To Destroy and to Overthrow, to Build and to Plant

To Destroy and to Overthrow, to Build and to Plant

Jan 15, 2021 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Va'era

For me, this is one of the most troubling passages in the Torah. First, God assigns Moses and Aaron the task of speaking to Pharaoh, explicitly calling Aaron a prophet. Presumably, a prophet tells people what could come to pass, so that they have the opportunity to repent their sins and turn toward God. 

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Appoint Judges and Officials

Appoint Judges and Officials

Aug 21, 2020 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Shofetim

The year was 1752, the place Copenhagen, and Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshutz, Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, Altona, and Wandsbeck, was on trial before the royal court of Denmark. King Frederick V himself was acting as the presiding judge. Altona was legally a province of Denmark, and the Altona City Council had turned to the king to resolve a controversy among the Jews that was breaking into violence in the streets. They had already tried placing Eybeshutz’s opponent in the matter, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, under house arrest. Emden’s escape to Amsterdam under cover of darkness made matters worse. The intensified presence of the city watch among the Jews only increased tensions. In desperation the burghers of Altona had turned to the king of Denmark.

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Mother’s Milk

Mother’s Milk

Feb 21, 2020 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Mishpatim

In 1976 the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg published a book called The Cheese and the Worms, an account and analysis of a 16th-century Inquisition trial. The defendant in this trial was a miller from the Friuli region of Italy named Menocchio. Among the heresies that he stood accused of was his apparent claim that the world came into existence through a process of putrefaction.

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The Evolution of Torah: A History of Rabbinic Literature

The Evolution of Torah: A History of Rabbinic Literature

Nov 21, 2019 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Podcast or Radio Program

An introduction to the first 1000 years of rabbinic literature with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz.

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Blood, Water, and Desire

Blood, Water, and Desire

Aug 30, 2019 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Re'eh

These days most observant Jewish women in North America do not soak and salt their own meat. What was once a common and familiar marker of Jewish kitchens, and a deeply gendered rite of passage for young Jewish women, has been professionalized and sequestered away from the eyes of most of those who cook and eat kosher meat. In the United States, the act itself is often performed by mostly non-Jewish workers under the supervision of Orthodox rabbis—a largely male caste. The sounds, sights, and smells of this “kashering” process as performed today would seem strange, unfamiliar, and perhaps even repulsive to most Jewish North American women. 

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Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals

Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals

Feb 2, 2018 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary

The most controversial tractate of the Talmud is undoubtedly Avodah Zarah, which discusses non-Jews and their religious practices. Most of the Talmudic passages in Justinas Bonaventura Pranaitis’s 1898 anti-Talmudic screed, Christianus in Talmud Iudaeorum (The Christian in the Talmud of the Jews) are drawn from this tractate. A surface reading of Avodah Zarah can be a demoralizing experience for modern Jews. Even though the Talmud is replete with more broadly humanistic statements, most of us would be scandalized by the provincial and xenophobic attitude toward non-Jews that one could take away from a rapid read through Avodah Zarah.

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The Sanctuary and the Bomb

The Sanctuary and the Bomb

Mar 24, 2017 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Pekudei | Vayak-hel

The US gave the codename “Ivy Mike” to its first full-scale experimental thermonuclear device. Designed by of two the century’s most significant nuclear scientists, Stanisław Ulam and Edward Teller, Mike’s design was a strangely beautiful one. As historian Richard Rhodes wrote in Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb: “Steel, lead, waxy polyethylene, purple-black uranium, gold leaf, copper, stainless steel, plutonium, a breath of tritium, silvery deuterium effervescent as a sea wake: Mike was a temple, tragically solomonic, invoking the powers that fire the sun.”

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The Bluebird Inside Our Hearts

The Bluebird Inside Our Hearts

Oct 7, 2016 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Shabbat Shuvah | Yom Kippur

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.

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Homecoming

Homecoming

Nov 24, 2015 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Vayishlah

In Parashat Vayishlah, Jacob returns to the Land of Canaan after a long absence and finds trouble rather than the comforts of home. He prepares to meet his estranged and potentially violent brother.

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How Full of Awe Is This Place!

How Full of Awe Is This Place!

Nov 28, 2014 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Vayetzei

In 1969, as a senior pursuing a BFA at the University of Memphis, my mother, Ann Kibel Schwartz, made a series of prints, including this one on themes from Genesis, as her senior thesis. She drew the images for these prints from magazines, newspapers, and print advertisements. The images were starkly modern, but their juxtaposition in collage, drawing on the ancient themes of the Torah, created an old-new whole.

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The Many Languages of Torah

The Many Languages of Torah

Jan 3, 2014 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Commentary | Bo

Sometimes basic questions are the hardest to answer. For example, I know that one plus one equals two, but when asked to prove it logically, I may struggle a bit before I can express it.

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 157b

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 157b

Oct 9, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

Our Sages forbade us to take measurements on Shabbat. In their day, as in ours, measurements were most often associated with commerce. They strove to create a day free from the workaday stresses of acquisition. We see this sensitivity in this prohibition, as in the many prohibitions and commandments we have seen throughout the year. As we began the year, I hoped to convey that Shabbat is first and foremost a spiritual discipline. 

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 113a

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 113a

Oct 2, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

Some of our Sages felt that objects which could not be used on Shabbat in any permitted way should be utterly outlawed for the entire twenty-five-hour period of Shabbat. This prohibition, termed by the Talmud, Issur Tilltul (the prohibition on moving an object), eventually came to be known as muktzeh(things placed to the side). If an object has no use on Shabbat, it is in this category and, generally, may not be picked up and moved to another location on Shabbat.

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 42a–b

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 42a–b

Sep 23, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

Cooking is forbidden on Shabbat. This is already clear in the Torah. In Exodus 16:23, Moses commands the Israelites to bake their manna before Shabbat begins. But what are the limits of cooking? Does adding spice to a completed dish constitute cooking? When is the cooking process considered to be complete? 

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 35b

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 35b

Sep 18, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

When does Shabbat begin? When does it end? What separates the mundane time of the week from the transcendent time of Shabbat? The simple answer is that Shabbat is the seventh day of the week. Since Genesis 1 places the night before the morning (“And there was evening, and there was morning . . . “), Shabbat begins at nightfall on Friday. But how do we define nightfall? When the sun sets? When it gets dark? When the stars come out? 

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 34a

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 34a

Aug 29, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

Certain things must be done before Shabbat begins. Our mishnah gives a checklist of three things about which the head of a family must inquire as Shabbat begins. Have the necessary tithes been taken from the produce? Has the boundary delineating the extent of private space, the eruv, been properly established? Have the Shabbat lights been lit?

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 30a-b

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 30a-b

Aug 22, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

We are called upon to live a life of mitzvot, not die deaths in our attempt to fulfill God’s commandments. A dangerously sick person requires our care and we are commanded to desecrate Shabbat to fully see to his or her care. Our source puts forward a question about this with regard to a light that is preventing a sick person from sleeping. Are we allowed to desecrate Shabbat by extinguishing the flame and thereby help make rest and recovery possible?

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 12a

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 12a

Aug 15, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

We do not make personal petitions on Shabbat, leaving them for our weekday prayers. What then do we do when visiting the sick on Shabbat? During the week, prayer for healing is an element of our visit, but during Shabbat we should transcend our human needs so that we may gain a taste of the world to come. Nonetheless, we still remain in possession of our bodies on Shabbat and may still fall ill. Illness may sometimes inspire us to spiritual growth, but on the whole, most of us would say that we do not desire suffering or its rewards. So how do we approach the tension between the desire to overcome the physical on Shabbat and remain cognizant of the need for physical healing?

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 25b

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 25b

Aug 8, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

How do we transcend the physical on Shabbat? Our physical existence is temporary, and our bodies are eventually subject to the most horrendous filth, decrepitude, and rot. Shabbat promises a vision of the world to come, in which we imagine our physical decline halted and even reversed. We light Shabbat lamps to inaugurate this period, and light illumines our spirits as well as our homes. But what about our bodies? How do we prepare our all too imperfect flesh for the holy Sabbath?

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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 24a

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 24a

Aug 1, 2009 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Text Study

Our liturgy is a reflection of our values. On Shabbat, festivals, and Rosh Hodesh (the new moon), we read publicly from the Torah to connect our souls more deeply with God, divine wisdom, and the mitzvot. We also read from the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays so that we never go more than three days without Torah. However, on Shabbat and festivals we read a much larger passage than on Rosh Hodesh. Why? 

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