Torah Access Reimagined: Al HaTorah.org

One of the most exciting developments in Jewish publishing in the last decade is the explosion of electronic Torah resources. Free resources include countless shiurim on any topic imaginable, scanned images of tens of thousands of printed sefarim, and reliable halachic articles and guides available from the OU and elsewhere. The amount of information available online is truly overwhelming.

But have you ever found yourself wanting to look up a source when the sefer is not at hand and then trying to scroll through a 250-page PDF on your phone? And even when you’ve found the desired passage, you struggle to make out the tiny words on the screen? I certainly have. Or perhaps you have an app that makes things more readable but you keep fumbling with the user interface?

While a variety of web sites provide the ability to research a particular sefer, the format in which the texts are presented has always challenged me. Sefarim in PDF format do not usually have a helpful table of contents, and the optical character recognition (OCR) applied to sefarim is useful but far from perfect for the purpose of searching within a particular sefer.

Enter AlHaTorah.org, which has successfully reimagined the experience of online and mobile learning of a text with commentaries. I don’t recall how I first stumbled across it, but I did capture a record of the date—November 2018—because I was so excited I had to start telling people about it. “This,” I wrote, “is a game-changer.”

AlHaTorah.org is an ambitious project. It aims to provide a comprehensive Torah library in native, usable digital format. While its corpus and features seem to be growing constantly, so far its crown jewel is the Mikraot Gedolot, available at mg.alhatorah.org. While exploring verses and commentaries, which are displayed in a pleasing Hebrew font, I truly get the feeling that AlHaTorah.org has achieved the usability and aesthetics of the original, faithfully translated into the medium of a web app.

When beginning to use any new web site or app, you have to learn its navigation and settings options. I will briefly describe how to use AlHatorah.org with the caveat that it might seem complicated in writing but will quickly become second nature once you begin using it.

At the entrance to the site, you begin by selecting a text, either a chapter or verse from anywhere in Tanach. For Chumash, an option to select by parashah is also available. (Controls can be switched from Hebrew to English with the click of a button for ease of navigation.) Once you make your selection, each verse, along with its classic commentators, is displayed in a rectangular section demarcated with a light gray background. The standard selection of commentaries ranges from Rashi and Ibn Ezra to Chizkuni and the Kli Yakar, and each commentary is housed in its own, scrollable sub-section. Besides the classics, available commentaries include multiple Targumim, parallel midrashim, less famous Rishonim like the Bechor Shor and Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam, super-commentaries on Rashi, and more recent works like Meshech Chochmah and the Netziv. So much about the AlHaTorah.org experience is customizable. Click on the gear icon at the top, and you can choose which of the more than forty commentaries you would like to have displayed by default. If you want to see a broader range of commentators on one particular verse, you simply need to click “Show Additional Commentaries” at the bottom of the section. Other helpful options include English translations where available and displaying Rashi in Rashi script.

The display is also highly customizable, with views available for verse-by-verse or an entire chapter at a time. Easily switch from the Mikraot Gedolot view to the “one parshan at a time” view. A “Rashi view” puts Rashi more prominently on the page in large type under each verse, under which the relevant midrashim and mefarshim are presented. Change the text size with the zoom button at the top right. If the vertical list of verses on the side interferes, you can click to hide it.

It would be difficult to list every feature of AlHaTorah.org’s Mikraot Gedolot. It seems like every time I visit, I discover another one. The latest was during the course of writing this review, when I realized that certain verses have a small camera icon on which you can click to reveal beautiful illustrations provided by Machon HaMikdash (the Temple Institute) in Israel!

If you highlight text with your cursor, a menu pops up allowing a whole host of practical features. You can copy the text in Word format; copy the text together with an automatic identifying title; highlight on-screen in color; search the Biblical corpus for matching text anywhere in Tanach; and even send in a correction if you find a mistake. Clicking on any word in any verse brings up a comprehensive concordance showing where that word and any related words appear anywhere in Tanach. There is also an extensive dictionary with a wealth of hyperlinked references to other verses, which even includes cognate words in other Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Aramaic and Ethiopic. For those interested in finding novel ways to think about the text, there is a “Tanakh Lab” feature that provides tools for the statistical analysis of the occurrence of words and phrases within chosen sections of Tanach.

Every primary text is precisely sourced, and links to digitally imaged manuscripts are provided where available. (I found this useful in fact-checking a supposed printing error in Rashi; it turned out the very early Leipzig 1 manuscript had the same text we have today.)

AlHaTorah.org’s goal is to create a “one-stop Tanakh study resource.” To that end, an array of interactive study modules for guided learning are currently in progress, with a couple of dozen topics already available. Another section contains detailed study topics for each parashah, along with “Shabbat Table Topics” to engage your family with the parashah each week.

While the wealth of features that AlHaTorah.org offers certainly seems daunting at first, the web site includes clear user guides describing how to navigate each section. AlHaTorah.org is mobile-responsive and works beautifully in a mobile browser. While a native app (which doesn’t exist) would be ideal, the site functions in the browser just like an app, allowing you to easily look up or learn mefarshim on the go. Other sections of AlHaTorah.org include:

Mishnayot with essential commentaries like the Rash MiShantz, Rambam, Bartenura and Tosefot Yom Tov;

Shas with Rashi, Tosafot and other classical Rishonim and Acharonim;

Mishneh Torah, Tur and Shulchan Aruch with their associated commentaries;

Haggadah shel Pesach;

Advanced tools like the historical “Commentators Timeline,” “Commentators Map,” “Mitzvot Database” and more;

A library of Jewish works not covered elsewhere on the site, including various midrashim, works of Jewish philosophy, sifrei mitzvot, and works of more academic interest such as the Apocrypha, the Septuagint and Josephus.

I have great admiration for the founders of this project, Rabbi Hillel and Neima Novetsky, and their children, Yonatan (the original web designer), Aviva, Ariella and Yehuda. It is clear that AlHaTorah.org is a labor of love and idealism, and one that has taken thousands of man-hours to bring to fruition. The founders brought together an advisory board of distinguished rabbis, talmidei chachamim, communal leaders and academic scholars, both men and women, who work together on the site on an ongoing basis, making this truly a worldwide collaborative effort.

There is a question in the Rishonim as to what constitutes the main idea of the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah—is it for each person to write a sefer in the prescribed way so that it becomes kadosh, or is it to enable every Jew to learn from the Torah? The Rosh opines that the latter is correct. Therefore, in our days when almost no one actually learns directly from a sefer Torah, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by purchasing Torah books from which to learn. One could argue that by making the totality of the Written and Oral Torah available to the entire world, the creators and supporters of AlHaTorah.org are enabling everyone in Klal Yisrael to fulfill this mitzvah.

As Chazal tell us, the world at large benefits as well. “Al sheloshah devarim ha’olam omed,” the world was created for the sake of three things—“Al haTorah, v’al ha‘avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim,” for Torah learning, for the sacrificial service, and for acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2).

Moshe Holender is a writer, editor and educator who lives in Airmont, New York.

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This article was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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