The vast Jewish library on your computer screen opens the door to the world of Jewish texts


When lockdown fell, some Jewish educators were left stranded. They were continuing to teach but with schools, synagogues and libraries closed, they were cut off from their raw material— books.

But digital help was at hand. They could still tap into, the free online database of Jewish texts that puts a vast treasury of knowledge at your fingertips.

Here you can consult the Talmud with the English translation from the famous Steinsaltz edition. Or call up a verse from the Torah and see what Rashi or other commentators say about it.

“Our traffic went up significantly during the pandemic,” says Sara Wolkenfeld, Sefaria’s chief learning officer, who will be one of the international presenters at this year’s Limmud Festival.

The site received “a tremendous outpouring from schools of requests for help” as they were forced to switch lessons online. It now has more than 355,000 unique web users a month and around 82,000 accessing it via mobile.

Commuters can do some Torah learning on their way to or from work. People who need to speak at their children’s bar or batmitzah or are maybe looking for something appropriate for a eulogy can find words of inspiration. Parents struggling to keep up with their children’s Jewish education have somewhere to go to help with homework.

Primary schoolchildren are among its users. To be able to use Sefaria, she says, you simply “need to be able to click and you need to be able to read”.

It was founded in 2013, she says, “with the goal of democratising access to Jewish texts. We believe that the Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people and we are building the future of Torah.

“We don’t know exactly what the future of Torah looks like — nobody does. But we believe that the future will be digital and we want to create the infrastructure for everyone to be able to access Torah, to study Torah and also to build and create new things for that Torah.”

It provides access to classical sources to people “for whom opening up a commentary would be impossible without a translation”. Or for people who don’t have a Jewish library nearby. It gives people access to a greater range of sources, people who might be familiar with Rashi but who had not previously looked at the Netziv (the 19th-century commentator, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin). It encourages independent study.

The site is growing all the time, accumulating source sheets on all sorts of topics which are generated by users — an invaluable bank for students and educators. In October and November this year, users were creating more than 200 sheets a day.

Over the past year, it has been developing its topic page, so if you wanted information,s ay, on Chanukah, it would feed you a list of relevant rabbinic sources as well as suggested “sheets” with more contemporary material.

Its ambition to be “a place that aggregates Torah on the internet, a portal to more knowledge” has led to other developments. “Our engineers have written some code which, installed on any website, will transform citations of Jewish texts into links,” says Ms Wolkenfeld.

“So that if you have a blog or a website where you regularly publish articles with Jewish content and you might cite a verse from that week’s Torah portion, that citation will automatically become a little pop-up window and a link so you can see the verse in context on Sefaria. That feature has existed for a few years.

“What we did this year was to enable those links to work in the opposite direction as well. So that when browsing through Sefaria’s website, you can click on a verse from this week’s Torah portion and select web pages from the side panel and you can see dozens and dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of articles from across the web that reference that verse.”

This year it produced festival resources such as “Seder on Sefaria” or asking rabbis to post or record sermons before the High Holy Days and it has expanded webinars to help users navigate the site.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about creating pathways, creating on-ramps so that people who didn’t attend yeshivah, didn’t attend seminary can feel welcomed into the world of Jewish texts.”

In the coming year, it will be looking in particular to increase its store of Torah works by women and it has set up a writing fellowship for a woman to create content.

For most of history, Jewish texts were the preserve of an élite few. The printed book, which spread knowledge, she points out, is “a pretty recent development”, only a few hundred years’ old.

“Imagine what people will say about digital technology in a few hundred years’ time. I think it is a sign how amazingly adaptable Jewish wisdom is that we go from media to media and then believe the media we are in is the best one,” she says.

“It’s clear that the rabbis of the Talmud believed the best technology for transmission was the spoken word and they were dead set against writing down Jewish texts. I think it’s a fascinating evolution over the years and I’m excited to see where it goes next.”

Sara Wolkenfeld’s Limmud session, ‘Old Wine, New Jugs: Ancient Text and Modern Media’, is at 2pm, Tuesday 
December 29

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