Passover and First-fruits (Bikurim)

1000 Verses - a project of Judaism Resources

Passover and First-fruits

The Passover Haggada is one of the most accepted Jewish books after the Bible. It is not known who authored the Haggada, nonetheless, the Jewish people recognize in this work the heart and soul of the Passover Seder.

We will focus here on the section of the Haggada which recounts the exodus from Egypt. The author of the Haggada structured the exodus story around the verses from a passage in the book of Deuteronomy (26:5-9). The Haggada quotes one phrase from that passage after another and builds the exodus stories on the amplification of these verses.

Why? From all of the passages in Scripture that speak of the exodus, why did the author of the Haggada choose this particular passage in Deuteronomy?

If we read the passage in its original context, we find that it relates to the bringing of first-fruits to the Temple. When Israel dwelt…

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The Passover Altar

The Passover Altar

 

There were ten miracles that occurred in the Temple on a regular basis. One of these miracles involved the smoke that arose from the fire of the altar. The altar was a large structure situated in the open courtyard of the Temple and there was a fire constantly burning on top of the altar (Leviticus 6:6). This fire consumed the offerings of Israel and sent them heavenward in a pillar of smoke. The miracle that was manifest in the smoke was that the wind never dispersed the smoke. The smoke always ascended heavenward in a solid pillar.

 

We can imagine that when the pilgrims journeyed from afar to worship at the Temple the first thing they would see from miles around Jerusalem was this pillar of smoke. Long before they could see the towering structure of the Temple itself they would see this pillar of smoke.

 

In a certain sense this pillar of smoke symbolized everything that the Temple stood for. The Temple stood for Israel’s submission towards God, Israel’s love for God and Israel’s recognition of God’s absolute sovereignty over every facet of existence and all of these found expression in the fire on the altar. The fire represented the yearning in Israel’s heart to connect to God. When Israel saw the fire consuming the offerings they saw how every facet of life ought to be directed towards God and it was at the altar where the Jewish people would dedicate and rededicate their every breath to the God of their fathers.

 

With all of this in mind we run into a problem when we study that first Passover offering. When the Jewish people slaughtered the lamb on that fateful evening in Egypt there was no altar upon which they could place the blood or the fats of their offering. How can there be an offering without an altar? If the altar and her fire represent the dedication of life in service of God then why was it absent in that first national offering? How could the central message of the sacrificial system be conveyed without an altar?

 

The passage that describes that first Passover offering can perhaps shed some light on this question. When God commands Moses concerning the Passover He emphasizes the concept of a “house” or a “home”. The offering is to be taken for each “house” of fathers. The blood of the offering is to be placed on the doorposts of the “house”. Yeast and leaven cannot be found in the “house”. The meat of the offering must be eaten in one “house” and it cannot be removed from the “house. And when the Israelites are to explain the miracle of Passover to their children they are to say that God passed over our “houses” while He smote the Egyptians and He saved our “houses” (Exodus 12:3,7,15,19,27,46).

 

The houses that were saved were the houses that God loved (Numbers 24:5). He loved them because of the charity and justice that was planted in those houses by Israel’s forefather Abraham (Genesis 18:19). And justice and charity are more beloved by God than the offerings (Proverbs 21:3).

 

The fire and the smoke of the altar only represented the yearning to connect to God and Israel’s submission towards God. Justice and charity are in and of themselves a connection to God and submission to God (Jeremiah 22:16).

 

Just as the blood of offerings sanctified the altar (Leviticus 8:15) so it was with the houses of Israel. These houses were sanctified with the blood of the Passover so that Israel can be a nation unto God (Exodus 6:7).

 

The Passover offering was not done without an altar. The altar was the home of the Jew. The altar of the Temple is actually meaningless without the altar of the home. It is only to the degree that we have incorporated the concepts of charity and justice into every step of our daily life that the fire on the altar represent a true yearning for God (Isaiah 1:10-17). But if we don’t know God in our daily lives then what does the smoke on the altar mean?

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The Oral Law in Judaism and Christianity – by Jim

The Christian missionary often challenges the existence of the Oral Torah with the question: “Where in the (Written) Torah does it say anything about an Oral Torah?” He assumes that the text should come with some statement instructing the reader that it has an accompanying unwritten explanation that one should seek out if he wishes to understand the work. Barring such a statement, any claim to an Oral Torah can only be an excuse to impose upon the text the interpretations of the rabbis and to substitute divine instruction with their own. This objection, however, is unreasonable. Other—more able writers—have already shown that the Written Torah cannot be understood without accompanying information. Certain commandments, for example, are too indefinite in the text to be practicable. Because this territory has been well-explored by others, this brief essay will attempt a different course, demonstrating the priority of the Oral Torah by drawing an analogy from Christianity to Torah.

Christianity does not begin with the written word. It begins, rather, with the teachings of Jesus as delivered to crowds on hillsides, in the houses of various interested parties, and in private with his disciples. He is not known to ever have written any of his teachings but given them over orally. After his death, his disciples carried on in the same way at least initially. Peter did not begin his own ministry by composing a body of Christian scripture but by teaching in Jerusalem. Later, he composed a few letters, but those were not the foundation of his teaching. Similarly, though Paul wrote several letters, his ministry began orally, teaching various communities outside of Israel. From this fact it can be seen that within Christianity, oral teaching preceded written teaching; oral teaching is prior in time to Christian scripture.

It was decades after Jesus’ death that his teachings were written down. The first gospel is thought to have been written by Mark and is generally considered to have been based on the teachings of Peter. In order to show the importance of the oral tradition, even within Christianity, the following two thought experiments are presented for consideration:

Thought experiment #1:

Mark has just completed his gospel, based on the oral teachings of Peter as above. Several copies are distributed to various communities, including a Church community in Emmaus. Peter has been travelling, ministering to different communities and has not yet seen the completed work. In the course of his travels, he comes to Emmaus, where they are studying the newly received gospel. As a leader reads the gospel aloud to the congregation, among whom Peter is sitting, the leader reads that Jesus imparted to his disciples such-and-such a saying, at which point Peter interrupts and says that Mark has not got that quite right. Jesus did not say such-and-such, but something similar, the difference of which is important enough to correct. At this moment, a conflict has arisen between the oral tradition and the written transmission. Is it possible that the congregation will ignore Peter and adhere to the written gospel before them?

It is possible, but it is not likely. The written word depends upon its adherence to Peter’s teaching for its own authority. Mark is purportedly giving over what he was taught. If his teacher says that on some point or another Mark is mistaken, either misunderstanding or misremembering, then Mark’s writing is subject to correction and alteration upon that point. The fact that his work is written rather than oral does not imbue it with special authority. On the contrary, the authority of the written tradition is derived from the oral tradition. Any deviation from the oral tradition in the written word is a flaw. From this, it can be seen that the oral tradition has priority over the written word, both in time and in authority.

Thought experiment #2: Imagine the same scenario as above, only this time, when Peter listens to the reading of Mark’s gospel, he has no objection to what is written. Instead, the congregation has a question about just what such-and-such means. Jesus is supposed to have spoken in riddles, after all. After their local leader propounds an interpretation, Peter says that the man has not got it quite right. Peter puts forward a different interpretation of Jesus’ words. In this instance, the question is this: whose interpretation is more likely to be in line with Jesus’ actual teaching?

Again, the answer is Peter. Peter is not relying merely on the text to determine what Jesus’ meaning was. He learned from Jesus for about three-and-a-half years. His familiarity with the teachings of Jesus must be more thorough than almost anyone else’s. At the least, he would have a feel for Jesus’ meaning, an intuition based on his learning directly from Jesus. Moreover, those riddles that Jesus spoke in the hearing of the masses, he is supposed to have explained privately to his disciples. They had opportunity to ask questions and gain clarification on issues that might have confused them. Similarly, they would have heard the same teachings multiple times, phrased in different ways, so that it would become clearer to them. The leader of this congregation does not have any of those advantages of insight. A chasm of understanding separates those that study with a person and those that have only read a book that he wrote. So, even in matters of interpretation, priority must be granted to the oral transmission over the reading of the written word.

These thought experiments and the beginnings of the Church serve as a rough analogy to relation of the oral transmission to the written transmission within the Torah system. The Five Books of Moses were not documents found in the desert, void of context. Nor was the teaching of the Torah confined to those five books. Even before Sinai—and certainly before the written Torah—Israel had knowledge of God and of certain commandments, though they had not been written down. They knew and kept the Seven Laws of Noah. They kept circumcision. Before Sinai, they kept Passover and the Sabbath, even though the laws thereof were written nowhere, but were transmitted orally to the people: from God to Moses, from Moses to the elders, and from the elders to the people. Israel was a community of people that was taught how to observe its laws, not merely through the written word, but through the instruction of Moses, a prophet whose credentials were established before them.

It is the oral transmission that verifies the written word. Israel knows that God spoke to Moses, not because it said so in a book, but because the nation witnessed the event and passed that knowledge on from generation to generation. The book is known to be true, because it comports with their knowledge. Similarly, because they were already keeping Sabbath before the written word, they understand the meaning of the written word through their prior knowledge. R’ Hirsch compares the written Torah to a system of notes. It is not the entire teaching that the Jewish people received. But it is a system used to bring to memory what the people learned already. One outside the Torah tradition can read those notes and understand some but not all without consulting a student of the Torah, one who heard the lecture to which the notes correspond.

Another thought experiment may be useful to elucidate this point.

Thought experiment #3: Imagine that the written Torah has been finished for a couple of months and one copy of it is misplaced by Fred, who is known for his carelessness. And the missing copy is found by a man who, for whatever reason, believes that he has just come upon what he considers to be undeniably divine revelation. And, he seeks out Israel, so that he can join them. In the meantime, he practices Sabbath observance according to his own interpretation of the text he has found. When he finds the Jewish people, he is excited and wishes to join them. But, he is dismayed to find differences in their Sabbath observance and his own. He pulls out his copy of the Torah—the one that Fred lost—and he shows them a verse, and he tells them that, clearly, they are supposed to do such-and-such or abstain from doing this-or-that. Will they follow his interpretation?

It should be obvious that they will not. They were intimately familiar with the details on how to keep the Sabbath before receiving the written Torah. Any ambiguities in how to keep the Sabbath could be cleared up by asking questions. They did not need merely to probe the text looking for clues. If a stranger, who did not receive this instruction and had not practiced keeping the Sabbath in a community of other Sabbath observers, introduces his own interpretations of the text, it will hold no weight with them. He does not have the context necessary to understand the Torah the way that they do.

The written Torah relies upon the oral Torah. It is the oral that verifies the written, not the other way around. Moreover, the written Torah cannot be fully understood without the oral Torah.

But, if this is true—and if it is as true for Christianity as it is for Torah—then one might well ask why Evangelical missionaries seek confirmation of the oral transmission from the written transmission. What I have written here argues that their question inverts relationship of written teaching to the oral teaching and suggests that their error is quite basic. If it is so basic, obvious even, how do they even make such an error?

The error of the missionary is rooted in the loss of the oral tradition in the Church. It is not just that Evangelicals, being Protestants, denied the oral traditions of the Church, cutting themselves off from tradition. The problem is much deeper and more significant than that. No reliable oral tradition existed in the Church from the beginning, so that, within the first generation after Jesus, confusion about his message already existed.

This confusion is evident from the beginning of the post-resurrection movement. According to Matthew, even after Jesus appeared to the surviving eleven disciples, “some doubted” (28:17). This suggests that from the beginning of the movement, different accounts existed for what happened, that not all eleven disciples believed they had seen the resurrected Jesus. It is suggestive of competing claims being made from the first generation of Jesus’ students. This doubt is remarkable, because it is hard to doubt a shared sensory experience. Jesus is supposed to have appeared to them and taught them, but still, some doubted? Thus, even the written transmission suggests that no unified understanding of the resurrection existed among the supposed witnesses. It is quite possible, likely even, that not all the early followers of Jesus’ message taught that he was resurrected, including among his immediate disciples, which is why Matthew has to comment on some doubting.

Certainly, as the gospel spread, it became muddled. It is clear from what Paul writes to the Galatians that multiple gospels with competing claims were being spread within decades of the death of Jesus. He issues a warning to the Galatians that they heed no other gospel than his own. Multiple oral traditions, then, circulated early on. Confusion beset the Church within the second generation of believers, if not earlier.

Paul, himself, is not a reliable source of Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus was alive, of course, Paul did not study with Jesus. However, he claims that his gospel comes to him through Jesus, through a revelation—a claim that could not be verified (Galatians 1:12). He goes on to insist that his gospel did not come through studying with Jesus’ disciples, and that when he went to Jerusalem, he only stayed with Peter 15 days. If a reliable oral transmission had existed at that point, from Jesus to the disciples, that chain was broken with Paul.

Indeed, it is remarkable that two of the most influential figures in the early Church are two men that did not learn from Jesus, one being Paul and the other James, Jesus’ brother. From the gospels, it appears that James did not follow Jesus’ teachings while Jesus was still alive. Only later would he become involved in the Jesus movement. This provokes certain questions that are not immediately relevant, so they will be put aside. What must be noted, however, is that he did not study with Jesus, just as Paul did not. It is not clear that James ever studied with Peter or the other disciples, and it is not surprising then, that these two men, neither of whom studied with Jesus, should end up in conflict over what the teachings of Jesus meant.

The early conflicts in the Church speak to the lack of a reliable oral transmission. The Church did not know what it meant for non-Jews to become believers in Jesus. Did they need to convert to Judaism? Or could they remain non-Jews, observing the Seven Laws of Noah with a couple new practices to commemorate Jesus? As time went on, the questions and disagreements became larger. Was Jesus divine, semi-divine, or not at all divine? From early on in Church history, the message of the Church was a muddle, with various gospels and theologies circulating and competing.

Moreover, much of Church doctrine is received only through the written word. When a Christian reads the epistle to Ephesus, he does not have the context of what Paul taught to the Ephesians in person. He has no access to the oral teaching given over in that church or at Corinth or at Philippi. He does not even have access to the oral teaching in Jerusalem, only bits and pieces of it. And this is not a matter of things being lost to the modern age, it was a problem from the foundation of congregations outside Jerusalem. The Church was a diffuse body—not a Church, but churches—that did not have the context of the teachings in other areas. Those churches were receiving different gospels, which they interpreted in different ways based on their lack of context.

The diffusion of the Church is not its strength, but a source of confusion. In order to maintain an oral tradition, one needs a community. A community is able to identify new teachings as they arise. If someone says that he believes God should be worshipped in this or that way, based on his own interpretation, the community can counter that his teaching is unknown to them. A community has the strength to resist innovation, because the teachings do not reside with a few, which, if corrupted, can pollute the entire system. Rather, the community can always appeal to the common knowledge.

For a long time, the Jewish people had just such a community. As a nation, as a community, they had a system of checks and balances in place to avoid the introduction of error or the loss of information. The Torah system did not rely solely upon the knowledge of a few in the clerical class. The knowledge of Torah ran through the whole society, so that it did have teachers in the Levites, but it also had judges who must be also learned in Torah, and it was carried also from parent to child, so that the whole nation served carriers of Torah knowledge. Even while some departed the way of Torah, they did not corrupt the Torah system, as it was guarded by the nation as a whole and not a few, which could not be held accountable.

With the Church, things were the opposite. The Church had no reliable system to guard its teaching. Being geographically spread out, distortion and confusion were easily able to enter the Church. Ideas counter to the original message—which itself was a distortion of Torah—or distorting the original message were carried into the diverse churches. Gospels multiplied and the oral teachings of the Church were lost.

The dispersal of the Jewish people created a similar problem for the Torah system. However, the Jews were careful to preserve their oral teachings and not let the message be lost. Some small elements of confusion crept in, but the essentials were preserved. However, the Church lost its original teachings. It is for this reason that missionaries ask a question that is based on confusion. The Church lost its oral tradition, so the missionary does not consider the foundation of the written tradition. He comes to his religion solely through the written word, and it does not occur to him that the written word is subsequent to oral teaching or that its authority is borrowed from the oral transmission.

Jim

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Circumcise Your Heart

1000 Verses - a project of Judaism Resources

Circumcise Your Heart

We are commanded by God to circumcise our hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4). How does one go about fulfilling this injunction? What is the meaning of this metaphor?

In the language of Scripture, the heart is the seat of understanding. Just as the eye sees and the ears hear so does the heart understand and know (Isaiah 6:10). Scripture employs the metaphor of uncircumcision for the ear (Jeremiah 6:10). The uncircumcised ear cannot listen or hear. It would then follow that the uncircumcised heart cannot know or understand.

This interpretation is reinforced when we consider the context of the two passages in which our metaphor appears (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4). In both instances Scripture employs a different metaphor as a parallel to the metaphor under discussion. In Deuteronomy the Scripture speaks of ceasing to stiffen our necks. Throughout Scripture a stiff neck is a reference to stubbornness…

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Not to Bow

1000 Verses - a project of Judaism Resources

Not to Bow

 

“And all the servants of the King that were in the gate of the King kneeled and bowed to Haman but Mordechai would not kneel nor would he bow” (Esther 3:2)

Mordechai’s refusal to bow infuriated Haman. It infuriated him to the degree that he was moved to destroy all of Mordechai’s people.

It seems that the Jewish refusal to bow does not sit well with God’s enemies. These people see the Jewish refusal to bow as legalistic, arrogant, and self-centered. Why can’t you be like everyone else? Everyone else is inspired by the wealth of Haman, by the power of Caesar or by the mystery of Jesus. Why does the Jew have to stand apart?

This is the question that fueled the fires of hate for generations. This question was in the mind of the Crusaders, the Inquisitors and the propagandists who inspired their crimes…

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Messianic Prophecies – excerpt from Supplement to Contra Brown

Dr. Brown writes:

III. 27. Page 189

“Messianic prophecies are not clearly identified as such.”

This is amazing. Brown believes that the main purpose of the Jewish Bible is to predict the advent of the Messiah, yet the prophecies are not clearly identified?! And on what basis can he make such a preposterous statement? The prophets gave us a clear hope for Israel’s future. There are many prophecies in the Jewish Bible which clearly talk of the Messianic era, and of the Messiah.

These include but are not limited to Numbers 24:14-19, Deuteronomy 4:30, 30:1-10, 32:43, Jeremiah 3:14-18, 16:14,15,19, 23:3-5, 30:3,7-11,16-25, 31:1-39, 32:37-44, 33:6-26, 46:27,28,50:4,5,19,20, Ezekiel 11;17-20, 17:22-24, 20:40-44, 28:24-26, 34:9-16,22-31, 36:6-16,22-38,37:1-28,38:1-48:35, Isaiah 1:26, 2:2-4, 4:2-6, 10:33-12:6, 24:21-25:9, 30:26, 34:1, 40:1-11,41:10-20, 43:5-10, 44:1-5 49:8-26, 51:11,22-52:12, 54:1-55:5, 56:7, 60:1-63:9, 65:17-25, 66:10-24, Hosea 2:1-3,16-25, Joel 3;1-5, 4:1-21, Amos 9:11-15, Obadiah 1;17-21, Micha 4:1-7, 5:1-13, 7:8-20, Zephaniah 3;9-20, Zechariah 2:9, 8:2-8, 14:3-21, Malachi 3:4,16-24, Psalms 51:20,21, 69:36,37, 98:1-3, 102:14-23, 126:1-6, Daniel 2;44, 7:18,22,27, 12:2,3.

Can anyone question the fact that these prophecies are the hope and promise of Israel’s glorious future? How can Brown say that messianic prophecies are not clearly identified?

More important is the question; Why does Brown say that the messianic prophecies are not clearly identified?

The obvious answer to this question is that Brown never seems to have approached scripture with an open mind. It seems that he never asked himself; What would a Jew before Jesus’ times have believed about the Messianic era? What would scripture have taught him about the Messiah? Who and what does God encourage us to hope for?

Had Brown asked himself these basic questions, he would have realized that the scriptures are very clear on these issues. The problem is that Brown started the other way. He first came to believe in Jesus. He then looked back into the Jewish scriptures and tried to understand Jesus’ claim that the prophets predicted his coming. Things tend to get quite murky if you read the book that way. When Brown tells us that Messianic prophecies are not clearly identified as such, he is admitting that the preconceived notions of Christianity cannot be readily seen in the Bible.

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Men of my Counsel

Men of my Counsel

A person needs acknowledgment in order to survive. A person needs to feel that he or she is significant and that their life makes a difference. Without this feeling of self-respect and self-worth it is difficult to stay afloat on the raft of life.

There are different levels of acknowledgment. When you walk in to a store and the person behind the counter smiles at you and offers a greeting; that can be an act of acknowledgment. Sometimes you actually get a sincere greeting from a store-clerk; not because they are out for your patronage; but because they respect you as another human being.  Being acknowledged as a human being is important, but there is more to acknowledgement than that.

If the goals and aspirations that are dear to your heart are important to other people and these people appreciate that you are the person that will bring these goals to fruition, then the acknowledgement that you receive from them is so much deeper and more significant. These people will have acknowledged; not only your humanity, but also your role in life.

If you are blessed with a group of close friends who open their hearts to you and these friends constantly identify with your struggles and your aspirations; you will find yourself being affirmed and accepted on a constant basis.

The Psalmist declares that he is blessed with such an inner core of friends; men with whom he can constantly confide (Psalm 119:24). These “men of his counsel” are the commandments of the Torah. Each one of the commandments is a personal directive from the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth charging man with God’s work in this world. Can there be a greater confirmation and acknowledgment of one’s significance? What can be greater than the direct word of God telling you: “My son; My daughter; I, the Creator of heaven and earth entrust you with this particular act. I believe you can do it and it is important to Me that you do it.” Can you ask for more?

No; it is not that God “needs” our service. As Elihu declared: “If you are righteous; what have you given Him?” (Job 35:7). God does not “need” the existence of the universe altogether. But as far as there is a universe and as far as God has a purpose with this universe, then our deeds play a role in His plan.

Just as it is possible to receive acknowledgment and affirmation so can we receive the opposite of these; we can be invalidated and our sense of self-worth can be undermined. When we walk in to a store and we sense that the greeting that we receive has only been offered in order to buy our patronage; we have received a message of invalidation. We have been told that our humanity is not something that is worthy of acknowledgment. – Most people can handle such negative messages.

How about when we are treated rudely? Or how about when our basic human dignity is ignored and someone physically hits us? It is much more difficult to deal with such an extreme invalidation of our humanity – but most people can still bounce back from such an experience. Perhaps our friends and family will offer moral support. Perhaps we can draw upon our own inner strength and reaffirm our own dignity as people created in the image of God.

How about when those who stand against us exhibit a complete lack of respect for our very lives? How about if this comes together with a comprehensive message that invalidates every one of our goals and aspirations? How about if these negative messages are coupled with our enemies violently trampling on our entire thought process while the rest of humanity looks on with indifference?

That was the holocaust. But the holocaust didn’t happen in a vacuum. The holocaust was merely the apex of 2000 years of the invalidation of the Jew as a human being and of the invalidation of everything that the Jew stood for. For 2000 years the European defined the Jew as “sub-human” or worse. What the Jew considered holy and righteous was considered by the fellow inhabitants of the planet to be evil and impure. And these fellow inhabitants of the European continent did not hide their feelings; they put them on display in their Churches, in their town-squares and in their museums of art.

So how did the Jew survive?

When the Jew went out into the street the message was: you are dirt, you are worthless and you are a child of the devil. But when the Jew turned to God’s holy law; the voice of the Creator of heaven and earth greeted him or her with the message: “you are my beloved child in whom I delight.” Yes; the nations around us even took our law and tried to prove from the very love-letter written to us by God that He hates us and has cast us away. But the commandments were always there to reassure us. The holiness of the Sabbath, the purity and holiness of the commandments, the Godly joy of the holidays and the closeness we experienced in the days of awe all of these were appointed by God to stand at our side. Not only to affirm our humanity and sense of self-worth but to affirm our every step as servants of God, to affirm our thought process and to validate our role in God’s plan.

“If not for Your Torah as my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” (Psalm 119:92)

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