Learning together at the secular Bina Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, Shavuot 2015
Learning together at the secular Bina Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, Shavuot 2015

For centuries, studying a page of the Talmud has come with a bevy of barriers to entry.

Written mostly in Aramaic, the Talmud in its most commonly printed form also lacks punctuation or vowels, let alone translation. Its premier explanatory commentary, composed by the medieval sage Rashi, is usually printed in an obscure Hebrew typeface read almost exclusively by religious, learned Jews. Even then, scholars can still spend hours figuring out what the text means.

And that’s not to mention the Talmud’s size and cost: 37 full volumes, called tractates, take up an entire shelf of a library and can cost several thousand dollars.

Sefaria Executive Director Daniel Septimus, left, with co-founders Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer

Helping students and readers crack these barriers and access what amounts to a library of Jewish law, ritual, folklore and moral guidance has been an ongoing endeavor. Milestones include the first (unfinished) attempt at an English translation by American publisher Michael Levi Rodkinson at the turn of the 20th century, an abridged version by Rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz in the 1920s and “The Soncino Talmud on CD-ROM” from 1995.

Now, a website hopes to build on these earlier breakthroughs and break all the barriers at once.

Sefaria, a website founded in 2013 that aims to put the seemingly infinite Jewish canon online for free, has published an acclaimed translation of the Talmud in English. The translation, which includes explanatory notes in relatively plain language, was started by scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in 1965 and is considered by many to be the best in its class.

The Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud has been in print for decades in modern Hebrew, with an English translation coming out more recently, and parts of it already exist on the internet. But this is the first time it is being put online in its entirety for free.

Nobelist Robert Yisrael Aumann and his granddaughter studying Talmud in Uri Rosenwaks’ documentary series, The Nobelists

The online edition also opens up the copyright license, meaning that anyone is allowed to repurpose it for teaching, literature or anything else.

“Ninety percent of the world’s Jews speak Hebrew and English,” said Daniel Septimus, Sefaria’s executive director. “The Talmud is in Aramaic. It will now be online in Hebrew and English. From an accessibility point of view, it’s a game changer.”

Sefaria rolled out 22 tractates of the Steinsaltz English edition last week and will be publishing the entire Hebrew translation over the course of 2017. The rest of the English edition, which is not yet finished, will be published online as it is completed. 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 based in Metro Detroit.

The edition will be known as the William Davidson Talmud.

Besides its edition being free, Sefaria’s founders say its version of the Steinsaltz Talmud is better than competitors’ because it is untethered to the Talmud’s classic printed form. Since the mid-15th century, the Talmud has been published with unpunctuated text in a column in the middle of the page, its commentaries wrapping around it.

Like all Sefaria’s texts, which range from the Bible to Chasidic texts and works of Jewish law, the Steinsaltz translation is published sentence by sentence in a mobile-friendly format, with the translation appearing below the original. The format also allows Sefaria to link between the Talmud’s text and the myriad Jewish sources it references, from the Bible to rabbinic literature.

Click on a line of Aramaic, and a string of commentaries, verses or parallel rabbinic sources will pop up. An algorithm Sefaria uses, which just added 50,000 such links to the Talmud, is also reverse engineered: Click on a verse in the Bible and you will see where it’s quoted in the Talmud or other books.

“This entire web of connections opens up to you just by clicking and touching,” said Sefaria’s co-founder and CTO Brett Lockspeiser. “It’s so clear that the structure of Jewish learning had this network-type experience. This sense of interconnectedness was already there and just needed to be brought out.” The other co-founder is the author Joshua Foer.

Free And Digitized

The project is the biggest step forward in Sefaria’s larger goal of democratizing Jewish religious scholarship by making it digitized, free and intelligible to everyone. The site also has a tool for Jewish educators to create source sheets or short study aids with quotations from a range of Jewish books. Users have already created 50,000 such sheets.

“We have no idea what kind of devices people are going to be learning Torah on in 10 years, but we know those devices will be chomping on digital data,” Septimus said. “So having a database of these texts that’s open, flexible, free for use and reuse is a good thing.”

Another site which shares that goal, the Open Siddur Project, provides Jewish prayer text for free so people can put together their own prayer books. Its founder, Aharon Varady, said the modern-day emphasis on intellectual property clashes with the Jewish tradition of sharing knowledge openly and freely.

“It’s the idea that Torah should be transferred without limitations,” Varady said. “Copyright is an innovation with fairly different interests than that of a living culture that is growing by educators sharing material, by teachers making source sheets with others.”

The site already offers thousands of books in open-source code, so anyone can use them, and hopes to add thousands more — the entirety of Judaic literature. Lockspeiser, a former Google software engineer, said that compared to indexing billions of web pages, the Jewish canon is no tall order.

“People can’t get into the Talmud because they don’t know it’s there,” Lockspeiser said. “If it’s not in English and you type in English words in the [online search] query, it’s not going to come up. We’re opening this up just in the sense that people will find it that didn’t even know they were looking for it.”

Foundation Advances Bill Davidson’s Commitment To Jewish Education

The William Davidson Talmud is made possible through a partnership with the William Davidson Foundation to commemorate the life of its founder and extend his spirit of generosity.

William “Bill” Davidson was an internationally recognized businessman and former owner of the Detroit Pistons; he was also a lifelong philanthropist who cherished his family and Jewish heritage above all else.

William Davidson

Throughout his life, Davidson supported projects and organizations that preserved and enhanced Jewish life and continuity. In the early 2000s, he was a major funder of a new chumash for the Conservative movement, Etz Hayim, which had special features that made it meaningful for lay people as well as clergy.

Darin McKeever, chief program and strategy officer of the William Davidson Foundation, says board members do their best “to honor Bill’s lifelong commitment to advancing cultural and educational opportunities for future generations of the Jewish community.”

Sefaria approached the foundation in 2015, McKeever says. “Once we were assured that this Talmud would be truly open and accessible to anyone, it didn’t take board members long to know this was something the Foundation wanted to support,” he said.

Ethan Davidson

Ethan Davidson, Bill’s son and a member of the Foundation’s board of directors, added, “Wrestling with God and the tradition is what we Jews do. The Talmud preserves centuries of wrestling over the meaning of God’s messages to us. Now Sefaria is accomplishing the remarkable task of digitizing the Talmud and making its precious contents available to everyone with an internet connection.

“My father lived by the directive from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,’” Ethan says.

“What he liked to say was, simply, ‘Just start.’ I’m proud we’ve started this in his name and, in doing so, we’re making it easier for future generations to wrestle with and advance the Jewish tradition.”

Rabbis Find Online Version Very Useful

Although Sefaria’s online Talmud has been accessible only since Feb. 7, local teachers of Talmud have already formulated glowing reviews.

Howard Lupovitch

“Sefaria.org brings the full impact of the digital revolution to the study of rabbinic texts; as such, it is one of the most significant study aids since the printing revolution,” says Professor Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University. Lupovitch especially likes the format of this internet Talmud, interweaving Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s translation with the original text, and so inviting “readers to engage in the texts in the Hebrew original.”

Rabbi Robert Gamer of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park says, “As a pulpit rabbi, I teach a number of adult education classes as well as individuals in informal settings. In the [time since] the Davidson Talmud has been available, I have already begun to incorporate these texts into the source sheets I hand out to classes.

Rabbi Robert Gamer

“For the individuals who study Talmud with me, the Davidson Talmud is a wonderful resource to check their understanding of the text as well as to see an interpretation of the text in the commentary of Rabbi Steinsaltz. The accessibility of this particular translation and commentary will only strengthen the study of Talmud in the English-speaking world.”

Rabbi Aura Ahuvia of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy has been using other services of Sefaria for about two years.

“I instantly found it a useful teaching resource because it not only provides readable translations of many Jewish sources, including large portions of the Talmud, but also enables teachers to format teaching sheets that can include teacher-generated questions and comments,” she says.

Rabbi Aura Ahuvia

“I found Sefaria to be useful not only because of the access to Talmud, but also to innumerable other sources, spanning millennia of Jewish thought. Broadly speaking, I think Sefaria helps make our amazing Jewish heritage more accessible and even more tantalizing by introducing readers to sources they may not have known existed before.”

Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer

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