Out of Zion comes forth the Torah

The Education Ministry recently announced that Bar-Ilan University's Responsa Project - the world's largest database of ancient and modern Jewish texts in Hebrew - will on Independence Day merit the country's highest civilian prize in the field of Torah Literature.

March 1, 2007 11:12
3 minute read.
bar ilan disk 88

bar ilan disk 88. (photo credit: )


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Bar-Ilan University's Global Jewish Database (Responsa Project): Version 14, on-line (at www.responsa.co.il, or in a set of two CD-ROMs, search in Hebrew only but each with an interface also in English and French), The Responsa Project, Bar-Ilan University ((03) 531-8411), distributed in Israel by Bar-Ilan and abroad by Torah Educational Software (www.jewishsoftware.com), requires Windows 98 or better and 490 MB free on the hard disk, for ages 12 through adult, CD-ROM price NIS 2,400 (and NIS 2,900 with the Talmudic Encyclopedia); cheaper upgrades also available; price for access to on-line version is according to period of time. Rating: ***** The developers of a set of CD-ROMs or an Internet site have never won the Israel Prize, but this is an exception. The Education Ministry recently announced that Bar-Ilan University's Responsa Project - the world's largest database of ancient and modern Jewish texts in Hebrew - will on Independence Day merit the country's highest civilian prize in the field of Torah Literature. The latest edition of the database, coming for the first time in the form of an on-line subscription, as well as on disks that you can buy, consists of 160 million words, including 100,000 rabbinical rulings in the forms of Responsa (halachic questions and answers) over a millennium. The panel of judges, headed by Israel Prize winner Prof. Avraham Steinberg, explained that the team "created a revolution reflected by the integration of Torah literature with the most advanced technologies." The idea of a database encompassing the full text of the Bible and its major commentaries, the Babylonian Talmud with Rashi's commentary and Tosafot, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Rambam's Mishne Torah, the Shulhan Aruch with commentaries, midrashim, hundreds of books of Responsa and the Talmudic Encyclopedia was conceived by Prof. Aviezer Frankel 44 years ago, when the computer served a small number of scientists and mathematicians. It took some time before Frankel was able to overcome doubts, fears, conservatism and personal concerns among researchers about competition. The first CD-ROM appeared in 1990, and the ever-expanding, democratizing project (much less expensive than the original $2,000 price) is now in its 14th edition, and a 15th edition is months away. Until the first set appeared, access to many of the ancient texts was extremely limited to researchers who spend time in musty libraries looking for rare, crumbling and out-of-print copies. The oldest of the texts were typed into the database by hand, instead of being electronically scanned, to avoid damaging the fragile pages. Today, everything can be reached in an instant by anyone who has a computer and knows Hebrew. The Responsa Project is a perfect exemplification of the phrase "out of Zion comes forth the Torah." Taking an on-line subscription is most economical and is sure to be popular among institutional users, such as universities, synagogues and yeshivot. If you can't afford a subscription, you can go free into the site to do a simple search and see where any words, terms or names were mentioned, but you do not have access to the entire text. As there are still some rabbis - and whole haredi communities, such as that in Lakewood, New Jersey - who have outlawed Internet use, the CD-ROMs are still available. The periodical index is updated with an additional 3,000 articles, bringing the total to 25,000. In the latest edition, personal notes and links can be added to the text, with the possibility of linking Responsa texts to other texts of your choice. The search engine is more sophisticated, with the option of finding biblical verses with specified distances between letters and the approximate number of words and letters in any Responsa database. As in the past, users can display cross references and commentaries on an individual biblical verse; print multiple texts consecutively without page breaks; use "wildcards" to search for word patterns; view texts either according to their historical period or alphabetical order; customize the appearance of the database trees; scroll the database with a mouse wheel; search notes and annotated texts; and print and save text and notes. Whether you buy or subscribe on-line, every new edition of the Responsa Project is cause for celebration.

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