This story, like many good stories, starts in two places but can only be told in a linear fashion. So, lets start with me. I am Jan… Yitzchak Meir, if you prefer. Conservative from birth. In 1994, I was working at Chase Manhattan in New York City. Every day, a nice looking Yid, dressed in a suit and hat would pass my desk around lunch time. One day I asked where he was going every day. I found out that his name was Jay Pernikoff and he told me that he was going to the Agudah for Mincha. I naturally asked if I could tag along. He said, “Why not?”
So, I became a regular at the Mincha minyan of Agudath Israel of America, 84 William Street in Manhattan… right across the street from Chase. Over time, Jay and I would arrive a few minutes early and discuss the parsha or some halacha. We would wait for the Beis Medrash doors to open at which time approximately 40 men packed the Beis Medrash and Ashrei would begin the Mincha service.
One day, as we were discussing parashas Vayera, the door to the Beis Medrash opened early. Lo and behold, the table was piled high with all kinds of fruits and desserts, kugels and pastries, schnapps and vodka. (Truthfully, I don’t remember the exact foods but I do remember the quantity!!). Anyway, I love to eat and when we were welcomed in, given seats at the table, and invited to partake, I was thrilled. I guess you could say I love to eat. OOPS, I said that already! I asked, “What was the occasion?” in case I should extend a Mazal Tov to some one.
I was told that the occasion was called a Siyum and it marked the completion of one of the tractates of the Talmud… a tractate entitled Bava Metzia. The date was October 18, 1994. Needless to say, the food was delicious. To make conversation, I asked if we could stop in early the next day and partake as well. I was told that unfortunately, the time until the next Siyum is the longest of any Masechta in Shas…176 days… but if I came, Rabbi Shimon Cohn, of Monsey, New York promised to supply me with coffee and cookies!
After a few days of arranging my schedule, I indeed became a regular at the Daf Yomi at the Agudah. And true to his word, Shimon did supply me with coffee and cookies! The shiur was given by Rabbi Elimelech Bluth ably assisted and frequently challenged by Rabbi Mechl Schiffenbauer. Shimon really helped me in the beginning weeks. From not knowing how to hold the Gemara, to looking in the Tosfos when we were reading the Rashi’s, Shimon eventually straightened me out. And funny enough, even with the newly arrived ArtScroll Schottenstein editions, I still had difficulty following along. The regulars at the shiur adopted me and gave me much chizuk to keep working at the Talmud. They introduced me to the Torah Tape library, and I began to listen to the shiur on tape before arriving at the Agudah shiur. I was even impressed to find that Rabbi Rob Karr of Passaic actually attended two Daf Yomi shiurs per day… a pattern that I eventually replicated for many years.
I made my Siyum on Shas, (completion of the Daf Yomi trip through the entire Talmud) in 2002. By that time I had become Shomer Shabbos and considered myself Orthodox largely due to my daily Talmud study. I asked myself the question “Was my study just intellectual or was I going to take its lessons to heart?” Of course I came to the conclusion that with these insights, I wanted to be a Torah Jew. The more I studied, the more I became motivated. I was exposed to some unique Maggedei Shiur including Rabbi Chaim Schabes (Rov of Kehillas Yisroel of New Hempstead), Rabbi Menachem Zupnik (Rov of Beis Torah U’Tefilla of Passaic New Jersey), and Rabbi Feivel Mashinsky (of Monsey, NY who was the Maggid Shiur at Radio City Synagogue, New York City). During some of these years, encouraged by my dear Chavrusa, Mendy Hirth of Passaic, having studied the Daf on my own, I would meet Mendy at 5:30AM review the shiur, be challenged by his insights, and then attend the Beis Torah U’Tefillah Daf Yomi given by Rabbi Zupnik. Then at lunchtime, I would visit Radio City Synagogue in the Diamond District to learn the Daf again from Rabbi Mashinsky. And I would be sure to review the next daf before going to bed.
In 2003, I was trying to use the web to learn about Rashi. I had read several books about his life but I wanted to see if the internet had any new material. I was shocked to find that rashi.com was used by a Jewish electrical engineer (as of 2008, it seems to not to be in use), rashi.org was the web site of the Boston Area Reform Jewish Day School, and rashi.net was, at that time, owned by a Japanese firm who was trying to sell it for in excess of $1500.
So, I figured I would see what was available on the web with the name Tosofos. Nothing was registered. What about Tosafot, Tosfos, Tosofot??? Nothing registered. So on July 30th, 2003, I purchased the 4 Tosfos web names in .com, .net, and .org for a total of 12 web names just so that I would not later find out that tosfos in some language like Swahili was translated as “beautiful virgin” and would be lost to Yidden.
Now came the hard part. Still not being able to teich a Blatt Gemara without the ArtScroll, I knew very well that I would not be able to offer any credible explantion of the Tosfos commentaries for many years to come, if ever. So, I set about telling anyone who would listen about my purchase with the hopes that I might eventually meet at Rosh Yeshiva or a Rosh Kollel who would consider taking on the project (and I could take a tax deduction for the web site donation… maybe!!!).
In December 2004, I received a call at work, from someone requesting to purchase Tosfos.com. Now I have owned several web names and purchased them from the registry as well as transacted in purchase and sale in the “secondary” market. In fact, I own the web name of my last name… buckler.com. Once I was contacted, due to the public nature of web site registries, by an individual asking me to donate buckler.com to a worthwhile cause. When I inquired, I was told the charity in question was the Buckler Christian Academy of Upstate New York. Needless to say I did not make that donation. Anyway, you can see that I was a bit leery to accede to the sale of Tosfos.com. I explained that the site was not for sale. The caller persisted and asked yet again. I replied saying that the site was important to me and to the Jewish people as a whole and on and on I chattered until I was interrupted by the caller who proclaimed, “Jan, I’m from Lakewood!!” Okay! “Now we have something to talk about”, I said.
The caller was Rabbi Yacov Schonfeld and I asked what he would do with the site if I were to sell. I liked his explanations and after 30 minutes or so, I decided not to sell. What I did decide was to do my best to fund the site and give Rabbi Schonfeld the keys so long as the site would be donated l’iluy nishmas my Mother, Raizel bas Yosef haCohen.
Rabbi Schonfeld explained to me that many in Yeshiva could not learn at the rapid pace of the top students in the class. Many needed extra time or extra attention to help them learn the Gemara and certainly the more difficult Tosfos commentary. His goal was to bring some additional instruction to help students be more comfortable in their learning and to supply them with supplementary skills to encourage them rather than have them be disheartened as they saw the class speed ahead. Also, for Daf Yomi learners like myself, this was probably the only way to learn a Tosfos.
He was unbelievable. After the Siyum HaShas, March 1, 2005, Rabbi Schonfeld, single handedly, worked more than 4 hours per day to elucidate as many Tosfos commentaries as possible to coincide with the Daf Yomi schedule and post them to our site. As time went on, I landed a role behind the scenes on the technical side of the production. As January 2006 rolled around, and with it the completion of Maseches Eruvin, we began to discuss a different strategy. More and more of the web was going to video so why not Tosfos.com?
I put together the technical components and Rabbi Schonfeld wrote the text and recorded the Shiurim for the entire first perek of Bava Kamma. With a tzuras ha daf with bigger print allowing one to actually read the Tosfos, we bundled the first perek, Arbaah Avos, on the web and on DVD, replicating 1000 copies and distributing them to major Jewish book stores for those who could not avail themselves of the same learning on our free site.
At this juncture, March 2008, we are nearing completion of the first perek of Kesubos and the funniest thing happened. I received a phone call from my Tosfos partner. Rabbi Schonfeld told me that he was very involved with a new project of Tosfos.com and did not have time to record any videos. While he would still do the write-ups, Rabbi Schonfeld said that I should give the video shiurim. Ha! Me give a Tosfos shiur!! OK, it is true that I have given Daf Yomi shiurim from time to time and that I have been giving a regular Daf Yomi shiur on Shabbos mornings for a few years… but Tosfos… without ArtScroll… No way!
Reb Yacov said, “Jan, you are the president of Tosfos.com… get with the program.” What can I say. I was so scared to give the first shiur I wore my hat to try to look like I knew what I was doing!!… check out Kesubos Daf 13A, dibbur haMaskil, Rav Asi Amar Nivala. Shaking in my boots! Some day I hope to re-record it but for now I have other videos to shoot.
Rabbi Schonfled is now also working on our new website, Gemara101.com, which will try to teach people how to be better students of Talmud. This is a project of Tosfos.com and we are hoping it will grow over time.
Speaking of growth, we have become a recognized 501(c)3 charity and are happy to accept any donations. We are hoping to raise funds to be able to attract additional Maggedei Shiur to move the project along.
One story before I close for the night. Last week, my wife Devorah and I were invited to have Shabbos Lunch with Rabbi & Mrs Ephraim Buchwald. Rabbi Buchwald is the director of the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP). Having talked to Rabbi Buchwald here and there over a few years, I felt he did not know about our Tosfos project and I hoped to gain insight as to how he built NJOP into a major outreach program throughout the United States and Canada dreaming that one day, B’Ezras H”, Tosfos.com might be that successful.
As I began to tell the story, a guest seated next to me said “TOSFOS! You are connected with Tosfos.com? Why that is my favorite Jewish site. It is the BEST, most innovative Jewish site on the whole internet. I learn from Rabbi Schonfeld every day. I can’t get enough!” Literally, I could not tell the story… so I have provided it here, in print, for anyone interested.
I might have the more colorful story or may have written more about our history but make not mistake about it, Rabbi Yacov Schonfeld Shlit”a, Chief Rabbi of the project, is the real hero of Tosfos.com.
Please use Tosfos.com and Gemara101.com. Tell your friends, your classmates, your Rosh Yeshivas. Spread the word. We would so like to expand but being only two people, there is only so much we can do. Funding would allow us to hire Rebbeim who are already teaching Tosfos in their classes and to continue to provide a high quality learning environment.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for further updates.