If you’ve ever studied a page of Talmud, you’re ahead of me. For me, the language barrier and the investment of time are — at least for now — too much. But I could tell you the four sins named in the Gemara as the causes of the flood in the time of Noah. And I could explain to you the Rambam’s classification of the different levels of charity. I’ve never read a page of Talmud, but I can learn the teaching of the rabbis, thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.
Rabbi Herzfeld has recorded more than 700 straight episodes of his “5-Minute Daf Yomi” podcast — one a day for more than two years. The episodes are succinct — though the name is a bit misleading. Six or seven minutes per episode isn’t unusual; but considering the complexity of the text he summarizes, Rabbi Herzfeld’s accomplishment is admirable. He’s able to distill the great teachings of the Jewish tradition — its laws, customs, allegories, and debates — into bite-sized morsels, rich enough to stimulate and educate yet stated plainly enough for even a mono-lingual layman to understand.
The “5-Minute Daf” podcast bears all the marks of a Herzfeld project. This isn’t his first time on the airwaves; he hosted a weekly radio show for years called “Schmoozing with Shmuel.” His other methods of spreading his faith have included driving a DC taxi and inviting his (pro-bono) passengers to services. He still drives a used taxi (license plate: GO2SHUL), complete with a matzah design to match his matzah-print suit and yarmulke. His former cars have had after-market menorahs attached around Chanukah (who knew that wasn’t a standard option?). More recently, he’s designed a set of trading cards, called “Alef Blessed Cards,” as a way of introducing children to central themes of Judaism such as charity and prayer.
A common theme in the rabbi’s projects and pulpit is a combination of joy and earnestness. A local news station, in a recent profile of Rabbi Herzfeld, labeled him “the wacky rabbi” — which he took “as the highest compliment!” But his capacity for showmanship, even silliness, is just a gateway to the core of his belief: a deeply felt compassion for people. A quick scan of his Facebook profile includes many (many) proud pictures of his 10-foot lulav and his sukkah made of giant Lego bricks, as well as photos from his trip to help rebuild Houston from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, a recent “Adoption Awareness Shabbat,” and calls for expanded roles for women in Orthodox life.
A central focus of “5-Minute Daf” is also focused on helping others. The episode about Rambam’s teaching on charity was particularly striking for this reason. Rabbi Herzfeld was careful to explain, in very human terms, why charity is done best when both parties are anonymous. The dignity of the giver and the receiver, clearly a priority in Rambam’s eyes, was central in Rabbi Herzfeld’s retelling.
The 5-Minute Daf Yomi podcast recently saw its 100,000th download. Although Rabbi Herzfeld has learned with congressmen and senators, with great rabbis and important people from every segment of society, I’d bet that if you asked him, he’d be most proud of those 100,000 Talmud lessons he gave to people he may not ever have met.
By Benjamin Parker