At the end of tractate Horayot (14a), Rabbi Yohanan recounts a Tannaitic dispute between R. Shimon Ben Gamliel and his colleagues over which type of intelligence is superior: being knowledable in the sources or being “able to move mountains” through analytic reasoning. Generations later, this question was answered in favor of the well-read scholar on the grounds that, “all depend on the master of the wheat.” After all, even the greatest legal mind needs to process the correct material.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to the production of “wheat-farmer” Talmudists has been the Bar Ilan Responsa Project. While the project officially began in 1963, the first version in its most identifiable commercial form was released 20 years ago in 1992 as a CD that not only compiled major Jewish works, but also included a powerful search engine ideal for most classical Jewish text research. Subsequent upgrades have primarily consisted of additional texts – to the point where the Responsa Project has spun off cheaper versions for those who do not need as much material – and either adding new features or improving earlier ones such as increased hyperlinking within texts that allow users to quickly look up most biblical or rabbinic citations from other sources. As such, although the project itself was revolutionary, each upgrate is more often than not evolutionary.
The most recent 20th version has some new features which regular users may appreciate, though much of this depends on taste. Since I spend most of my time with Talmud searches, I’m partial to the embedded references. For example, double clicking on a Tanna or Amora will display a brief but useful biography of that sage. There are also tooltips for expanding abbreviations and translating Aramaic to Hebrew, including names which at times conflicts with the aformentioned biographies [Note: screenshots of these and other features are displayed in the slide-show below].
In a feature introduced for this new version, Bar Ilan 20 includes the tzurat hadaf, which allows the user to view a page of Talmud as it appears in the de facto standardized Vilna edition of the Talmud. You will notice that the editors did not select the clearest or sharpest typesetting, but I would suspect that this would be irrelevant to the average user who insists on the tzurat hadaf – after all the plain Hebrew text is just a few clicks away. What is important is that the tzurat hadaf is not merely a static image like a PDF, but the text operates as if one were viewing the plain text. Most notably, hyperlinks are maintained as are their dictionary tooltips. Speaking of layouts, Bar Ilan 20 also includes a “Recommended Layout” option for all text windows which increases the margins and line spacing, which some users may find clearer.
In terms of functionality, one new feature which stands out is the new default “Natural Language Search.” Admittedly, I am more used to searching by idioms and grammatical variants such that I have not learned how to take advantage of this feature as it was intended. Furthermore, I noticed the inclusion of a “Mishna and Bavli Chapters” reference which alphabetically lists all the chapter names in the Talmud. Since it is not unusual for commentaries to reference Talmud based on page number – especially for those who lived before the tzurat hadaf was formalized – having the index would be useful for tracking down the citation in the original. However, since most of these commentaries cite at least a few words from the Talmud in the process, it is a simple exercise to simply run the regular Bar Ilan search for those words. (Speaking of which, here is a pro tip for users: highlight the words for which you wish to search, press Control-R and the highlighted phrase will automatically be placed in the search box.)
Are these upgrades worth the cost? Based on the upgrade pricing scheme, it is always cheaper to postpone upgrading since the improvements are cumulative. Personally I try to skip no more than two versions since some changes are “under the hood,” like the option (available since at least 17) to install and run searches off of the hard drive instead of the disc itself. However, if there is a new feature or new sources which are of immediate use, then quicker upgrades could be worthwhile.
Since its initial release, the Bar Ilan CD has been one of the most powerful and versatile tools for Jewish research. But like any tool, its real value of utility is determined by the needs and skills of the end-user, not to mention the ability to read and comprehend the material. For what good is it to be a master of the wheat if we do not know how to harvest.
Rabbi Josh Yuter is the rabbi of the historical Stanton Street Shul in New York’s Lower East Side. He blogs at YUTOPIA (www.JoshYuter.com), and tweets @JYuter.