Until modern times, the Talmud was a major Jewish preoccupation. This sprawling compendium of the law, lore and commentary of successive generations of early rabbinic scholars provided Jews with a human map for following the law of the Hebrew Bible and the six books of the Mishna.
The fact is that not many Jews — then and now — immersed themselves in deep Talmud study, which requires knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic, an understanding of the Talmudic system of logic and an adeptness for reading a work devoid of punctuation. But the Talmud held the key to Jewish knowledge and living, which made the unlearned beholden to the learned.
With the spread of printing and the steady move toward egalitarianism, the opportunity for deep Jewish study and knowledge grew. With the internet, it seems that the Talmud — the product of an oral tradition that operated by association rather than linear arrangement — seems to have found its ideal medium.
That’s why the announcement that the website Sefaria has published the acclaimed Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud in English online, where it can be read for free and repurposed for users’ needs free of copyright concerns, is so exciting. Twenty-two tractates went live last week. The rest of the English edition of the Talmud, which is as yet unfinished, will be published online as it is completed. Sefaria will also publish a Hebrew translation this year.
The translation’s publication was made possible by a multimillion-dollar deal with the Steinsaltz edition’s publishers, Milta and Koren Publishers Jerusalem, and financed by the William Davidson Foundation, a family charity. The Davidson Foundation deserves honors for making the Talmud’s accessibility almost limitless. In making this knowledge available to anyone with a computer or mobile device, the potential for more Jews (and interested non-Jews) to reach a deeper, richer relationship with their heritage is breathtaking.
We said “potential,” because that is precisely what this opportunity presents. Traditionally, the Talmud isn’t studied in a vacuum. Students work in pairs — chavruta — to unpack the texts. They attend shiurim (lectures), where the mysteries of the text are analyzed and explained. Indeed, the Talmud itself calls on everyone to provide for himself and herself a teacher.
How will the online Talmud affect these dynamics? In the most traditional settings, very little if at all. Students and scholars at yeshivas and batei midrash (study halls) will continue to study the Talmud as they have for generations. But for the vast majority of Jews who have little or no experience with the Talmud, accessing the knowledge in the text will take work and will not be as simple as checking a Twitter feed. We hope new groups, independent ones and others sponsored by congregations and other conveners, will emerge to take advantage of this technological innovation and use it to elevate our Jewish lives.