One for the Books| April 3, 2023
Nachi Weinstein, the bibliophile behind the seforim chatter podcast
Photos: Yisroel Tesser, Yehuda Esral
The man sits in the center of a large basement, surrounded by 17 Ikea Billy bookcases lining the walls. Each bookcase boasts six shelves, and each shelf is packed with published Jewish works. The room is just shelf after shelf of seforim — 102 shelves in all — holding a grand total of more than 2,000 seforim and Jewish books.
In the middle of the shelves is a white desk, where he sits hunched over a bright screen. He absentmindedly pushes up the glasses perched on his nose as he stares intently at the words on the screen. He frowns, backspaces, and his hand hovers over the trackpad before it shoots out, grabbing the sefer at the top of a tall stack to his right. He quickly leafs through the first few pages, peruses the publisher’s introduction, and finally, there’s a small satisfied smile as he finds what he’s looking for. He types a couple of paragraphs, quickly now, and then reads through the text start to finish to make sure it’s ready to be uploaded.
It’s nearing midnight on this summer Motzaei Shabbos — just a precious hour remains until the new week officially begins — and Nachi Weinstein is putting the finishing touches on yet another edition of his SeforimChatter podcast before posting it online.
After compiling a short description of the episode — be it about a talmid chacham describing his latest halachic work, a university professor discussing a historic battle over a family fortune, a librarian presenting highlights of a new exhibit or a historian piecing together a picture of daily life in a bygone era — Nachi will add a description of his guest’s bio. Next step is to record introductory remarks — that episode’s sponsor, programming notes — and then finally, he skims through the audio, giving the episode a quick listen, before uploading it to the hosting site to be disseminated to various listening platforms.
Come Sunday morning, an eager audience numbering in the thousands will tune in to the new release.
Nachi’s listeners range from accomplished talmidei chachamim to distinguished professors who are experts in their chosen disciplines, from people at home in the beis medrash to those who frequent university lecture halls. There are also a host of subscribers with day jobs in the business and professional worlds. Young or old, male or female, kolleleit, businessmen, tenured academics, or retirees — all devote a chunk of their weekend routine to the show, which can range anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours.
The common denominator uniting Nachi’s remarkably diverse audience is an almost insatiable hunger for understanding Jewish history and seforim in a deep and stimulating way. His listeners know that the best clues to the character, legacy, and values of the People of the Book are in the paper — and parchment — trail left over time. And there’s nothing that excites them more than the hidden details or historical portraits that lie in a broad knowledge and skilled dissection of the printed word.
Yet talk to avid listeners (and as a rule, all SeforimChatter listeners are avid listeners), and you’ll hear another shared motif: an appreciation for Nachi Weinstein himself, a bibliophile who’s extraordinarily well versed in the most obscure periods of history and who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of everything sefer-related.
The sefer that started it all. Nachi shares a colorful historical episode from the Chida’s Shem Hagedolim with writer Yosef Herz
How did Nachi, a 30-year-old Lakewood resident and yeshivah graduate, earn the respect of those in academia while still appealing to the everyman? One Sunday evening before Pesach, we sat together in “Yuks,” a legendary shul in the shadow of Beth Medrash Govoha where Nachi serves as the gabbai seforim. There, over a desk piled high with off-the-beaten-track seforim, Nachi shared the backstory of his increasingly popular show.
As a veteran SeforimChatter listener, I start our conversation the same way Nachi has started just about every one of his 190 podcasts to date: “Tell us a little about yourself and your background.” With a smile, he obliges.
He’s a third-generation Lakewooder, he tells me; his grandfather, Rav Yekusiel “Yuks” Weinstein, a talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, came to learn in BMG under Rav Shneur Kotler. Eventually Rav Weinstein assumed some of the yeshivah’s administrative responsibilities at Rav Shneur’s request. When Rav Yekusiel’s father passed away, he wanted to ensure he could daven from the amud every day, so he asked Rav Shneur for permission to form a minyan in his house, just two blocks from the yeshivah. Rav Shneur acquiesced, and Chevra Lomdei Torah was born in the Weinstein living room on Fifth Street. In time, the shul — or “litvisher shtibel,” as old time Lakewooders like to say — became affectionately known as “Yuks” in loving reference to Rav Yekusiel. It developed into a highly regarded makom tefillah and a favored spot of BMG talmidim seeking a quieter place to learn.
“My grandfather loved seforim,” Nachi says. “He wasn’t a collector, and he didn’t necessarily care for antiques, but he knew all the current seforim and was always buying for his shul and for himself.”
Nachi grew up just a stone’s throw from the shul on a leafy block in the Fourteenth Street area. As a teenager, he attended Passaic’s Mesivta Tiferes Rav Zvi Aryeh Zemel, where the menahel Rav Meir Rubin imparted an appreciation for the differences between the various Rishonim. When he continued on to Philadelphia Yeshiva for beis medrash, Nachi chanced upon a sefer that gave him his first real taste of Jewish history.
“I remember picking up a sefer Shem Hagedolim,” he recalls, referencing the historical work of the Chida, Rav Chaim Yosef David Azoulai, an 18th-century Jerusalem-born gadol whose scholarship and piety won him the title of “shlucha d’rabbanan” or “shadar.” This distinction included trips abroad to raise funds for Eretz Yisrael’s needy, and when the Chida reached the Lazzaretto district of Livorno, Italy, a city ordinance required him to quarantine for two weeks to ensure he wasn’t carrying a foreign disease. The Chida used this time to write a bibliography of all the gedolim and rabbanim until his time, penning entries on various chachamim in descriptive, flowery, and often heartwarmingly personal terms.
The sefer captivated Nachi, who took it with him to bed.
“There’s a certain awe we have for gedolim,” he says, “and here I had found these vivid, detailed descriptions of them. Here, look,” he says as he pulls out a Shem Hagedolim and opens it to the Chida’s description of his meeting with the Pnei Yehoshua, Rav Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, who served as rav in kehillos all over Germany in the first half of the 1700s. The Pnei Yehoshua was in Frankfurt when the Chida met him.
“And I the young one [tza’ir] was zocheh to be mekabel pnei haShechinah… and his countenance was like that of a malach Elokim….” Nachi reads the words of the Chida.
Back as a teenager, those vivid descriptions of the Chida’s encounters with colorful personalities didn’t just pique Nachi’s interest; they left him smitten.
“That was the first historical work that truly resonated and made a massive impact on me,” he says.
Nachi in Lakewood’s Judaica Plaza, perusing a paper-and-ink gateway to history. “I enjoy putting out the podcast, but more than that, I want people to know about these early gedolim. My life was enriched and I want others to have that, too”
Shortly after his arrival at the Philadelphia Yeshiva, Nachi was asked to serve as the gabbai seforim, essentially the yeshivah librarian (sans the insistence on silence). He immediately set to work on a complete overhaul of the library; luckily, the yeshivah’s seforim fund had several thousand dollars that hadn’t been used, so he had the means to do so. Out went the old, heavy editions of Rashba, Pnei Yehoshua, Keren Orah, and Aruch LaNer with their small print and yellowed pages. Instead, he ordered beautifully produced new editions complete with sources, footnotes explaining slight changes in the text, and the publisher’s introduction.
That last addition — the publisher’s introduction — captured Nachi’s attention, and soon he found himself devouring the introductions to many other writings of the Rishonim. “The mevo, the publisher’s introduction, is a gold mine of information,” he explains. This is different from the mechaber’s introduction, the hakdamah, which is penned by the writer himself.
“The publisher’s introduction describes the behind-the-scenes work by the editors and publisher of the modern edition. Often, there are several versions of a sefer, and these introductions will clarify which manuscript the editors consulted for variances against the original text. They might also provide a brief overview of the Rishon’s life.”
A mevo is especially useful in a critical edition, in which an editor constructs a text based on all available versions and publications. For example, Machon Shlomo Aumann recently published Rav Yosef Yaavetz’s commentary on Pirkei Avos. Known as “The Chassid Yaavetz,” he fled Spain after the expulsion of 1492. His grandsons printed his work in Turkey in the mid-1550s, and since that time, many errors have crept in. In some cases material was left out. The critical edition takes that first edition and, using it as its base, supplements with annotations from other manuscript copies — in this case, six — adding sources and comments in the footnotes. This sefer is a staple of the baalei mussar and yeshivah world, so a new critical edition is a welcome development.
Another example is the brand-new edition of Rav Yosef Caro’s Maggid Meisharim, an account of visits by an angelic entity. The editors consulted original manuscripts to fine-tune the existing text and completely rearranged the structure of the work, corrected many errors, and included additions from the manuscripts.
Aside from the technical information it provides, a sefer’s mevo can also serve the same function as Nachi’s opening question on his podcast: “Tell me a little bit about your background,” giving the reader context.
“Most of us can’t read enough from a sefer initially to know what it’s about,” Nachi says. “A mevo is critical if one wants to know about the mechaber, when he lived, who his rebbeim were, who his talmidim were, and his mehalech halimud.”
Nachi proudly remembers a “haskamah” he received to his practice of carefully reading publisher’s introductions. “When I was in fourth year beis medrash in Philly, I learned with the rosh yeshivah Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky every Thursday morning,” he remembers. “One of our learning sessions fell out right before Rosh Hashanah, so I suggested we forego our regular limud and learn the Kisvei HaRamban which include a derashah on Rosh Hashanah instead.”
Rav Shmuel gladly accepted the recommendation, and when Nachi brought him a new edition of the work, Rav Shmuel opened the sefer.
“We have to read the mevo first,” he told Nachi, and he proceeded to peruse the introduction.
Nachi points to the mevo of the Shitah Mekubetzes on Maseches Sotah. The Shitah Mekubetzes is a commentary on the Gemara authored by Rav Bezalel Ashkenazi, chief rabbi of Egypt in the 16th century and rebbi of the Arizal. The sefer is a compendium of earlier sources with some additions from Rav Bezalel himself. The Shitah on Maseches Sotah was first published in 1799 in Livorno, Italy, inside a sefer titled Bris Yaakov, but it included commentary until only daf 17.
In 2013, Mossad Harav Kook published a critical edition with Rav Bezalel’s notes on the entirety of Nazir as well as the part of Sotah that had been published in Bris Yaakov. The introduction explained that the original editor of Bris Yaakov, Rav Yaakov Faitusi, came into possession of Rav Bezalel Ashkenazi’s own Gemara with his marginal notes. Although some of pages were trimmed and words missing (“nibbled by mice” was his description), he managed to transcribe the writings until daf 17. Then the Gemara went missing, hence the sadly truncated version of the Shitah Mekubetzes.
Centuries later, however, after the 2013 critical edition had been published, the Gemara was found — the mevo doesn’t specify how or where — and in 2021, Mossad Harav Kook used that newly discovered manuscript to publish Rav Ashkenazi’s commentary on the entire Maseches Sotah. It is also the only Gemara containing his own handwriting, not that of a copyist.
“But you’d have to read the mevo,” Nachi points out, “to know about that centuries-long gap.”
After Nachi’s marriage to Penina Herber of Flatbush in 2015, the young couple settled in Lakewood — and the world of seforim opened even wider for him. Nachi started reading up on topics that interested him, things like the Abarbanel’s commentary on Daniel (part of his trilogy on Mashiach), Rav David Conforti’s Korei Hadorot (Nachi pronounces this Sephardi style, with relish), and Rav Avraham Menachem Rappaport from Italy’s commentary on Chumash Minchah Belulah (“We share the same name, Avraham Menachem”). Nachi culled information from sifrei kodesh, academic sources, even scholars who were well-versed in his areas of interest.
“I was especially fascinated by new and critical editions of Rishonim [about year 1000 to 1450], and earlier Acharonim [1450 and on]. For example, in the last year alone, three new editions of the Chida’s travelogue, Maagal Tov, were published. This is the Chida’s diary of his trips across Europe on behalf of the Chevron community, and it includes fascinating personal anecdotes and vignettes.”
Nachi has the newest edition of the sefer handy, and he opens it to the Chida’s description of an anti-Semitic ship captain who ordered his men to deny the rabbi water. In particularly colorful language, the Chida describes the captain as an “arrogant, foolish Frenchman who was wicked through and through,” noting that he didn’t eat adequately the entire week because he wasn’t given enough water. The Chida writes about how he was separated from the other passengers, and he used his time in solitude to learned the Prashas Drachim, a compilation of the derashos of Rav Yehuda Rosanes, the chacham bashi (chief rabbi) of the Ottoman empire in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Chida also used the time to pen his own derashos on parshiyos Vayikra and Emor.
As Nachi gained expertise in the world of seforim — he has a particular affinity for Italian Jewry and is fascinated by the well-rounded and knowledgeable mechabrim of the region — elder and seasoned seforim aficionados began consulting with him. Then his father asked him to oversee the otzar seforim of his grandfather’s shul, and his hobby became an official job with compensation. Nachi threw himself into the task, researching and comparing various editions of popular seforim, tracking down older and hard-to-find copies of out-of-print seforim, and most importantly, buying and learning them all thoroughly.
Along with his enthusiasm, determination, and impressive knowledge, the young expert brought something new to the table. While his mind was in 15th-century Italy or Poland, the tools he applied to his labor of love were very much 21st century.
Nachi shared his insights and finds on social media, developing a cadre of followers whom he would update on sefer-related news: “New edition of Kol Chai now available,” “Coming soon: The Golden Path — Maimonides across Eight Centuries,” and “Yoman Livorna 4, Vol. IX, now published for the first time from the manuscript.” He didn’t offer his personal takes and rhapsodize over new releases because of space constraints; instead he’d just send out alerts.
Until about three years ago, Nachi limited his public engagement to updates about newly released seforim. Occasionally, though, he toyed with the idea of doing something more extensive. “My feed was anonymous — I called myself ‘SeforimChatter’ and no one knew it was me; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go public,” he recalls. He had also just enrolled in Seton Hall Law School in Newark and didn’t think it was the right time for an ambitious new undertaking.
Then Covid hit.
“Everyone was bored and locked down, including me,” he says. “I decided to go for it.”
“Strangers often meet in my store, and a great way for me to break the ice is to ask if they heard the latest SeforimChatter podcast — because a lively discussion is guaranteed”
Nachi sat in his basement, took a deep breath, and recorded himself talking into his cellphone in a rather shaky voice about two newly-released seforim. The first was a new edition of Eim Labinah, Rav Yaakov Emden’s glosses on Chumash, which were composed over a 40-year period but remained unpublished for close to 250 years, collecting dust as a manuscript in the British Library until their publication in 2020. The second subject of Nachi’s talk was a new release of the sefer that had served as his entrée to the world of seforim: the Chida’s Shem Hagedolim, published by Machon Hama’or. “I was essentially sharing my own introduction to the seforim in audio form,” he remembers, “because that’s what I loved.”
That offering, a 26-minute long monologue, found a ready audience that drank thirstily and begged for more. Soon Nachi mustered the courage to invite guests to his budding show. One of his first was Israel Mizrahi, proprietor of Mizrahi Book Store in Brooklyn, New York, and a dealer in antique, used, rare, and out-of-print Jewish books.
Mr. Mizrahi, a Sephardi who spends his days in his unbelievably cluttered and chaotic old-world shop crammed with books and seforim in every color and title imaginable, and Nachi, the Lakewood yungerman, enjoyed an hour-long conversation about their mutual adoration of seforim. The listeners loved the exchange, and Mr. Mizrahi has been a steady fan ever since.
“The effect of a SeforimChatter podcast is much larger than just promoting a title,” Mr. Mizrahi says. “What’s discussed on the show becomes a subject of conversation for those who appreciate it. Strangers often meet in my store, and a great way for me to break the ice is to ask if they heard the latest SeforimChatter podcast — because a lively discussion is guaranteed.”
The show is a boon for mechabrei seforim as well, a democratizing channel they can use to bypass the commercialization and compartmentalizing of the Jewish book world, where some stores will carry only certain genres, and every distributor is limited to the stores he works with.
“Nachi’s podcast allows an author to reach the entire spectrum of Jewish readership and to raise awareness of a title people would read eagerly if they only knew of its existence,” Mr. Mizrahi explains.
It isn’t only Israel Mizrahi who’s found a kindred soul in Nachi and his affection for seforim. A chevreh of sorts — page pals, if you will — have bonded over the written word, thanks to the podcast, including Nachi himself, who often gets emails from listeners in Israel, Australia, Germany, all over the US, and elsewhere.
“It’s truly shocking how far its reach is, how many people are interested in Jewish history and seforim,” he says.
He’s also made close friends through the podcast. Rabbi Moshe Maimon of Jackson, New Jersey, is an 11th grade rebbi and a talmid chacham noted for his massive critical edition of Rabbeinu Avraham Ben HaRambam’s commentary on the Torah, as well as a historian and seforim enthusiast. Nachi says the two of them have become fast friends, visiting each other to browse new acquisitions, discuss history, and brainstorm new podcast topics.
One fellow seforim enthusiast calls Nachi “a 2023 version of Biegeleisen,” a reference to the legendary Boro Park seforim store that’s a magnet for any serious seforim devotee and a source of inside information. Nachi laughs at the reference.
“Reb Aharon Biegeleisen and I are good friends,” he says of the store’s proprietor. “Most of the seforim I purchase for myself and the shul — on average two a week at this point — come from Biegeleisen, and he’s become a real friend through the podcast.”
Popular daf yomi maggid shiur Reb Sruly Bornstein explains why he finds Nachi so impressive. “There are two dinim to Nachi,” he says, employing classic Brisker lomdus to explain the phenomenon that is Nachi Weinstein. “The first din in Nachi is that he started as a librarian, so he knows literally everything there is to know about seforim. He has tremendous yedios about both the mechabrim and the different editions of the seforim.”
“The other din,” Reb Sruly notes is that Nachi doesn’t keep his knowledge confined to the ivory tower, as it were. “What makes him very current is that he buys these seforim for his grandfather’s shul, so he’s not just giving his take in a vacuum — he’s actually tasting the fruit and buying every sefer that comes out, so the masses can enjoy them, too.
“If I go into a store in Lakewood for a newly released sefer, and they tell me it’s on the boat or coming soon, I can call Nachi, and he’ll get his hands on it,” says Reb Sruly, whose personal otzar boasts several dozen hard-to-get and obscure seforim, courtesy of Nachi Weinstein.
When daf yomi was learning Beitzah daf yud beis, where the Gemara delineates the distinctions between the prohibitions of food preparation on Shabbos and Yom Tov, Reb Sruly taught the Tosafos that discusses whether one is allowed to play with a ball on Shabbos. Nachi sent him a teshuvah from the not-well-known Rav Moshe Provençal, a 16th century Italian gadol, who gives a fascinating explanation of the sugya and mentions, among other things, how Italians played tennis 500 years ago. Reb Sruly was thrilled with the mareh makom and regaled his appreciative audience with the teshuvah in his trademark post-shiur Reid Bite, quoting “my good friend Nachi Weinstein, a formidable expert in the medieval and renaissance era of Italian Jewry.”
Nachi and popular Daf Yomi maggid shiur Reb Sruly Borenstein talk over the merchandise that excites them most – a new shipment of seforim
AS the podcast gained a following over the fall and into the winter, Nachi began to get requests for specific guests. One of the first was Yeshiva University historian and history professor Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, whose decisive work on Rav Yaakov Emden, “Rabbi Jacob Emden: Life and Major Works,” a 782-page never-published work was written as a dissertation at Harvard University.
“I didn’t prepare for that one,” Nachi remembers. “We just sat and schmoozed about Rav Yaakov Emden for an hour.”
People loved it, and recommendations for guests started pouring in. His audience and program grew, and in early 2021, the operation became more professional, including a MacBook Pro and AirPods, Bose headphones, a website, and more importantly, a consistent release schedule: 7 a.m. every Sunday.
The guest speakers hold major appeal. Tzviki Rubinfeld, a real estate professional in Lakewood, says his favorite episodes are the series on Ashkenazi Rishonim with Rabbi Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel, a Jewish history professor and foremost scholar of Jewish history and rabbinic literature. In each episode, Nachi introduces the topic — Rashi, the Ohr Zarua, the Mordechai, the Baalei Tosafos — “and then Professor Kanarfogel takes off!” Mr. Rubinfeld says. “His passion is infectious,” he says of this wellspring of information.
Professor Kanarfogel delves into the rebbeim and talmidim of these Rishonim and the interaction among them and the other Rishonim, including the Sephardic ones. His episodes give an appreciation for why the Rishonim wrote, how the material was received, and how their word spread.
”You grow up learning the words of the Rishonim, and learning about their history enhances your own learning today,” Mr. Rubinfeld says. “This understanding can shed light on difficulties in their works, making learning a Tosafos a richer experience.”
Dr. Allan Jacob, chairman and chief medical officer of Physicians Dialysis in Miami, Florida, tunes into Nachi’s show on his 30-minute commute from his morning seder at the North Miami Beach Kollel to his office. “It’s where lomdus and Jewish studies meet,” he says. “The people he interviews and the books he discusses are a great way to round out your Torah education with information and perspectives you may not hear in the beis medrash.”
Dr. Jacob remembers one Seder where the discussion turned to the development of minhagim, where they were referencing names like the Maharik, Rav Yosef Colon Trabotto, a 15th-century Italian gadol. He drew on Nachi Weinstein’s episodes to participate. “The information about the Maharik was very important in explaining some of the Rema’s positions and how they developed in Ashkenaz,” he explains. “Here’s an example of a person whose name is no longer easily recognized, but understanding what he was dealing with back then affects our learning today.”
The Yeshivah Advantage
Around the same time that Nachi invested in professional equipment and committed to a set schedule, he pivoted from an exclusive focus on seforim to the broader ambit of Jewish history. The podcast is still centered around books, but it often features professors — from both sides of the mechitzah: Columbia University’s Jewish history, culture, and society professor Elisheva Carlebach, was on to discuss Rav Moshe Chagiz and his pursuit of heresy in the 18th century; Sarah Lawrence College’s professor and chair of religion Glenn Dynner, to discuss Jewish innkeepers and the liquor trade in Poland; and Ohio State University’s history professor Matt Goldish, to discuss Shabtai Tzvi and the movement’s history.
Bringing in voices from academia was a big step, and according to Yehuda Geberer, a modern Jewish history podcaster, popular tour guide, and Mishpacha contributor, Nachi aced it. “The content is novel and creative,” he says. “Nachi takes a deep and important subject with his expert guests and makes it accessible. He encourages these highfalutin academics to engage with the listeners at their level, so the result is enlightening material that’s relevant, and enjoyable, and easy to digest.”
Opening up the podcast beyond the world of the beis medrash brought new questions and challenges. Obviously, there are areas Nachi won’t touch and places he won’t go. “I try to gate-keep as best I can, that’s an important part of my job as the host. I don’t run every guest or idea by a rav, but I have many knowledgeable friends I consult,” he says. “I try to stay away from certain topics, namely academic Bible studies and academic dissections of Talmud and Chazal, because I don’t think they’re befitting a frum podcast.”
It’s a challenge, Reb Sruly Bornstein concedes, and Nachi has managed to hit the right balance. “His guests are stimulating, brilliant, fascinating, and accomplished — and Nachi engages them at their level, but he’s still a yeshivah guy. He wears his tzitzis out and toes the line.”
Still, Nachi says, it can be delicate to host experts who don’t share the sensitivities of the yeshivah world. “Many of the academic guests don’t use honorifics for gedolim such as ‘Rav’ Yosef Caro, ‘Rav’ Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, and the like,” he says. “I’m uncomfortable with that lack of reverence, and I’m always careful to include titles when I speak on the podcast. Even while engaging in historical analysis, it’s imperative not to lose sight of who we’re discussing.”
Nachi has found that the significant contributions these guests offer outweigh the concerns, because academic knowledge of a gadol’s background, historical challenges, and milieu leads to a greater appreciation of their works, even — or perhaps especially — among yeshivah-educated listeners.
Dr. Moshe Krakowski, director of the Jewish education doctoral program at the Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University in New York, echoes that sentiment. “On Nachi’s podcast, subjects that may have been obscure are given a whole new world of meaning and depth. Maybe you covered a subject in yeshivah in a fleeting way. The podcast gives context and foundation so you can build on what you have.”
Though one may expect his university-trained guests to balk when Nachi pushes back, Dr. Krakowski attests to the respect he’s earned in the world of academia. “He has an incredible breadth of knowledge, yet at the same time the humility to sit back and let the experts talk — and then he’ll jump in with a source, telling his interviewee who wrote what, or during which time period. It’s earned him a lot of credibility. True, he’s coming from a different place — he’ll know the gedolim’s perspective, while a professor will know only what it says in the academic books — but they respect knowledge; they can tell when someone knows their stuff.”
He has only one complaint: “Nachi’s cost me a lot of money over the years, because I need to buy the seforim he’s showcasing.”
The fact that Nachi’s extensive knowledge comes from yeshivah-style intense study of seforim isn’t lost on the historians and professionals he engages, says Michelle Margolis, Jewish Studies librarian at Columbia University in New York. This leads to increased respect and admiration for traditional Torah learning.
“I’ve heard podcasts with scholarly academics who now understand that people coming from the yeshivah world have a deep understanding of the sources,” she says.
They’re also impressed by the yeshivah world’s demand for their work. “Academics had no idea how much interest there was in the frum world for Jewish history,” Ms. Margolis says. “University presses now automatically send Nachi books to review and suggest people to speak to because his interviews yield so much interest.”
In addition to an erudite and engaging host, guests on the SeforimChatter show know they’ll have a receptive audience. Listeners aren’t looking for clever soundbites or witty takes; they appreciate an in-depth shiur on a given subject.
“Rav Aaron Lopiansky came on the show,” says Nachi of the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Gedolah of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Not to talk about his popular Ben Torah for Life, but to discuss his more scholarly works, the ones that you have to be a yode’a sefer to appreciate.”
For a full hour-and-a-quarter, Nachi and the Rosh Yeshivah enjoyed a deep and satisfying conversation about Rav Lopiansky’s Sefer Yesodei HaTorah Al HaTorah and Yesodei HaNeviim on Neviim Rishonim. Rav Lopianksy explained what went into compiling the seforim, but the conversation was about so much more than the actual writings — it was an infinitely valuable explication of the authentic hashkafah of the yeshivah world.
Rav Lopiansky explained his Mirrer chinuch and established the hierarchy of mefarshim on Tanach and Gemara, namely the Rishonim, the great gedolim of the 11th to 15th centuries. He clarified his intent in publishing Siddur Aliyos Eliyahu, a siddur with sources, peirush, and halachah, as explained by the Rishonim. That episode garnered more than 8,000 downloads, four times Nachi’s standard 2,000.
Nachi also remembers his interview with Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman, who annotated many of the Maharal’s works, making them accessible to the broader public. “I thought I knew about the Maharal,” remembers Nachi, “but two hours later, I learned so much more! I may have known snippets, but that interview gave a much fuller picture.”
Nachi is being modest when he says he “thought he knew about the Maharal.” On that particular episode, Rabbi Hartman, perhaps the world’s leading authority on sifrei Maharal, told Nachi this was the most in-depth interview he’d done on the topic, thanks to Nachi’s vast mental database and pointed questions.
“I must say that I’ve been asked over the past few years quite a few times to do interviews on the Maharal,” Rabbi Hartmann said, “and I’ve never had such a thorough question session like I went through now.”
Three years in, Nachi is finishing his last semester of law school. He generally records SeforimChatter podcasts on Sundays or weeknights, depending on his schedule and what works for his guests. Before the Zoom discussion, Nachi writes a list of questions for the guest in advance. He also compiles a working draft of his notes, questions in bullet point form he prepares for himself to reference when he’s on Zoom. As the podcast records, Nachi takes notes alongside his bullet points and checks off topics they’ve covered. It all takes time, and the podcast isn’t profitable (sponsors cover basic running costs), but Nachi wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“I enjoy the experience,” he says, “but there’s more to it than that. I want people to know about Jewish history, to know about the early gedolim. My life was enrichened by understanding these topics on a deeper level, and I wanted others to have that, too.”
The reviews are in. Listeners are enthralled, guests are clamoring to come onto his show, and Nachi isn’t slowing down anytime soon. In fact, he has new ideas: He wants to venture into areas like social history, exploring what life was like for people during epochs different from our own. After Pesach, he’s launching his series on the history of the Jews of Spain, covering Muslim Spain and the transition to Christian Spain, the anti-Jewish riots of 1391, the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion, and everything in between — 20 episodes in all.
Whatever direction he takes, Nachi’s audience is committed to riding along with him. Because there’s nothing more thrilling for the People of the Book than yet another discussion of these enduring records of our character, values, and eternity.
You can tell when a sefer was written based on the prose, Nachi says. Many 17th and 18th century mechabrim write in a flowery manner that’s peppered with phrases from Tanach and Chazal.
“This style is referred to as ‘melitzah,’ ” he explains. “Melitzah can be confusing for someone unfamiliar with it; it’s full of Tanachic references that can be hard to follow if you don’t know them.”
Rav Dovid Oppenheim, the early 18th century chief rabbi of Prague and noted bibliophile, Rav Elazar Fleckles, a talmid of the Noda B’Yehuda, the Chida in his many works, and Rav Yaakov Emden all wrote in this style.
“They use phrases like ‘kaasher avaditi ovoditi’ as part of their story or commentary,” Nachi explains. “One paragraph can literally contain 20 quotes from Tanach and Gemara, wordplay and phrases from all over.
“This writing style is a product of this group of mechabrim’s cultural milieu — a milieu that has largely disappeared,” he says. “But even if that culture doesn’t exist anymore, you can get a sense of it based on the writing style.”
Today we’re accustomed to lomdishe seforim in the classic yeshivah/Brisk style, written by gedolim such as Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, the Brisker Rav, and Rav Elchanan Wasserman, but prior to that, the popular style of learning was pilpul. A classic example is the Doresh L’Tzion, the sefer on the sugya of Yaal K’Gam written by the 18th century chief rabbi of Prague, Rav Yechezkel Landau, also known as the Noda B’Yehuda.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)
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