The Encyclopedia Talmudit CD-ROM

Meir Bar-Ilan

I will start off by saying that my grandfather, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (Berlin) would certainly have been very proud of the product described here. His vision, which started with the idea of gathering the spiritual treasures of the Jewish people in the area of Talmud, and which began to coalesce even during his lifetime (he died Khol haMoed Pesakh 1949), along with the preparation of thousands of filecards, turned into the pages and volumes of the Encyclopedia Talmudit (ET). This encyclopedia has now taken on digital "skin and sinews", and is now available for searching on CD-ROM.

Anyone who may have decided that 22 volumes would burden their library shelves (over 2 1/2 linear feet!) too heavily -- ignoring the monetary expenditure -- now has a solution. The entire Torah (or more exactly half of it, midway through the letter Yod) is available on one small CD (containing 300+ megabytes).

For those still mystified, this is a specialized encyclopedia of Jewish Law. Despite the name "Talmudic", this encyclopedia is not limited to the Talmud, but deals with and examines, in alphabetical order (following encyclopedic style) all aspects of Jewish Law, from Written and Oral Law to modern legal responsa dealing with electricity on Shabbat, etc. In short: a data base of enormous importance to anyone interested in studying Jewish Law in depth, a contemporary primary source that is an incisive summary of innumerable volumes written over thousands of years.

History

Yad haRav Herzog, under the leadership of Rabbi J. Hutner, has labored for decades over the preparation of the encyclopedia, and finally has begun to transfer its great treasures to the digital media. The CD was produced by the Bar Ilan University Responsa Project (RP), though this fact is barely mentioned (as an afterthought, it was added to the graphic of the print version's slip cover, which attractively adorns the CD product's packaging). That is, while the data base was provided by one source, the search interface and menu system was executed by members of the RP, who won their spurs with the RP CD, v.4. Although not obvious, the search interface and presentation layout are almost completely identical to those of the RP v.4 (aside from improvements in compatibility, to allow loading under Windows 95 in addition to Windows 3.11).

Since the search interface of the RP has already received high marks (see previous issue of PC Media for comparison to its competitors), the user can rely on getting a powerful program that represents long years of experience in production of Judaica databases and CD-ROMs for the Torah market.

This CD shows off the advantages of the digital medium relative to the old and tried book form. There is no way that one could have drawn on all the information hidden in the thousands of pages of the encyclopedia without an appropriate computer program. By treating the encyclopedia as a canonical text and its contents as worthy of a concordance, the CD displays power that cannot be found in print.

Shortcomings

Having said this, one must note several basic mistaken approaches in preparation of the CD: A) Overfaithfulness to the formal printed page. Just as the original RP program (on which it is based) displays every page of the Talmud as in the traditional printed version, so here the display is a page from the printed version of the ET. A search for a particular word results, unfortunately, in a reference identified by page number. The CD programmers have forgotten that an encyclopedia page is not a learning unit, and that the page number is derived from print technology. It is characteristic that someone making the transition from print to the digital world of CDs would continue to think in terms of the construct, "page". There is of course no legitimate justification to continuing to hold this view: in the case of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmudim, where the pagination has achieved a level of "sanctity", one can understand it; in the case of an encyclopedia, it seems ridiculous. The word searched for has no connection to a specific page, but to an entry, and the user who looks for the word "kohen", for example, should be directed to the entry/article, not some arbitrary and meaningless page number.

B) Difficulty in reaching the entry/article. I selected the menu choice "See Under" and scanned the entries. I moved to "khet" and chose "khavivah mitsvah b'sha`atah". This displayed the entry's subheadings, but I could not directly jump to the entry, unlike the case of footnotes (see below) where by clicking on the note number reached the note. It is clear that the program developers are not familiar with the hyperlink basics of HTML, and that they do not surf the Internet. If they had only "wasted" their time doing so, they would have seen how hyperlinks can be properly established among the entries and between the main and sub-entries, etc. For example, I searched for the word "fish", and obtained (quickly!) a screen reporting 219 hits. However, I wanted the entry "Fish", and the search interface, originally developed for Talmudic literature fails here. One cannot search by entry name, the way that encyclopedias (and NOT concordances) are arranged. In my case, I had to jump to the volume where the entry "Fish" appears: one extraneous screen.

I jumped to "Fish", but quickly discovered my mistake. Rather than reaching the entry, I had jumped to the page on which the entry begins. From here I had to specify a jump to each subsequent page -- plainly illogical (see previous point). The "Locate" command (that is, finding the particular word within an entry) had lost its intrinsic meaning -- I speak of finding one column among 26. Clearly I should have been able to review the entire entry as a unit, and to scroll therein to find a specific bit of information. Indeed, after some efforts, I did locate the entire entry, but should have been able to obtain it more easily.

The RP personnel had attempted to solve this problem with the ne menu entry, "See Under". Using it disclosed additional possibilities: the encyclopedia should have been able to present a list of entries to the reader, i.e. "Restrict to Entries". Instead, the developers assumed that the user would read their instruction manual.

C) Over-linkage to extraneous footnotes. The ET continues to be written over decades, for better or worse, by excellent, but traditional, Torah scholars, not by academics. (There aren't many encyclopedia authors not from the academy, but that is not the point). The problem is that the written style is exhausting; the stress is on the form, not the content. Each page comes with many dozens of footnotes, where each footnote is nothing but a reference to some book or volume. When one takes a book of this type, unique in form and content, and blindly transfers it from the print to the digital medium, one not only doesn't take advantage of the new technology, but betrays (in my view) the spirit of the work. Highlighting footnote numbers in yellow only emphasizes to the user the editorial overuse of awkward and extraneous references. With all due respect I feel towards the editorial staff, and in all modesty, this is not how one should write.

As an example of the ridiculous level that the multiplicity of footnotes has come to, examine the end of the entry "Fish", where one finds "with respect to fish and milk, see entry `Meat and Milk', 391". Click on the highlighted number, and obtain "page 701". This is clearly unnecessary; better to omit the footnote and create the internal linkage to "Meat and Milk". In this realm, developers of the progam STa"M v.2 have been much more successful (see the previous issue of PC Media). The explanation lies in that the software developers of the RP were not permitted to alter the text, as they might have with their own database. But as is known, "a baillee for hire is responsible for protection", and the editors of the ET, who provided the text to the Bar Ilan group for safekeeping, could have expected the shomrei sachar to preserve the text in the appropriate fashion (as in the case of someone finding a book). In this case, that means links without footnotes (leaving aside references to entries not yet published).

D) Modest graphics. The first volume of the encyclopedia saw light in 1947, a time of shortages in Israel. One can see the heritage of this through the limited number of diagrams and illustratrations in the encyclopedia (less than in any other known to me). The transition from paper to digital media especially highlights the lack of graphics. I can state with certitude that there is no encyclopedia on CD-ROM with so few illustrations. True, in Jewish tradition there are not many illustrations describing texts (save for isolated cases like the lovely illustration -- the work of RaMBaM himself -- of the menorah in Maimonides' Commentary on the Mishnah, m. Menachot, edition of R. J. Kapakh, Jerusalem, 1967, p. 79). This lack could be corrected. I checked all the pictures of fish, and it is clear that the printed material was fully transferred to the digital form (even if the screen appearance is terrible, apparently from inexperience working with graphics).

The developers had an unlimited "stage" of which they did not make intelligent use. Clearly their intent was to preserve the spirit of the printed version, and the CD can certainly succeed here. However, it would have been better to greatly enrich the area of illustrations, in that "a picture is worth a thousand words". One hopes that in the next release of the ET, the user would be able to "tour" all pictures and illustrations included therein (by the way, when loading the program, a picture of the entire set of print volumes of the ET appears, but the quality is dreadful).

E) Understandable shortcomings. The interface of the RP needs to be improved so that it will be possible to execute a search from any active screen (the idea arises because each screen behaves independently -- not in accordance with the general principles of 'windowing' (that is without the "approval" of Microsoft).

Two more quibbles: the CD comes (again, like that of the RP), with a security plug so as to preserve the rights of the developers, in a world where more and more "hot" CDs proliferate. I have no problem with this, but I have, like others, a pile of such security plugs sitting behind my PC. Who will save us from these plugs and from the printer connector which won't connect to them all?

The last item: if it hasn't yet been noticed, you can't take advantage of the CD on Shabbat. If every nation were to put its culture on digital media, there would remain "one nation separate from all the others" that, even in the digital age, would retain printed books (for study on Shabbat).

Re: the Future of the Encyclopedia

It seems that even in the future, the ET will be published in book form (for we are the people of the Book). The rustle of turning pages and the physical contact with them cannot be preserved through any advanced technology. However the transfer of the encyclopedia to CD should allow it to strike out in new directions. For example, the encyclopedia is dependent on preparation of volumes in some linear (e.g. alphabetical) order, this arbitrary ordering should not henceforth be a limitation: if the entry "Shabbat" is ready, one need not wait 20 more years until all the preceding volumes are published. The material can be placed on CD, thus resolving a very common problem encyclopedia editors face.

In addition, if the first version the CD presents the printed material with its deficiencies, from here on out it will be possible to "print" all the changes and emendations (e.g. "Eretz Yisrael" in volume 2), incredibly cheaply in time (in the order of 1-2 yea