As a boy, my father went to cheder (pronounced KHEY-der), literally “room.” And the cramped space where he sat at a table with other Jewish boys of varying ages learning Torah and Talmud was just that—a room, hemmed in by four walls crammed from top to bottom with books, books, books. Generally large old books with thick leather covers with Hebrew lettering.
To open a book was to join generations of now-absent boys who had likewise pored over those same now dog-eared and worn pages—reading, memorizing, discussing—and then reading, memorizing and discussing over and over again, all under the insistence of an ancient melamed (learned one) usually white-bearded and inexorable.
Decades later in post-Holocaust America the cheder had expanded to a classroom in Hebrew day school, the teacher no longer bent over and in your face, but at the blackboard, still insistent, still inexorable. The books—those venerable Talmudic tomes—had not changed between my father’s generation and my own. The pages, too, bore the creases and fingerprints on the same rabbinic passages that I too would puzzle over and struggle to comprehend as had so many in my position many years ago.
Jews have been called “The People of the Book.” It is a misnomer. More accurately we are “The People of the at least 3,300 Books—Most Likely More.”
Books are revered in my faith, just as one would revere a trusted teacher or confidante. When one drops a holy book, such as the Torah, one immediately picks it up and kisses it. Torahs, Talmuds, prayer books and the like are only used for what they were designed—study and devotion. They are not used for propping up table legs or as coasters for coffee. And just as we put on our best clothes for synagogue services, we dress up the Torah scrolls in the ark, placing crowns of silver or gold upon them.
And when the ark is opened we stand in respect as one would stand in the presence of a cherished mentor or wise one.
And so it was not surprising that two people of the book—author and entrepreneur Joshua Foer and Google alum Brett Lockspeiser—decided to bring the entirety of Jewish literature, lore and liturgy, all 3,300-plus volumes of it, into the 21st century. Determined to make it available to every Jew on earth, they embarked on a massive digitalizing and compilation project, releasing their code under an open-source license for wide access. That was 10 years ago. And Sefaria (after the Hebrew word, sefer—book) was born.
Three years later Sefaria launched its first mobile app.
The following year, 2017, a website rolled out for Hebrew speakers.
Sefaria is a virtual search engine for Jewish holy writ. One can search for all locations of a biblical verse—whether in the Bible or quoted again elsewhere. Or if one prefers to search by subject, a simple entry of “gun-control” or “abortion” will direct one to the primary texts that discourse on those or other topics.
“From the validity and the verification of the text, to the sources, the fact that you can choose what translations you use—all of that is just unbelievable. No one else does anything like it,” says Yosef Gillers, founder of Grow Torah, an organization that provides environmental Torah education programs for mostly Modern Orthodox day schools.
At 700,000 monthly users and a yearly budget close to $5 million, Sefaria can only expand. The next big project will involve access to modern Judaica classics that are still under copyright, thus giving Jews and non-Jews around the world not only the full spectrum of Jewish thought from ancient times to modern, but the ability to call any part of it up at the click of a mouse.
The Mishnah—the first major work of rabbinical literature, dating from about the end of the second century CE and available through Sefaria—relays to us the words of Shimon the Righteous across the millennia: “On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on prayer/worship and on acts of lovingkindness.“
Thanks to the creators of Sefaria, Numbers One and Two on Old Shimon’s list are no further away than the most convenient screen. Number Three is still up to us.
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