The World of Digital Torah Resources – Part I

The World of Digital Torah Resources – Part I

Imagine yourself in a library that has an uber-efficient librarian. No need to tell him where your required book is located; just tell him the name of the book and he immediately locates it. He even knows the contents of each book by heart! You can ask him how many times a certain word is mentioned in all the books the library carries, and he will promptly show you on which pages that word is located in every single book on the library’s shelves.  

And not only that. The librarian is present and available in the library 24 hours a day. Whenever you feel like visiting, he’s there, ready and willing to help you out.

Well, the digital software that contains the electronic version of hundreds of sefarim, does just this – plus much more.

It is said about one of the talmidim of the Vilna Gaon that he boasted to his Rebbe that he’d studied a certain masechta so many times, he knew it by heart. The Gaon asked him, “Do you know how many times Abaya and Rava are mentioned in that masechta? Can you recite the masechta in reverse order? The student, of course, did not know, and the Gaon proceeded to tell him exactly how many times Abaya and Rava are mentioned, and recited one of the passages back to front.  

“Knowing a masechta by heart,” said the Gaon, “means knowing it back to front, like every Yid knows the words of Ashrei.”

Now all of us can recite “Ashrei Yoshvei…” by heart, but try saying it in reverse – starting with the word Hallelukah. We won’t get very far. Or if somebody shoots out, “What’s the third word in the tenth posuk?” it’ll take a while for us to come up with the answer.

That’s because a person’s memory is associative – one word leads to the next, until he strings together an entire paragraph, or chapter. That’s how we remember songs; it’s not only musical prodigies who can remember thousands of melodies by heart, each of which consists of scores of different notes. How is it that we can remember the exact combination of notes when we have a hard time remembering a single phone number containing a mere ten digits?

Because the consecutive notes relate to each other; each sound follows the other to form a meaningful melody. The same goes for memorizing facial details; each face has a combination of thousands of small details that form one memorable composite. And that’s why it’s easier to remember the concept of a difficult sugya in Gemara than to memorize a page of Gemara by heart.  The name of the game is – logical connection.

Memory such as the Vilna Gaon possessed is rarely found in humans – it’s dubbed ‘a photographic memory’ for it’s usually only seen in computers and scanners that scan photographs. A human being is no computer.

We need computer software to provide us with the memory we are missing. Scanners can photograph huge amounts of text in one second, and computerized software can tell us exactly how many times the names of Abaya and Rava are written in a certain sefer, how many times Ravina and Rav Ashi appear together in the entire Shas, how many times they appear individually, or anything else that has you pondering.  

For example: in Gemara Bavli, the term  ‘Shema Mina Tlas’ is mentioned a number of times, meaning that from this passage one can derive three new halachos. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never seen it mentioned in Bavli that we can learn two or four or five halachos from this passage. Only three! Isn’t that strange?

Of course my memory can’t be relied on, so what do I do? If I don’t have the right computer software, my only option is to go through all of Shas, which will take me A LOT of time.

But, if I do have the software, it’s no big deal; I can just type ‘Shema Mina Tarti’ in Talmud Bavli and click on the Search icon search. Nothing will come up. My interesting observation has been confirmed. I can now try to theorize why this is so, but at least I know it’s so.

The computer software can also search all other parts of sifrei Chazal, and it will find that in another masechta (Kallah Rabsi 91, Halacha 3) the phrase “Shema Mina Tarti” appears once, as well as in Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 5: 3).  And the phrase “Shema Mina Chamesh” appears once in Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 2: 5).

We’ll end with the statement that is so relevant today: “The fear of Shabbos befalls the ignoramus.” Asks the Tosfos, “Why is that?” In our generation, this takes on a new meaning: On Shabbos, we can’t use the computer, and out true ignorance is exposed…

In the next article we’ll talk a little more about the vast Torah resources that have been made available to us.

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