Book people

Sefaria launches first-ever digital Torah writing project 

Called the ‘Global Community Torah,’ the project, launched in honor of Sefaria’s 10th anniversary, is the first digital Torah scroll that provides the opportunity for Jews of all ages and backgrounds to participate in its writing — all 304,805 letters

Jews are often referred to as Am Ha Sefer, “People of the Book,” because of their close relationship with the Torah. A new project aims to give all Jewish people worldwide a small part in “writing” a Torah — all 304,805 letters.

The initiative was launched Aug. 20 by Sefaria, a digital library of Jewish texts with 650,000 monthly users, in honor of the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary. Called the “Global Community Torah,” the project is the first digital Torah scroll that provides the opportunity for Jews of all ages and backgrounds to participate in its writing.

Since its launch last week, individuals from 73 countries have participated. As of Thursday, the writing has reached Genesis chapter 2, verse 20.

Users first learn about different Hebrew typefaces and select their font before “making their mark” by entering their first name and location, according to Sefaria. Next they receive emails with a graphic of the Torah verse containing their letter and information about the “parashah,” or weekly Torah portion in which the verse appears. Participants can spin the digital globe to view locations of fellow contributors. They can also read the entire digital scroll when completed, hovering above each letter to learn about their fellow digital “scribes.”

Just like a physical Torah scroll, each letter must be perfect. “So it will be complete whenever it is complete,” Chava Tzemach, a Sefaria spokesperson, told eJewishPhilanthropy. 

“The people who interact with the texts [are] what makes it come to life. This gives an easy way for everyone to connect with Jewish heritage,” Tzemach continued. 

“We’re excited to have an interactive way to get involved in our shared tradition,” Tzemach said, adding that most users found the project through social media, using the hashtag #GlobalCommunityTorah. “It’s cool for people used to being in their small Jewish community to see we are a global community together around this text.” 

Daniel Septimus, Sefaria’s CEO, said that in addition to celebrating community, the project is a pathway for people who want to “dip their toe into Torah learning.” 

“First learn about your letter, then a verse, and then a portion, all while engaging and wrestling with the text. When people study Torah, each person brings their own perspective and experience. And our users cover the full spectrum from secular to observant, daily users to occasional perusers. This digital Torah is a world-spanning collaboration that reflects our collective heritage,” Septimus said in a statement. 

Sefaria hosted a launch event on Aug. 20 to celebrate the commencement of the digital Torah. Sarah Hurwitz, head speechwriter for former First Lady Michelle Obama, was the event’s keynote speaker. 

In the decade since its founding, Sefaria has “opened up the doors to an accessible way of entering the universe of Jewish text,” Peter Eckstein, vice president of Jewish education at Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, told eJP. 

“For the first time it became easy to study Talmud, Rashi, Ramban and more, with one click of the mouse. What I found awesome was watching how the sources provided in the Sefaria library expanded, from Baba Matzia to Sephardic Siddurim to Haggadot,” Eckstein continued. 

“By virtue of having the plethora of Jewish texts and sources so available, the study of Jewish tradition based on different texts became easy. I’m reminded of Ben Bag Bag’s teaching (Pirkei Avot 5:22) of how ‘turning Torah’ leads to more study and learning and insight. Sefaria is the tool that makes that happen.”

Tzemach noted that Sefaria allows people to learn on their own, not just in formal Jewish education settings. 

“For those who don’t have access to a physical library or may be historically excluded from communities, Sefaria is a game changer,” she said. 

In May, Sefaria sparked debate when it released a new Bible translation that avoided using gendered pronouns for God, leading to backlash on social media from some who called it sacrilege. 

Yochonon Donn, news editor of Mishpacha Magazine, tweeted at the time, “Sefaria is a tremendous resource for the [world of] Torah. Messing around with [holy books] to conform to Western ideas of equality is an unacceptable breach. If this is true, I can’t see people learning from an unholy source.”

Unlike nearly all translations of the Bible throughout history, the new English version published in partnership between Sefaria and The Revised Jewish Publication Society does not refer to God with masculine pronouns, and also does not use feminine pronouns.