Talmud app publisher walks a digital tightrope

Available only for the most online device ever created, the Artscroll Digital Talmud is designed to be used strictly offline

Screenshots of the Digital Talmud app (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Screenshots of the Digital Talmud app (Photo credit: Courtesy)

It might seem strange that a publishing company that is one of the crown jewels of American right-wing Orthodoxy — the wing that opposes using the Internet unless it is absolutely necessary — would choose the iPad as the platform on which to launch a fully annotated English digital translation of the Babylonian Talmud.

After all, the iPad — which is great for watching movies, playing games and downloading news and books — would simply be an expensive paperweight without the Internet.

But Artscroll Mesorah, publishers of the Schottenstein Digital Edition of the Talmud, believes that Orthodox Jews can have iPads and use them for positive, Jewish experiences without having to resort to the Internet for anything but an initial download. “We want people to understand that the same device that can be used for Netflix movies and other things can be used for holy purposes,” said Rabbi Mayer Pasternak, CTO and director of the Artscroll Digital Technology Team.

Besides, Pasternak told The Times of Israel, Artscroll had little choice but to use the iPad if it wanted to develop digital apps. “The Kindle and the Nook don’t understand Hebrew at all, much less the mixed dynamic interactive Hebrew and English that we have on each page.”

The Kindle Fire does “speak Hebrew,” but it’s an Android device — “and because security is so awful on Android devices and the Android operating system’s form factors are so much more complicated, we decided to go for the iPad.”

As it turned out, the iPad was the only device that could handle the complicated iterations of text, hyperlinks, and interconnections between Hebrew and English text that the Artscroll edition of the Babylonian Talmud is made up of, so the company, together with RustyBrick — a programming house that specializes in Jewish apps, such as an interactive “smart” daily prayer book and an app for synagogue sextons — began developing the Talmud app earlier this year. After thousands of hours of grueling work, said RustyBrick CEO Barry Schwartz, the app was completed and released, just in time for the Siyum Hashas — the completion and rededication of the study of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of the Daf Yomi, the daily study of a page of Talmud.

According to Rabbi Jason Miller, who has a major social media presence and is an expert on technology’s effect on modern Jewish life, “the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud is considered a revolutionary contribution to the world of Talmud study for Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.” While there are several English translations of the Talmud — most notably one by the Soncino Press — they are considered “old-fashioned,” with dense translations that are difficult for modern readers to follow.

Artscroll, known for its publication of the classics of Jewish law and literature and their translation into English, as well as for its Orthodox-oriented literature (including novels, anecdotal histories of the Holocaust, and children’s books), began its Schottenstein Talmud translation project in the late 1980s. Completed only in 2004, it harnessed the talents of hundreds of Talmudical scholars who not only translated the text into modern jargon but annotated it as well, cross-referencing passages in various tractates with each other, and with rabbinic commentaries and decisions based on the original Talmudic analysis on each page (most of these cross-references, as well as a large amount of background material, are in the extensive footnotes on each page).

As a result of its depth and breadth, the Schottenstein version has become the go-to Talmud volume in synagogues around the English-speaking world. The English version proved so popular, in fact, that Artscroll then embarked on the translation of the English edition of the Talmud into modern Hebrew as well, similar to another translation by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The digital version of the Hebrew translation is scheduled to be ready by next May.

Now, with the addition of the e-version of the Schottenstein English-language Talmud, the ancient texts will become even more available and easier to understand for the average English-speaking Jew, said Pasternak. “For years we have gotten thousands of requests for digital editions of our books, but we had to wait until there was a ubiquitous device, operating system and platform that we could use to distribute these books.”

Although dealing with Apple was at times “frustrating,” said Pasternak — Artscroll was forced to change the pricing model several times to satisfy Apple’s requirements — the “walled garden” approach that Apple takes to distributing apps (ensuring that they fit the requirements of the operating system and can be propagated in a standard manner across all the devices using the operating system) made it possible for Artscroll to release an app as complicated and extensive as the Schottenstein Digital Edition.

And extensive it is, said Pasternak. “There are already a lot of features, like mouse-over on the Aramaic Talmud page for English translations, and hyperlinks between the text and the commentaries. But in the coming months we are going to be rolling out many more features, like a searchable index and full hyperlinking of all notes between pages in the different tractates. In all, about 500,000 links will be activated. In addition, there will be a note-taking feature that will enable users to take notes or write their own insights, and to share those insights with other users in the cloud.”

In that way, said Pasternak, teachers will be able to address students remotely, and individuals will be able to write their own “books” of insights and share them with the world.

“The Talmud page and the translation are basic PDF documents, and there is a lot of technology that goes into making them interactive. What we have accomplished is truly miraculous,” Pasternak said.

But the Talmud is only the beginning, said Pasternak. “We have plans to digitize many of the classics of Jewish literature — the Mishna, Tanach, the five books of the Torah, and many commentaries. Eventually we will be cross-referencing all these works with each other — so, for example, a student who is studying a page of Talmud and wants to check what Maimonides rules on the issue will be able to click on a reference and open up the relevant page in Maimonides’ lawbook.”

The basic app structure created for the Digital Talmud will work for other books, and for the Hebrew edition as well. “We created a content management system that can work with many types of text,” said RustyBrick’s Schwartz. “We spent a lot of time figuring out how to integrate the features in order to take full advantage of the iPad’s capabilities.” As it stands, the structure will work with all Apple iOS devices; it’s just a matter of changing the formatting to fit each device, said Schwartz.

One “feature” that comes with the app and cannot be turned off is a warning screen that appears as soon as the Digital Talmud is loaded. “Note,” the screen reads. “This app does not require the Internet for daily use. Following the ruling of leading rabbinic authorities, web devices should be used only with filters.”

It’s a dictum Artscroll has tried very hard to fulfill, said Pasternak. “The only connection to the Internet is to download files; other than that there is no need for an online connection.”

As such, he said, the app fulfills the letter and spirit of the calls to ban the Internet at the recent “asifa,” the major gathering at Citi Field in Queens, in which some 60,000 people heard speeches condemning Internet use. “The rabbis there made it very clear that the Internet could be used only with strong filters, and we don’t require Internet use at all [after the initial download],” Pasternak said.

As a matter of fact, “we have had in place at the Artscroll offices in Brooklyn for years a very strong filter that ensures that the Internet can be used only for work purposes,” he added.

In fact, the iPad wasn’t Artscroll’s first choice of device for its digitized library plans. “We seriously examined the possibility of developing our own device, hardware and software, that would be dedicated for use with our library,” Pasternak said. Those plans halted when the company found out how much developing such a platform would cost — millions, “for a device that would reach a limited audience and would be outmoded within six months. We had to wait for a device like the iPad to go ahead with this project.”

Just who is the Digital Talmud for? Clearly, for iPad owners, although, said Pasternak, “we don’t advocate anyone buying an iPad” in order to get access to Artscroll apps. “The app does not work on Shabbat, so anyone who wants to study on Shabbat needs to use a physical volume, and we assume most of the users of the app have a set of Schottenstein Talmud books.”

Excluded from the target audience are students in post-high school yeshivas, who are generally discouraged, if not prohibited, from using translations of the original Talmud, in order to build up their interpretative and analytical skills.

So it’s only for people who already own iPads? Not necessarily. “We have received thousands of requests from people for digitized versions of our books, and we feel we are going to be able to reach many more people with these apps,” said Pasternak. Considering the advantages for serious students of the Talmud that the cross-referencing and other features of the the app provide, it’s easy to imagine people buying the iPad specifically to be able to use the Digital Talmud. But the cause of separating Jews from the Internet need not fear the new program, since, as Pasternak stressed yet again, “you do not need to be connected to the Internet in order to use our apps.”

There is much to be concerned about when it comes to the Internet, Pasternak said. “At this point, there is no intelligent and honest person anywhere who can deny that the Internet has wreaked havoc in many ways,” through potential addiction to a variety of maladies, like porn, or just as a time-waster. “The Internet is like nuclear energy; it is powerful and destructive, and any responsible person understands this.”

The Artscroll app can help people understand this a bit more, he added. “There is something incongruous about using the same device to study Talmud and watch Netflix movies,” Pasternak said. “Hopefully people using the app will understand that their device can and should be used for holy purposes.”

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