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Tweeting the Torah

A new space for discussions about religious Jewish life emerges on ‘frum Twitter’

by
Yoni Gutenmacher
July 05, 2022

On May 27, while Ray Liotta, Ted Cruz, #BTSatTheWhiteHouse, and #AmberHeardIsALiar were trending on Twitter, a graduate student in psychology named Yehuda Fogel tweeted out a poll: “Do ghosts exist on the plane of: (A) Shabbos (B) Chol.” Hidden under a few layers of abstraction and groupspeak, Fogel was referencing the Shabbat versus weekday duality that is common in Torah literature. Although “Shabbos” gained a slight majority, with 53.3% of the votes, one user received several likes for commenting a third option, “bein hashmashot duh!!!”—literally meaning “between the two suns,” referring to the phrase used in Halacha to describe twilight, which, on Fridays and Saturdays, is neither fully Shabbos nor Chol.

The 15 people who voted were participating in what’s come to be known as “frum Twitter,” often shortened further to Fritter, a subset of Jewish Twitter consisting of observant individuals engaged in conversations related to religious Jewish life. On frum Twitter, the word “frum” takes on a slightly different meaning from its typical one, functioning less as an exclusive term often used to describe adherence to traditional Orthodox Halacha, and more as an umbrella term for all the kinds of people on the platform who are interested in Torah and Torah-adjacent content.

It can be helpful to think of frum Twitter as a kind of Beit Midrash, albeit one that is virtual, disjointed, postmodern, frequently pluralistic (although, sometimes, very much not), meme-ridden, somewhat anarchist, politically engaged, not necessarily halachic, and often more interested in shtick than in the pursuit of Torah. On top of all that, Twitter’s character limit makes it nearly impossible to reproduce the detailed questions, long-winded explanations, layered conversations, close textual study, and intense level of focus that is quintessential to the Beit Midrash experience. And yet, as many observant users have found over the past several years, Twitter is quite good at fostering the features of a Beit Midrash that are incidental to its stated primary purpose of learning Torah yet ultimately integral to its culture: insular humor, spiritual camaraderie, confessions and epiphanies about real lived Jewish experience, conversations about the state of the Jewish world, the sharing of stories both personal and communal, and, above all, the formation of relationships and sensation of community.

The Torah that does circulate on frum Twitter—and there is plenty of it, if you know where to look—tends to be short, simple, and direct, often inspirational or humorous, and demanding of very little bandwidth from the reader. Scrolling through frum Twitter, it becomes clear that people have managed to turn Torah into yet another dopamine-inducing substance that can thrive on the internet. The kind of Torah that is popular on Twitter can initially feel foreign to one who is accustomed to Torah learning that involves focused reading, patience, concentrated thought, and endless review. Of course, that is exactly the appeal of consuming Torah on Twitter: It is easy, it is approachable, it can be appreciated while standing on a subway.

Oshi Bloom, an undergraduate psychology student at Yeshiva University with plans to begin his rabbinic studies in the fall—and who also happens to be a frum Twitter personality with around 1,200 followers—likens much of the Torah on Twitter to “drugs,” “vitamins,” and “Jolly Ranchers.” That is, frum Twitter can provide a sweet, short-lived Torah high that supplements intense Torah study. For Bloom, scrolling through frum Twitter can be a “meaningful” way to spend his downtime, a way to learn Torah when he doesn’t have the mental energy or the time to sit down with a sefer.

He often gets dozens of likes for posting very short thoughts that sometimes contain Torah ideas and sometimes do not: “shabbos is like that point where you can finally drive after being stuck in a huge traffic jam” (24 likes), “pizza on thursday night is like chicken soup on friday night” (59 likes), and “the kotzker explains לא תגנ [Thou shalt not steal] as you are not allowed to steal from yourself, you cannot be harsh to yourself and ruin your potential” (66 likes).

Much of Bloom’s Twitter catalog involves ideas related to chassidut (or chassidus), a strand of Jewish thought that, although somewhat resurgent in recent years, has managed to gain even more traction and attract an even wider audience on Twitter. Chassidut is pervasive on frum Twitter in large part due to several rabbis on the platform who often refashion traditional Hasidic ideas into consumable tweets. For Rabbi Dovid’l Weinberg, a teacher at Yeshivat Orayta with a considerable Twitter following, the very act of sharing Torah on Twitter, where there is so much negative content, is one that is informed by chassidut: “One of the reasons that chassidus thrives on Twitter is that chassidus thrives on pulling good out of places that in theory could be a little bit dark,” Weinberg said.

Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld, a practicing psychotherapist and Orthodox Jewish educator with over 5,000 followers on Twitter, regularly posts tweets that straddle the line between Torah and poetry with a style that manages to evoke Rupi Kuar’s online poems, a Chabad rabbi’s sermon, and popular Instagram psychologists, all at once.

Rosenfeld has been innovative not only in style and content, but also in form. Prior to each Jewish holiday, Rosenfeld posts a tweet with a list of several major Jewish scholars and, beside each one, a concise summary of what each of them believes the upcoming holiday’s essential nature to be. The tweet is always anticipated by his followers, guaranteed to garner dozens of likes and receives responses from users adding other scholars’ perspectives to the list.

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, who might be considered the supreme condenser of Torah in the contemporary Orthodox world—he is renowned for his rapid daily Daf Yomi shiur and 10-minute Halacha series, among other contributions to the Torah world—has taken his talent for downsizing Torah to a new extreme on Twitter, where he posts tiny Torah thoughts and stories of gedolim, or great rabbis.

Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, educator and founder of the 18Forty podcast, is among the most popular and well-respected figures in frum Twitter. He sees Rosenfeld’s and Lebowitz’s acts of distilling complex Torah ideas into very short tweets as not just practically invaluable but even as inherently holy. “The act of translation highlights the immutability of the deep truth of Torah,” Bashevkin said.

Bashevkin himself has also popularized a new tweet form that has become a staple of the frum Twitter experience. Every Saturday night, dozens of people tweet “I read this over Shabbos” along with a photo or description of, unsurprisingly, what they’ve read over Shabbos: novels, articles, essays on Torah, seforim, poetry, etc.

Despite all the ingenuity that has developed on frum Twitter in how Torah is shared—its form, its style, its length—the truly defining characteristic of frum Twitter pertains to who is welcome to partake in that sharing of Torah and Jewish discussion. Although there are no strict parameters regarding who is and who isn’t part of frum Twitter, it is clear that the online community stretches considerably wider than most (if not all) nonvirtual religious Jewish communities. While the constituency leans centrist Orthodox and male, the active participants on frum Twitter run quite the gamut of Jewish identity: Hasidic, neo-Hasidic, Yeshivish, centrist Orthodox, modern Orthodox, liberal Orthodox, progressive Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, men, women, nonbinary, LGBTQ+, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, converts, and unaffiliated.

Although Twitter has become notorious for enabling hate speech between various political and ethnic groups, it has also somehow managed to become a place where Jewish denominational lines are often blurred, enabling discourse solely on the pretense of shared Jewish experience or interest.

“Building a frum Twitter community that is able to interact in a nonadversarial way with people who are not frum but still share ideas and Jewish experience together is very, very holy,” Bashevkin said.

Sofia Freudenstein, a first-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat and master’s student at Yeshiva University, said that Twitter has enabled her to be in discourse with many kinds of Jews who would be much less likely to engage with her on questions relating to Torah, particularly because of how most of the Orthodox world views women’s pursuit of rabbinical studies. “It is surprising to me to be seen as someone involved in the frum Twitter world. I’m happy about it because I think I should have a seat at the table,” she said. “But the people that I interact with, I wonder what it would be like in person as opposed to here on Twitter. I mean, would we ever run into each other in person? I hope that maybe by reaching each other in this space, it can lead to better denominational ties outside of the digital world as well.”

Rivka Press Schwartz, associate principal at SAR High School and a research fellow at the Hartman Institute, has found frum Twitter to be a space where women, and people of other identities who don’t always feel like they have a seat at the table in the Orthodox world, can voice their perspectives and be heard.

Press Schwartz has over 2,000 followers on Twitter, where she often shares her opinion on the state of the Orthodox community and communal issues. On Twitter, she has found that, broadly speaking, when she articulates perspectives that are particular to the experience of women in Orthodoxy, Orthodox men usually listen and acknowledge that they hadn’t been aware of those perspectives before. This, she said, is a departure from mainstream Orthodox Torah spaces, where women’s perspectives are not always sought or heard. “By virtue of my gender, the Beit Midrash is generally a no-go space for me,” she said. “The mainstream Orthodox Batei Midrash where the action is, is not a space that I’m invited into. And there are a lot of other people connected to the Orthodox community who don’t feel that the mainstream Orthodox Beit Midrash is a space that they’re invited into. And the Twitter conversation is a conversation that a lot more voices can get in on.”

Liv Sher, currently an NYU master’s student, had found a similar sense of accessible community through frum Twitter when she suddenly found herself living at home again during the spring semester of her sophomore year as an undergraduate student. Before the pandemic began, Sher had grown up secular and came to Orthodoxy during her early years at NYU, where she took part in its lively Orthodox college community. Living back at home without connections to religious life in the area, she found a sense of community through frum Twitter and has since come to appreciate it as a religious space that is uniquely welcome of nontraditional voices. “Twitter does open up a forum for public conversation that doesn’t exist outside of it,” she said. “I come at it from the perspective of: I’m a convert and I’m a baal teshuva. And it has created a sense of—well, this is a space we can actually talk about these things.”

Frum Twitter has also increased accessibility to many Orthodox rabbis—and the resources they provide—for Orthodox women. According to Tzivia Appleman, a recent NYU graduate, Twitter has given her direct access to a world of rabbis that she found hard to access and engage with otherwise. “I am able to not just see their Torah but engage with their Torah—with a like, a retweet, a reply,” Appleman said.

Inevitably, there are limits to the inclusivity afforded by frum Twitter, and many Orthodox women still feel uncomfortable sharing their perspectives on Twitter or even creating accounts in the first place, according to Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, an Orthodox journalist with a large Twitter presence. Chizhik-Goldschmidt pointed to the large gender imbalance that exists on frum Twitter, and noted that she herself has witnessed several instances of Orthodox men harassing Orthodox women on Twitter. For these reasons, she explained, women in her Orthodox circles still tend to gravitate to Instagram as their primary outlet for Jewish social media, and consequently are left out of the discourse that is happening on Twitter. “Women who are expressing nonconformist ideas on a place like Twitter get harassed much quicker by men in the frum community,” she said.

Despite the shortcomings that frum Twitter presents, it remains in many ways a remarkably open and expansive Beit Midrash, particularly when compared to other religious spaces for learning and communal discussion.

“I think even in the ways Twitter is limited and imperfect, there is still more space for more people’s voices,” Press Schwartz said. “To whatever greater or lesser extent that I am being listened to on Twitter, I have more of a voice and a platform than I would in some other contexts.”

Yoni Gutenmacher is a writer based in New York.

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