IPads and Sefarim

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Torah is timeless; the tools we use to learn it, however, are timebound. I’ve had an IPad for a few months and have downloaded and learned from sefarim in two ways — HebrewBooks and PowerSefer. Here is my comparison and contrast of the two tools:

1) HebrewBooks.org — If you are not familiar with this website, you should be. It started as a project of scanning for freed download American Hebrew books that are out of print, mainly (I believe) from the central Lubavitch library in Crown Heights. With a grant from the Rysman family, the website expanded into providing free searchable downloads of tens of thousand of Hebrew texts, ranging from classic works through Torah journals and relatively recent works. It seems that anything lacking copyright protection is fair game. At this point, some authors send the website books. This is literally a complete library available for free.

Searching the website is sometimes difficult. If you don’t know the exact title or the author’s name, or you want something simple like a Mishnah with Tiferes Yisrael, you might end up spending a bit of time playing with the search functions and going through pages and pages of search results.

In order to access the website on an iPad, you have to download a book in your web browser and then save it into a PDF reader app. The PDF reader I prefer is GoodReader, which is extremely powerful. It costs $5.

In GoodReader, I can store books in different folders. On opening a book, I see the page as it was scanned in — in the same font and page layout. I can zoom in and swipe from page to page. I can also search for words, highlight and copy words, leave notes and bookmarks, and jump to specific pages. When I close out of a book, GoodReader remembers the page I am on and automatically takes me there when I reenter the book.

However, there is a delay when turning the page, as GoodReader creates the image of the PDF. This is sometimes frustrating. And the text is only as clear as the scan. When you are dealing with old texts, particularly in Rashi script, you sometimes have to squint in order to read the words no matter how much you zoom in.

I have experimented with other PDF readers and not found any to be better. HebrewBooks has an iPad app but I have found it to be more difficult to use than just going to the website.

2) PowerSefer — This is a new app that I received as a review copy (normal cost of $30). It is a closed system, meaning all books have to come from PowerSefer. They convert classical Hebrew books into text and provide a searchable library for you from which you can download any book you want and read/learn it.

The books appear in a block font — a different layout than its published form. The text is crisp and clear, with two sizes from which you can choose. Each book has an easily accessible table of contents and an internal search. You can leave bookmarks but you cannot highlight or copy text.

PowerSefer is easy to use. The startup delay every time you open the app is about 15 seconds but it seems like 15 minutes. Once it’s up and running, it is easy to navigate and use.

Right now, PowerSefer has a decent selection of books but it is very spotty. It has all of Talmud Yerushalmi but not Bavli. It has Noda BiYehudah but not many more responsa. The index to find books to download is extremely haphazard and confusing. This really needs to be reorganized along the lines of the Bar Ilan CD-ROM.


PowerSefer has a much better reading experience. Despite the higher cost and lower selection, the reading experience takes advantage of the iPad screen (even though it doesn’t let you zoom). Once a book is loaded, you easily turn the page, flip through pages or jump to a chapter (or responsum) via the table of contents.

HebrewBooks has an unbeatable selection and the books (but not the reader) are free. While there are delays when turning pages, you can zoom within a page and copy & paste text into another application.

Hopefully, PowerSefer will continue to build and organize its library and add a few other functions. It will then be the definitive iPad reader of Hebrew books. While the $30 price is high for an iPad app, it is already a bargain considering the number of books you get.

(Before someone asks, no you cannot use an iPad on Shabbos: link)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. >. It started as a project of scanning for freed download American Hebrew books that are out of print, mainly (I believe) from the central Lubavitch library in Crown Heights.

    A nitpick, but it’s good to correct the record. They got a major, major post – shot into the stratosphere, actually – when the Chabad Library let them in to do their work, but in its earliest incarnation as repository of American seforim, they scanned from other sources. IIRC the first big haul from Chabad was 1000 or so Haggados, which they publicized before Pesach a few years ago. Then they preceded to scan probably several thousand excellent seforim from them. Although they scanned some choice things from the JTS library, next to Chabad their biggest source is the YIVO library.

  2. Any views on Talmud apps? The Davka Tanach app is adequate, but I do wish there was more available as commercial iBook/Kindle reference books: E.g. the Koren/OU Siddur for a start.

    It is also a fantastic mechanism for reading academic articles that can often be downloaded as PDFs. I use GoodReader for those, just as for HebrewBooks.org PDFs.

    It is worth noting for those not familiar that the iPad2 has native Hebrew support; unlike the original iPad.

  3. Oh, and the Chaim Elozor Reich collection is no small thing also.

  4. The Talmud apps seem too expensive to even try out. I just download the masechta from HebrewBooks and suffer the pain of turning the page when I get to it.

  5. There is also iTalmud, which has the text of the Bavli, plus Rashi, Tasophot, and the Taklin Chaditin on Shekalim, as well as a few other rishonim on various tractates.

    Hebrewbooks is a great way to learn Talmud. I find the scanned copies to be clearer there than many actual books. Definitely the go-to resource six days of the week.

  6. I notice that PowerSefer has the Ritvah and Rashba. If I had an iPad, the application might be worth it for those alone.

  7. GoodReader is great. i use it on my iphone. only problem is that it’s painfully slow to go from page to page. not a big deal if just reading, but if you’re jumping around (e.g., like i do if i’m looking up a word in a hebrew lexicon) then it can take forever. also can’t transfer files via usb, but this is an apple limitation. (but you can transfer from your regular computer via wifi)

    a number of problems with HebrewBooks. foremost is that often the scanning is not sharp and can often be difficult to read. also the bibliographic information is horrible, as listed imprint place/city is often wrong on search hits, which is frustrating if you want a particular edition. even worse is that i’ve seen books where “hebrewbooks.org” is stamped over the imprint info on the title page, leaving you clueless as to which edition you’re actually using.

    of course its free and it has a great selection and i’m happy it’s available.

    iMIshnah is a great app and the rusty brick siddur is still my favorite j-app

  8. Yaakov Fuchsman

    HebrewBooks is indeed wonderful, but the most wonderful thing about it is that it is completely open: You can download the books to use them in any new way that you want, and you can contribute to HebrewBooks as well (and I don’t mean cash though you can contribute that too): Upload your sefer there or a new scan of an old sefer. Any and every contribution to HebrewBooks enriches the entire Torah public forever!

    As for text (rather than scans), PowerSefer (which I never heard of before reading this post) is a disappointment in that sense. You cannot do what you want with the material, and you cannot contribute to it in a way that will benefit the entire Torah public forever. It is time to leave this archaic economic model behind. For those who want Torah texts as texts (rather than scans), please use and contribute your knowledge to growing libraries that are free for the entire Torah public to use and contribute to. There are currently two wonderful projects of this sort, each of which deserves to be publicized both for content and for the efforts of volunteers:

    1. Torat Emet (downloadable program with a huge number of free digitial texts):

    2. Hebrew Wikisource (online program, the link is to “recent changes” so that you can see examples of what contributors are currently working on:

    Shabbat Shalom

    (The second link is to “recent changes” so that you can see what contributors are currently working on.)

  9. Very useful post and commentaries. There are already plenty of sefarim available on iPad and iPhone. Check out http://www.jewishiphonecommunity.org, special Talmud, Mishna, Tanach and Prayer sections. Shabbat Shalom.

  10. Shalom Rosenfeld

    Anyone try Bar-Ilan’s online service?

    If only Bar-Ilan could port their DVD to a tablet app…

  11. Ezra Friedberg

    “With a grant from the Rysman family, the website expanded into providing free searchable downloads of tens of thousand of Hebrew texts….”

    Another nitpick. I would point out my father, Albert Dov Friedberg, provided substantial start up money which established HebrewBooks.org into the site it is today, as well as contributing/licensing the usage of the Friedberg Rambam.

  12. Any tech-inclined people here feel like trying to figure out what it is about certain PDFs that makes them work so slowly on the iPad/iPod/iPhone. I have some very large PDFs from hebrewbooks.org that work just fine, but then some others are terrible. If we can figure out what it is about the encoding, we could help hebrewbooks.org choose their settings better. Any takers?

  13. Question for iPad users- is it comfortable to learn from an iPad? Do you prefer learning from it rather than in a real sefer?

  14. It’s comfortable but I prefer a real sefer where I can flip pages.

  15. The early versions of HebrewBooks.org allowed one to search in either Hebrew or English. This was helpful, because the site contains a number of books written in English. For example, it contains Rabbi David Miller’s three books that deal with Shabbos and Taharas HaMishpacha. However, a few years ago when the web site was updated, the ability to search in English was removed. I think this is a mistake, and I have written to the the person behind this site pointing this out, but the ability to search in English has not been restored.

    Try searching for Rabbi David Miller’s books. How will you spell Miller in Hebrew?

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