Online Talmud the next great technological innovation

Online Talmud the next great technological innovation

When the history of Jewish texts comes to be written, Feb. 7, 2017, will likely be regarded as an important turning point.

Why? Here’s what happened.

For the first time, the extraordinary Steinsaltz English translation and its interpretation of the Talmud was made available to all. Online. Free. In print, it costs hundreds to buy the Steinsaltz volumes. The Steinsaltz English translation is an up-to-date (some volumes are still to be released) and easily understood aid to Talmud study for English speakers.

But wait, there’s more: Multiple commentaries are now just a click or a touch away — and the ability to see where biblical texts appear in the Talmud has been added, and so much more. Effectively, the linked, interconnected nature of Jewish texts has now been brought to life online with a dynamism and an immediacy that will change the frame of Jewish learning. The implications for Jewish life going forward will likely be substantial.

To understand the significance of the moment, a little history is in order. Human communications technology began with the invention of pictorial writing, 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. It was the “genesis of civilization.”

Later, the creation of alphabets — around 4,000 years ago — gave rise to the potential for literacy, knowledge and citizenship. Hebrew was one of the earliest alphabets, and Jews were the first to insist that the education that alphabets made possible had to permeate every household in society. Over time, the written word became so central to Jews that even our oral transmissions were enshrined on clay or parchment. Texts became our hallmark. What other people insists that a piece of learned writing must be attached to every significant doorpost?

But writing had its limits: Scribal work was laborious and time-consuming. Scrolls were expensive treasures. Hand-written texts were hard to produce, hard to obtain, hard to replicate with precision and hard to preserve.

Only in the middle of the 15th century, with the arrival of the printing press, did texts and books and newspapers truly become available to all. It was a revolution that changed the world. Indeed, the printing press led directly to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes as “the collapse of strictly hierarchical societies in which only a few were literate and had access to texts.”

“The printing press, in short, changed the human landscape not only externally but internally,” he wrote. “More than any other invention it paved the way for the transition from the medieval to the modern age.”

For Jews, the printing press made prayer books and commentaries widely available. It also gave rise to the arrangement of the classic Talmudic page, a unique compilation of texts spanning two millennia that has come to be the core focal point of Jewish learning.

Given this history, it is remarkable to realize that we are now living through the rise of the fourth great transformation in communication technology. The advent of the Internet represents a transition that will have even more profound implications than those initiated by the printing press.

Already in the 1990s, Jewish texts quickly migrated online and static versions of many sources were to be found on multiple websites. But that just mimicked the printed page in a virtual environment.

The “game-changer” came with the launch of the Sefaria website (and app) in 2013. Sefaria (from the Hebrew root sefer, “book”) began to collect all the significant Jewish texts in a common format in one searchable location. They started to link the texts, and they opened the site for Jewish educators to create and share instructional worksheets.

As the founders of Sefaria explained it, “Judaism’s core texts grew out of millennia-long conversations and arguments across generations. More than a collection of books on a shelf, the Jewish canon is a giant corpus of interconnected texts that speak to each other. Sefaria is making it easier than ever to explore the conversations of the past, while also creating a space for ancient conversations to continue in new ways, with new participants, new questions and new layers of dialogue.”

This month, Sefaria became richer and deeper and more significant than ever before. It took Jewish texts to the next level — the moment when they began to utilize fully the features of the online environment. Our texts have always operated in a cross-referenced fashion. Now, the hyperlinked technology allows that reality to become apparent and useful in an unprecedented way. Now, textual sharing, collaboration, mobility and availability are becoming universal.

Our scribes and scrolls will always be precious to us. But making the Talmud and the great Jewish sources accessible and translated everywhere at all time, with a facility for instantly searching across sources, is an invaluable leap. There can be little doubt that this is an important turning point indeed.

All Jews should have the Sefaria app on their phone or tablet. Even if consulted infrequently, it should be part of a learned Jewish identity to have all the core Jewish sources at one’s fingertips. And together, we can now hold all the centuries of Jewish learning literally in our collective hands.

Rabbi Danny Schiff is the Jewish Community Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.