Israeli effort to study medieval Hebrew manuscripts gets European funds

Tens of thousands of these have already been gathered from collections worldwide and digitally imaged and curated by the National Library of Israel's KTIV collection.

 1738 holiday blessings and prayer book from Bavaria in Ashkenazic writing.  (photo credit: KTIV - The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts, the National Library of Israel)
1738 holiday blessings and prayer book from Bavaria in Ashkenazic writing.
(photo credit: KTIV - The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts, the National Library of Israel)

The European Research Council has awarded its first ERC Synergy grant of €10 million for a six-year, Israeli-led project to analyze and examine medieval Hebrew manuscripts.

The project is called “Midrash – Migrations of Textual and Scribal Traditions via Large-Scale Computational Analysis of Medieval manuscripts in Hebrew Script.” It is the first ERC Synergy grant for Jewish studies, as well as for computational manuscripts.

Here is how it works.

How can we analyze ancient handwritten Hebrew manuscripts?

There are more than 100,000 surviving Hebrew manuscripts from the medieval era, all painstakingly handwritten. Deciphering these, however, can be quite a challenge.

 This bold and daring project will allow anyone from any background to wander through this trove of millions of manuscript pages. (credit: HANAN COHEN, NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL) This bold and daring project will allow anyone from any background to wander through this trove of millions of manuscript pages. (credit: HANAN COHEN, NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

How can they be read automatically? How can one search through these texts digitally? Can it all be properly preserved?

Automatic reading is normally the work of optical character recognition. However, handwritten texts are more difficult to decipher; even more so with a writing system like Hebrew.

This is where the Midrash project comes in.

The effort will be led by Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University and Paris Sciences-Lettres University, in cooperation with the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa’s e-Lijah Lab (the Eliyahu Laboratory of digital humanities).

It will see cutting-edge methods developed in order to analyze medieval Hebrew manuscripts and fragments.

Tens of thousands of these fragments have already been gathered from collections worldwide and digitally imaged and curated by the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv collection, a trailblazing initiative to allow for global centralized access to the hundreds of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts. Manuscripts have already been digitized, including the 10,000 belonging to the National Library of Israel.

The project will eventually allow for a better study of the various facets of the texts, such as deciphering, dating and so on.

All of this will result in an artificial intelligence-powered analysis that will be made readily and freely available to the public.

Leading the Midrash project will be four principal investigators: Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra and Judith Olszowy-Schlanger from Paris Sciences-Lettres University, Nachum Dershowitz of Tel Aviv University, and Avi Shmidman from Bar-Ilan University.

“In the foreseeable future, we will be able to use the ERC’s groundbreaking research to enable the deciphering of handwritten Hebrew manuscripts and their conversion into machine-readable text,” explained National Library of Israel CEO Oren Weinberg. “This is an unprecedented technological achievement whose results will open new horizons for research in Jewish studies.”

"We are translating Ben-Gurion's vision from the 1950s into the language of the 21st century, gathering together the images of all Hebrew manuscripts in Jerusalem, and with modern technologies, transforming them into an international vision. The project is a wonderful opportunity to bring to light the experience we have gained at the Eliyahu Laboratory over the last five years in manuscript accessibility and geospatial analysis of Jewish history."

Dr. Moshe Lavee

E-Lijah Lab head Dr. Moshe Lavee called the projects “the fulfillment of a great dream.”

“We are translating [David] Ben-Gurion’s vision from the 1950s into the language of the 21st century, gathering together the images of all Hebrew manuscripts in Jerusalem, and with modern technologies, transforming them into an international vision,” he said. “The project is a wonderful opportunity to bring to light the experience we have gained at the Eliyahu Laboratory over the last five years in manuscript accessibility and geospatial analysis of Jewish history.”