year (if you also read the Parshas each week).

What are you waiting for? Get learning!

Friday, October 3, 2014

How to Pronounce Gmar Chatima Tova

It's that time, folks. The Ten Days of Repentance. People are probably saying a long Hebrew phrase at you, and you're trying to figure out what the heck it is. Don't feel bad. The first year, I was really confused for a week or so, and then it stopped, and I forgot all about it. It took me three years in the community to finally put on my big girl panties and ask someone before I forgot. After all, people only said it for a couple of weeks, and then I could live in blissful ignorance the rest of the year.

Like "shana tova," there is a difference between Israelis and Americans as to which syllables are accented. Also, Ashkenazim (theoretically) say "g'mar chasima tova." However, according to my searching on the internet, it seems like the "chatima" version is becoming the overwhelming choice. A very interesting observation, but I have no answer why this phrase is becoming Sephardi-default and not 1,000 others.

Here is the slow version of an Israeli accent. You'll obviously want to speak faster than this. I couldn't find a recording to an American accent or the Ashkenazi phrasing, so I suppose you're just going to have to act Sephardi!

But if you really insist, this is the best I can do for you: G'mar (one syllable, identical to the Israeli recording) chaSIma / chaTIma TOva. 

Whatever pronunciation you choose, I suggest practicing it at home before using it in conversation. Say it several times out loud until you get all the kinks out. And don't worry, you'll still trip over the words a few times, and probably again each year when you bring it out again. It happens to even the best of us.

You can find more about the literal translation of g'mar chatima tova on the Learn Hebrew website.

And, because I know you're wondering, you answer "G'mar chatimah tovah" with the same. You can even switch it up by responding "shana tova" instead. (I guess that's the method to take if you don't want the other person in the Book of Life this year?)

G'mar chatima tova to all of you!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Do You Need a Hebrew Name to be "Jewish"?

Nope. Whether your name is Shaindy or Sunshine, Chaim or Christina, Mendy or Moustafa, you are Jewish if you're Jewish. Now, who qualifies as Jewish is a much bigger and hotly debated question! 

If you're Jewish (by whatever definition you're using) and don't have a Hebrew name, you can continue to live without a Hebrew name if you want. 

If you want to take on a Hebrew name, then just choose one. You don't need any special ceremony, but you can be "officially" named during the Torah reading. If you're a man, they'll call you to the bimah for an aliyah and do the naming as part of the Misheberachs after your aliyah. If you're a woman, then a man will get an aliyah for you or you can appoint the gabbai/reader/rabbi to read it during the "official" Misheberachs (after the third aliyah, if memory serves). Mi sheberachs are traditionally used to pray for the ill, but anyone who needs a blessing can be included. 

The Torah service is one way of making it public. But be careful that a zealous rabbi doesn't name you before you know it or before you're ready. I know of one person who was named at the Torah but had no idea until the rabbi came up and excitedly said, "So did you hear me name you??" Don't be that guy, rabbis of the world. Make sure people know beforehand. This should be special.

My only advice is to sit on your name choice for a few months (or more!) to make sure it's "right." If it still feels good after a few months, go for it. If you're still uncertain, wait a little longer. Some people wait for a year or more! The only reason you may need to speed up your decision process is if you need to use that name soon. For instance, you're getting married or having a geirus l'chumrah done (to remove any uncertainty about your Jewishness). If you think you need a Hebrew name in order to get a Jewish divorce, then I've got some bad news: you cannot have a marriage that requires a religious divorce without having used your Hebrew name at the marriage on a ketubah. On the other hand, that means less work and no mamzerim from your future relationships! Always look on the bright side, right?

If you need to use a "Hebrew name" in the meantime, for instance if you ask someone to pray on your behalf or need to fill out an enrollment form, you can use your English name. For example, Amanda bat Jennifer or Andrew ben Stanley. Remember, your Hebrew name is a "legal name," so it only has to be used in very limited circumstances.