Welcome to techno -Torah

By Rabbi Harvey Be..., June 6, 2008

The people of the book now have a vast online resource to aid their study

A Jewish child is thinking of Moses about to receive the Torah. Moses ascends the mountain, and God’s hand reaches through the cloud and hands him not tablets of stone, but a laptop, a CD and some Hebrew keyboard stickers.

It may seem ridiculous, but these are indeed today’s Torah tools.With Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, falling next week, now is a perfect opportunity to survey them. A plethora of websites, searchable databases and desk-top publication tools have sprung up to service every Jewish interest. Computer resources for Torah study are among the most advanced of any field and have transformed the way that traditional Jewish sources are accessed.

Hebrew Desktop publishing
Not many years ago, even typing in Hebrew was a nuisance: one needed to install a special font, type the letters backwards, and avoid spilling on to the next line to prevent the text from coming out as gibberish. Next came specialist Hebrew word-processors, such as Dagesh and Davka, which made bi-directional typing easier. While these remain available, standard program suites such as Microsoft Office now come with built-in features that make left-to-right typing straightforward.

One need only enable the software (a very simple task) and acquire a keyboard with Hebrew letters or stick some labels on to an existing one, and the most powerful publishing, spreadsheet and internet software become available to the bilingual user. Searches can be performed on Hebrew texts and the contents of tables ordered according to the aleph bet. A mouse-click is all that is required to toggle between typing Hebrew and English characters, which align automatically to produce a seamless document.

Torah websites
There is a vast number of internet sites offering Torah ideas and programmes. As with everything on the web, these vary widely in quality, although many are excellent. They service every shade of observance and knowledge, from the rudimentary to the most advanced, and deal with matters as diverse as making a Seder or obtaining a get (Jewish divorce). There is fun material for children, serious monographs for academics and everything in between. One can download guides to every aspect of Jewish life, prayer services, halachic rulings and, even, would you believe, study for the rabbinate.

Even those in the most observant sector of the Jewish world have caught on to the power of the web as a tool for Torah dissemination. One will find many yeshivot, outreach organisations and even Chasidic sects represented: Aish, Breslov and Chabad, for example, are known for their extensive use of the internet. There are Hebrew-calendar calculators and sites offering extensive libraries of audio files (shiurim and the like) for listening online or downloading to one’s MP3 player. The extent of these resources is quite mind-blowing.

There has been a recent explosion of Torah weblogs or blogs — web diaries that opine on anything from Jewish law to political issues and modern challenges. Some are simply platforms for people’s unhappiness with the world; but one can also easily identify other excellent blogs that are thought-provoking and refreshing: many important halachic and contemporary Torah issue have been flagged first by the bloggers.

Torah libraries
The biggest revolution, however, has been in the development of tools for the manipulation of research and manipulation of Torah texts. These come in the shape of libraries of Torah materials, available either across the internet or to buy as disks. The aim is to make the vast literature of Torah accessible for study and research or for creating materials for lectures, religious rulings and academic presentations. A page of text is scanned and stored on some computer medium, either as a picture (where the page appears in its original format but cannot be edited) or is converted into text to be copied and manipulated, but losing the original layout.

However the material is stored, sections can be pasted into word-processing and other documents to develop sophisticated archives and class handouts. With a little practice, it is possible to prepare first-rate source-sheets in a fraction of the time that it would have taken to drag a pile of books to a photocopier (assuming one even has all the texts to hand), cut the copies into fragments and paste them into a single document. The result is easier to read, produces no waste and can easily be improved at a later date.

The range of texts available is astonishing. It includes Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, classic commentaries from all eras, Rambam, standard halachic works, responsa, mysticism, Chasidut, prayer, festivals, Jewish philosophy, encyclopaedias and periodicals.

Looking first at free resources, try Daat or Mechon-Mamre for a selection of basic texts, including the entire JPS English translation of the Bible. Hebrewbooks.org has over 15,000 classic texts for free download, mostly of old editions or out-of-print books, many quite obscure; it also offers an excellent selection of digitised commentaries on the Rambam and some unusual material published during the nascent years of the American Jewish community. Some Chasidic websites also allow downloads of specialist Hebrew texts.

Two types of purchasable resources are available: those accessed across the internet for a monthly or annual fee, and those bought outright on disk. The advantages of the web versions are that the cost is spread, they may be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection, and never need upgrading. The versions bought outright generally work faster, deliver higher functionality and can be used even when no internet connection is available, but must be carried around and may be expensive to purchase.

There is a good range of disks available at the lower end of the market. They supply fundamental texts, such as Bible, Talmud and basic commentaries on CD. Some contain English texts, such as translations of the Bible, Talmud and Midrash. In the middle range, also on CD, there is DBS, offering a huge range of commentaries on the Bible and Talmud and a good range of Chasidic literature, and the Bar Ilan Responsa project, which contains a plethora of rabbinical responsa from across the ages.

For the most serious scholars, Otzar HaChochma contains over 28,000 searchable books and periodicals in their original format. Available across the internet or on a 500MB hard drive, it comes with a price to match its power.

Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah more than 3,200 years ago. While the message of the revelation remains vibrant and exciting, the medium has changed beyond recognition. Using the amazing techno-Torah tools at our disposal is a real way to connect the past, present and future.

Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue in North-West London

Last updated: 5:19pm, June 5 2008