Review of Scriptural iPhone Apps, part I: Rabbinic Literature

20 03 2009


iTalmud allows access to the entire Babylonian Talmud via your iPhone.

The opening screen of iTalmud, which allows access to the entire Babylonian Talmud via your iPhone.

Apple’s iPhone, and the iPod Touch (the same device minus the phone and camera functions of the iPhone), have recently become a phenomenon. I have the iPod Touch myself. I do have a bit of a personal appreciation for Apple in general, for their software and hardware design talents. But I’m no “Mac-head,” slavishly devoted to the logo, either.

In late 2007, my 1st generation iPod Touch (8GB model) was still quite new on the market, and its firmware was rather basic, relatively speaking. I had no idea how much I’d eventually be able to tailor the device to my own needs. This was thanks to Apple’s introduction in early 2008 of an updated firmware (2.0), which included the new ability to download “apps,”  instantly installable programs available in the “App Store” through Apple’s iTunes. One can already find there hundreds if not thousands of apps with nearly infinitely diverse uses, created by independent publishers specifically for the iPhone/iPod Touch format; and more are made available weekly. 

As a scholar of religion, I am both surprised and delighted to discover on a regular basis new apps in the iTunes Store that pertain in some way to my own work. There are certainly productivity apps that that would be useful in many professions that are not academic or religion-based. And there are indeed scores of apps specifically devoted to religious phenomena, some even designed to aid the iPhone owner’s adherence to religious practices.

But my present intention is to briefly, non-comprehensively, and informally review only a few religious apps that I find useful. More specifically I’d like to focus on scriptural apps, that is, apps that allow one access to various traditions’ scriptural texts via the iPhone (or iPod Touch). A lot of the time, I find myself in the narrower role of a scholar of ancient Jewish texts, early rabbinic literature, with some other interests in related scriptural traditions. As such, and because most apps are not free, I’m not trying to build a religious super-library in the palm of my hand. I download what’s practical for me, which is what the iPhone and iPod Touch are designed for.

This is the first of a two-part review of scriptural apps, focusing specifically on early rabbinic literature. Part two will be about biblical and non-Jewish scriptural apps.


Mishnayos with Bartenura (Hebrew), by 

The Mishnah (c. 200 CE) is the first textual evidence we have for what would end up being called Rabbinic Judaism, that is, the for of Judaism that would evolve into the “mainstream” Judaism we recognize here in North America. It was only in 1933 that this mammoth work (usually over 1000 printed pages without commentary), and forerunner to the Talmud,  was first translated into English by Herbert Danby.

Mishnayot with BartenuraBut students of Talmudic literature are intimately familiar with the Mishnah, which is the core around which Talmudic commentary is formed. Printed pocket versions of the Mishnah, usually only in the original Hebrew, are readily available for such students. But because of the massive nature of the original mishnaic text, as well as the commentary of 15th century rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro that is usually included with it, even these are not as convenient as the iPhone Mishnah app created by This app is simple, it is the Mishnah itself, in the original Hebrew, with very little else. 

Not only is the entirety of the Mishnah included, but so is Obadiah’s commentary. The display of the commentary is optional, and appears in upper-lower split-screen format when selected. When downloaded, the text is presented in basic white Hebrew font on black background. I prefer the look of a basic Times Hebrew font in black on white, and it was easy enough to change my display accordingly (font size is also among the display options).

The six orders of the Mishnah and their respective tractates are listed in a basic, no-frills tree menu in text format only (again, only in Hebrew). However, interfacing with this menu can be awkward sometimes, as the software’s input seems somewhat clunky. This clunkiness is also apparent in the way the text scrolls within each tractate. Usually, iPhone text scrolling is fluid; you move a text down by pulling it up with your finger on the touchscreen, and up by pulling it down. The Mishnah app, however, scrolls only in reverse (that is, moving up by pulling up and vice-versa). Compared to other apps, this interface can be clumsy to a regular iPhone user.

However, the convenience of this program, in addition to its surprisingly low price ($5.99), far outweighs any minor cosmetic or peripheral criticisms. Yes, an English translation would be nice, but it is not missed. For an app that claims to give you the Mishnah on your iPhone or iPod Touch, it does just that, not elegantly but simply.

Rating: 3.5/5


Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, by IndiaNIC, LLC

The Mishnah's tractate Avot (c. 250-300 CE)

The Mishnah's tractate Avot (c. 250-300 CE)

I admit, I had selfish and personal reasons for downloading what seems, on the surface, to be a relatively random choice of iPhone app. However, The Sayings of the Jewish Fathers (a.k.a. the Mishnah’s tractate Avot, “Fathers”), was the subject of my recently completed doctoral dissertation. When I searched the iTunes Store for a copy of this short, ancient Jewish text in app form, it wasn’t even done in all seriousness. It’s a popular text, but still relatively obscure in the grand scheme of things. But I was delighted to find the entirety of Avot in English translation, in its own dedicated app, by  IndiaNIC, LLC. 

IndiaNIC, LLC actually has a long list in the iTunes Store of religious or “spiritual” texts converted into cheap ($0.99). Most of them are the types of works likely to be found at a New Age bookshop, emphasizeing wisdom, mysteries, and magic.  The Sayings of the Jewish Fathers fits into the “wisdom” category. All of these apps seem to use a basic iPhone app template, and are mostly visually indistinguishable; the only difference is the plugged-in text. 

The Sayings of the Jewish Fathers uses British Hebraist Charles Talylor’s classic, late-nineteenth century translation of Avot from the original Hebrew. While the language might at times seem obscure or antiquated in 2009, it is actually based critically on Taylor’s evaluation of all the manuscripts of Avot known at his time. Copies of Taylor’s work are hard to come by, so for a dollar, this app is a steal for scholars. Aside from that, if you love the poetic beauty and inspiring maxims of Avot, as I do, then it is just nice to have a copy in your pocket.

Rating: 2.5/5


iTalmud, by Maplewoods Assoociates Ltd.

If you want to own a Talmud in printed form, be prepared to shell out about a grand. The Babylonian Talmud is a 7th century CE work of encylopoedic scope, an apparent addendum to the Mishnah and earlier rabbinic texts. alongside the Torah, the Talmud is considered the second great scriptural work of Judaism, and mastery of it is required for holding rabbinic office to this date. For $19.99, then, Maplewoods Associates Ltd.’s iTalmud is truly impressive, and beautifully designed.

iTalmudAll in the original Gemaric Aramaic and Hebrew, iTalmud presents the entirety of the Talmud available for download onto your iPhone or iPod Touch. You can bookmark pages of Talmud for later reference, but all pages that you view are stored on your device. Moreover, you have the choice of reading just the Mishnah portion and its Gemara (Talmudic commentary) in scrollable electronic text, or downloading a high-resolution, zoomable scan of the daf (page) from the Vilna Edition (the now classic modern edition), which therefore includes Rashi’s commentary and more.

One extremely useful function of iTalmud is its incorporation of the Daf Yomi (daily page) program, in which members read a page of Talmud each day, corresponding to the calendar. Just click on “Today’s Daf,” and there it is, again in either electronic text (“Text View”) or scanned image form (“Daf View”). Additionally, audio lectures by orthodox leaders are available for each daf. However, this function is only perhaps superficially useful, as the sound quality is generally pretty low. 

But for any student of the Talmud, whether a yeshiva specialist, a Daf Yomi layperson, or an academic of Rabbinics, iTalmud is an impressive and almost unbelivably convenient piece of software.

Rating: 4.5/5

Welcome to my Blog

26 10 2008

My name is Daniel Bernard, Ph.D in the study of religion. I decided to set up this blog in an effort to make public some of the more private questions and issues that occur during the process of engaging in academic research.

For those wondering about the title of this blog, I refer you to this excerpt from Jonathan Z. Smith’s article entitled “Religion, Religions, Religious” (Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 269:

In [1553]… toward the beginning of the first part of his massive Crónica del Perú (1553), the conquistador historian Pedro Cieza de León described the north Andean indigenous peoples as “observing no religion at all, as we understand it (no… religion alguna, à lo que entendemos), nor is there any house of worship to be found.”

This, however, is the twenty-first century. We’re starting to see religion everywhere now, and we’re starting to understand phenomena as “religious” that Pedro Cieza de León could not have taken seriously. Questions are far more abundant than answers now, but religion is not going away. My goal is to take religion and religious people seriously. And it is by careful, critical, and fair scholarship that I attempt to meet this goal.

I hope you check back here now and then to see where some of my research is going. Feedback is never unwelcome.