A little more than two decades ago, Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford began scheduling a weekly 10:30 a.m. shiur after the Shabbat morning minyan at 8, which was led by different members of the congregation.
Looking for people to give classes, the organizer approached me and asked if I would be interested in giving a shiur. Although I am not rabbinically trained and don’t have an education degree, I figured that I would give it a shot and prepare a Torah class. My Hebrew reading skills are fair at best, and I was never a terribly good Talmud student. But I always possessed a thirst for knowledge and enjoyed hearing a good sermon or shiur. And my research and editing skills aren’t too bad.
The first shiur I gave was before Tisha B’Av, and focused on the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. It went very well and I was immediately added to the rotation of folks who regularly gave shiurim. Since then, I try to give a monthly or bi-monthly shiur at both synagogues at which I daven, Agudath Sholom and the Young Israel of Stamford. I enjoy giving these Torah classes for two reasons: it’s wonderful to be able to transmit knowledge to an interested group of attendees, and it also forces me to engage in some learning that I otherwise might not have done.
Back when I started, creating a source sheet for my shiurim was a challenge. Some of the rabbis, Jewish educators and academics I knew who delivered shiurim regularly invested in the Bar Ilan database for $1,000, which allowed one to tap into an extensive database of Biblical and Halachic sources and create beautiful, clear and organized source sheets. However, this was an expense I could hardly justify.
So I literally copied and pasted sources from books and publications (and a few online sources too) to plain white sheets of paper, hand-numbered the sources, and made copies of the source sheets for attendees. Creating source sheets was not only an educational experience for me but became an arts and crafts project as well!
In 2011, I discovered Sefaria, which became a game changer for me in terms of preparing shiurim and creating source sheets for my Torah classes.
For those who don’t know, Sefaria.org is an open-source, free content, digital library of Jewish texts. It was founded 12 years ago by former Google project manager Brett Lockspeiser and journalist-author Joshua Foer. Calling itself “a living library of Jewish texts,” Sefaria relies on volunteers to add texts and translations and provides interconnections between different texts.
In 2015, Sefaria added complete English translations of the Tanach and its commentaries, including a complete English translation of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. In 2017, it added the entire Talmud. In 2021, it added the complete English translation of Ibn Ezra commentary on the Torah. Each year it becomes larger and more powerful.
There are links to the Shulchan Aruch, Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and a plethora of other Halachic sources. You’ll also find more obscure sources that focus on philosophy and mysticism. There is virtually nothing you cannot find on Sefaria if you’re looking to prepare a basic shiur on a Torah topic. Sefaria’s library now has 322 million words — nearly 76.5 million translated words, 3.3 million intertextual links, and nearly 450,000 source sheets.
Its search capabilities are superb. Not only can your search lead you to primary sources on the subject of your choice, but it also allows you to access the source sheets of others who have already created material on the same topic. (While I will always try to add something fresh and original to my shiurim, I admit that I have occasionally stolen sources from others who have already created source sheets on the same topic.)
But what really changed my life was Sefaria’s program to create clean, beautiful and organized source sheets. Basically, Sefaria’s online program did all the cutting, copying and pasting for me — without scissors or scotch tape!
Want to number your sources? No problem. Prefer to arrange your sources with Hebrew on the right and English on the left? One click … and it’s done. Or, switch to Hebrew on the top and its English translation underneath, if you prefer that. Rearrange sources in a different order? Sefaria has you covered. Bringing in a source from another website? Check. And create a pdf when you are all done? Easy.
Truthfully, I probably have used less than half of Sefaria’s entire library of capabilities, but what I have utilized has made preparing for my shiurim a whole lot easier.
Each day I marvel at the internet’s capabilities in the many facets of my life. But the one area in which it has most dramatically affected me has been the ability to delve into translations of Biblical and Halachic textual material that otherwise would be foreign to me.
To Sara Wolkenfeld, chief learning officer at Sefaria.org, and the many others who manage and update the Sefaria.org website, thank you for allowing an average guy like myself to prepare shiurim — and making my source sheets look so good!
By Michael Feldstein