Trope, the traditional chant of the Torah text, customarily has been learned by b’nei mitzva students through study with rabbis and teachers. Now, in keeping with our high-tech times — there’s an “app” for that.
Rabbi Eli Garfinkel of Temple Beth El of Somerset has developed Trope Tools — an iPhone application that “went live” April 27. While some students undoubtedly will continue learning with teachers and use recordings to aid their study, now a student can learn his or her haftara and Torah portion virtually anytime and with the touch of a button.
“The idea came about because part of my job is teaching students how to lein haftara and Torah,” said Garfinkel, who admits to being somewhat of a technology maven.
“I’m one of the few rabbis who does some of my bar and bat mitzva lessons on Skype,” he said. (For the uninitiated, Skype allows people to view each other in real time via the computer screen as they converse.) “The parents love it because it frees lots of time.”
Garfinkel said he has been “playing with computers since the fourth grade” and realized his interests in Judaism, teaching, and technology could be united. Noticing that a number of students had iPhones, the rabbi set about developing the application.
“Apple will publish any app that does what it says it does, doesn’t crash the machine, and follows guidelines such as having no obscenities,” he explained. “I bought a book of basic computer language. The most important thing you have to learn in computer language is that you have to have a lot of patience. Computers don’t allow any errors. Sometimes you just stare at the screen and wonder why it’s not working, and then you realize one semicolon or capital letter is not in place.”
The app includes a graphic guide to the diacritical marks that determine the pronunciation of the words and phrases in the Torah text. If a student forgets the pronunciation of a particular “squiggle,” Garfinkel explained, he or she can just press the corresponding button and receive an immediate answer. That approach also makes learning the Torah portion or haftara more than just an exercise in memorization, but imparts a skill that will be with students for the rest of their lives.
The app is already being used by some of the rabbi’s students, and it has had numerous visitors, mostly from the United States, but also from such places as Australia and France.
“Everyone does the laining a little bit differently so my next goal is to make a different application that can be used by professional cantors,” said Garfinkel. He is also developing an application that will help students distinguish between Hebrew “look-alike letters.”
Garfinkel previously developed another application, Politicometer, which measures political allegiance. He also has a website, askmyrabbi.com, in which he fields question from all over the world on religious and social issues, and posts video on YouTube demonstrating the way to perform such rituals as lighting Shabbat candles.