The World of Digital Torah Resources – Part II

The World of Digital Torah Resources – Part II

In the previous post we discussed the revolution that technological development has brought to the world of sifrei kodesh, and the differences between a human brain and computer chip.

In this post we’ll tell you about the vast virtual libraries of sefarim that can be accessed from any computer. These include: the Global Jewish Database (Responsa Project) sponsored by Bar-Ilan University, the DBS Master Library, Tochnat Haketer – a digitized Mikraos Gedolos Chumash, also sponsored by Bar-Ilan University, Otzar Hachochmah, and Otzar HaTorah, a collection of scanned sefarim. There are more, but these are the principal ones.

The Responsa Project and the DBS Master Library

These two programs are the largest and most comprehensive electronic collection of Jewish texts. The ‘Responsa Project’ or ‘Response’ has been around for forty years (!) and was initially developed at a time when most people didn’t have computers at home. The most recent version includes a Talmudic encyclopedia.

The DBS Master Library also goes back many years, although it is newer than the Responsa Project. It, too, has been upgraded many times over the years.

One has to appreciate the incredible compactness of digitized data. A standard bookcase in a Torah house usually occupies at least one of the living room walls, and it usually contains the most basic of Torah sefarim; namely, Chumash, Mishnayos, Talmud Bavli, Rambam, Tur and Shulchan Aruch, sefarim of Rishonim on Shas, some mussar sefarim, and sefarim on Torah thought.

Talmud Bavli alone takes up at least one shelf. So does the Tur and Shulchan Aruch. And if it is a special edition such as the one published by Machon Yerushalayim, or the first edition of Shas produced by Harav Kook’s Institute – it takes up even more space.

And yet, all these sefarim, plus more, can be contained in one thin DVD, which takes up no space at all! And there are no lost or damaged sefarim to contend with, no dusting of sefarim on erev Pesach, no wondering, ‘On what shelf did I put that sefer?’

The digitized collections of sefarim have two main features: First, the possibility to browse through any book in the database. This requires a good catalog that will help the researcher easily find the sefer he’s looking for. Second, the ability to search for any word, phrase, or combination of words in the database.

The catalog of the Responsa Project has 26 main categories, including: the 5 Chumashim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Mishnayos, and Tosfos. The categories are sub-divided into further categories. We won’t tire you with the breakdowns of all the divisions and sub-divisions; suffice to say that the hundreds of sefarim contained in the DVD would fill a sefarim closet covering all four walls of a decently sized living room – if not more.

When I first accessed the software and tried to peruse a page of Gemara, I was sorely disappointed. Instead of viewing a familiar, beloved page of Gemara, one with Rashi on one side, Tosfos on the other, and various other commentaries surrounding the main text, all I saw was cold, sterile text, with annoying + signs before and after each commentary. It bore no resemblance to a traditional page of Gemara.

Today, after many years of consistent use of the software, I must admit that nothing comes close to learning the daf yomi from a real sefer – it’is incomparable to studying from a sterile computer screen. But when it comes to searching for a word or phrase, or looking something up in a sefer, the merits of digitized sefarim are indisputable.  

Take, for example, a talmid who is studying a sugya in depth and wants to look up the opinion of the Rambam or Shulchan Aruch. He leafs through the sefer Ein Mishpat and goes to the bookcase to look up the relevant sources. The Rambam directs him to look up further sources, and so on and so on, until a huge pile of sefarim mounts up on his desk. And all that provided he actually finds the sefarim he’s looking for. If he’s in yeshivah or Kollel, chances are that somebody else is using the sefer.

On a Gemara page in the Responsa project software, one doesn’t even have to look up a source in Ein Mishpat. A hypertext link leads to related sources such as the Rambam or Tur and Shulchan Aruch, as well as other places in Gemara where the same topic is mentioned. One click, and you get a list of all the commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim on this topic. The same applies when perusing pages of Tanach, Midrash, and other Torah texts.

Background Information

Another advantage of the Responsa Project is the biographical pages it provides. When a sefer is typed up for the purpose of reprint, the typist doesn’t always bother typing the index page, which usually offers some background information on the sefer and its author. It can be frustrating when doing a search in an electronic Torah database, and relevant passages come up, with no information as to who wrote the sefer in which the passages appear.

All this is not to mention the Responsa project’s bibliographical index feature, which provides a list of references of sefarim not included in the database, articles in Torah journals etc., or a recently added feature that allows one to add personal notes in the margins of sefarim, or the feature that allows you to calculate the gematria (numerical value) of any expression of your choice, or the option to find biblical verses or expressions with any specified gematria, or the dictionary of abbreviations, or the Hebrew calendar, etc. etc.

In our next post we will explore the revolution caused by the scanning of a vast number of ancient Jewish texts.

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