Friday, May 11, 2012

A Very Cool Site for Teaching Texts

Just this week, someone called my attention to a new website,, and my twitter account has been lighting up about it for the past couple of days. The site is at the same time brilliant and brilliantly simple, and its possible uses for a classroom are just being thought about. According to its make-a-contribution (not monetary) page, "Our tradition is full of connections between texts. We want to make a complete list of these connections in a form that a computer can understand." Put differently, Sefaria is trying to collect as many traditional Jewish sources as possible and link them all together.

The way that this works is quite simple. The major Jewish texts (Tanach, Mishna, Talmud, Midrash) have already been loaded onto the site (some in English, some in Hebrew), and visitors to the site are asked to add any commentaries or other connected sources to each existing source. For example, on the first chapter of Bereishit (which has been done as a sample), the JPS translation of the Torah appears on the left 2/3 of the screen, while the right third of the screen is a column with over 100 comments and Midrashim on those verses. By clicking on one verse, the comments relevant to that verse remain in bold while the other comments fade to gray. As this is an open source project, visitors are invited to add any other source that they may want to share on the site, and the site can accept both Hebrew and English versions. The contributions page offers several tips for how to add sources and where to find online collections of sources for easy copying and pasting.

While this, once developed, has the chance to be a wonderful resource for anyone trying to quickly look up sources (whether or not a quick look-up is a positive or negative thing could go into the argument about the proliferation of shortcuts to learning), I can think of at least two reasonable uses for it in a Judaic Studies classroom:

1) As the resource it is meant to be. There is a skill involved in trying to write a shiur or a dvar Torah, and the hardest part for many of our students is figuring out where to look. Let's face it, all of those books on the shelf, even if translated, are just so imposing. The layout and interface on Sefaria are cleaner and more inviting, and could be used as a good entree into further research. I can imagine asking a student to find three comments on the site that look interesting, and then directing him to find those specific comments in the original. This will allow students a comfortable entry point while not giving up on more "authentic" learning. And, hopefully, at some point this set of training wheels can be removed and students can learn to begin with the original.

2) For more precocious or higher-level classes, they can be given the assignment of adding to the site. For a class that is learning a perek or a daf that has not yet been developed on Sefaria, each student or group of students can be assigned a different commentary, asked to provide a write-up or translation under rigorous guidelines, and have the goal of producing something that the teacher deems worthy of being shared with the world. This seems a half-step beyond student blogging, as in this case the enticing goal is not merely publishing something online, but publishing it in a location where it is likely to be read and relied upon by others.

I am sure that much more will be said and written about this site as people tinker with it further. Looking forward to more discussion about it.

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