Category Archives: holidays

2018 CMTL Shavuot Reader

The Center for Modern Torah Leadership is pleased to present its 2018 Shavuot Reader, with articles about Matan Torah and the Aseret HaDibrot, Talmud Torah and Pedagogy, and Megillat Rut, written by Rabbi Klapper and CMTL Alumni.

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Some Taanit Esther Thoughts on Systemic Solutions for the Agunah Issue

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

There is a longstanding controversy as to whether the modern plague of get-refusal must be solved entirely within the halakhic system, or whether external forces should be brought to bear, even if those forces impose change on halakhah.  I want to offer a mediating position.

In America, where halakhah has no secular authority, a woman can be an agunah only if she chooses to remain part of the halakhic system.  Therefore, any solution must feel authentic to her and respect the sincerity and depths of her beliefs, for which she has sacrificed so much.  Solutions externally imposed on halakhah will likely not in practice free her, since she will be unwilling to remarry, and the men she wishes to marry would not see her as free.  This does not mean that all such attempts will fail, but there should be a bias against secularly constraining the discretion of halakhic authorities.  If for no other reason, we should fear the consequences generally for freedom of religion.

In Israel, by contrast, halakhah has agreed to become part of the state, and as a result has jurisdiction over many women who would never choose to be subject to halakhic authority.  Israeli agunot do not need authentic solutions; they need practical solutions.  The price of halakhah becoming part of the state is that the state may force its religious bureaucrats to choose particular halakhic options or accommodate particular halakhic policies, or else resign.  In particular, the state can legitimately force its religious court judges to ensure that no women are trapped by a system whose premises they do not believe.

More sharply – the use of get-refusal as a bargaining tool in divorce cases should be stamped out in all jurisdictions.  But in America this is the responsibility of the halakhic community; in Israel this is the responsibility of the government.

It is therefore deeply ironic that while New York State and Canada have enacted creative and somewhat effective get laws, in Israel the only legislative response has been to give rabbinic courts the power to coerce more effectively.   Such powers are welcome, but they are desperate last measures generally taken after extended extortionary or spiteful get-refusal.  I believe more creative and more effective measures are necessary and possible.

An ever-larger percentage of the American halakhic community is meeting its responsibility to end get-refusal by voluntarily signing the RCA halakhic prenuptial agreements, and I was pleased to read that Tzohar and the Israeli Bar Association have jointly released an apparently parallel agreement in Israel.  For now, I very much hope that it is effective and gains broad voluntary use.  But I believe that a version of this agreement can and should be mandated legislatively.

It should be clear that if the state seeks to impose halakhic choices that the dayyanim cannot in good conscience endorse, they must resign, and if the state goes ahead anyway, it will simply be creating its own form of civil marriage and divorce.

But I think there is an opportunity for more here – an opportunity for the entire Israeli community, and perhaps as well the international halakhic community, to think together about how authentic halakhah can reasonably and responsibly accept secular authority in a democratic Jewish state most of whose Jewish citizens do not feel bound by halakhah.

Nothing excuses the many years that get-refusal, get-extortion, and the implicit threat of get-extortion have corrupted the halakhic divorce process.  But if we can generate that sort of thinking together, perhaps there is hope that the agunot will not have suffered in vain.

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The Significance of Sinai on Purim

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasya (Shabbat 88a) is generally taught as claiming that G-d suspended Mount Sinai over the Jewish people to ensure their acceptance of the Torah. Many teachers further tell their students that Rav Avdimi is playing with words. Shemot 19:17 records that the Jews stood “betachtit hahar,” which plainly means “at the base of the mountain,” but he interprets it homiletically to mean “underneath the mountain.” I suggest that every aspect of this presentation is wrong. Every other use of tachtit in Tanakh refers to a lower section. And Rav Avdimi does not claim that the mountain was suspended over them.

Here are Rav Avdimi’s actual words:

:מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם

אם אתם מקבלים התורה – מוטב

ואם לאו – שם תהא קבורתכם

This teaches that The Holy Blessed one kafah aleihem the mountain like a rain barrel, and said to them:

“If you accept the Torah – better;

but if not – your burial will take place there.”

What does “kafah aleihem” mean? Maharsha explains that a kippah is a dome, so what G-d did was reshape the mountain so that it formed a dome enclosing the Jews. He did not threaten to drop the mountain on the Jews, but rather to leave them buried inside it, in its “tachtit.” “Your burial will take place there,” an otherwise odd idiom, means that the mountain will become their mausoleum. As is usually the case, the “midrash” takes the verse literally, whereas the “pshat” makes the text conform to preconceived notions.

Why are teachers so convinced that Rav Avdimi is not pshat? On the first level, because we have a resistance to adding miracles to the text. This is a fascinating sensibility; in a story which involves all the supernaturalness of Sinai, why can’t a floating mountain fit in?

But on the second level, Rav Avdimi is playing with words and counterreading the text. His underlying point that G-d coerced the Jews into accepting the Torah is conveyed by a pun: “kafah” also means coerced. But the plain meaning of the biblical narrative is the Jews willingly accepted the Torah.

Yet Rav Acha bar Yaakov and Rava both accept Rav Dimi’s implication. Rav Acha bar Yaakov notes that this midrash offers the Jewish people an out: they can claim to have accepted the Torah under duress. Rava quickly removes any contemporary implications by asserting that Esther 9:27 records a subsequent willing acceptance of Torah.

This past Shabbat in YI Sharon, Rabbi Pesach Wolicki of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah offered a beautiful close read of Rava. The original Jewish willingness to accept the Torah is traditionally embodied in the phrase naaseh venishma, whereas Rava derives the subsequent willingness from the phrase kiymoo vekibloo. Rabbi Wolicki argued that the phrase in Esther is an intensification of the phrase in Shemot: asiyah, meaning practice, becomes kiyum, meaning firm establishment; shemiah, meaning obedience, becomes kabbalah, meaning internalization. Rava does not deny the significance of the original acceptance, but he sees it as the first step in a process.

Rabbi Wolicki pointed out, however, that Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 3) offers a very different solution: The threat of the mountain overhead related solely to acceptance of the Oral Torah, as the Jews had already accepted the written one.

Rabbi Wolicki read Tanchuma and Shabbat 88a synthetically, so that Rava’s reply relates only to the Oral Torah. Rather than depict First Temple Jews as completely unbound by Oral Torah, he suggested that the initial coercion related to the obligation to learn, while even Rav Dimi would concede that the Jews freely accepted the obligation to obey the Oral Torah. What changed in the time of Purim, or if one prefers the time of the Men of the Great Assembly, was the free acceptance of universal responsibility for the study of Oral Torah.

I agree with Rav Wolicki (barukh shekivanti) that this is an implication of Avot 1:1’s report that the Men of the Great Assembly emphasized the need to have many students, rather than the smallest elite group capable of ensuring continuity, and I love the message. I am not as certain that the Tanchuma is intended to be read together with Shabbat 88a. My own reading of Avot connected the new responsibility to the absence of prophecy rather than to a new, freer acceptance.

Happily, Tosafot HaRosh suggests a way of combining our two approaches:

ואומר ר”ת

דהתם נמי על ידי הדבור היה ובעל כרחם

אבל בימי אחשורוש קבלוה מאהבת הנס

בלב שלם מדעתם

Rabbeinu Tam says

That there too it was in accordance with a prophetic command, and against their will

but in the days of Achashveirosh they accepted it out of love of the miracle

wholeheartedly and of their own will

The problem here is that “love of the miracle” detracts from wholehearted willingness, and points to a fundamental weakness in Rava’s response. Rabbi David Silber argues that the enveloping mountain is a metaphor for an overall state of coercion; G-d took the Jews into a waterless desert, so that their survival obviously depended on His benevolent intervention. The Purim miracle emphasizes that their vulnerability was no less in Persia!

Ritva makes a further argument. The Jews are punished for their crimes prior to Purim, not least by exile to Persia. How can this be, if they really were not obligated? Ritva accordingly concludes that Rav Dimi is explaining the mistaken impression that led some Jews to believe themselves no longer obligated, and Rava is showing how to answer them leshitatam, in accordance with their own mistaken assumption.

Ritva’s position is actually a reaction to his grandteacher Nachmanides, who argues that the Jews’ initial acceptance at Sinai was transactional, trading obedience for land. G-d has the right to exile the Jews even if acceptance was coerced, since His promise of the Land was conditional. What changes at Purim is a willing acceptance of unconditional obligation.

Put more sharply, the exile of the Jews to Babylonia simply returned the Jews to the desert, and Haman’s plot was no more threatening than the risk of death by dehydration. The difference was that Babylonia was not explicitly a way station to Israel. The Jews nonetheless chose to remain distinctive, and thereby accepted their obligations unconditionally.

Ritva cannot accept this perhaps he believes that conditional obligation is not obligation; it’s a utilitarian decision. In Ramban’s schema, First Temple Jews would have the right to release themselves from obligation if they were willing to surrender the Land, and Shushan’s Jews had the right to assimilate. Ritva could not imagine this being true. Is not the whole point of the Esther narrative that the Jews have no real choice about being Jews? Isn’t Haman’s rise part of a Divine plan to make them realize this? How could Rava read the outcome as a new, free acceptance of their obligations?

Here is one possible answer: Haman’s plot is provoked by Mordekhai’s refusal to bow. It is halakhically permitted to bow to another person, and by not doing so, Mordekhai endangered Jews everywhere. So why did he do it? Perhaps G-d’s plan was not inevitable, it required the free-willed action of at least one Jew to work. At the end of the megillah, the Jewish people acknowledge Mordekhai was right, and that acknowledgement constitutes their acceptance of obligation.

Furthermore, Mordekhai knew that on the road to assimilation, red lines are always relative; with a gradual process, deviance can always be defined down, so that the next small step is not worth giving up life to prevent. Any line drawn as absolute will be arbitrary. By acknowledging that Mordekhai was right to draw such a line, the Jews specifically accept the legitimacy and authority of Oral Torah.

At the same time, the megillah is careful to note that a minority of Jews still contended that Mordekhai drew the line too early or too late. I suggest that this point is included to emphasize that the Jews also properly accept responsibility for the content of Oral Torah, and that unanimity, and especially the attempt to impose unanimity, are perversions rather than fulfillment of the obligations the Jewish people reaffirmed on Purim.

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“Good” Deeds Done in the Service of Evil?

Rambam asks us to imagine ourselves and our world at equipoise, virtues and vices cancelling out perfectly, so that our next action decides how G-d will judge. But is it true justice to weigh deeds against one another, rather than responding to each deed independently? This is a metaphysical question, but I want to approach it by putting two very concrete halakhic analyses in dialogue with each other: Professor Jeffrey Rosen’s take on lashon hora, and Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky’s approach to dealing with abuse allegations.

The obvious question regarding lashon hora is: Why should it be forbidden? Why shouldn’t we see maximum transparency as a good, and celebrate when a false image is shattered? Professor Rosen’s answer is that complete transparency is never achieved. We are continually making educated guesses and filling in the blanks of our knowledge about others in order to complete our view of them. In this process, human nature tends to assign negative information disproportionate weight, and therefore a word of lashon hora can generate untold numbers of unjustified negative guesses. Lashon hora is therefore deceptive in result—it makes us think of people as worse than they are—even when true.

Rabbi Karlinsky notes, however, that abuse allegations against popular rabbis and teachers often generate the opposite reaction. People rush to serve as character witnesses for the accused and argue that their many acts of kindness and compassion make the abuse allegations implausible. Rabbi Karlinsky’s response builds off a Kli Yakar. Kli Yakar understands Devarim 25:13-16 as condemning both the honest and dishonest weights of a shopkeeper who maintains two sets, on the ground that the honest weights—and all the transactions for which they are utilized—are essentially covers for the fraud. When accused by a victim, the shopkeeper will produce the honest weights and satisfied customers and use them to attack the credibility of the fraud accusation. So too, Rabbi Karlinsky argues, the abuser’s acts of kindness and compassion are a core part of their abuse.

On the surface, Rabbi Karlinsky and Professor Rosen are in serious tension. However, they dovetail in the following way: Our tendency to overplay the sins of others makes it hard for us to believe that someone who has sinned seriously is also capable of great good. Where the good is incontrovertible, we may choose to disbelieve the evil, since we cannot find a coherent narrative that explains it.

Rabbi Karlinsky’s solution to this problem is dramatic. He encourages us to disregard apparent good done by abusers, seeing it as instrumental to the evil, and so the evil becomes the only aspect of character left, and cannot be ignored.

I prefer a slightly different framing of the problem. It may not be that people disbelieve the accusations, but rather that they are hesitant to ruin a life for one misdeed when they know of much good the accused has done. Rabbi Karlinsky’s solution theoretically works for this version of the problem as well. But I’m not sure it works in practice. Here’s why:

If the fundamental issue is whether the allegations are accurate, it is directly useful to explain how the same person could have committed both great and foul deeds. But if the fundamental issue is justice, Rabbi Karlinsky’s theory has a more uphill climb. It requires us to believe both that the accused committed evil deeds, and that their good deeds are essentially meaningless.

Divrei Torah during this period of repentance should meet two criteria: cause self-reflection and be concrete. So let me put this question in a framework that functions as a soul-mirror for us, challenging us to make real decisions differently.

Are there people who do good primarily to enable them to do or get away with evil? Is this an underlying motivation for other people? I think the answer to both questions is yes, which is an introduction to more serious questions.

Base motivations can often be bent to positive aims, and one can imagine a person successfully doing good their whole lives by convincing their evil inclination that, on some undefined day, their reputation will be so unimpeachable that they can act as they please without fear of consequences. So the real questions are: How much good is done by being alert for such motivations? How much harm is done by suspicion?

Answering these questions properly likely requires developing a comprehensive taxonomy of people who do both significant good and significant evil. Here is a tentative and very incomplete attempt toward that end:

  1. Conflicted: They have tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and found it delectable either way. There is no ultimate way to know which will predominate their life. In the terms of mussar, we might say that they constantly revisit the same “bechirah (choice) points.”
  2. Consistent: They are fundamentally driven by a single basic passion, regardless of whether it leads to good and evil. Examples of passion include power and eros.
  3. Goal-oriented: They believe they have an end that justifies all means, and their actions ultimately aim at that end. In an extreme version, their end not only justifies any means, but fundamentally makes all other values irrelevant. They may believe their attainment of power to be an essential means, and can end up confusing that means with their ultimate end.
  4. Manipulative: They have no values other than their own satisfaction, but are capable of making short-term sacrifices and long-term strategies. They will go to lengths to cement relationships that give them what they want. But they will badly use people after a relationship is established, using gratitude, insecurity, and hero worship to maintain control.

These are ideal types, and very few people, if any, fit any of these descriptions precisely. I suspect, though, that each of us can recognize a little of ourselves in at least one.

It is very important to socially reward the conflicted and the consistent for the good they do. But Rabbi Karlinsky argues that we as a community and as individuals must recognize the manipulators for who they are. Gratitude and admiration are natural and generally wonderfully positive human emotions, but they can be perverted. The question is how we can tell which kind of person we are dealing with.

Perhaps the scariest experience of my life was attending a speech by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. What terrified me was the way he insulted his followers—he seemed depressed that his supporters were generally not intellectually gifted—and nonetheless kept perfect control over them. I submit that the surest sign of a manipulator is the presence of acolytes who cannot tear themselves away no matter how badly they are betrayed or humiliated. When apologists for the accused include people whose trust has been betrayed, look out.

Now it seems to me from a legal theory perspective that in general we rule that מצות בין אדם לחבירו אין צריכות כוונה = interpersonal mitzvot do not require intent to be legally significant. Money given to the poor is charity even if given for the sake of personal aggrandizement, even if it is not ideal charity. So from a theological perspective, it may be that G-d rewards manipulators for the interpersonal mitzvot they do.

From a human perspective, we cannot allow the good they do to weaken our resolve to stop their ongoing manipulation, and, as Rabbi Karlinsky argues, we cannot think in terms of balancing their good and evil. In particular, we must take a very jaundiced view of any apparent teshuvah, demanding it be sustained for many years, without relapse, before even thinking of considering them changed people.

It is also very important that we identify the goal-driven, not because their good deeds are done in service of evil, but because their good deeds are not predictive of how they will behave when faced by similar choices in the future. Most specifically, they are likely to behave differently when trusted with power than when they are powerless.

In the foremath of Yom Kippur, it is and should be emotionally difficult to set high standards for accepting the repentance of others even as we ask G-d to set abysmally low standards for our own. It is similarly hard to judge others by their worst aspects as we ask G-d to judge us by our best. We are mostly, I hope, conflicted or consistent sinners, striving to find ways to empower our best selves. We would rather believe that all others are doing the same, and we pray for G-d to take that as His premise. But that may be a Divine luxury in which we cannot always indulge.

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Facing the Past to Better Face the Future

Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death (Avot 1:2). Why not earlier? Perhaps there is virtue in looking forward rather than backward, so long as there is a prospective view, and so long as in the end one accepts responsibility for the past. A beraita (Shabbat 153a) reads Rabbi Eliezer very differently, however:

Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: Does a person know on what day he will die?

He said to them: All the more so, let him repent today lest he die tomorrow, and it will end up that all his days he is penitent.

Here the ideal is to look backward continually, and Rabbi Eliezer speaks of repenting only on the day before death as a concession, or perhaps merely as a rhetorical advice.

We might borrow from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and say that Rabbi Eliezer’s statement on its own generates a religiosity that seeks to achieve a destiny, while the dialogue with his students generates a religiosity that seeks to avoid fate. Or we might set out a chakirah distinguishing between repentance from and repentance toward (quoting Rav Kook extensively with regard to the latter). Or we might frame a practical question: Can one ever be done repenting? One purpose of atonement is closure. Is that ever the case with repentance?

The end of Sefer Devarim indicates that at least Mosheh Rabbeinu knew the day of his death in advance, and apparently provides us with an in-depth look at his last day alive. Moreover, Mosheh is told explicitly that his death will be caused by a past sin (32:5):

And die on the har toward which you are climbing, and be gathered to your people

as Aharon your brother died at hor hahar, and was gathered to this people

as a consequence of your having badly used me amidst the Children of Israel

at the Waters of Merivat Kadesh, in the wilderness Tzin

as a consequence of not having sanctified me amidst the Children of Israel

His last day should therefore have much to teach us about end-of-life repentance. But recreating Mosheh’s calendar for that day turns out to be a surprisingly complicated enterprise, and perhaps poses a stark challenge to Rabbi Eliezer.

Let’s start from the very end. The last twelve verses of the Torah describe Mosheh climbing Mount Nevo. Hashem shows him the Promised Land, but reminds him yet again that he will never reach it.

Hashem said to him:

This is the land regarding which I swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov,

saying “to your seed I will give it”;

I have shown it to your eyes, but thereward you must not cross.”

The last thing Hashem says to Mosheh is a statement—perhaps a command—that he will not reach Israel. This seems cruel, and utterly out of keeping with the immediately following descriptions of Mosheh as “the servant of G-d” and the apogee of prophecy. Perhaps it is a response to Mosheh’s repentance—still not good enough, or irrelevant to the decree—but it shows us no direct evidence that any such repentance occurred.

The last words ascribed to Mosheh in the Torah comprise the “blessing” that takes up all of Chapter 33. I don’t pretend to understand the chapter entirely, but it seems clearly to end on a triumphalist note, with Israel trampling the high places of her enemies. Here again there seems no reference to repentance.

I suggest, however, that these are not actually Moshe’s last words. The end of Chapter 32 is Hashem’s order to Mosheh to climb Mount Nevo and die, and the beginning of Chapter 34 is Mosheh perfectly fulfilling those instructions. There is no suggestion that anyone else is present during these dialogues. Furthermore, the blessing of וזאת הברכה is introduced grammatically as an insertion, rather than as part of a flowing narrative: “And this is the blessing that Mosheh (had) blessed the Children of Israel before his death,” rather than ‘Mosheh (subsequently) blessed the Children of Israel.’

The Torah’s narrative is often not in chronological order, and most commentators agree that the Torah does not necessarily acknowledge flashbacks or foreshadowing explicitly. In other words, the Torah is often written so as to create the initial illusion of a chronological narrative that falls apart only after close analysis. My suggestion is that the blessing is inserted here to demonstrate that Mosheh’s overall relationship to Bnei Yisroel was that of blesser, even though his actual final words to them were otherwise.

What then were Mosheh’s actual last words to Bnai Yisroel? Devarim 32:45-7 tell us:

Mosheh finished speaking all these words to all Israel.

He said:

Give your hearts to all the words which I am making a testimony for you today

which you will command them to guard and keep

all the words of this Torah.

Because it is not an empty thing from you, rather it is your life

and via this thing you will have extended days on the ground

which you are crossing the Jordan toward, to inherit it.

These last words emphasize that Mosheh did not allow his disappointment at being excluded from the Land to diminish his concern for his people’s long term survival there, or his enthusiasm for their success.

They do not make any explicit reference to repentance for the sin at Merivah. But these words are only the coda—they come when Mosheh “finished speaking all of these words to all Israel.” What was the actual speech?

I suggest that 32:45 is the closure of an envelope structure beginning at 31:1:

Mosheh went. He spoke these words to all the Children of Israel.

The problem is that a great deal happens in that envelope, much of which is clearly not part of a Mosaic speech. Haazinu is recited, and it or another poem is taught, and written, by both Mosheh and Yehoshua. At least one full Torah scroll is written, perhaps more. Yehoshua is blessed and charged, repeatedly, and so are some or all members of the Tribe of Levi. G-d tell Mosheh his death is near, and both G-d and Mosheh declare that the Jews will sin badly in the future. The Torah actually seems to be doing its best to confuse the chronology. Why would that be?

Perhaps to avoid making it obvious that Mosheh Rabbeinu does not spend his last day repenting his sin. It might even be said that he spends the day repeating it. Here for example is 31:27:

For I know your rebelliousness, and your stiff neck –

Indeed, so long as I have been living among you, you have been rebellious with Hashem –

so certainly after my death

This seems to strongly echo “שמעו נא המורים” “Hear ye O rebels” from the waters of Merivah (Bamidbar 32:10).

And yet, if I am right, the Torah still makes it possible for us to realize that Mosheh is not repenting, and therefore we must be able to learn something positive from that as well. Here’s my suggestion:

Ongoing, permanent repentance may be a fine way to live an individual life, but it is no recipe for leadership. Leaders who focus on making up for the past rather than preparing for the future end up fighting the last war, and they will constantly have more and more decisions to repent for.

And yet, leaders who fail to acknowledge their errors—who are incapable of genuine reflection and change—will inevitably repeat those errors, generally on a larger scale. The Torah properly protects the honor of the incomparable prophet and servant of Hashem, but leaves us the clue, in Hashem’s last words to him, that the sin of Merivah was still fundamentally unrepented.

By setting aside the Ten Days of Repentance, we indicate that Rabbi Eliezer’s students’ question is better than his answer. There is a time to face the past, but unless we have no future, the purpose of facing the past is to enable us to better face the future. May we succeed, then, in facing our pasts so that we may be inscribed in the book of those with meaningful futures.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’techatemu!

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The CMTL Shavuot Library

Just in time for Shavuot, here are selections from CMTL’s Torah archive:

Synesthesia at Sinai:  Why did the Jews see voices when they received the Torah?

Who Wrote the Torah? A literary analysis in defense of unitary authorship of the Torah.

Talmud Torah as the Shared Spiritual Language of the Jewish People: Dr. Ruth Calderon’s Knesset Speech and the fulfillment of Rabbi David Hartman’s dream.

Why Study Talmud? Two foundational principles–“the humility of reason” and “the vulnerability of authority”–that we distill through Talmud study.

The Boundaries of Torah Study: Can and should our definition of learning Torah include learning from secular sources in the sciences and humanities?

A note on translations and the Book of Ruth

Translated Excerpts from Rut Rabbah


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The Book of Ruth, a Translation by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Click here to download a copy of Rabbi Klapper’s translation of the Book of Ruth.

Zman Mattan Torateinu Sameiach!

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