Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Beyond the Dikdukei Soferim - A Powerful Free Tool for DIY Talmudic Text Research - a guest post by Leor Jacobi

A powerful resource for Talmudic research is now available freely on-line. The latest version of Eidei Nusah. This site contains the text of almost all manuscripts of the Talmud Bavli. Previous versions were available on CD-ROM. Many geniza fragments have been added to this version. Some actual images of Talmud and Mishna manuscripts are also available.

Many of my own studies would have been practically impossible without heavily utilizing previous versions of this database. Obtaining microfilms of these texts, locating the desired texts contained therein, and then deciphering them are daunting tasks for even the best of scholars. The time investment involved prohibits everyone from fully exploring manuscripts in most cases. As a result, in the past, most talmudic scholars have relied almost solely on the monumental Diqduqei Sofrim of Rav R.N.N. Rabinovicz. However, it should be noted that this database contains several times more manuscripts than those available in the 19th century, and that many of these “new” Eastern, Yemenite, and Geniza manuscripts are simply much more accurate than those European ones previously utilized, literally of a higher class.

Now, in a few mere moments one can obtain significantly more and higher quality information than could have been acquired in many excruciating hours. Furthermore, the database can be searched powerfully to yield much more textual information than could ever have been found before.

Allow me to provide a simple tip for utilizing this database which serve as an illustration. When searching for all the variants of a particular text, it is most prudent to search not for the text itself in which variations appear, but rather, for a text located near the words in question which is more likely to be found in many or all of the manuscripts. Then, one receives an output list of results which will probably contain more of the variant readings. An added side-benefit of this method is that, if cleverly exploited, it often enables one to instantly obtain results from parallels located in other locations in the Talmud which the researcher may or may not be aware of. In fact, many sugyot of the Talmud which relate to sugyot of different tractates are often repeated in more than one location, especially where the Talmud undertakes comparisons of laws from different branches of Jewish Law. This is a very familiar phenomena, especially well attested to in the Talmud Yerushalmi (whose manuscripts are unfortunately not yet contained in this version). There is occasionally significant variation among talmudic manuscripts as to the length of certain texts, particularly when it appears that one sugya is quoting another. Manuscripts may contain a version of a sugya that one may be interested in, but not in the location that we are familiar with from working with printed versions of the Talmud. הפוך בה והפוך בה.

The text of the manuscripts has been painstakingly typed in by hand. I have personally checked a considerable number of these texts against photo images found on the Hebrew University manuscript site and I have found them to be highly accurate. However, the user should be warned that, as would be expected, in a small minority of cases there is considerable room to debate the particular readings, but this is primarily restricted to individual letters such as ד and ר in locations where texts have been erased or substituted, always well indicated by a proliferation of square and round parenthesis indicating added and original texts.

A desideratum would be basic bibliographic information on the various manuscripts and fragments. The most important would be country or region of origin. One is currently reduced to checking obsolete and incomplete lists of manuscripts or taking a stab by viewing an actual sample photo image. However, this drawback of the anonymous, generic nature “pure” computerized text is indeed a small price to pay for the ability to search and compare texts automatically.

It would be considerably more efficient if the site would enable the reader to open all manuscripts of a particular folio at the click of a button, rather than manually opening up each one. Indeed, this process is considerably more cumbersome now than on the previous version 5 on CD-ROM. I suspect that most users are more interested in always seeing all variants of a particular page while using the Browse feature than in ever selecting from particular manuscripts. Only while using the Search feature is the user interested in which particular manuscripts are returned as the result of a query.

Basic access to the site is free of charge. All information is briefly viewable, but one must subscribe for a fee in order to copy freely and view and print texts at leisure. The casual user can make do by making a “screen-shot” of a particular text before the viewing time expires, and then recopying that text by hand as required. The frequent user will no doubt benefit greatly by subscribing and supporting this project expand and in turn make more manuscripts publicly available, and perhaps most importantly, practically usable and useful.

Superficial study of the words of the sages of the Talmud Bavli without even a minimum of verification that their words were recorded accurately can now no longer be excused. The lens has been focused and placed in the public domain. Thanks are due to the Lieberman Institute for providing these tools to the entire gamut of those engaged in in-depth study of the Talmud.


  1. Not so anonymous2:24 PM, May 11, 2011

    "Superficial study of the words of the sages of the Talmud Bavli without even a minimum of verification that their words were recorded accurately can now no longer be excused. The lens has been focused and placed in the public domain."

    While I agree to the above statement. I'm curious to what is the importance of this really in regards to learning gemorah and any other works of Chazal. A majority of Talmidei Chochamim accept with no problem the text in front of them for use in learning gemorah and especially in learning through a sugia in halacha from the beginning until the end. However aside from just the "scholarship" involved in this type of research what else "comes out from it" what do we gain from it? How do we understand better what Chazal wanted to give over to us. I'm not doubting this sort of study I'm just curious to know. Perhaps an example where a manuscript help come give no light on a piece of gemorah would help answer these questions.

  2. How can you even ask that? If Chazal said something different from what we read then what we read isn't what they wanted to give over to us at all. See the haskamos to Dikduke Sofrim, see the many hachi garsinans in Rashi in every daf of Gemara. It's davar pashut that if you want to know what someone said you need to know what he said. Second best is to use what you have if you have no choice.



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