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

September 13, 2022 | Zvika Klein
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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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