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Tech Meets Talmud in Chicago

Tech Meets Talmud in Chicago

Harnessing smart technology to finish the entire Talmud in a year

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Investment advisor Akiva Goodman, left, learns with his study partner at the Bnei Ruven morning Kollel in Chicago.
Investment advisor Akiva Goodman, left, learns with his study partner at the Bnei Ruven morning Kollel in Chicago.

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.

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“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.

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.
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.

‘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.

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)
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)

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.”

Early-morning Torah study at Congregation Bnei Ruven
Early-morning Torah study at Congregation Bnei Ruven


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Michoel December 4, 2017

Interesting Invention. While there are certainly times to be reserved and no one likes a show off, having a way to track communal activities is interesting. After all, the people that signed up certainly had in mind to finish it in time. Showing their progress on the board can be a reminder to some, encouragement to others, and perhaps encourage a little friendly competition (also having in mind to learn and internalize what's on the page). Reply

Susan Levitsky November 13, 2017

We have lost our sense of privacy. It seems that everyone has to broadcast every act on social media. Can't people study Talmud privately without making it into a contest or bragging how much they have studied? As someone without a single social media account, I find it very distasteful that there is a sign in a synagogue keeping track of people's study of the Talmud. If you can't motivate yourself without a shaming contest, then you are studying for the wrong reasons. Reply

Arthur December 6, 2017
in response to Susan Levitsky:

I remember once learning a piece in Maimonides something to the effect of "a person should at least learn even for the wrong reasons, and that will lead to the right reasons.." In addition, personally, I've never taken a tractate to study until seeing how many people were involved in this project by seeing the live screen... Reply

Anonymous Krinsky December 8, 2017
in response to Susan Levitsky:

The way I understood it, it is not bragging because everyone takes one tractate every year, it's not like it is keeping track of everyone's personal Talmud study. And either way like was mentioned in the article 'As the sages say: Kinat sofrim tarbeh chochmah—‘Jealously of scribes increases wisdom.’ A little bit of healthy competition is good for everyone!”" Reply

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