New Software Promises to Break Down the Barriers to Studying Jewish Texts

Sept. 13 2022

As anyone who’s had a bar or bat mitzvah knows, Hebrew is generally written without the diacritics that indicate vowels and distinguish between various consonant sounds. Even though prayer books, printed Bibles, and some other texts are generally found with these markings, the accompanying commentaries lack them, as do many other rabbinic texts. The computer scientist and Mosaic contributor Moshe Koppel has helped to create software called Dicta Maiven—the second word is Hebrew or Yiddish for “expert”—to help the uninitiated surmount these difficulties and others. Zvika Klein writes:

Koppel gave the example of a book that can be scanned by Dicta Maivin in order to allow a larger audience to access the text.

“Let’s say you have a book that is written in this old Rashi script”—a typeface for Hebrew letters based on 15th-century Sephardi handwriting, very popular with Jewish books that were published in the past several hundred years—“it doesn’t have any n’kudot (diacritical markings), it doesn’t have punctuation, and it probably even has mistakes, because the printers back then were a bit choppy,” he explained.

Regarding references, “it has a million of [them], but it doesn’t tell you where the references are.” Koppel said that many times, in Jewish texts, one of the rabbis will write, “as the Ramban, [i.e., Moses Naḥmanides, a 13th-century Spanish sage], said,” but it won’t say exactly where he said or wrote it. “Rabbis could be quoting Talmud in their books without even telling you” [the exact source].

Koppel picked up his cell phone and displayed exactly how the technology works. “What we’ve done is make it so that you can take your phone and take a picture of the page, and you’ll get the page back with the text that has already been digitized,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s not a picture anymore; it’s gone through optical character recognition [OCR]; the text has been corrected for mistakes and it has become more accessible in so many ways. You could punctuate this text; you could put in the n’kudot. Anyone of the [Hebrew abbreviations] can be explained. You just put your cursor on top of it and it’ll just show you what it stands for.”

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Artifical Intelligence, Hebrew, Talmud, Technology

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy