Lit

The Sefaria App Has the Whole Megillah (and More)

From the Torah to the Talmud to a plenitude of rabbinic commentary on theology, scripture, and law, Judaism is built on words—hundreds upon thousands upon millions of words. Despite such textual abundance, and in part because of it, much of the Jewish library is unavailable in print form outside of libraries and educational institutions; and even then, few of these have every book sitting on their shelves. The creators of the Sefaria site responded to this and other challenges by developing a free, comprehensive, interconnected, and ever-growing online collection of Jewish texts.

Sefaria co-founders Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer first met in 1999, on a youth fellowship trip to Israel. Later, Lockspeiser became a product manager at Google, developing the Google News Archives, while Foer pursued a journalism career and co-founded the Atlas Obscura website. The two eventually reconnected and engaged in an ongoing discussion about the state and availability of Jewish texts on the Web. As Lockspeiser notes in this video, back in the internet’s early days, search engine results for “the Talmud” mostly led to anti-Semitic sites.

The two saw an opportunity to provide the Jewish library in its entirety online, presenting texts in the original Hebrew alongside English translations, with links to relevant commentaries and passages in other books. Users—scholars, teachers, and laymen alike—could also create personal source sheets, producing documents that could reference and link to specific texts, offer personal commentary, and be shared with others. Established in 2011, the Sefaria site has since expanded to 250 million words, with four million users and more than 250,000 user-created source sheets available to knowledge-seekers worldwide.

Hearing about their app through Chicago’s Spertus Institute, I contacted Sefaria’s communications and marketing manager, Chava Tzemach, to ask what Sefaria has to offer Jews and non-Jews alike.

 

Who’s the app specifically aimed at, and who else would you like to find and download it?

Sefaria at its core was created for all Jews—the People of the Book—to have free access to the books of our heritage. We also have many users who are not Jewish, but are interested in Jewish texts for one reason or another, may they be Christians who see the Torah as the origins of their own religion, or academics studying and researching religions. We hope that Sefaria can be a resource for all who are curious. 

 

I’ve encountered other religious apps that provide searchable scriptures, daily inspirational quotes, and the like. What makes Sefaria different?

There are three things that truly set Sefaria apart from other apps. 

Interconnections: The way we have digitized the texts has allowed us to connect related texts, in the same way that Torah texts have all been in conversation with each other for thousands of years. For example, you can click on any verse in the text to bring up a resource panel, which will allow you to see commentaries on that verse, where it is referenced in other texts, or find user-created content related to that text. 

Translations: While many Torah texts on the site were already in the public domain in their original Hebrew, most English translations are more modern and under copyright, and thus harder to find or access. Sefaria’s goal is to include translations for all the texts on our site, making them more accessible to the masses—always for free. The texts which don’t have complete translations, we allow users to contribute pieces of translation to our Sefaria Community Translation, which was the original way we worked on translations, by crowdsourcing volunteers (these days most of our translations are purchased from publishers).

Open Source: All our data and API are free and open for people to use and reuse. When adding texts to our site, we ensure that they are either already in the public domain, or we pay the publishers to release them into the public domain to ensure that these texts are not owned by anyone. Our API (application programming interface or coding) is also freely available on GitHub for anyone to use or build upon. When setting out to create the future of Torah, Sefaria aims to enable others to build up on our work. Find some of the amazing projects created by third parties with our data or API here. 

 

The app is pretty comprehensive, showing the Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, and so forth. What’s the best way to dive in?

That’s a great question! It can definitely be overwhelming. I usually suggest people start at the beginning—the Book of Genesis. From there, click on any verse to bring up the resource panel to start exploring commentaries and connections. Look for the [EN] symbol to find connected texts with English translation. Take a look at what else you can find when you scroll down in the resource panel. 

I also recommend checking out our topic pages that sort the texts and user-generated content (sheets) on the site by topic. These pages allow you to discover something that interests you, without knowing what you are looking for, like texts about friendshiphuman rights, or nature for example. Topic pages are currently only available on the web version and not on the iOS and Android apps. You can, however, search through just user-generated content by topic on the apps. 

 

As a non-Jewish person, what would I find most useful about the app?

Many of our non-Jewish users find our translations particularly useful. We have complete English translations of all of Tanakh and Talmud (amongst others). In fact, we have several different English versions of Tanakh and even a few other languages like French and German (find them all in the resource panel under Translations). Our site also contains the first free, complete, and fully translated Talmud online. 

Our new Topic pages described in the previous answer, which we introduced last spring, are also very useful for anyone with any background. 

 

Do you personally have a specific section or function of Sefaria you’d like to share?

One function of Sefaria that I love is its accessibility for the visually impaired. Because our texts are fully digitized (not just scanned in PDFs or the like), users are able to not only search more easily, but also use screen readers to access our site. The site and app also allow you to resize the text if you need larger print. 

In response to the COVID pandemic, we released a very fun video chat feature this year called Chavruta (Hebrew for learning partner). This feature, found towards the bottom of the resource panel for any text, allows you to video chat with one other person from within the library so you can read and learn the texts together.

 

The Sefaria site may be accessed here.

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