Judiac Responsa
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Bar Ilan Software - History
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bar ilan responsa - history


The Responsa Project began in 1963 at the Weizmann Institute. Over the years it migrated to Bar Ilan University, where an early version of the system was already working byn 1967.

The early stages of Bar Ilan Responsa Project focussed on rabbinic responsa (shut in Hebrew). Jews have traditionally asked their local rabbis for advice on almost every subject. Many of the resulting questions and answers were collected in books. As a result, this responsa contaiins much historic, halachic, sociological and economic information which reflect approximately one thousand years of Jewish life. Due to the vast quantity of this material a special committee was established in order to set priorities about which texts to include in the database based on their relevance, scope and accessibility.

Data entry has ongoing for more than thirty years. Initially the system ran as batch processes on an IBM mainframe. By 1979, it also became usable on a time-sharing system from terminals on the Bar-Ilan campus, as well as a growing number of terminals off-campus extending beyond the borders of Israel. At that time, this was no small technological feat.

In 1990 following the development of the CD-ROM, the immense database was compressed onto a single CD-ROM, and presently the system can be installed on most personal computers.

Version 1.0 of the new system was completed in late 1992, while new versions have been issued annually. Most recently, version 18 was released in 2010. Each version includes texts that have been recently added to the database and additional features in the retrieval and viewing software.

Israel Prize

In 2007 the Responsa Project was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Torah Literature.

Responsa Project Release 18+ (2010)

Many new and important books of Responsa and other Judaic texts have been included in the most recent versions of the Responsa DVD. Today, the Responsa Project DVD contains more than 92 000 Responsa and more than 455 000 hypertext links between the databases totalling over 210 million words. The program uses an advanced, user-friendly Windows interface with powerful cross-referencing and search options. Extensive biographical data on the authors of Responsa texts have been added as well as a useful tooltip dictionary for Aramaic words and abbreviations.
Many new and important books of Responsa and other Judaic texts have been included in the most recent versions of the Responsa CD. Below is a list of the main groups of books included in the most recent release:

  • Bible and Bible Commentaries
  • Mishnah and Mishnah Commentaries
  • Tosefta
  • Minor Tractates
  • Talmud Bavli and Commentaries
  • Talmud Yerushalmi
  • Halachic Midrashim
  • Aggadic Midrashim
  • Zohar
  • Geonim
  • Halacha and Minhagim
  • Sifrei Mitzvot
  • Mussar and Jewish Thought
  • Rambam and Commentaries
  • Tur and Beit Yosef
  • Shulchan Aruch and Commentaries
  • Sifrei Chasidut
  • Sifrei Kelalim and Seder Ha-Dorot
  • Talmudic Encyclopedia
  • Responsa

For a more detailed list of the Responsa Databases and their contents see Contents of Responsa Databases
Version 18+ includes new volumes of responsa; a significant expansion in the Bible Commentaries including Malbim, Sforno, Chizkuni, Or Ha-Chayim and more; a significant expansion in the Commentaries on the Mishnah and Talmud including Shittah Mekubbetzet, Tosfot Rosh, the completion of Meiri and Mordecai, and more; the addition of the Bach commentary on the Tur; as well as 28 searchable volumes of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, a subject index to various Responsa and Poskim, and an index to articles about halachah. In addition, a set of encyclopaedic references were added ? Biographies of Rabbinic Figures of the Talmud, with information about their teachers and disciples; Encyclopedia of Talmudical Concepts, containing about 5000 concepts explained in a clear and easy fashion; Encyclopedia of Holiday Customs, containing definitions and brief descriptions of numerous customs related to Jewish holidays.

About the Directors

The Responsa Project was conceived by Professor Aviezri Fraenkel, who founded it in 1963 when he formulated its aims and methodology, following a conversation with Mr Irving Kuttof from Minneapolis. He directed the Project until 1974. Realization of the Project was the result of the joint research efforts of Professor Fraenkel and Professor Yaacov Choueka, who joined in 1966. He served as the project's director from 1974 to 1986. (Professor Nachum Dershowitz directed the project from 1974 to 1975 while Choueka was on sabbatical.)
The directors worked together with a large staff of dedicated Torah scholars, researchers, and assistants who have specialized in Jewish studies, computer science, and Hebrew computational linguistics.
In the 1970s, Professor Aaron Schreiber was the main force behind getting a large research grant from the US National Endowment for the Humanities for which Schreiber served there as principal investigator. This led to the inclusion of many responsa and support for the Project's R & D activities.
Professor Uri Schild headed the project from 1990 to 1997. During his 1995-1996 sabbatical, the project was directed by Professor Amihood Amir. From 1997 to 1998,  Professor Shmuel Tomi Klein was the director.
For the past few years, the Project has been headed by Rabbi Yaacov Weinberger, together with a small team of scholars and software engineers. In 1991, an Academic Advisory Committee was appointed, whose responsibilities were to recommend and oversee all the policies of the Project, both in the contents of the Project and in decisions regarding which books and publications should be used. In 1997, Professor Yaakov Spiegel from the Talmud department in Bar Ilan University was appointed to head this committee. Other adivisory members are  Professor Aviezri Fraenkel and Professor Leib Moskovitz.

Retrieval Methodology

The current retrieval engine is based on classical free-text searches for boolean word combinations using an inverse index. When the project was initially founded, even experts did not consider this approach feasible and vast efforts were devoted to the manual creation of text-indexes according to selected keywords. In the end, these efforts were fruitless. The original approach proposed by Professor Aviezri Fraenkel is still utilized in the current system.
Nevertheless, scholars today have created indexes to many halakhic works over the ages. The manual indexes are presented as another full text database which can be searched by specifying additional keyword combinations. This "simulated thesaurus" approach can aid users who are not familiar with some of the technical terminology used in the rest of the database. It also provides seasoned users with additional search results.     

Bar Ilan Software History

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