I used to be a regular visitor to the New York Public Library’s Dorot Division, consulting its vast collection of rabbinic texts with the assistance of its expert librarians. While I treasure the memories of the many hours I spent there, I have not actually stepped foot into a library in ages. As long as I have a Wi-Fi connection, I don’t need to.
Over the past twenty years, Torah visionaries have stealthily turned the Internet, considered by many parents, educators, rabbis and spouses to be the biggest danger to Orthodox Judaism into its biggest resource. These bold pioneers, generally volunteers or working for not-for-profit organizations, saw early on the potential of this global field and seeded it well so that it now yields incredible harvest. Thanks to their efforts, and their benefactors, you can now access tens of thousands of Torah lectures and sefarim for free on your computer, tablet or phone.
There are so many resources that everyone has his or her own list of favorites. What follows is my own brief list. I suggest readers log onto the Jewish Action web site (www.ou.org/jewish_action/) and add their favorite resources in the comments.
YU Torah started in 2006 as a repository for lectures in RIETS, the yeshivah affiliate of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Marc Spivak put his large personal collection of lecture recordings online, joining YU’s Center for the Jewish Future to continue growing the selection. It was a modest project that over the years has vastly expanded into an enormous database of text and audio of anything Torah related from YU and beyond. Now maintained by Rabbi Robert Shur, under the guidance of Rabbi Kenneth Brander, YU Torah contains recordings of many of the daily Talmud classes at RIETS, special lectures and events and videos when available. It has a whole section of journals from the present going back in history and a number of innovative projects such as the holiday Torah-to-Go booklets.
You can follow the daily classes of your favorite YU rosh yeshivah, read or hear the parashah insights of rabbis from around the world, keep up with any of a number of Daf Yomi classes or easily find material on the topic of your interest by top-notch scholars. I cannot emphasize enough how much information this resource provides. With a selection of over 90,000 classes, my main problem is finding the time to read and listen to everything I want.
This is my primary library. In 1998, Chaim Rosenberg began scanning Hebrew books published in America and placing them online. Since then, Hebrew Books has expanded beyond American books and contains over 50,000 sefarim from a number of libraries, including the massive Lubavitch library in Crown Heights. Some authors even send their new sefarim for inclusion. Visitors can read a sefer page-by-page online or download the entire book as a single file. Browsing the selection is somewhat difficult, but if you know which sefer you want, Hebrew Books probably has it. Many sefarim have even undergone OCR, which means that they are not just images but words you can search, copy and paste.
Responsa, commentaries, historical prayerbooks, different printings of the Talmud, Hebrew journals—these are just a sampling of some of the content available. There is also a section on Rambam, where you can choose a halachah and easily navigate a wide variety of commentators, and a Daf Yomi section, in which the daily Talmud page is accompanied by a large selection of commentators. Hebrew Books is a research library and a fully stocked beit midrash combined, all available for free download.
The OU’s Torah web site is a forum for new material—text, audio and video—intended for students of all backgrounds. Popular teachers explore the weekly parashah and contemporary topics with expertise that is still accessible to a vast audience. The range of topics is quite broad, including Jewish ethics, the Daf in halachah, responsa of Rabbi Akiva Eiger and more.
It is difficult to describe the variety of resources in generalities, so I will highlight three areas I personally find interesting. Every day, Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of OU Kosher, teaches a Daf Yomi class via webcast. This is an extremely popular class, with participants from varied backgrounds and locations. Where else can you find a leading expert in practical halachah teaching Daf Yomi across the globe?
Several times throughout the year, OU Torah hosts the OU Kosher posekim for a question-and-answer webcast. This is a unique opportunity to hear questions across the spectrum of Jewish dietary practice directly from the leading experts on kashrut. There are always surprises in these webcasts.
One of my favorite features is the writing of Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, editor of the site. Unassuming and humorous, Rabbi Abramowitz has a knack for simplifying the most complex topics without diluting the message. His series on Nach and on the 613 commandments were rip-roaringly funny while still replete with substantive insights. He recently started Moreh Nevuchim, and has been successful applying his unique perspective to one of the most obscure and complicated Jewish texts.
Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion
In 1994, Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) began e-mail correspondence courses on a variety of Torah topics. Taught by experienced scholars, these free courses were serious and often innovative explorations of Tanach, Talmud, law and thought. VBM’s long-time director and editor-in-chief, Rabbi Ezra Bick and Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, respectively, have maintained the project’s quality and relevance. VBM was there from the beginning of the worldwide web, making the archives of these classes—currently numbering over 10,000—available to even nonsubscribers.
Instructors include—but are not limited to—faculty of Gush and its affiliate, the Yaakov Herzog College, which has been the center of innovative Tanach study. Many other scholars are also on the site and a number of series have since been published as books. Particularly noteworthy are the translated lectures on special topics from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Yehuda Amital.
What distinguishes VBM is its sophistication. Every controversial topic of the day, as well as many noncontroversial subjects, has been explored from multiple angles, utilizing the greatest Torah tools and contemporary thought. This web site is a treasure trove of Modern Orthodox halachah and hashkafah (thought).
For over a decade, Rabbi Judah Diament has single-handedly served as the conduit of original Torah insights by YU rabbis. Rabbi Diament assembled seven top rabbis to serve as his rotating columnists: Rabbi Tzvi Haber, Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin. Every week, Torah Web publishes an original essay on the weekly parashah. Additionally, Torah Web organizes occasional lectures on relevant communal topics and then publishes the lectures as audio and videos. Torah Web also publishes special essays on important topics.
Three things make Torah Web an essential resource. First is its knack for tackling head-on the most vexing communal problems. Whether tuition, shalom bayit, women’s role in religion, the annulling of marriages or any other issue that is on the communal radar, Torah Web addresses it in a timely fashion. The second is consistency. Torah Web has maintained a track record of substantial stamina, regularly exhibiting relevance for years. It has therefore accumulated an impressive library of Torah insights and important social commentary on our religious community.
Third, and most important, is the stature of the contributors. They are among the leading halachic authorities and rashei yeshivah of the Modern Orthodox community. Their insights and statements have a special significance for our community. Torah Web is a long-standing reliable source of Torah guidance.
In 1997, Dr. Yehuda Eisenberg opened the Daat web site which quickly became one of the largest online repositories of Hebrew texts. Now maintained by Herzog College, Daat is an Israeli library of Jewish tradition. Carefully categorized, the web site contains books and essays on Jewish subjects throughout history. Unlike similar web sites, Daat converts most of its material to web pages in text format, making usage—particularly searching, copying and pasting—much easier.
Daat has obtained permission to post otherwise copyrighted translations of classic Arabic sefarim, such as Rabbi Yosef Kafach’s edition of Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim. It also contains many recent Religious Zionist texts that are otherwise unavailable in most of the world, such as Heichal Shlomo’s annual synagogue calendar. It is a little difficult to navigate, but well worth the trouble.
In 1998, Mechon Mamre launched its web site. Technologically, it is fairly simple. It contains primarily Hebrew texts of the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud and Rambam. It also has an English Bible translation and allows users to see Hebrew and English side-by-side, which is what I prefer for my writing.
Mechon Mamre was an Internet pioneer, coming onto the web scene relatively early with a classic Internet philosophy—give people something that they need in a simple way. With little budget, the web site maintains excellent quality of texts, using Yemenite editions and meticulously screening for errors. It is a wonderful example of a simple idea that is executed well and therefore serves as an important resource for online texts.
Classic Jewish texts are not owned by anyone. In theory, you can put up the entire Shulchan Aruch online without violating copyright laws. While an individual alone may lack the time and stamina to enter all that text, hundreds of people can each type small amounts to complete the online version. Wikitext harnesses the power of the masses to increase Torah access. Classic texts are indexed and individuals are encouraged to type in the text. Other users can correct mistakes, thereby (hopefully) yielding an accurate text.
So far, a wide variety of Biblical, Talmudic, halachic and commentarial texts have been completed with a number of others in progress. There is much more work to be done. But once completed, the text is online for all to use.
Sefaria takes the crowdsource idea much further. It is a bold attempt to create a multilingual, interlinked Torah library. I will attempt to describe it, but you can only fully understand the concept by seeing it. If you go to any chapter in the Bible, you can choose to see it in Hebrew, English or both. In a side window are commentaries. Verse by verse, every midrash or Talmudic text that quotes the Bible appears in that window along with every commentary and Medieval philosophical work that cites the text. When available, and based on the language setting, English translations of all these secondary texts will also appear.
When Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer started Sefaria, they envisioned it as more than just a vast encyclopedia of Jewish texts. The web site takes the library concept beyond anything a written text can provide. In theory, this can also be done for Talmud and commentaries, for halachic texts and responsa, for midrash and homiletics. I have a book called Gilyon HaShas HaShalem, which includes photocopies of every obscure text that Rabbi Akiva Eiger cites in his glosses to the Talmud. Sefaria can do this for every gloss anywhere in Jewish literature and interlink them all into one giant text. In 1988, Rabbi Meir David Ben-Shem published Torat HaRambam, a collection of every time Rambam quotes a verse from the Bible in any of his writings. Sefaria aims to provide this for every commentator and codifier.
Sefaria is in its infancy. It is still acquiring texts and crowdsourcing English translations. Much work has yet to be done, but the initial results are very promising.
Sometimes all you need is a good old-fashioned web search. Google Israel provides an online Hebrew keyboard so you can easily search the Internet for Hebrew terms. You can limit a search to a specific web site by including the following in your search: “site:ou.org” (replace “ou.org” with whatever web site you are searching).
As with any general search, most of the results will be irrelevant. But among the myriad of hits will be exactly what you are looking for.
Rabbi Gil Student is book editor of Jewish Action.