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bar ilan responsa - history

Brief History 

The Bar Ilan Responsa Project is an evergrowing database of Jewish religious literature. It started in 1967 at the Weizmann Institute of Technology as a project to create an electronic and searchable copy of shuttim (rabbinic responsa) made up of the most accurate manuscripts available. Since then, the project has moved to Bar Ilan University and become one of the largest electronic collections of Jewish religious texts in the world.

During the thousands of years of Jewish diaspora, Jewish religious literature has grown to cover all facets of human life and interest. The depth and literature is so vast it is difficult to navigate one's way through all the texts. This is why the Bar Ilan Responsa Project has become such a vital tool in this day and age.

It started in the early days of computers, and has now become an essential tool that is easily accessible to all. Its unparalleled and continually updated database is now sold with software that boasts a versatile set of tools well-equipped for searching, learning from and using the texts in the database. Thanks to developments in computer technology, this is now available in either DVD or USB format. New versions of the Bar Ilan Responsa Project are released at regular intervals, each conaining more rabbinic texts and enhanced software features.

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 directors worked together with a large staff of dedicated Torah scholars, researchers, and assistants who have specialized in Jewish studies, computer science, and Hebrew computational linguistics.
In the 1970s, Professor Aaron Schreiber was the main force behind getting a large research grant from the US National Endowment for the Humanities for which Schreiber served there as principal investigator. This led to the inclusion of many responsa and support for the Project's R & D activities.
Professor Uri Schild headed the project from 1990 to 1997. During his 1995-1996 sabbatical, the project was directed by Professor Amihood Amir. From 1997 to 1998, Professor Shmuel Tomi Klein was the director.
For the past few years, the Project has been headed by Rabbi Yaacov Weinberger, together with a small team of scholars and software engineers. In 1991, an Academic Advisory Committee was appointed, whose responsibilities were to recommend and oversee all the policies of the Project, both in the contents of the Project and in decisions regarding which books and publications should be used. In 1997, Professor Yaakov Spiegel from the Talmud department in Bar Ilan University was appointed to head this committee. Other adivisory members are Professor Aviezri Fraenkel and Professor Leib Moskovitz.

Retrieval Methodology

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.
Nevertheless, scholars today have created indexes to many halakhic works over the ages. The manual indexes are presented as another full text database which can be searched by specifying additional keyword combinations. This "simulated thesaurus" approach can aid users who are not familiar with some of the technical terminology used in the rest of the database. It also provides seasoned users with additional search results.


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