Researchers Piece Together Jewish Text Lost Centuries Ago, Using Algorithms

A biblical exegesis attributed to the followers of the first and second century sage Rabbi Yishmael was believed to be gone forever. But using new technology, researchers were able to comb a 19th century text for the original work

Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
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The midrash will be presented to the public for the first time in a January, at a conference to be held at Bar Ilan University.
The midrash will be presented to the public for the first time in a January, at a conference to be held at Bar Ilan University.Credit: Israel's National Library
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev

For centuries, a foundational text of Jewish culture had been considered lost forever. Quotes from it surfaced over the years, but they were interspersed with later texts, making it impossible to discern which sections were the original.

The book in question is Mekhilta le-Sefer Devarim, a midrash, or interpretation and commentary, on the Book of Deuteronomy. It is attributed to a group of scholars that formed around Rabbi Yishmael, who was one of the most famous of the rabbis known as the Tannaim, in the land of Israel in the first and second century C.E., a period in which Jewish culture and the tradition of the Jewish sages crystalized.

Now, with the help of advanced technology, researchers have managed to once again track down the text. “I have been working for many years on the literature of the classical rabbinical sages (Hazal)”, says Prof. Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, a scholar of rabbinic Judaism at Ben Gurion University. “But I have a feeling that if I go down in history, it will be for this research.”

The midrash was edited in the third century B.C.E. and was lost for generations. In the 19th century, though, a researcher found that a sage by the name of Rabbi David Adani, who lived in Yemen in the 13th century, was familiar with the lost text and had quoted extensively from it in the Midrash HaGadol. Adani, however combined parts of the original midrash with quotes from other books, changing it to the point where it was impossible to identify the source.

Prof. Michal Bar-Asher Siegal. 'I have a feeling that if I go down in history, it will be for this research.'Credit: Dani Michlis, Ben Gurion University

A previous attempt to reconstruct the midrash using conventional tools was only partially successful. Now, Bar-Asher Siegal and Dr. Avi Shmidman of the Hebrew Literature Department at Bar Ilan University have distilled the original midrash from the later version. To do so, they used textual analysis algorithms developed by Shmidman together with the DICTA center. “This is a Jewish cultural heritage asset that was simply lost, disappeared,” says Bar-Asher Siegal. “Now we have brought it back to life.” The midrash will be presented to the public for the first time in a January, at a conference to be held at Bar Ilan University.

Work on the project began in 2014, but it was only in recent months that the technology reached a point where it was able to identify the original text. Bar-Asher Siegal says that the research employed the process of elimination: “Algorithms scan the entire body of Jewish culture over the generations, compare it with the later text and then remove whatever doesn’t seem to suit a third-century text.”

But the algorithms identify texts by sequences of words, and Rabbi Adani often changed the order of words, so the algorithms could not always identify the source. But a new method, called “fuzzy matching,” can identify parallel words even if their order has changed, and even if the word has prefixes, prepositions and particles added, or if it was conjugated differently.

A Talmud researcher from Yale, Prof. Christine Hayes, confirmed that the text originated in the third century. She said that it also contained earlier sources. Hayes tells Haaretz that this inter-disciplinary collaboration “ fills a significant gap in our knowledge, bringing us one step closer to a fuller understanding of the foundational texts of the tradition and the evolution of rabbinic Judaism.”

A fragment from Rabbi David Adani of Yemen's Midrash HaGadol. Credit: Israel's National Library

Bar-Asher Siegal is very excited. “We now have a way to access the early generation of Hazal,” she says. At the time there were two main schools of thought: that of Rabbi Yishmael and that of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Yishmael’s circles kept their exegesis closer to the literal text of the Torah; offering explanations according to the rule, “The words of the Torah are in human language.” His peer’s circle of sages, that of Rabbi Akiva, though, distanced themselves from that philosophy and favored more creative interpretations.

As the years went on, Rabbi Akiva’s method won out and became the dominant line of thought in the literature of Hazal. “The philosophy of the smaller school of Torah study disappeared,” says Bar-Asher Siegal. “But now we have restored some of that alternative theology from the minority school.”

Among the most prominent aspects of the Mekhilta, Bar-Asher Siegal points to interpretations that show a more universal and tolerant view of non-Jews. One of the sentences that appears there states that “Every affection God has for Israel, he has for the nations of the world.” She says that this is contrary to the position taken in Jewish literary sources from the time. “Now that we once again have the text in front of us, the cultural riches that have been unveiled teach us about the spiritual world of those who shaped Jewish culture,” Bar-Asher Siegal says.

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