Where CD-ROMs and Rambam Come Together

When former prime minister David Ben-Gurion went to the home of the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz) in Bnei Brak in October 1952, the issue raised was the co-existence of religiously observant Jews and their secular brethren in the young state.

What the meeting mainly left in the collective memory was the parable reportedly related by the Hazon Ish about two wagons that meet on a narrow bridge. His belief was that the empty wagon - the Zionist and secular one - must make way for the full one, that with the belief in the Torah.

Even those who cast doubts about the baggage of the Torah wagon, find it difficult to ignore its scope - starting from the Bible and including the words of the sages in the Talmud, the commentaries in and about them, and the hundreds of years of halakhic (Jewish religious) rulings based on these writings that served as a guide for the lives of the Jewish communities throughout the world.

Since 1992, a compact disc, costing between NIS 1,900 and NIS 2,400, has been available that makes it possible for everyone, not only for those who are rabbis and proficient in the subjects, to get to know Jewish thought over the ages.

The CD-ROM, which took some 300 man-years to create, is updated nearly every year and is also marketed now as a disc-on-key. In its current form, the 17th edition, it comprises of over 1,500 years of texts, from the books of the sages to modern halakhic rulings, as well as more than 100,000 questions and responsa composed by rabbinical experts, religious judges and leaders over hundreds of years. Some 220 million words and more than 450,000 internal links make it possible to find additional relevant material on every subject in the database quickly and easily.

It all started with an idea by the mathematician Prof. Aviezri Fraenkel of the Weizmann Institute, who was among those who built the first computer in Israel, to try to use that new technology to cope with the vast mass of Jewish thought.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Fraenkel set up a group which was known as RESPOR (researchers, programmers, rabbis) who tried to solve the problems by creating a database from which the information could be retrieved. In those days, it was extremely expensive to store information on a computer and it took a great deal of time to process.

In 1975, a while after the project had already migrated to Bar-Ilan University, a senior computer scientist from the United States told Prof. Yaacov Choueka, a philologist and computer expert who replaced Fraenkel, that the initiative was "foolish and absurd and doomed to failure, especially when it comes to an exotic language, a mixture of rabbinic Hebrew and Talmudic Aramaic."

Today the project has some 20,000 users all over the world, who can update their editions for NIS 300. The database is also available on a Web site where institutions can use it with a monthly or annual subscription, or on an hourly basis.

The uniqueness of the project lies in its Boolean search engine, which makes it possible to search for up to four words with all their declensions and forms, to fix the space between the words in the search, and to decide in which of the books on the database to search.

The search command opens a window with all the results, classified according to a sub-division of databases. Double clicking with the mouse on a result enables the user to display the immediate reference. Clicking once brings up the entire chapter or paragraph.

It is possible to find the interpretations of all the commentators on a certain result, to display the biography of the commentator who is quoted and the edition of his writings that exists in the database, and to translate the result from Aramaic to Hebrew.

The project won the Israel Prize for Torah Literature in 2007 and was recognized by the government as one of the 50 top quality projects on the 50th anniversary of the state in 1998. Its scientific director today is Prof. Yaakov Spiegel and the project's director general is Rabbi Yaakov Weinberger of Bar-Ilan University.

A small staff at Bar-Ilan is continuing the work of typing and proofreading additional texts to enrich the database and much of the work is outsourced. The project is able to support itself financially.

I don't know how two wagons which meet each other on a narrow bridge should behave. From my experience, I know that the CD-ROM of the Responsa Project can bridge the abyss that divides secular Israelis and religious Jews, and as such, it is in my eyes worthy of the Israel Prize for a lifetime enterprise.

Finding more links

The big challenge is not merely to extend the subscribers' list beyond researchers in the fields of Jewish thought and Hebrew language but also to improve the search engine. Prof. Shmaryahu Hoz, who is responsible for the project on behalf of the president of Bar-Ilan University, has three spheres in which he would like to see the search engine enhanced: a logical thesaurus, which he defines as a "vision"; a dictionary of acronyms and abbreviations; and a far-off dream, scanning the Jewish bookcase with all its unique texts onto a computerized database. All of these would require a special budget.

The easiest project is the dictionary of acronyms and abbreviations, which those pushing the full wagon know how to decipher naturally, but whose simple combinations sometimes trip up the secular Israeli.

The logical thesaurus is a list of terms that we use in our everyday lives and a way to find words that can relate to these phenomena at the times when the texts were written that are included in the Responsa project. In this way, it will be possible to locate links of ancient Jewish sources on modern-day issues, such as solar energy, air pollution, euthanasia and heredity.

If one wants to know what the sages said about "artificial insemination," it would be the thesaurus' aim to instruct the searcher to go to an entry such as "pregnancy", "sperm", "womb", or "coitus."

One result that would come up in a search with a combination of such terms would be from the collections of the Maharil. A click on his biography tells us that this is Rabbi Jacob ben Moshe Halevi Moelin who lived in Mainz, Germany, from 1360 to 1427. He tells of how Ben Sira was born from the sperm of the prophet Jeremiah after Jeremiah's daughter went to bathe in the tub used by her father and became impregnated with her father's sperm and bore him a child.

Everyone said about Jeremiah's daughter that she was so modest that she could not have been a prostitute and that she could only have become impregnated in the bathtub. That was why the son was called Ben Zera ("son of sperm") but when he grew up, he became ashamed of that name and changed it to Ben Sira, which equals "Jeremiah" according to numerology.

The Book of Ben Sira is one of the external books, called in Latin Ecclesiasticus, as in its genre it resembles Ecclesiastes, that is not part of the Torah literature but formed part of the New Testament when the Septuagint was translated, and therefore it is not included in the project. However it is mentioned in the Talmud and the Midrash. Its Jewish version, included in the project, written probably in the 11th century, adds the juicy detail that Jeremiah spilled his seed in the bath, forced to do so by evil man from the tribe of Ephraim, whom he had admonished for masturbating in the communal bath (mikveh).

Another search would reveal that the phrase "New Testament" (and all that follows is my own thought) has its source in the Book of Jeremiah (31:31) and was taken from there by the Christians. And if we are talking about a virgin giving birth without intercourse, the coincidence appears to be suspicious.

The Jewish Google

In order to create the database, a page of the Talmud had to be dismantled into its components and each part had to be typed separately. Hoz's vision, which he calls a far-off dream, is to find the software that is capable of scanning a text picture of a page of Talmud as it appears and to turn it into a digital database that a computer can display. For this purpose, software that can identify texts to a degree that is much greater than those that exist at present, have to be found.

This software will also have to be able to identify an alphabet that is not common, like the Rashi script. After all that, the ancient printing presses with their worn letters will have to be taken into account.

The question asked by those who are not Torah scholars is, what do we stand to gain from delving into sources of Judaism that indeed were part of a lively Jewish life for hundreds of years but no longer have the same standing today. Simply in order to show that we, the secular, can do it too?

First, that is not something to be scoffed at. Second, searching for the sources of Hebrew words and phrases can teach us a great deal about our language and ourselves.

People who need precedents, such as judges and researchers, find this a most useful tool that can point to new ways of thinking. Of course, this is assuming that they won't deign to impose the laws of the Torah here, but rather want to see how varied, and sometimes daring and subversive, Jewish thought was over the generations.

And last but not least, to learn that yet again, that "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." (Ecclesiastes, 1,9).

When Hoz shows the planned improvements to the search engine of the Responsa Project, he refers to it jokingly as the enterprise that hopes to be the Jewish Google, or as he calls it, Jewoooogle.