Repeat, Print and Click: The Transformation of Jewish Learning
How Jewish textual study evolved from manuscripts and prints to digital media
Type a question about Judaism into the search bar – and the internet will have a response for you. Chabad.org will give you a concise answer. Sefaria.org will provide you with more sources. Social media will give you the space to discuss this question with others.
With more and more resources and virtual communities of Jewish life and learning in the digital realm, Jewish observance and Jewish learning, in particular, are greatly enhanced by digital technology and media (Campbell 2015).
Your phone is (also) your siddur now, your computer a bookshelf with your favourite sefarim. While these recent developments in the ways we engage with Jewish tradition are especially present in our minds (and can also have negative impacts on our lives, let’s stay honest), Jewish learning has been on a long journey of transformation already.
Studying the Oral Torah - Repetition and Mimetic Tradition
The Shema suggests an intuitive mode of teaching and learning – repeat them for your children and talk about them – when you stay at home, when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up:
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ (Deut 6,7).
Loving God, the main aspect of this part of Shema, is what we want to transmit to the next generation. “These words” should be repeated - Jewish learning here is about continuous study.
The oral Torah takes this idea a step further – the name of the Mishna itself means repetition. Its primary contributors, active between the years 10-220 CE, were called Tannaim, which is Aramaic for repeaters. Learning through listening and repeating was an integral part of Jewish education during the times of the Mishna and the Talmud. I
n fact, rabbis discouraged turning the Oral Torah into a(nother) written one, as can be seen, for instance, in Gittin 60b. Learning this way also put a strong emphasis on the relationship between teacher and student.
Today we have the Mishna and the Talmud in written form, though. Why is this the case?
Memory is not perfect and humans are prone to forgetfulness. Sudden deaths of scholars – such as those of Rabbi Akiva’s students, can cause massive losses of knowledge. Fearing that interpretations might get lost in the future, rabbis started penning down their interpretations of halachot and Jewish tradition (Temurah 14b).
It was Rav Yehuda HaNassi at the end of the 2nd century and Rav Ashi in the 5th century, though, who completed the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud respectively, as noted in Bava Metziah 86a. They based themselves on the principle of עת לעשות 'ה – it is a time to act for Hashem (Psalms 119:126). To not forget oral teachings, they had to be written down.
Those teachings were turned into manuscripts and distributed to places of Jewish study throughout the diaspora. Not suitable for mass production, though, manuscripts were often used to enable learning through repetition.
A teacher would explain concepts of Jewish tradition with the help of a manuscript, while his students would be listening, carefully trying to understand and memorise what links them back to Sinai.
Thus, learning through hearing remained the main form of instruction – alongside mimetic learning: learning by imitation and repetition – an important form of transmitting knowledge, especially among women.
Printing the Oral Torah As a Text
Once the printing press enabled mass production of books from the late middle ages onwards, Jewish texts in print could now reach a much wider audience and learners were able to study on their own. Many learners could now resort to books (Schrijver 2017).
Later in the 19th century, as Rav Haym Soloveitchik (1994) notes, the increasing availability of affordable books and the rising popularity of textual learning itself changed the way people thought about Jewish tradition. Readers now put more trust into what they saw written in front of them and did not prioritise local traditions and customs for fear that they might have been corrupted over time (Friedman 1987).
Which impact did this have on learning? People increasingly learn from books, not from other people – this was described by Soloveitchik as the move from a mimetic to a textual tradition.
Books can provide a broad audience with not just one understanding of a certain aspect of Jewish tradition but can present a whole range of opinions. More than one tradition can be handed down via a book– and this very easily. This set-up, Friedman argues, encouraged people to try to fulfil all opinions at once, leading to more stringent approaches to halachic practice.
At the same time, the broader availability of printed books also encouraged more people from different backgrounds to express their thoughts about Torah in written form – something that will become even easier with the advent of the internet.
From Textual to Digital Traditions?
Contrary to Friedman’s assessment of 19th-century Orthodox book culture, the digital revolution in Jewish learning does not seem to have encouraged stringency in the same way as the increased focus on textual learning and studying had more than 100 years ago.
Rather, digital media fostered more creativity, expression and diversity of opinions. Everyone can contribute online and opportunities to engage in Jewish learning have grown substantially (Campbell 2015).
Today you can learn with a havruta who lives on a different continent. You can type in the first few words of a pasuk and find it – together with a vast array of commentaries on it – on Sefaria.org or AlHaTorah.org. You can listen to podcasts on Jewish thought while searching for the prayer times of the synagogue nearby.
Through digital media, Jewish learning is becoming more individual and independent. There is no need for a teacher anymore (Kelman, et al. 2019). While this gives learners a great deal of autonomy in deciding what, how, when and where to study, this also dissolves, in a way, more traditional notions of Jewish learning that focus so much on repetition and revision.
Regarding Jewish learning online, it is fascinating to see how digital media also dissolve the physical presentation of the Jewish book: Page numbers disappear and book covers lose their purpose. The importance of paragraphs and chapters to search through a book, though, increases.
Text becomes more dynamic and easier to change and adapt (Mann 2020). Commentaries on the Tanach or the Talmud are not found anymore around the main text but can be unlocked through clicks in a sidebar.
The vast amount of Jewish knowledge available to us through digital media is a great opportunity to delve into Jewish learning, but traditional learning modes characteristic of Mishnaic and Talmudic times might not be the most suitable ones now.
To be able to sift through the vast digital library of Jewish tradition, we need to be able to navigate through it – a broader knowledge of Jewish literature and literacy skills such as being able to find information effectively are now more relevant than ever before.
While being able to recall verses and Mishnayot by heart is not vital anymore to be able to engage in discussion surrounding Jewish learning, the ability to locate them is indeed.
What will the future of digital learning look like? We (almost) carry the whole of Jewish textual tradition in our pockets already. The experience of Jewish learning online will likely gain more significance over the following few years.
With platforms like Sefaria, Chabad, AlHaTorah and Deracheha expanding rapidly, we can observe an increasing interest in text accessibility regarding language and presentation, big data analyses of Jewish texts and an improvement in digital visualisation techniques.
But how exactly this digital tradition of Jewish learning will turn out to be like remains a page yet to be written.
Jewish Learning Platforms (excerpt):
Campbell, H. A. (2015) Digital Judaism, Jewish Negotiations with Digital Media and Culture. New York: Routledge.
Kelman, A., Garcia, A., Zielezinski, M., Bruch, M. (2019) The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education. Jerusalem: Jim Joseph Foundation.
Mann, J. L. (2020) "Paratexts and the Hermeneutics of Digital Bibles". In: Anderson, B. (ed.): From Scrolls to Scrolling: Sacred Texts, Materiality, and Dynamic Media Cultures. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 247-262.
Schrijver, E. (2017) Jewish Book Culture Since the Invention of Printing (1469 – c. 1815). In: J. Karp & A. Sutcliffe (eds.), The Cambridge History of Judaism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 291-315.
Soloveitchik, H. (1994): Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy. Tradition 28(4), 64-130.
Friedman, M. (1987): “Life Tradition and Book Tradition in the Development of Ultraorthodox Judaism”. In: Goldberg, H. (ed.): Judaism Viewed From Within and From Without: Anthropological Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 235-255.
Bava Metziah 86a