New online system for matching fragments will revolutionize geniza study, researchers say

A group of computer scientists and programmers have made available to the public a new online system for matching disparate fragments from documents.

By SAMMY HUDES
July 31, 2013 23:25
2 minute read.
kahir

The Cairo Geniza. (photo credit: Cambridge University Library)

 
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A group of computer scientists and programmers have made available to the public a new online system for matching disparate fragments from documents from the Cairo Geniza, which they say will revolutionize the work of those researching the centuries- old Jewish archive.

Using the system they developed, which is now available for use at www.genizah.org, anyone can connect a specific geniza fragment to its other matching pieces by simply inputting the fragment’s assigned identification number.

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Led by Prof. Ya’acov Choueka, a Cairo-born chief computerization scientist, the 16 programmers from the Friedberg Genizah Project worked in collaboration with Tel Aviv University to digitize about 360,000 geniza fragments that can be connected to their missing pieces.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post at the 16th World Congress of Jewish Studies on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus Wednesday, where the system was on display for the first time, Choueka said the group currently has digitized images of fragments from 61 collections across the world, but is still trying to attain 320,000 more images from libraries at Westminster College in Cambridge and in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, in addition to a few private collections.

Three rounds of 20 potential matches are offered to the user, ranked in order of potential to be a correct fit according to corresponding ratings.

Once the system has displayed all potential matches, a user can view enlarged images of multiple fragments side by side, and can maneuver them using a mouse to see if their shapes and texts fit together.

“You cannot really be sure until you put it in a jigsaw to find out if they fit or not,” Choueka said, likening the process to putting together puzzle pieces.

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Once a correct match is found, the system creates an image of the complete text and saves it to the website, crediting the user who found the match.

The system was completed just a few weeks prior to the exhibit after six weeks, or 15,000 continuous hours of development, according to Choueka.

“This is a complete revolution in geniza studies,” Choueka said. “Up to now, the big problem of the geniza was to join fragments. Suppose you have half a letter in your hand, and you are looking for the other half. The other half can be anywhere in 60 libraries all around the world. So how do you search?” Prof. Mordechai Akiva Friedman of Tel Aviv University’s Talmud department told the Post on Wednesday that the project is rapidly changing the landscape of geniza research, which he says he has been involved with since the 1960s.

“One would have to travel if one wanted to decipher a fragment,” Friedman said, adding he is eager to test out the newly developed technology for the first time. “One would normally have to travel to the library, whether it’s in England or some place else, to examine it, and even then you would not be able to see and decipher it as well as you could with the digital images that are up on the site.”

The Cairo Geniza was the archive of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, a suburb of Cairo until it was swallowed by the Egyptian capital’s urban sprawl.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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