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.
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.
For a more detailed list of the Responsa Databases and their contents see Contents of Responsa Databases
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 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.