Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On January 6, 2015, YUTorah Online (yutorah.org), Yeshiva University’s website of Torah online, announced that it had reached a major milestone in that it had passed the 100,000-shiur mark. “The growth of YUTorah has been exponential,” said Rabbi Robert Shur, director of YUTorah since 2007. “What started in 2004 with a little more than 1,000 shiurim grew to 10,000 about two and a half years later. It took another five years to get to 50,000, with the second 50,000 taking less than three years.”
YUTorah is but one–probably the single largest–of thousands of Torah websites. The number of websites that have Torah shiurim on the Internet is a reflection of the world’s Jewish community seeking Torah learning. The availability of so many Torah shiurim is motivating many to make copies of a favorite text shiur and then distribute the copies in their shuls. As a result, shuls around the world are increasingly restricting or prohibiting the distribution of text shiurim.
In a widely referenced Talmudic passage (Eiruvin 13b), Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (codifier of the Mishnah) declared that his penetrating learning mind was achieved by absorbing Rabbi Meir’s shiur. However, the beis midrash was crowded, and he sat in back of Rabbi Meir as he gave the shiur. “Had I sat in front of Rabbi Meir, my learning would have been much!” he stressed. Attending a shiur and sitting in front of the speaker is the best way to absorb Torah; however, learning Torah by any other method is still highly desirable.
The great Sages of old were renowned for their penetrating knowledge of the entire Torah and rabbinic literature, as well as for the wisdom they derived from its study. The Sages quoted in the Mishnah, known as Tannaim (70—200 BCE), sometimes developed mnemonics to navigate the large body of Talmudic information. Some great rabbis were known to have created card systems that aided in almost instant recall of the entire Talmud.
Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, head of the Yeshiva of Staten Island and son of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (1895—1986), clearly remembers his sage father, revered author of the authoritative Igros Moshe, writing furiously at all hours of the day and night. However, Shabbos is a time when writing is prohibited. Without a doubt, Reb Moshe mentally recorded and retained the Torah chiddushim that he generated on Shabbos. In addition, he completed a different volume of the Talmud every Shabbos afternoon, leafing through the folio pages and mentally reliving the give-and-take therein. Thus, his mastery of the entire Talmud was always fresh.
Many of today’s students of the Talmud, whether full-time students such as those in a yeshiva or kollel or employed full-time or part-time away from their desired studies, will greatly benefit from computer programs of Torah shiurim as well as those that enable them to locate wanted texts from memory devices or by quick Internet searches. Since some of us or not blessed with instant total memory recall, advances in computer technology help us.
Computers To The Rescue
In 2007, employing combinations of several remarkable then-cutting-edge technological advances, 11,000 sefarim were made available on a single hard drive, dedicated as the Friedberg-Ryzman Edition in memory of Mordechai Yehuda Alter Friedberg, Tzvi Harris, Yona Zauderer, and Menachem Mendel Schachter by the Ryzman Foundation, with the aspiration to make Torah accessible to as many people as possible, in every format feasible. The 11,000 sefarim were almost all searchable and all were freely printable off of any home PC. This tool gave scholars and interested laymen alike the ability to quickly maneuver through the vast ocean of Torah literature.
2007: 11,000 Sefarim
This exceptional resource was then available for $300 at Judaica stores in Boro Park such as Eichler’s, Biegeleisen, and Olam Hasefarim; Otzar Judaica and Beis Hasefer in Williamsburg; Tuvia’s and Beis Haseforim in Monsey; as well as in Kiryas Yoel. The “Total Jewish Library” was the product of almost ten full years of intensive labor devoted to the preservation of old sefarim. The Society for Preservation of Hebrew Books (Hebrewbooks.org), 1472 President Street, Brooklyn, New York 11213, is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization whose goal is to revive the many sefarim that were written and unfortunately forgotten, and to ultimately make all Torah publications free and universally available.
2010: 40,000 Sefarim
In 2010, 40,000 sefarim were available on a 2.5-inch 500 GB external hard drive at Eichler’s for only $100. That translated into your single dollar buying 400 sefarim. Realistically, what else can one purchase for $0.0025 (one quarter of one cent)? This stunning offer expanded the horizon of what an average person can have in his library. In addition to the savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars had the sefarim been purchased, the savings of time and effort necessary to build a quality library of such magnitude is immense. With today’s increasingly higher rents and real-estate property values, the saving of space is invaluable.
First 60, Then 333,
Originally, in 2001, old sefarim authored by long-forgotten scholars and published in America were compiled, reviewed, scanned, and made available by Hebrewbooks.org on inexpensive CDs. The first release was that of 60 old and rare out-of-print sefarim published during 1860—1960 in America. That effort was expanded to 333, and then again 2,000 such titles.
1,846 Plus 150 Plus 150 Plus 400 Plus 275
Hebrewbooks.org then compiled 1,846 teshuvos (responsa) sefarim, many out-of-print and hard to find, all on one disc. Another disc had the beautiful front pages (shaar blat) of those responsa sefarim. Yet another attainment was that of 150 old and rare out-of-print Pesach Haggados, which was followed by 150 old and rare out-of-print sefarim on Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers). Hebrewbooks.org then gathered 400 sifreimefarshim (commentary sefarim) on Maseches Berachos, synchronized with the start of the Daf Yomi study cycle. The next accomplishment was 275 sifrei chassidus on one disc.
327 Bookcases’ Worth
Hebrewbooks.org’s newest 2010 product superseded and far outshone all of the above major feats in that they have compiled more than 40,000 sefarim, almost all searchable, all on one affordable hard drive, priced to cover only their costs. A typical home bookcase would hold 100 to 120 sefarim; more than 327 bookcases would be required to hold the 40,000 sefarim which fit easily into a drawer or pocket. The hard drive, powered by a standard universal USB connection, enabled the search of thousands of sefarim to find a specific word or word combinations. The search capability is by title, author, word, or combination of words. Within seconds, a list of results is presented on the desired subject.
The hard drive is not only equipped with a powerful search engine, but gives the ability to see and print the tzurasha’daf, the original pagination as published and distributed. This furthered the ability to find the right page and the right column. Printed page copies were crisp and clear. All sefarim were carefully examined to ensure that all pages are included and that every page is complete. In addition, the program provided the ability to copy the text of tens of thousands of sefarim, so that the text could be included in a review or compilation.
Ungvarer Rav, Debricener Rav, Holeiner Rav
Included in the 40,000 sefarim on the hard drive were those of the libraries of the Ungvarer Rav and the Holeiner Rav, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka Klein of Williamsburg, as well as from the extensive collection of the late Debreciner Rav and that of his son, the present Debreciner Rav, including those old, out-of-print sefarim republished by Copy Corner of Boro Park. Yechezkel Goldenberg, proprietor of Copy Corner, made available to Hebrewbooks.org all of the thousands of sefarim that he reprinted, some of which are hundreds of years old. The monumental 40,000-sefarim compilation also had the collaboration of J. Biegeleisen Co. Jewish Books; Otzar HaHochmah of Jerusalem (www.otzar.org); Otzrot HaTorah-Morgenstern Library of Ashdod, Israel, with their Otzrot Hashu’t of the Otzar Haposkim Institute (firstname.lastname@example.org); Sefarim World in Boro Park; and many more.
All of the sefarim were carefully examined by several highly regarded rabbis who reviewed each sefer to ensure that none were from authors whose orientation was other than that of Torah-true Judaism and that no religious or secular copyright privileges were violated. In addition to the distinguished rabbis mentioned above who opened their libraries for this effort, Hebrewbooks.org had the enthusiastic approvals of Rabbi Ben Zion Strasser, Boro Park Nitra Rav, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt, zt’l, of Memphis, TN, author of Rivevos Ephraim, and many more.
Sefarim And The Internet
The Internet is under constant attack in observant communities. Though the dark side of the Internet is acknowledged by all segments of society, religious and secular, the benefits of the Internet are often negated. Harvey Blitz, Esq., esteemed former president of the Orthodox Union, in his President’s Message in the OU’s fall 2003 Jewish Action magazine, while conceding that the Internet has “objectionable material,” glowingly described the vast amount of Torah information that was then available and transmitted over the Internet. The breadth of Torah availability on the Internet has since expanded beyond imagination.
Entire collections of sefarim on chassidic dynasties are available free on the Internet, as are all the sefarim of some of today’s leading poskim. Thus, they seem to be giving their approval of Internet use for Torah learning purposes, albeit acquiescing passively. The Friedberg-Ryzman Edition on external hard disk was designed for those who have limited access to computers. Hebrewbooks.org’s work continues.
The Greatest Achievement: 52,298 Sefarim Available Free
For those who do have access to the Internet, the fruits of the Friedberg-Ryzman Edition are free and accessible 24 hours a day. Though the external hard disk has a much faster search engine than that available on the Hebrewbooks.org website, the inestimable 24-hour free access today to 52,298 sefarim is stupendous–true harbatzasTorah! We anxiously wait for Hebrewbooks.org’s continuing expansion of their present 52,298 and growing sefarim database, as well as their next innovations in computer search capabilities.
In addition, Hebrewbooks.org is adding more than 50 sefarim per month. Up to December, Hebrewbooks.org was adding an average of 100 sefarim. Presently, the focus is on older sefarim dating back to the 1500s that need more attention due to their age and deteriorating condition. Some incunabula, sefarim dating back to the advent of the printing press (1440—1500), as well as manuscripts, have already been added. Hebrewbooks.org aims to expand its already immense productivity in order to make tens of thousands more sefarim available free to the Torah community. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.