Forget Hip Hop — iPod Puts the Talmud in the Palm of Your Hand

By Leah Hochbaum

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.
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One day a week, on the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews render themselves virtually Amish by eschewing technology. But during the rest of the week, they often are quicker than most in embracing electronic gadgets, especially when in the service of religion. Case in point: the ShasPod, an Apple iPod equipped with daily Talmud lessons.

The brainchild of Yehuda Shmidman, a 24-year-old Yeshiva University graduate, the ShasPod combines the wisdom of the ages with sleek 21st-century design.

The gadget takes its name from the acronym Shas, shorthand for the Shisha Sedarim (six “orders” or divisions) of the Mishnah that form the basis for the Talmud. It was devised as a way to ease the mammoth page-a-day, seven-and-one-half-year cycle of Talmud study known in Hebrew as Daf Yomi.

Daf Yomi should be about accessibility and ease,” Shmidman said. “I know people who attend a shiur,” or lesson “every morning or who have garages full of [taped lessons]. Obviously, with technology, tapes have become CDs, but still, that’s a lot of CDs. I wondered how to take it even one step closer.”

So before last March’s Siyum HaShas, the celebration held each time a Daf Yomi cycle is complete, Shmidman recognized that iPod-like technology was the way of the future. With this in mind, he began uploading 20-gigabyte iPods with 2,711 Talmudic lectures, one for each day of the cycle.

Shmidman found three rabbis who had committed their Daf Yomi lessons to tape, approached each, and ultimately convinced one, Rabbi Dovid Grossman of Los Angeles, to share a set of his recordings. Shmidman then attended the Siyum held at New York’s Madison Square Garden and began publicizing his invention with flyers adorned with glossy photos of a black-hatter sporting iPod’s signature white ear buds.

Before he knew it, the orders started pouring in from around the world. “Our sales are not concentrated in Brooklyn,” Shmidman said. “We have customers in South Africa, in Romania — one of our customers is the chief rabbi of Venezuela!”

Shmidman, who is unaffiliated with Apple, is quick to point out that his company is little more than a “blip on their screen. We’re not selling thousands of iPods like Circuit City is.” Regular price for a 20-gigabyte Apple iPod is $299. The ShasPod goes for $100 more and Shmidman hopes his clientele thinks it’s more than worth it.

“This is a big development in global Daf Yomi studies. It’s for the person in Brooklyn who attends a daily shiur and the person in Alabama who doesn’t have one to attend,” he said.

Though hopeful, Shmidman is nevertheless trying to keep his expectations in check. “The jury’s still out on [whether] the ShasPod will work for the entire Daf Yomi cycle.” (This is probably partly because he thinks people will grow bored with it, and partly because the battery might run out.) But hey, if people get tired of learning, there are still seven gigabytes of memory left in the gadget for actual music.

Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.

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