The Virtual Shtender

By Barry Simon and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein 

As surely as Microsoft’s dominance grows, Torah software gets better.  Two vendors have grabbed the market for major Torah libraries on CD-ROM.  The competition between Davka (800-621-8227) and Torah Educational Software (TES; 800-925-6853) has led to an apparent winner:  the consumer!

When we first visited these products two years ago, we felt we had to convince the reader that these were not toys for the pious, but serious tools for the home, the classroom and the beit midrash.  Looking at the handouts our children bring from school, and the constantly escalating barrage of questions we get from colleagues, we no longer have to do any convincing.  Torah software has become an accepted accoutrement of Torah study, just as the shtender that graces every Torah study hall.  To be sure, Torah learning can go on without either, but they both help when you really need them.  Increasingly, the good news is that quality Torah software need not cost much more than a good shtender.

When they first appeared on the scene, each camp carefully marked off their turf — Bar-Ilan’s Responsa Project put hundreds of volumes of responsa literature at your fingertips.  Davka’s Judaic Classics Library (JCL) included the most commonly used works (and many not-so-common ones) of all other areas of Torah study.  And TES had the only products with English translations included.

This has changed in several ways.  TES took over the marketing of the Bar-Ilan product and split out a second, lower-end product with some of the texts locked out.  Bar Ilan has added many of the seforim that are needed outside of the responsa field, in Tanach commentaries, Talmud and halachah, but surprisingly, it is still lacking Tosafot for Shas.

Davka has started offering several of the Soncino translations as separate products using the same user interface and search engine as the Windows-based JCL.  And their basic offering has added several more biblical commentaries, Mishnah Berurah, and — most importantly — Tosafot on Shas.

The Torah Smorgasbord

Davka offers a wide range of options depending on your needs and budgets.  In terms of vastness of offering, their highest-end product is the all-Hebrew/Aramaic $399 Judaic Classics Deluxe.  Two subsets are available for the budget conscious:  the $79.95 Judaic Classics Limited with Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud Bavli, Tosafot and Rashi on Shas and Chumash and the $49.95 Mishnah Berurah including Orach Chayim, Mishnah Beruah and four other works.  The Deluxe Version in addition to these two subsets includes Ramban and Onkelos on Chumash, Talmud Yerushalmi, Zohar, Midrash Rabbah, Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and literally dozens of additional volumes.

For those desiring English translations, Davka has four offerings:  the $39.95 CD-ROM Bible (all of Tanach in Hebrew with nikkud, an English translation of all of Tanach and Rashi on Chumash in Hebrew) and three Soncino translations: The $299 Soncino Talmud, the $179 Soncino Zohar and the $179 Soncino Midrash Rabbah (which includes English translations of all of Tanach).  The Soncino translations would not be our first choice where some others exist, but is still often the best around when you need something fairly literal.

The various Davka offerings use the same access program.  At the moment, these CDs must be loaded separately, but Davka is working on making them all integrate with each other, so you will find the excuse to buy the CD changer you’ve been contemplating.

The main offering from TES is the (all-Hebrew/Aramaic text) Bar Ilan Judaic Library which comes in a $200 Basic version and a $1029 Full version (they run periodic sales and we’ve seen prices as low as $149 and $789).  The Basic version includes all of Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud Bavli, Rashi on Talmud and Chumash, a variety of Midrashim, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah.  The Full version adds a variety of general texts including Onkelos, Ramban on Chumash, Talmud Yershalmi and the gem of the collection: several hundred volumes of responsa!  TES also has the Stone English translation of Chumash with ArtScroll commentaries for $139.

Searching

The user interfaces for the products have much in common.  What most makes the computer version of  seforim special is the ability to search and both sets of products have fully indexed searches.  Both of the options now offer the user both simple searches (i.e. follow instructions and put the right information in the boxes) and more complex ones (for which you have to familiarize yourself with their special syntax.)  They both allow you to search for variants with pre- and suffixes.  This ability, too, is critical.  For example, we were learning a Gemara in Bava Batra that dealt with date palms but it didn’t appear when we searched on Dekel.  But once we specified to include variants, it did, and we recalled that the Aramaic variant (“diklah“) was used.

Both have significantly improved their user interfaces, allowing for a rich amount of tinkering with fonts, sizes, colors, etc.  (We found the Bar Ilan product easier and more responsive in these last areas, although both of them are much more than acceptable.)

The Jewish Classics Library

JCL wins big in one area of the consumer satisfaction competition.  They should be applauded for dropping the detested dongle, that hated piece of copy-protection hardware that installs on your printer port and misbehaves in often unpredictable ways.  The Bar Ilan products still include one of these unpleasant contraptions.

The Tanach module has an added bonus of providing vocalization, which is often an advantage in material for the classroom.  On the other hand, a minor inconvenience of JCL is in failing to provide title bars for the selections found.  If you forget where you are, you have to scroll to the next section header to remind yourself.

Other bonuses of the Davka products are the ability to link related texts so they scroll in tandem (for example, the original text and translation or the text and one or more commentaries), some hyperlinks and full Windows 95 support.  The hyperlinks allow you to jump from references in some of the commentaries to the text being referenced. For example, a Rashi on Chumash might reference a text from one of the Prophets.  If you highlight the reference and hit Ctrl-A, the referenced text will appear in a new window.  It is unfortunate that this feature isn’t available via a menu choice so that many users won’t realize that it is there.

The Bar Ilan Judaic Library

The Bar Ilan interface is completely intuitive to the experienced Windows user.  You can easily print what you wish, and the manual gives you protocols to export to a variety of different word processors.  Not owning a Hebrew word processor is no barrier, by the way.  You can always save some copied text into Notepad/WordPad, and then convert it to Hebrew merely by changing the selection to a Hebrew font.  (JCL won’t let you print more than a passage of a given size, which seems to be the price you pay for their relaxing their copy-protection guard in dropping the dongle.)  One weakness of the Bar Ilan interface is that you can’t select text and copy it to the clipboard, but can only send the contents of a full window there.

The developers of the Bar Ilan Library deserve accolades for their thoroughness.  Since Yiddish words often appear in text, and the user would not think of using the Yiddish term in a search, the developers embedded the Hebrew translation of the term next to it.  Acronyms are (often) expanded.  They have begun to include pointers to source references in certain databases, thus doing much of the thinking for you.

Parenthetically, for those who wish to have more of the thinking done for them, the best kept secret in Torah software is Nehorai.  (P.O.Box 307, Bnei Brak 51102 Israel, Phone: 972-3-619-4179; Fax: 972-3-5798811, email: nehorai@actcom.co.il).  You never heard of it because its marketing is non-existent, although this is soon to change. Nehorai is a database of sources on modern halachic issues, and differs from the other Torah databases in that you can search according to a rich variety of predefined categories, rather than key words.  (An example from Rabbi Adlerstein: I recently needed information on the permissibility of sleeping pills on Shabbat.  Using the Hebrew term for “sleeping pills,” I obtained two sources from Bar Ilan’s “Responsa.”  Using Nehorai, and stepping down from categories “Shabbat” to “refuah” to “medicinal preparations,” and finally to “sleeping,” I quickly retrieved no less than twelve citations, including their accompanying text.)

Their developer insists that his product will be moved to a CD format within a few months, complete with such innovations as video clips of prominent contemporary sages giving their lectures!  In the meantime, Nehorai has expanded beyond its original release of medical issues, to include the area of berachot.  Keep watching!

The Stone Chumash

The one disappointment in recent Torah software is TES’ Stone Chumash.  The program is nothing more than the old Torah Scholar with a new translation.  It is not a Windows program, employs non-standard keystrokes to execute its commands, has a primitive user interface, and a poor installation process.  (Where else in 1996 do you find programs that will change your autoexec.bat without asking you first?)  If you have no need for any other Torah than Chumash with translation, this product will do the trick.  But it seems a shame — given the interface and price on this product — not to get the JCL Tanach with translation, with its superior interface and lower price.

One aspect of the Stone Chumash, though, is exciting.  Using the ArtScroll translation of Chumash hopefully points to a willingness of Mesorah Publications to start translating their treasure-trove of English language Torah material into a format we computer addicts can understand.

The Future

What can we expect that would make these products even more attractive?  Even the vast amounts of text and indices in these products don’t fill a CD.  For example, the JCL Deluxe CD has fewer than 200 MB of data on a disk that can theoretically have 650 MB.  That leaves lots of room for graphics.

No, we aren’t thinking of making a Torah “edutainment” title!  But wouldn’t it be great if there were a CD aimed at students that had Tanach, lots of maps and links from the text to maps?  Or a Talmud on CD with diagrams to illustrate some of the issues where a figure is helpful?  And using technology like that available in Adobe Acrobat, you could have on-screen pages that looked like a volume of Shas but with searching and hyperlinks.

Indeed, hyperlinks are the great frontier.  Imagine that page of Shas with sidebars telling you where the halachah can be found but with live links so that clicking on the sidebar could take you directly to the right Rambam or page of Shulchan Aruch.

The future possibilities are exciting, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that what’s available now is already extremely valuable and something that any Torah Jew will want.

Barry Simon is a contributing editor at PC Magazine and the co-author of The Mother of All Windows 95 Books.  Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director of Outreach Programs at Yeshiva of Los Angeles.  Each Shabbat they learn Gemara together, using neither a computer nor a shtender.

SIDEBAR:

A JEMM of More Certain Value

In the Winter issue of Jewish Action, I reviewed the first issue of CD JEMM (800-871-0694, or you can order through Davka Graphics at 800-621-8227), a quarterly multimedia CD-based magazine of general Jewish interest.  I found it a mixed bag: it had superb production values, but little of relevance to an Orthodox audience.

Just at the deadline for this column, I looked over the second issue and it is improved.  The use of multimedia is more integrated into the articles so, for example, the Shlomo Carlebach retrospective offers a view you can’t get with mere words.  There is more mention of Torah topics, although it is still firmly focused on Jewish culture rather than religion.

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This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.
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