New York (Jan. 6)
A Yeshiva University official reported today that a space satellite link will be put into operation in the spring by which rabbinic responsa–replies to questions on Jewish religious law and social customs–stored in a computer at Bar Ilan University in Israel will be beamed to a university facility at its main center in Manhattan.
The $1 million project, partly funded by a three-year $175,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency, was announced by Dean David Mirsky, acting vice-president for Yeshiva University academic affairs, and Dr. Aaron Schreiber, for the Israeli university. Private funds will make up the rest of the budget, Mirsky said.
He noted that there are about 500,000 responsa in existence, authored by some 3000 authorities over 12 centuries, reflecting the oldest applied legal tradition in the Western world. He said the responsa were invaluable for the study of history, language, literature, religion, Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Moslem relations, law, political science and “all facets of human relationships.”
The first text chosen for computer storage was the responsa of Reb Yitzchak Bar Sheshea of Spain and North Africa, a 14th century scholar who prepared 518 responsa of more than 500,000 words. Since then, more material has been stored, a process accelerated by installation of a large IBM computer at Bar Ilan.
SATELLITE OPERATION DESCRIBED
Requests for information stored in the Bar Ilan computer will be made through Yeshiva University whose computer will activate the Bar Ilan facility via the satellite. The computer in Israel will run the request through the nearly 24,000 responsa now stored in its data bank, representing a total of 24 million words in Hebrew and Aramaio.
The satellite will transmit the requested information to the Yeshiva University computer for analysis and print-out. Mirsky said plans call for storage of up to 50,000 responsa by April and 100,000 within a few years.
The dean said that for modern rabbinic authorities or scholars, the problem is how to track down specific information in the massive rabbinic literature which, he said, has never been indexed. Mirsky added that the information retrieval problem was considered unmanageable until a group of scientists from the Weizmann Institute, the Hebrew University, and Bar Ilan University began in 1967 to explore the possibilities of using a computer for that purpose. The dean said that in 1970 the project was centered at Bar Ilan, gaining support from the National Endowment and other grant agencies.
Mirsky said the Bar Ilan computer scans all the responsa stored in its data bank to find requested information. He said the project also will have the capacity to cheek out all grammatical variants for every key phrase on which the computer might be questioned, seeking infinitive forms, conjugations, tenses and related variants. He said some words in the responsa could have thousands of such variants.
Mirsky said that through the satellite linked computers, “anyone in the Western Hemisphere who desires access to the Israeli retrieval unit can turn to Yeshiva University.” He said the university facility here will use its own computers and will add additional equipment to convert electronic signals to print at either computer terminal and a device to convert such signals into Hebrew.