Thursday, September 10, 2015

App brings English speakers 3,000 years of Jewish scholarship 

Once, a complete Jewish library was available only to those with the money and shelf space to buy and store thousands of volumes. But in the digital age, electronic versions of classical and modern Jewish works are accessible to anyone on a growing number of websites.
A new app called Betamidrash seeks to further advance that accessibility and make it available to anyone, anytime – even when they aren't in front of their computer. 
"Betamidrash is the only app with a full selection of classical Jewish texts, many of them already translated into English," according to app co-creator Noah Santacruz. "It also has the fastest search engine of any app that connects to a database of Jewish texts, with all the text searchable in Hebrew and English."
There are now online versions of the Bible and its commentaries, along with the Mishnah, Talmud, and classical works by Maimonides, Nachmanides, the Vilna Gaon, the Hasidic masters, and more recent works. Two Israeli sites – Daat and Wikitext Hebrew – now contain thousands of such texts, covering thousands of years of Jewish scholarship going back to pre-Talmudic times, with source texts in the Torah, Prophets, Writings, Mishna and Talmud along with commentaries by the earlier and later rabbis. There are even apps that tap into these databases, with the Hebrew-language On Your Way app among the most popular.
All those sites and apps require Hebrew, with the classical works largely a closed book to English speakers. For them, there's a new site called Sefaria.org that has been gathering the classical texts (often linking to them on Wikitext and Daat) – and organizing an open-source translation of the texts that anyone can contribute to, Wikipedia-style.
It's that Sefaria database that Betamidrash taps into, said Santacruz. "We're the first app to use Sefaria, and our app organizes the texts drawn from there in a clear Hebrew and English translation, which readers can see in the same window, along with commentaries, both in Hebrew and English if they are available."
To see a commentary on a Torah or a Talmud passage, users just click on a highlighted word, and a list of the available commentaries pops up, which users can then select from. There are also a slew of features to enhance the learning experience, including bookmarks, photos, links to connected sources, and more.
But the heart of the app – and the feature Santacruz and his partner, Josh Herzberg, are really proud of – is Betamidrash's super-fast search engine. "We built an algorithm that will display whatever is being searched for in about a second," said Santacruz. "This is the fastest search time for any Jewish text app in any language, and one of the fastest of any database text search."
The reason for the super-fast search hearkens back to the origins of the app. "We designed this for a database class," with the emphasis on the fast database search. Santacruz and Herzberg, both observant Jews and electrical engineering students at New York's Cooper Union, decided that an app to search the Sefaria database would be a good way to carry out their class project – and a good contribution to the Jewish community.
The first version of Betamidrash is available for Android devices, said Santacruz, and the team is working on an iPhone version. "We're looking into funding to further development and add new features, and we are considering teaming up with Jewish organizations for support. We really feel this is a revolutionary app that will bring a lot of positive benefit to the Jewish community."

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