Etzion News

An English E-Newsletter for Yeshivat Har Etzion Alumni 
 Elul 5767



An Ambitious New Project
by alumnus
Yehuda Newman ('99-'01)


Talmud Chai: Adventures Through Semantic Space


An Ambitious New Project by Alumnus

Provides an Electronic Learning Environment for Talmidei Torah



Ever been reading a Gemara and wished for a way to hold and organize your thoughts? Ever wanted to recall the details of previous discussions or share them with others but never had the means to do it?


Alumnus Yehuda Newman ('99-'01) has begun researching and developing tools for these purposes. It began, he says “while studying Math and Computers at the Bachelor's level. I came across the concept of tagging text and saw ways it could support a talmid.” Tagging allows a person or program to attach information to a text. Among other things, tags can be used to specify the meaning of a text.


"Talmud Chai is not an attempt to create a program that learns Gemara by itself," he explains. "Computers aren't obligated to learn. We are. Nor is it going to provide an expert body of Torah knowledge (digital copies of Encyclopedia Talmudit are already available). Rather, Talmud Chai is a tool that supports one's own learning.”


After finishing an early demo of one of the ideas last year, Yehuda contacted Rav Moshe Taragin who was very encouraging. Rav Taragin says, "Yehuda’s work on Talmud Chai represents the best of the Yeshiva’s ideals. Searching for a manner to enhance Torah study for wider audiences, Yehuda has launched a project which will hopefully exploit technological resources in the service of Talmud Torah. Moreover, he has consistently displayed sensitivity to maintaining  traditional forms of Talmud Torah as mainstays while developing alternatives to both enhance and complement. This represents the ideal of l’hagdil Torah u’liha'adira."


The demo shows Talmud Chai being used to define and display categories arising from a text. By defining a category and assigning a color to it, the talmid can then tag appropriate areas of affected texts with the colored category. The tagging is done in the background. The user just sees the colored text. 


Version 1 of Talmud Chai showed it was possible to create and apply a system of categories to Torah sources. Yehuda chose to begin the project with this feature because "it is central to Rav Lichtenstein's approach and distinguishes Talmud Chai from other projects."


Another unique feature will be support for creating alternative lines of understanding through various texts in a sugya. Once alternatives are defined, the user will be able to easily compare and contrast them. This promises to be advantageous to lamdanim.


Yehuda also aims to utilize contemporary developments in computing such as the rise of Web 2.0. “We would like to support learning be'chevruta between people in far-flung locations, such as between Jerusalem and New York.  "We already have great chat programs like Skype for connecting people. What the learning community needs now is its own platform for collaborative text analysis.

"In this way, learning software can extend the reach of a Beit Midrash," he maintains.


What about those who prefer using books?  “I understand that using books feels more authentic to many," he admits. "One Rav in the Yeshiva feels that way himself. Others don't like reading off computer screens. The design of the interface aims to mimic the feel of a book. The background behind a text is made pale yellow for example. But still, some people are just used to learning from books and won't change. So, ultimately, the software won't be for everyone."


The next version of Talmud Chai will be a full-fledged learning environment with a variety of study tools including commenting (notes, punctuation, spacing), category organization and hyperlink creation. In addition there will be a personal database for storing categories and texts that have been tagged. Database storage will help with chazara as well as helping to build up sets of categories over time. An on-line community website is planned to help talmidim share their categories and tagged texts with others, and all of it will be made accessible through an intuitively designed user interface.”


In terms of cost, he would like the software to come at a low charge to the talmid, free if possible, and, therefore, he won't be providing a database of texts because it would be too costly to develop. Instead, he's developed a facility for importing texts from other databases. By keeping costs down in this way, he has also been able to avoid seeking financial support and hopes to continue in this way.


Yehuda concedes that the project is very ambitious and requires a high level of commitment, however, he is encouraged by early investigations which indicate its feasibility. With the guidance of experts in the related fields and input from co-talmidim, he hopes the project will prove successful.


Yehuda made aliyah seven months ago from England. He lives in Jerusalem and currently works as a programmer at Israel Discount Bank, Tel Aviv. For more information visit the project's webpage or to arrange a demo contact Yehuda directly at .  


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