Tech Meets Talmud in Chicago

From Chabad.org by Menachem Posner:

It’s a tradition almost as old as the Chabad movement itself. Every year, Chabad-Lubavitch communities divide up the entire Talmud, each individual studying another tractate and celebrating a grand siyum when the effort is complete.

Investment advisor Akiva Goodman enjoyed the study, but thought that some of the technology he uses in his workplace could help individuals track their learning and become inspired by the learning of others.

The end result turned out to include a smart sign-up system, online progress reporting and large screen in the synagogue lobby, where everyone’s accomplishments are displayed.

“The way I see it,” says Goodman, an ordained rabbi and father of three, “we are merging technology with behavioral economics, motivating and encouraging everyone to learn more than they may have otherwise. When you see that screen and you see how everyone is learning, it gets you going.”

While Goodman developed much of the back end himself, he got help from his study partner, Zev Shkolnikov, a former Google developer. “We wound up consulting during the breaks from studying Tractate Megillah,” says Shkolnikov, whose coding expertise made the system smoother and more intuitive.

‘Apply Tools to Torah Study’

The custom of dividing the Talmud in each Chassidic community was established by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe.

It was the longstanding tradition that the division took place on Yud Tes Kislev, celebrated as “the New Year of Chassidus.”

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—once explained the appropriateness of this date: Although comprised of several seemingly disparate parts, the entire Torah is essentially one entity. This wholesomeness of Torah is only achieved in the presence of the revealed and hidden elements of Torah, represented by the Talmud and Chassidism, respectively. Thus, it is natural that the division of the Talmud was established on the 19th of Kislev, when Chassidism is celebrated.

According to an article in A Chassidisher Derher magazine, back in the 1940s the Rebbe would organize the divisions on behalf of Machne Israel, including participants from all origins.

Throughout the years, the Rebbe would observe the division of the Talmud at the central Yud Tes Kislev celebration in the main Chabad synagogue in Brooklyn, N.Y.—personally participating, filling out an index card with his name and the tractate of his choice. With the exception of 1952, when the conclusion was made by Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, former chief rabbi of Shanghai, the Rebbe himself would ceremoniously complete the Talmud on behalf of all the participants.

In Chabad synagogues large and small, a big board is often hung displaying the names of the participants in the Talmud campaign, indicating what each individual has accepted to learn.

According to Goodman, having a dynamic screen is the natural 21st-century extension of that tradition. “We have so many great technologies at our disposal,” he explains, “and it’s plain business sense to apply these tools to Torah study.”

Looking ahead, Goodman hopes to invite other communities to sign up for his system (available at siyum.org). “Ideally, I’d like to see communities match up against each other. As the sages say: Kinat sofrim tarbeh chochmah‘Jealously of scribes increases wisdom.’ A little bit of healthy competition is good for everyone!”

Much of the study takes place at the morning Kollel organized by Rabbi Moshe Markowitz. “I see it every day,” attests Rabbi Boruch Hertz of congregation Bnei Ruven, which hosts the Kollel. Lay people sit together working their way through their chosen tractates. People are asking to borrow Talmuds with translation from our library. There is no doubt that there is a buzz in our community, and this is something that can and should be replicated everywhere.”

To sign up your community, please email admin@siyum.org or visit siyum.org.

Goodman and his study partner, Zev Shkolnikov, a former Google developer, came up with a smart sign-up system, online progress reporting and large screen in the synagogue lobby, where everyone’s study accomplishments are displayed.
Making a siyum at farbrengen in 1952 led by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, seated at the table. Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi is seated behind him, to the right. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Early-morning Torah study at Congregation Bnei Ruven

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