Yeshiva University Students Combine Technological Innovation and Torah Study
In the 21st century, web technology is a given. Want to know when the next train’s arriving? Look it up on your smart phone. Curious about a science term in a news article? Google it. But what if these same innovations could help you search the text of the Mishnah or pull up a range of opinions on any subject in Jewish law?
At Yeshiva University, two students are fusing that forward-thinking and technological fluency with their passion for Judaic studies.
Atara Siegel, a junior at Stern College for Women, is compiling different manuscripts of the Mishnah—found everywhere from the Cairo Genizah to the Vatican—as a research assistant for the Digital Mishnah Project, which seeks to create an online resource for study and comparison of Mishnaic manuscripts throughout history. “Sometimes the variations in the text don’t mean anything. Sometimes they can change the meaning of the Mishnah drastically—like a comment might be attributed to a totally different person,” said Siegel. “Having the different manuscripts side by side is a way of trying to figure out what the most accurate text is.”
The idea for the project came to Dr. Hayim Lapin, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Maryland, as he was co-editing a new annotated translation of the Mishnah for Oxford University Press. “I realized what an advantage being able to compare manuscript readings would be,” he said.
Lapin started learning to encode texts in XML, a markup language, following Text Coding Initiative (TEI) guidelines, and began constructing the site. Siegel, a native of Silver Spring, Maryland, wrote Lapin to ask if she could research with him while she was home over summer break. After receiving a recommendation from Stern College Talmud instructor Rabbi Moshe Kahn, Lapin put Siegel to work—studying scans of manuscripts that dated back to the 15th century so she could transcribe and upload them to the database.
“Atara has been amazing,” said Lapin. “She obviously has a good command of the primary sources, but she also intuitively understood what we were trying to capture in the XML encoding.” Siegel built those skills in three intensive semesters of Kahn’s Gemara shiur. “I really appreciate the extra level my Judaic studies have grown to here,” she said. “The time and effort I’ve put into my learning during Rav Kahn’s class have improved my skills in ways I didn’t even know I could improve.”
But transcription isn’t her only task. “I compiled a list of all the Tannaim [rabbinic sages during the Mishnaic period, 10-220 CE] who appear in the Mishnah as well as all the location names so we can create an index hyperlinked to short descriptions of each,” Siegel said. “For example, if you’d click on Rabbi Meir, you’d go to a short description of who he is.”
Dr. Aaron Koller, assistant professor of Bible at Yeshiva College, believes the project could have a considerable impact on the way Mishnah is studied. “One of the signal accomplishments of the modern study of the Mishnah has been an awareness of the significance of the specific people and places mentioned within,” said Koller. “Atara’s work should open up much modern scholarship to any interested reader of the Mishnah, including thousands of people in the YU community.”
Siegel will receive publication credits for her research with Lapin, but she sees the contributions she’s made—and continues to make online from her Stern College dorm—as just a manifestation of her love of Torah study and the Jewish community. “I’m actually hoping to go into clinical psychology, so this isn’t related to my major in any way,” she said. “But I want to always be involved in the Jewish community and find ways, even if it’s not through my career, to give back.”
Ike Sultan, a junior at Yeshiva College, has similar aspirations.
In November 2009, Sultan and his brothers came up with an interesting concept. “We saw how Wikipedia became so popular so quickly and we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if a person could just search one website to find any opinion about any halacha [Jewish law], in English and easily accessible?’ ” he recalled. At first, Sultan wasn’t sure if the idea was viable: the prospect of organizing and translating material about every halacha seemed impossible. Still, he decided it was worth a shot. His older brothers—all alumni of Yeshiva University—focused on the programming aspects with the understanding that Sultan, a computer science major, would flesh out the content one day at a time.
Together, they launched Halachipedia, a site that seeks to be “the most comprehensive resource of Orthodox Halacha online, free and accessible to all.” At Yeshivat Sha’alvim in Israel, where he was studying at the time, Sultan started summarizing and uploading halachic opinions about topics that ranged from the Jewish holidays to the laws of tefillin and kiddush to the proper blessing to recite on a rainbow, recruiting friends to help add halachot. He created a system that allowed Halachipedia users to become contributors after he had verified that their first submission was accurate, increasing the flow of material to the site. When he began his studies at Yeshiva University, Sultan rounded up more friends to get involved with the site, including younger brother Darren, who manages Halachipedia’s publicity.
Today, Sultan estimates that Halachipedia has about 315 pages containing anywhere from 10 to 50 halachot each, totaling about 5,000 halachot. With assistance from Rosh Yeshiva Mordechai Willig, Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth Chair in Talmud and Contemporary Halacha at YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Sultan also creates and posts weekly one-page summaries that highlight the opinions of RIETS Roshei Yeshiva. “Being able to ask Rabbi Willig or Rabbi Schachter questions all the time is an incredible experience for me,” Sultan said.
Halachipedia itself, however, is not currently under the supervision of a rabbi, and Sultan cautions that it’s not meant to play a role in the paskening [decision] process. “We definitely still want people to go and talk to their rabbis and ask questions because not everything is going to be found on the site and even if it is, it might not be the exact case that the user has,” he said. “Halachipedia functions like any other halacha sefer out there—it just offers information.”
Ultimately, Sultan envisions the site covering “everything raised in the Shulchan Orech—halachic opinions on absolutely any topic, a tremendous amount of content organized in a very user-friendly way,” he explained. “There’s an advantage to having everything in one place. Many halacha books that are out there right now will only go as far back as the Mishna Berurah or the Shulchan Aruch in telling you the background of a halacha, but since there’s no limit to the amount of space we have online, if I had the time I would write out the entire development of halacha—from the Gemara, through the Rishonim [leading rabbis during the 11thto 15th centuries] and Shulchan Aruch and everyone afterwards.”
It’s the work of a lifetime. But Sultan isn’t intimidated. “I like the responsibility and I also like the fact that it’s learning and contributing to the learning of others,” he said. In crafting an online repository for halachic knowledge, he is in some ways retracing the steps of Jewish scholars before him, like the 12th-century Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, codifier of the classic Sefer Ha’halachot. “I think our motivation may be similar,” Sultan said. “[Alfasi] wanted to make it easier for the average Jew to read Gemara without being confused about what the exact halachot were. That’s all I want to do, too—I’m not trying to change any ideas or offer my own opinions, but to relay as much information as clearly and succinctly as possible.”
As she studies handwritten Mishnaic manuscripts that are hundreds of years old, Siegel, too, has a sense that she is continuing the work of Jews throughout history. “Looking at the different way they’d make their letters or their different nikkudot [vowel] systems, I feel a kinship to the people who were living back then and transcribing the Mishnah, because as they go they make mistakes, and I transcribe those mistakes. And I sometimes catch myself making mistakes of my own, so I totally understand how that could happen,” she said. “It’s a way of relating.”