Science & Technology


Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”1   The next generation of Torah databases has arrived, and words mean much more than they used to, thanks to hypertext.

Hypertext is all about built-in links, or references, to other texts and documents.  A mouse-click on specially marked hypertext (blue in Internet Explorer; other colors elsewhere) automatically transports you to another textual place.  Users of the Internet are quite at home with the magic-carpet jumps atop highlighted text that contribute so much to its charm and power.

Microsoft may ape it, but the discovery is all ours.  Gemara, believe it or not, is the first working hypertext2, though nary a Pentium was found in Sura or Pumpedita.  Think of a page of Shas.  In front of you lies not a single document, but those of Rashi and Tosafot and others, parked side by side, and linked by references to bits and pieces of the main, Talmudic text.  Those phrases are even identified for the user by making the text with a larger, bolder font, as in the title phrases of each section of the Tosafot.  Before the mouse guided our focus on the monitor, our eyes learned to move from the main body of the Gemara to the linked commentaries of Rashi, Tosafot, and other super-commentaries beyond.

Bar-Ilan Responsa Project

In this, our annual review of major Torah software,3 we will show you how hypertext has come back home in computer editions of Torah text.  We will start with the venerable Bar-Ilan Responsa CD, recently revised to version 5.0.   Over the last few years, the major vendors each staked out a different part of Torah turf.  The consumer interested in finding thousands of volumes of responsa literature at his fingertips had only one choice: Bar-Ilan (TES, 800-925-6853, $698 for full product; $99 upgrade from version 4.0).  This is still the case, but the lack of competition has not hurt the consumer, as the producer continues to make important and useable enhancements.  Version 5 erases its most important deficiency in the core works (outside of the responsa arena), by offering Tosafot on Shas.  It fine-tunes the copying, pasting, and printing operations, and improves its holding of twentieth-century responsa through several additions and updates.

The breathtaking change, though, is in the addition of hypertext, especially in combination with what the developer calls citations.  Say, for instance, that you are studying the laws of Shabbat.  You have found the passage in Shulchan Aruch that relates to what you are most interested in: the laws governing wearing something on Shabbat that is ornamental and functional at the same time.  The Rama cites two opinions concerning a key that is added to a belt.  The stricter opinion is that of the Mordechai, citing a responsum of the Rashba.  In Bar-Ilan, the reference to the Rashba is hypertexted.  Clicking on it will bring up a screen giving the full text of the responsum in question.  The program’s versatility has only begun at this point.  Select the “citations” feature while in the Rashba window, and another screen will pop up, giving you every place that this responsum is cited by other works (more accurately — in some of their works) in their collection of databases.  You can guess what is next.  These citations are themselves given in hypertext.  Click on them, and you are given the full source!

The hypertexting and citation features work in a variety of databases.  Scriptural and midrashic references in Rashi and Tosafot are hyperlinked.  Mishnah and Gemara libraries also link all references to Tanach.

Gemara, believe it or not, is the first working hypertext.

The work is just beginning.  Only a small number of potential cross-references are hypertexted.  The same Rama that I mentioned above cites a Beit Yosef, which is not hyperlinked.  Indeed, even references to other parts of Shulchan Aruch are not linked; only responsa citations are included — at least at this moment.  The consumer will appreciate that complete cross-referencing is a never-ending task.  It seems clear the project will continue to add more and more of this feature.  In the meantime, Bar-Ilan should be applauded for having the courage to begin the task, one that offers the Torah student a serious new tool for the retrieval of important information through the computer.

Davka’s Judaic Classics Library

If responsa were not your immediate concern, the clear choice for the last few years was Davka’s Judaic Classics Library.  It made no attempt to compete with Bar-Ilan in the responsa arena, but pulled ahead dramatically in many other areas.  The Library grew to include more and more biblical commentaries, and works of philosophy and mussar.

As of this writing, there has been no major update of Davka’s high-end product, the Judaic Classics Deluxe.  In today’s marketplace, this can only mean that something innovative is around the corner!  Davka has indeed promised a substantial revision for the fall, both in content and interface.

Meanwhile, Davka pursues a divide and conquer strategy, offering up parcels of their holdings at reduced prices.  Let’s say you don’t need the thousands of responsa works offered by Bar-Ilan, but want access to the indispensable work on modern halachah by the master of our generation, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.  You can purchase the Davka Igros Moshe, and learn that the title is a misnomer.  Not only will it give you all volumes of Rav Moshe’s responsa, but it will throw in a significant basic library for good measure.  Along with the responsa, you will get all of Tanach, Rashi on Chumash, Mishnah, all of Shas (with Rashi and Tosafot), and Shulchan Aruch!  All of this will only cost you only $79! (Davka, 800-621-8227)  Igros offers some of the cross-referencing that we have been discussing.  It’s not quite hypertext, and requires one additional user step, but if you mark text containing a reference to another work, a pull-down menu selection will open a second window to that text.

Davka has also taken the opposite route, combining smaller units into attractive sets.  The Soncino Classics Collection takes several of the most important Soncino translations that were previously offered separately, and bundles them as a CD single.  For $589, you get the entire Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, Zohar, and Tanach.  As you might expect by now, a liberal assortment of Hebrew texts is also provided, and you can use the cross-referencing procedure mentioned above to quickly link to related texts.  The Hebrew Tanach of both Davka products comes with trop for the first time.  Both contain a useful printing feature.  If you open windows to several works, e.g. a verse and Rashi’s commentary to it, you are prompted to select any of a number of prearranged layouts to print out both on the same page.  This is a joy to anyone who has tried to export text to a word processor and experienced the frustration of manipulating the text to fit the new margins.

Battle of the Titans

The most unhappy news for Davka is certainly the competition from the new kids on the block.  Both TES and DBS (a really recent addition to the field) introduced products that rival the breadth of the Davka libraries.  Actually, they both leave the current version of Judaic Classics Deluxe in the dust.  Both TES’ Judaic Archives and DBS’ Torah CD-ROM Library weigh in at about $400.  Both are entirely menu-driven, while Davka still requires that you remember specific instructions on how to go to a given page of text directly without a search operation, or how to differentiate between a grammatical prefix and a general prefix within one.  Most importantly, both provide an absolutely dizzying collection of works.  There are simply more books that they have added than could be mentioned in this column.  Visit your local reseller, and your jaw will drop!  They both greatly expand the commentaries on Tanach, adding several Targumim, Ibn  Ezra, Kli Yakar, Rabbeinu B’Chaya, Seforno, Radak, Ralbag and more.  They have rich collections of Chassidut, philosophy, and mussar.  And, yes, they easily link you to the works related to the main source you have selected.  Of the two, the DBS (Disk Book System, 718-243-2755) is far and away the more inclusive, offering seven rishonim on Shas beyond Rashi and Tosafot (including Rashba, Ritva, Ramban, and Meiri); additional works of  Chassidut (Meor Einayim, Kedushas Levi); a rich collection of works of the Rambam and Ramban; classics of Jewish philosophy (Kuzari, Derashot HaRan, Sefer HaIkarim); the works of Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin; and three volumes of bibliography!

As the major collections grow in size, the consumer is going to notice, for the first time, the inclusion of works he may never have even heard of, let alone have any real use for.  This is evidence of the increased use of computers in preparing print for publication.  Once books are available in computerized form, Torah database developers gobble them up inexpensively, trying to lay claim to the title of King of the CD Mountain.  Expect to see much more of this cutthroat competition in the future.  DBS, the relative newcomer, has stated its intention to turn to halachic works at its next level of inclusion.  So far, only basic works (Rambam, Tur, Beit Yosef, Shulchan Aruch) are offered by anyone.  The thousands of commentaries have yet to appear in cyberspace, but it cannot be long before every household can boast of what only a few communities today claim about their Rav — that he has instant access to every Shach on Shulchan Aruch.

The two new products do share a drawback.  Unlike Davka, they won’t export to an English word processor.  Without a Hebrew word processor, you cannot print from left to right.  (With Davka, you can copy text to Word, for example.  It will show up on your screen as something resembling Armenian.  If you mark the text, however, and change to a Hebrew font like Drogulin, your original Hebrew text will reappear, nice and legible in the proper direction.)  To correct this, DBS is currently bundling its program with a free copy of Accent, a Hebrew word processor, making it (while the offer lasts) an even more attractive buy.

Rounding out the picture of the current Torah offerings is Encyclopedia Talmudit (ET) (TES, $479).  This modern classic took over two decades to research, culling concepts from the Talmud, and fleshing them out according to the Torah scholarship of centuries.  The print project is far from complete, but the existing volumes are a tool found in batei midrash around the world.  Like all the other CD’s we’ve dealt with, ET offers only Hebrew texts; like the others, you can choose English menus.  The search engine comes from Bar-Ilan, which stands behind this CD.

Unfortunately, it shares one other feature with Bar-Ilan.  Both use the accursed security device colloquially called the “dongle,” which is both physically disruptive and blocks performance often enough to be a real nuisance.  If you can live with the device, Encyclopedia Talmudit makes much sense.   A CD should never replace the print version of a text that you will pore over for long periods of time.  But ET is entirely a reference work.  You go there to look up an entry, not to study the work from cover to cover.  Putting a score of volumes on a CD is a real convenience, as you flit from place to related place with a single stroke.

Coming Attractions

Perhaps I spoke with a bit too much confidence about the need for print versions for depth learning.  Work is underway to convince us that the CD is superior to conventional volumes for our day-to-day, heavy-duty learning.   Although I haven’t seen it yet, advance word is that the next generation of hypertexting and true multimedia coordination is just around the corner.  TES has teamed up with the Slobodka Yeshivah of Bnei Brak to produce a Daf Yomi CD full of advanced features.   Berachot will be released as the Daf Yomi cycle begins anew; each tractate will have its own CD.  Users will be able to view the page as straight text, or in the familiar form of the printed editions.  But there the similarity ends.  The text can be manipulated in several ways.  The student can zoom in and out, making study much easier on the eyes.  He can mark text in thirty different colors, something that Gemara teachers often have students do to teach students to differentiate between different Gemara functions, such as questions, answers, and proofs.  He can append his own notes to the page, even adding voice comments of his own, or of the rebbe giving the shiur.

..the product comes with a built in rebbe, who explains the Daf in audio form…Unlike live shiurim, this rebbe can be paused and rewound at will!

Clicking on a word will give its translation, surrounded by a fuller elaboration of its meaning.  (Because the translation is only presented when asked for, this product overcomes the objections of Gemara teachers that translations inevitably become crutches, preventing students from mastering material on their own.  The motivated student can struggle through the text, accessing the hidden explanations only when absolutely necessary.)  If the student wishes to listen to a shiur on the material, the product comes with a built-in rebbe, who explains the Daf in audio form.  Unlike live shiurim, this rebbe can be paused and rewound at will!  Clicking on the Mesorat HaShas hypertext the user to the appropriate link in Shas; doing the same to Ein Mishpat will bring up the related sections of Rambam and Shulchan.  While the creative talents of others busily churn out new varieties of Myst, we can all take pride that our own are finding ways to harness the potential of the computer to make the study of Torah more fulfilling and meaningful for all of us.  Who can predict what the future of Torah CD’s will bring?

Rabbi Adlerstein is the director of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles and a contributing editor of Jewish Action.


  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter 6.
  2. My thanks to Howard Witkin of Leviathan Technologies for this observation.
  3. For a fuller overview of the basic features of the competing products, see my “The Virtual Shtender” (with Dr. Barry Simon), Jewish Action, Spring ’96.
This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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