Torah iTextbook Project

By: Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik
from Katz Hillel Day School of Boca Raton

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:
Gemara, Mishnah

Blended Learning, UBD - understanding by design, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
6, 7, 8, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Middle school, High school

The Torah textbook project is a Torah SheBaal Peh curriculum with an emphasis on relating Torah texts (Pesukim, Mishna, Gemara and Halacha) to real world scenarios and situations. Each unit or "sugya" begins with a trigger film or series of articles that promote thinking about topics that are relevant to the lives of students. In addition to the relevance the curriculum includes skill building components which promote self-efficacy in both reading and understanding the logical flow of gemara.

Please note that this curriculum is written for either an iBook (iPad, iMac or iPhone) or online format. The sample below is a .pdf version which is limited to graphics and text.

Entry Narrative


One of the greatest challenges for Judaic studies teachers is getting their students to understand that texts written thousands of years ago remain relevant to the students’ lives in today’s society. Students are constantly questioning the need to learn about laws and traditions that seem archaic and appear to describe societal norms that students see as different than the norms of today’s society. While this problem is primarily evident in the study of Gemara it also affects the study of Chumash, Navi and Dinim.

At the Hillel Day School Middle School we have transformed the Gemarah curriculum into a series of hand selected “sugyot” or topical lesson plans. These lesson plans are designed to not only teach reading skills, common and key word recognition and practical halachic information, but also to impart the relevance of the particular sugyah to the students’ everyday lives.

The Torah iTextbook project takes this revolutionary curricular transformation further by providing teachers with a digital library of sugyot for the entire spectrum of 7th and 8th grade Judaic studies.


At the core of the Torah iTextbook Project is the concept that the study of Torah should fundamentally change one’s outlook on themselves and their world. The mitzvot not only allow us to serve Hashem but also effect our cognitive perceptions of our world. As our students begin the study of Gemarah in middle and high school it is important that they begin to find this relevance in all that they learn.

The following are some examples of perceptual relevance found in various sugyot;

HaBah BeMachteret –

  • The value of a human life
  • Gun-Control
  • Dealing with the aggression of others
  • Assessing probabilities
  • Judging others on what the probability of how they will act in the future
  • Our responsibility towards protecting others

Kibbud Av V’Aim –

  • Parent-Child relationship
  • Appreciating what others do for us
  • Appreciating what Hashem does for us
  • Being a link in the chain of the Mesorah
  • Purposeful existence
  • Sowing what we reap

Kiddush HaShem –

  • Life priorities
  • Is your life worth more or less than another’s
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Being Jewish in a hostile world
  • The value that our predecessors placed on Mitzvah observance

Eilu V’Eilu Divrei Elokim Chayim –

  • Taking another’s perspective
  • Influencing others
  • Hashem’s and man’s role in the halachic process
  • The importance of listening to others
  • Recognizing our own limitations

Each sugya includes similar relevant concepts which are made clear to the students through interactive multi-media and review questions and assignments.

Skill Building

One of the challenges of teaching Torah She’Baal Peh is that much of it is written in a language and style that is new to young learners. When faced with this language barrier students express frustration and some may decide that learning mishna or gemorah is just “not for them”. In order to address this challenge, it is important that the teacher give the students a skill set to enable them to easily maneuver through the complex language and style inherent in the study of Torah She”Baal Peh.

The Torah iTextbook project address this issue in four ways;

1. Key Words

Key words are those words found throughout Torah She’Baal Peh that serve a particular function. They are used by Chazal to introduce a statement, a question, an answer, a supporting or contradictory source, a logical argument, and to conclude a discussion. Some ורמינהו, מיתבי, ,examples of key words are .תניא and דכתיב

The iTextbooks in this program include tools to introduce and reinforce these key words. Each mishna and gemarah text studied highlights the key words as they appear in the text. The key words are then presented in tables which include the word’s translation, function and context within the mishna or gemarah studied. Finally, the students are presented with interactive assignments to match the key words to the translations and functions.

2. Common Words

Common words are words that are commonly found throughout Torah She’Baal Peh. They constitute the core vocabulary list that one needs in order to understand the text. Some examples of common words are התם , נמי ,and חייב.

The iTextbooks in this program include tools to introduce and reinforce these common words. Each mishna and gemarah text studied highlights the common words as they appear in the text. The common words are then presented in tables which include the word’s translation. Finally, the students are presented with interactive assignments to match the common words to their translations.

3. Shaklah V’Taryah

Understanding the “Shaklah V’Taryah” or the logical flow of a piece of text is dependent on a student’s ability to decode each phrase and then combine the phrases into a “back and forth” discussion which has a logical flow.The iTextbooks include assignments in which the students are asked to answer questions based on the logical flow of the text. Students are also presented with a block of text and are challenged to select particular phrases that answer a question based on the text’s logical flow. In addition, students are sometimes presented with flow charts which demonstrate the logical flow of the particular mishna or gemarah studied.

4. Key Concepts

A particular sugyah will often introduce a concept that is commonly found throughout Shas.An example of this is the concept of ושאינו תדיר or תעשה לא דוחה עשה The iTextbooks .קודם תדיר תדיר include essays on these concepts that include explanations of the concept and applications of the concept in other places in Shas.


Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. If we are to create a future generation of Torah learners then it is essential that we inculcate our students with the belief that they can, in fact, study a Torah text on their own. The iTextbooks include an especially designed interactive self-study text assignment in which the students are presented with a gemara text and are able to follow the text phrase by phrase while being supported with both nikud and translation. When the students are allowed to work out the text of a particular mishna or gemarah independently, they develop the belief that they can, in fact, accomplish this difficult task. Only after they have worked out the text are they then asked to read the text to the teacher without the benefit of nikud and translation. The successful accomplishment of this task greatly increases a student’s self-efficacy in Torah study.

Supporting Data

Approximately one and one half years after the inception of this project, after it had been used in the classrooms of Hillel Day School of Boca Raton, Dr. Shani Bechoffer of Shani Bechoffer Consulting, conducted a limited study of the students who had used the iTextbooks in their gemara classes. 83 seventh and eighth grade students took part in an extensive survey and their responses were collected and summarized. The initial study of the survey data showed the following;

  • 88% said that they put effort into gemara class because the learning was enjoyable
  • 70% said that they prefer course material that arouses their curiosity, even if it is difficult to learn.
  • 90% agreed that mastering gemara content, ideas and skills will help them become better Jews.
  • 72% said that they like learning gemara.
  • 72% said that gemara is highly relevant to their lives
  • 80% said that when they finish a sugyah they really know it well.

Entry Document Attachments

Presentation Files