Saturday, December 13, 2008

Colour Among The Black Hats?

The students of a prominent Eastern-European rabbi were about to join him to light the Chanukah candles. The rabbi noticed a broom near the window next to his Menorah and asked for it to be removed; apparently, he was concerned that in their zeal to emulate him, his followers would place a broom by the window before lighting their Menorahs too. There is a humorous (and definitely fictitious) end to the story: having visited the rabbi, each of his students went home, placed a broom by the window and then removed it before lighting his candles!

A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that it is narrow, monolithic and stifles individual expression. Detractors often point to the restrictive nature of Jewish law, conformity in dress-style (this criticism is levelled especially at those visible communities with distinctive garb) and the seemingly limited range of educational and other life-choices available to its adherents. There is a sense that the ‘men in black’ all think the same way and live cloned, indistinguishable lives.

There is some truth to this: traditional Judaism is predicated on a belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of halachah. Its followers will create communities that share religious aspirations, educate their children in a certain way and where religious and social needs can be met. This may create a certain narrowness of experience, but devoting one’s life to a complete system of belief and practice involves accepting that some of the wider experiences of an unfettered life must be surrendered to a higher ideal. The intensity of experience that the religious crave may also lead them to form tightly-knit groups with their own exacting standards and social norms and look to charismatic leaders for guidance in their quest for individual perfection and constant communion with the Divine.

The Modern Orthodox world has attempted to combine serious commitment to Mitzvah observance and Torah study with aspects of contemporary scholarship, culture and engagement with the modern world. But for the rest of the Orthodox world, must fervour and spiritual ambition lead inexorably to conformity and the crushing of individuality, or is there room for personal expression and creative thought?

There will always be those who take refuge in the crowd, preferring to follow rather than to think for themselves; choosing to evade personal responsibility by relying on others. The Orthodox community harbours no fewer such people than any other group, but surely no more.

One can certainly observe those within the community who fear individual expression to the extent that they try to suppress it in others. There have been a number of unfortunate high-profile examples of this. They include banning of books that deviate from a narrow ideological line, attempting to limit higher education, abolishing concerts and other forms of entertainment, and restricting access to even the unobjectionable parts of the internet. Is it possible that some feel threatened by the very individual expression that is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths?

Yet despite these regrettable attempts to recast Judaism as a system requiring all its adherents to think and behave identically, most Jews are pretty resilient in their individual expression! Despite the superficial appearance of conformity and group behaviour that delegitimizes individuality, one readily finds a vast range of ideas, aspirations, ideologies and modes of religious expression. These differences are evident both between and with Orthodox groups. In traditional Jewish teaching, there is a spectrum of opinion on nearly every subject: the nature of God, Man’s free will, how to understand human suffering, the appropriate attitude to art and music, secular studies and even modernity itself, as well as about virtually every area of Jewish observance.

This multiplicity translates into diversity of lifestyle and belief. Even in the most Orthodox of circles, there are those who visit art galleries, love classical music, tour China, learn Arabic and even consider these essential to their religious experience. Others prefer to incorporate ‘secular’ modes of expression into Jewish contexts; in recent years, some highly professional and innovative music, art and literature have emerged. Among the ostensibly monolithic Orthodox, there are staunch Zionists, political lefties, recycling macrobiotics, DIY enthusiasts, aficionados of Kabbalah and those who reject it as mumbo-jumbo. In my own experience I have come across a Chassidic university chancellor and a number of Charedi avant garde musicians.

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) observes that God makes each human being different from every other; as such, everyone should be able to say with confidence, ‘the world was created just for me’. A great Chassidic thinker understood this to mean that each of us has strengths and weaknesses that distinguish us from every other person; consequently, each of us has a unique spiritual task. Indeed wrestling with one’s own relationship with God is a Biblical role of the Jew. When Jacob was attacked by an unknown assailant, his name was changed to Israel, ‘because you struggled with God and with Man and you prevailed’ (BeReishit 32:29). ‘Struggling with God’ to forge a religious identity that is individualistic, yet firmly within the portals of tradition, is intrinsic to Judaism. The paraphernalia of Jewish life exist to facilitate this lofty goal, rather than stifle it. On its own terms, Judaism thrives on and celebrates individuality.

Fusing staunch commitment to a specific version of traditional Torah life with a tolerant attitude to the range of valid alternative views is a challenge which has its successes and disappointments. Yet respect for the multiplicity of views and lifestyles that the Torah accommodates is central to its system. We fail the Torah itself by stifling genuine creativity and individuality; but when we validate the legitimate religious choices and ideas of others, we not only create a harmonious and tolerant Orthodox society, but confirm the beauty and breadth of the Torah.

A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

A version of this article appeared on Cross-Currents

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Heady Reflections On A Sukkot Adventure

I looked in the mirror this morning and realised that the bump on my head hasn’t quite gone away. It’s only a couple of weeks since Sukkot, so I thought I’d share the story and what I learned from it.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed (Thursday) I had planned to join my family for a trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (see
here for another article in which I mention Kew Gardens), However, I was exhausted and decided to stay at home, especially as we were hosting a Sukkot party for my community that evening. My wife and children left the house and I decided to rest, so I donned my pyjamas (remember this for later) and dragged my mattress into the Sukkah.

After an hour and a half, I was refreshed and ready to continue with my day. However, my attempts to return to the house were thwarted by the discovery that the back door was mysteriously locked from the inside. I could see the keys in the lock and, frustratingly, my cell phone on a table within, but I couldn’t access either.

As we leave our front door secured only with a number-lock during the day, I was certain that if I could get into the front garden, I could re-enter the house through the main door. I squelched my way in my socks to the side gate and tried, unsuccessfully, to climb over it, cracking my head in the process. A bit dazed, but not badly hurt, I remembered the ladder at the back of the garden. I intended to climb over the gate and take the ladder with me, but this failed too: while I was sitting on the lintel, the ladder fell back into the garden. I managed to scramble down into the front garden, where, inexplicably, I found the front door locked. I was now standing in the front garden in my socks and pyjamas (remember them?) unable to get into either the house or back into the garden. Contemplating the possibility of a further couple of hours of this situation, I hid behind a car, hoping for some kind of solution.

At this point, a neighbour walked past en route to a funeral. He noticed me and insisted that I come and sit in his Sukkah rather than crouch behind the car. I accepted his invitation, which included a drink and the loan of a sweater and a coat. I then realised that I didn’t know my wife’s cell number, so I called my parents to ask for assistance. The conversation began a little like this: ‘hello, I’m sitting in a neighbour’s Sukkah wearing my pyjamas.’ When they stopped laughing, which took quite some time, they were able to put me in contact with my wife, who was at least a hour away.

There is a small gap in the fencing between our house and the neighbour’s garden, so foolishly, I resolved to return to my own garden. I was hoping to prise open a window or get in some other way. I squeezed through the gap, returned to my own garden and quickly discovered that I still couldn’t enter the house. I was also unable to get back through the gap in the fence (perhaps I should have realised that my eight-year-old son, the usual gap-squeezer, is rather smaller than me), so I was again stuck in the garden in my pyjamas.

I heard a ring at the door, so I climbed the ladder again and peered over. This was one of several conversations I conducted in my pyjamas over the following 45 minutes with passers-by, from my perch nine feet above the ground. The most remarkable was with another neighbour, who approached the house, saw me looking over the gate from a great height and said, with a straight face, ‘hello Rabbi Belovski: the party is this evening, isn’t it?’ When I replied in the affirmative, he thanked me and walked away, making no reference to the fact that I was on a ladder, in my pyjamas, behind the gate, or, most significantly, that my head was bleeding. Perhaps my life is so odd that this event seemed the very paragon of normality.

Two hours after discovering that I was locked out, my wife returned and admitted a rather damp and bedraggled rabbi to the house.

So what had happened? How had I been locked out? That is explained by a remarkable series of ‘coincidences’. While I had been sleeping, the musician booked to play at the evening’s party (an old friend) had arrived at the house to deliver his equipment, wrongly assuming that we would be at home. When no-one answered, he took a bold step: his assistant climbed over the side-gate, discovered to his delight that we had been silly enough to leave the back door unlocked and entered the house. He opened the front door and unloaded his kit. As I was heavily asleep and wearing earplugs, I heard none of this. Assuming that he was doing me a favour, he locked the front and back doors before leaving, trapping me in the Sukkah…

I have retold this story several times, including in my sermon on Shemini Atzeret. It has made people in the UK and in Israel cry with laughter at my plight, but mostly at the thought of the rabbi standing on a ladder in his pyjamas noting the (non) reactions of passers-by. It is the most powerful and real Sukkot message I could have received. Every year, we speak about Sukkot reminding us that life is impermanent, that our material possessions are ephemeral and that our security can evaporate at any moment. We may know this intellectually, but, thank God, most of us have few opportunities to experience this directly, even for a short while. My brief exile from my home made the message of Sukkot more real for me than I recall it having been in the past.

Many people say a prayer before entering the Sukkah which mentions the possibility that in the aftermath of the judgement of Yom Kippur, one deserves the punishment of exile. We ask God to consider our week-long sojourn in the Sukkah as a type of ‘exile’ in place of a full-scale banishment. I thought of this prayer after my little adventure and hope that it remains true for me.

A gezinte winter!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Statues in Montreux

A few days ago, I visited Montreux, a small Swiss town by Lake Geneva. It is picturesque, temperate, and while there are plenty of tourist shops, parts of the town are pretty up-market. It was a lovely place to spend a few hours with the family before driving back into the mountains.

Two significant statues on the lake-front are popular with tourists, both of well-known men who lived good parts of their lives in or near Montreux. One is of Charlie Chaplin, the famous actor and film-director, the other is of Freddie Mercury, a leading pop-star of the 70s and 80s. If we can briefly ignore their private lives (the inscription on the statue of Mercury even mentions the ‘discretion’ of the locals), each of them brought much pleasure to millions of people. Presumably, the residents of Montreux feel honoured that Chaplin and Mercury chose to live in their town and recognised this with lake-side memorials.

I was struck by the lack of a statue of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, a world-famous posek (Jewish legal authority) who lived in Montreux for a large part of his life until his death in 1966. He was a man of astonishing scholarship, who wrote landmark responsa (published as Seridey Aish, by which eponym the author has become known) tackling the most complex and contentious modern issues. The Seridey Aish was at home in the premier yeshivos of pre-war Eastern Europe, yet was a man of his times, facing modern challenges to traditional Judaism robustly, but with a light touch. He fostered a generation of students, including some of the world’s foremost rabbinical leaders, such as the late Gateshead Rov, Rabbi Betzalel Rakow, zt”l, the late Rabbi Joseph Hirsch Dunner zt”l of London, and ylc”t, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, shlit”a, the Ra’avad of the Eidah Charedis in Jerusalem.

Where indeed is the statue of Rabbi Weinberg? Of course, hardly any visitors to Montreux will have heard of him and it is unlikely that a bronze likeness of a rabbi would attract the level of interest from tourists to make its manufacture worthwhile; this apart from the obvious halachic issues raised by making a statue in the first place. I’m sure that the matter was never even considered.

Actually, I’d have been rather upset to have seen a statue of the Seridey Aish along the lake-front in Montreux: Rabbi Weinberg immortalised in the company of an actor and a singer. While the contribution of Rabbi Weinberg is immeasurably more significant than, lehavdil, Messrs Chaplin and Mercury, his immortal responsa, which are still debated and relied-upon by halachists the world over, are a far better testimony to his greatness than a bronze cast.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What’s That For? Musar From A Three-year-old

I am enjoying the privilege of holidaying with my family in the French Alps, so I am far from a minyan. While my children rarely see me davening, especially wearing tefillin, this morning my second daughter Tehilloh (10) and younger son Shmuel Yosef (3) were in the room during Shacharis. When I was laying tefillin, my daughter remarked to my son that one day he would have to don them. As I was putting on the head-tefillin, my son asked her, ‘What’s that for – does it hold his kippah on?’ Then, being three, he suggested that I might need one to hold my neck on and another to keep my leg in place!

Other than causing me some amusement as I was trying to concentrate on davening, Shmuel Yosef left me considering something important. How often do I (or any of us) actually think ‘what’s that for’ when putting on tefillin? It’s so easy for regularly-observed mitzvos to become rote performances, devoid of real meaning. I realised that it’s easy to lay tefillin each day, but harder to experience the ritual as a means of connecting with God: a tool of subjugation of the most powerful human capabilities to the Divine agenda.

Many people say a meditation before donning the tefillin, one which I have just re-read. It reminded me that:

God has commanded us to wear the arm-tefillin to recall the ‘outstretched arm’ (of the Exodus), placed close to the heart to thereby subjugate the desires and thoughts of our hearts to His service; and upon the head, close to my brain, so that the soul that resides in my mind, together with all of my senses and capabilities, are subjugated to His service.

‘What’s that for?’ Three words of powerful musar (ethical guidance) from a three-year-old: God has many agents. It’s a good focal point with which to approach the pre-Rosh HaShanah month of Elul, which starts alarmingly soon.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Friday, August 15, 2008

Is It Ethical To ‘Hijack’ An Internet Connection?

In 2005, a West London man, Gregory Straszkiewicz, was fined £500 and given a 12-month conditional discharge for "hijacking a broadband connection". Using a laptop while sitting in his car, Straszkiewicz had connected to the Internet by piggy-backing on the wireless network of a local resident.

Today, many people access the Internet using Wi-Fi wireless technology, which allows a computer to connect to the web via a router, for which service the subscriber pays a monthly fee to an internet service provider (ISP). Although most such connections are secure, and accessible only via a password, some people leave their service unsecured, allowing free Internet access to anyone with a computer to hand. While breaking a security code to access a network is clearly dishonest, how might Jewish law view the unauthorised use of an unsecured connection, as in the case of Gregory Straszkiewicz?

At first glance, this looks like a simple application of the principle "one gains without loss to another": there seems to be no apparent loss to the subscriber (who has, after all, left the connection unsecured and therefore open to access by others) through unauthorised use of his wireless connection.

However, this may be swiftly discounted, since some financial loss is likely. Many domestic subscribers have capped services: if they download more than a fixed amount of data each month, they are billed extra for it. Additional usage by an outsider may push the monthly total data download over that limit, generating additional cost to the subscriber.

Another consideration is bandwidth, the quantity of data that can be transferred per second via the connection. This equates to the speed at which the connection works: the higher the bandwidth rating, the faster the connection. Unauthorised use of the connection will reduce the quality of the subscriber's use, as it will operate more slowly. So the piggy-backer's activities may result in a more expensive and/or slower Internet experience for the subscriber.

But even with an uncapped provision, where the piggy-backer uses the connection so little that the subscriber detects no deterioration in service (or the intruder uses it at a time when the subscriber is not online), piggy-backing may still be problematic.

The Talmud records a disagreement over whether "borrowing" an item without permission constitutes theft; the Shulchan Aruch rules stringently, which might seem to outlaw piggy-backing. However, the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham Ashvilli, died 1330) restricts this ruling to a case where "borrowing" an item could potentially lead to its damage. This clearly excludes piggy-backing, which causes no tangible harm to any material possession of the subscriber.

One might argue that when the subscriber leaves a connection unsecured, he is indicating that he doesn't mind if outsiders "borrow" it. This could be supported by the rule allowing one to borrow a tallit left in a public place, even without the owner's permission. However, the Bach (Rabbi Joel Sirkes, died 1640) assumes that this applies only where a mitzvah can be performed, and when the use is occasional; even when the piggy-backing is infrequent, it is unreasonable to suggest that it is a mitzvah!

Even if Jewish law theoretically allows piggy-backing, it may still be an act of piety to refrain from it. The Talmud refers to Rabbi Lazar's refusal to take a tiny splinter from a fence for use as a toothpick. Although the loss to the fence's owner was insignificant, and therefore taking the splinter technically permitted, Rabbi Lazar realised that if everyone were to adopt this view, the fence would cease to exist. Similarly, although one piggy-backer may make little difference to a subscriber, the presence of many freeloaders will drastically reduce the quality of his service, perhaps even bringing it down altogether.

A further point is that the subscriber is also bound by the terms of his agreement with the ISP: by accessing a connection from outside the premises where the router is located, the piggy-backer may cause the subscriber to be in breach of contract.

In conclusion, we can imagine a limited range of circumstances in which piggy-backing might be allowed, but even so, it is meritorious to avoid it.


A squatter need not pay rent, provided that the owner has not served him notice and the dwelling is not normally rented out. It is a case of "one gains without loss to another" Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 364:6, paraphrased

Rabbi Shimon bar Kahana walked past a vineyard with Rabbi Lazar and asked him to take a splinter for him from the fence to use as a toothpick. He refused, reasoning that if everyone were to do so, the fence would disappear. Talmud Yerushalmi Damai 3:2,

There is a dispute about one who "borrows" without the permission of the owner. One rabbi says that he is a legal borrower; another says that he is a thief. Talmud Bava Batra 88a

Unauthorised "borrowing" of an item that cannot be damaged by handling is never considered to be theft. Ritva, Bava Metzia 41a

It is permitted to take a tallit and make the blessing over it... Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 14:4

This only applies to occasional [use] when performing a mitzvah. Bach to Tur, Orach Chaim 14:4

It is forbidden to steal even the slightest amount. Yet if it is something that no-one is bothered about, it is permitted... But the Yerushalmi forbids this, as an act of piety. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369:1

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Copyright And Software Piracy

In February of last year, at an event in Bucharest attended by Bill Gates of Microsoft, the Romanian president, Mr. Traian Basescu, apparently made an astounding statement. Allegedly, he claimed that software piracy (unauthorised duplication of software, such as Microsoft Office products) helps the younger generation discover computers and that it is an investment in Romania’s friendship with Microsoft! It is unlikely that either Mr. Gates or those software pirates languishing in jail for infringement of copyright were especially sympathetic to Mr. Basescu’s views.

‘Piracy’ of this sort has a long history in Jewish sources. Some 450 years ago Rabbi Meir of Padua published a new version of the Rambam’s halachic work Mishneh Torah. Subsequently, a Venetian nobleman, Marco Antonio Justinian, also published an edition of the Rambam, which his detractors claimed would leave Rabbi Meir with many unsold copies. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Cracow (d. 1572) upheld Rabbi Meir’s right to sell his stock before the other edition reached the market; meanwhile, he forbade his followers from buying the Venice printing. In 18th-century Livorno, a dispute arose between the author of an edition of the Mishnah and his printer. After publication, the printer removed the author’s commentary from the plates and reused them! Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (d. 1793) ruled that the printer must compensate the author for his loss.

Legislating rights and responsibilities towards such non-tangible entities as copyright is complex: these landmark rulings were vital steps in the development of halachic attitudes towards intellectual property. We see application of this is legislation nowadays to the problem of software piracy.

It is tricky to identify early Jewish sources that discuss title to intangibles - one that establishes a legal right to a concept or other kinds of non-monetary commodities, the development of which required the investment of expertise, resources or time. Such a source could be used to derive a Jewish view of software piracy.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 59a) records the case of a hungry pauper who discovers a cake; before he picks it up, however, someone else snatches it. The Rabbis describe the ‘snatcher’ as ‘evil’, since he has exploited the pauper’s efforts; however, he is not a ‘thief’, nor is the case actionable. We see that effort alone (which equates in our study to intellectual property) does not confer title, an idea supported by the maxim, ‘one who quotes a statement in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world,’ (Megillah 15a). Using someone else’s ideas without acknowledgement is not actually a crime, just bad manners.

Another permissive view of intellectual property could be based on the rules governing squatters. If a squatter continues to live in a property that is usually rented, he must pay rent after the landlord has served notice. This is because financial benefit accrued by one person, even if there is only a potential loss to another, is claimable. This has ramifications for software piracy. One argument advanced to justify copying is that if one has no intention of buying the product, the manufacturer incurs no loss. If the software is duplicated exclusively for private use and none of the people who use it (or secondary copies made from it) would have bought it (all highly improbable), there might be room for a lenient ruling.

Others adopt a less accommodating position. Following the law that someone entrusted with a manuscript may not copy even one letter from it without authorisation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) prohibits translating book segments without the author’s permission. Accordingly, it would be forbidden to duplicate software without consent. Furthermore, the Talmud asserts that whenever a purchaser breaks the conditions of a contract, compensation is payable; indeed someone who ignores the wishes of the ‘owner’ is termed a ‘thief’. Following this, in a responsum about copying music, Rabbi Z.N. Goldberg (contemporary) notes that even after the sale, the original owner is entitled to retain some aspects of ownership. Halachah would thus recognise a software developer’s right to withhold permission to copy the product, and duplication would qualify as theft. Additionally, Rabbi J.S. Nathanson (d. 1875) asserts that ‘logic’ asserts authors’ halachic rights to their works.

We have examined some ingenious responsa, many of which suggest that halachah forbids software piracy. Of course, Jewish law anyway asserts ‘dina demalchuta dina’ (e.g. Nedarim 28a) – in financial matters, at least, once must defer to the law of the land. As software copyright is certainly regulated by English law, halachah obliges one to adhere to the terms of the purchase agreement.

Side bar

In conclusion, the rabbi wins the case and he has the right to sell his books first, and the only newly-printed edition of Maimonides that one may purchase is the one published by the rabbi. (Responsa Rama – Isserlis – 10)

The printer has caused the author great loss, for if it were not for this new edition, he would have had many more purchasers. (Responsa Noda BiYehudah – Landau – CM 2:24)

Someone who lives in a courtyard without permission must pay rent, whenever the owner intended to rent the courtyard. (Bava Kama 20a, paraphrased; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 364:6)

Just as one may not read a (deposited) manuscript, one may not copy even one letter from it. (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 292:20)

It is forbidden to translate laws from my works… Some already asked me permission, which I refused. (Responsa Igrot Moshe – Feinstein – YD 3:91)

Anyone who ignores the wishes of the ‘owner’ is called a ‘thief’… If one gives a pauper a coin to buy a shirt, he may not use the money to buy a cloak, since he ignores the wishes of the donor. (Bava Metzia 78a-b)

When one sells an item, one may retain certain rights over it… A cassette vendor may retain sole rights of duplication… Ignoring this is like theft, for with respect to duplication, the cassette is not his property. (Rabbi Z.N. Goldberg, Techumin 6)

An author’s rights to his works are universally established; to say otherwise is illogical… (Responsa Shoel UMaishiv – Nathanson – 1:1:44)

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Pope And Praying In Hebrew

The London Times reports that the Catholic Church is discussing reintroducing the Latin Mass largely abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. See here for details. Apparently, the Pope is writing to every seminary urging them to ensure that priests are trained to conduct the Tridentine Mass, which was replaced in the 1960s by the vernacular liturgy said in most churches today. While before Vatican II, every Catholic Church in the world conducted Mass in Latin, today it is recited in the local language.

Readers may wonder why I’m interested in the Latin Mass, something one can safely assume to be of marginal concern to most Cross-Currents readers! The answer is brief and simple. It helped me to realise how blessed we are to have a Hebrew liturgy, which (with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over. Indeed, among the supportive ultra-conservative remarks appended to the article, are a few thoughtful ones that welcome the return of a universal liturgy, allowing people of every nationality and tongue to celebrate Mass together.

The early 19th-century German-Jewish and later reformers genuinely meant well when they replaced certain Hebrew prayers with vernacular equivalents: they hoped to make them more accessible and comprehensible to their worshippers; presumably, this was successful. However (and this is apart from the theological and halachic issues raised by their versions of the prayers), a great deal more was lost than gained. They underestimated the universal value of Hebrew prayers: the capacity of a Jewish national language, the language of God and the Bible, to unite and inspire people; to erase boundaries between those of different cultures and unify them in devotion.

To be fair, this has now been recognised by some non-Orthodox groups, who have re-introduced greater Hebrew content into their services: I’m sure that they have been greatly enhanced by so doing.

But many Westernised Jews have little or no knowledge of Hebrew – not much has changed since 19th-century Germany (where the vernacular was introduced) in that regard. This is a problem that has a solution – learn Hebrew! It’s easier said than done, but the opportunities available (courses, CDs and internet sites, etc.) have never been greater or the rewards (especially the chance to communicate with the natives on a visit to our own Hebrew-speaking country) more evident. Anyway, there are excellent translations of the Siddur available, each serving a different need, which one can consult throughout the prayer service.

I think that the Pope has this one right: the vernacular alternatives to their (and our) prayers are, in the words of one comment to the article in The Times, ‘improvised’ and ‘fabricated’. Do you agree?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Friday, June 06, 2008

Welcome to Techno-Torah

A Jewish child is thinking of Moshe about to receive the Torah. Moshe ascends the mountain and God’s hand reaches through the cloud and hands him not tablets of stone, but a laptop, a CD and some Hebrew keyboard stickers! It may seem ridiculous, but these are indeed today’s Torah tools; Shavuot is a perfect opportunity to survey them.

A plethora of websites, searchable databases and desk-top publication tools have sprung up to service every Jewish interest. Computer resources for Torah study are among the most advanced of any field and have completely transformed the way that traditional Jewish sources are accessed.

Hebrew Desk-top publishing

Not many years ago, even typing in Hebrew was a nuisance: one needed to install a special font, type the letters backwards and avoid spilling on to the next line to prevent the text from coming out as gibberish. Next came specialist Hebrew word-processors, such as Dagesh and Davka, which made bi-directional typing easier. While these remain available, standard program suites such as Microsoft Office now come with built-in features that make left-to-right typing straightforward. One need only enable the software (a very simple task) and acquire a keyboard with Hebrew letters or stick some labels on to an existing one and the most powerful publishing, spread-sheet and internet software solutions become available to the bilingual user. Searches can be performed on Hebrew texts and the contents of tables ordered according to the aleph-bet. A mouse-click is all that is required to toggle between typing Hebrew and English characters, which align automatically to produce a seamless document.

Torah web-sites

There are a vast number of internet sites offering Torah ideas and programmes. As with everything on the web, these vary widely in quality, although many are really excellent. They service every shade of observance and knowledge, from the rudimentary to the most advanced, and deal with matters as diverse as making a Seder and obtaining a get (Jewish divorce). There are fun materials for children, serious monographs for academics and everything in between. One can download guides to every aspect of Jewish life, prayer services, halachic rulings and, even, would you believe, study for the rabbinate. Even those in the most observant sector of the Jewish world have caught on to the power of the web as a tool for Torah dissemination. One will find many Yeshivot, outreach organisations and even Chassidic sects represented: Aish, Breslov and Chabad, for example are known for their extensive use of the internet. There are Hebrew-calendar calculators and sites offering extensive libraries of audio files (shiurim and the like) for listening online or downloading to one’s mp3 player. The extent of these resources is quite mind-blowing.


There has been a recent explosion of Torah weblogs or ‘blogs’ – web diaries that opine on anything from Jewish law to political issues and modern challenges. Some ‘blogs’ are simply platforms for peoples’ unhappiness with the world; but one can also easily identify other excellent ‘blogs’ that are thought-provoking and refreshing: many important halachic and contemporary Torah issue have been flagged first by the ‘bloggers’, who are viewed with deep concern by some and with great affection by others.

Torah libraries

The biggest revolution, however, has been in the development of tools for the manipulation of research and manipulation of Torah texts. These come in the shape of libraries of Torah materials, available either across the internet or to purchase as disks.

The idea is to make the vast literature of Torah accessible for study and research or for creating materials for lectures, religious rulings and academic presentations. A page of text is scanned and stored on some computer medium, either as a picture (in which case the page appears in its original format but cannot be edited) or is converted into text to be copied and manipulated, but losing the original layout.

However the material is stored, sections can be pasted into word-processing and other documents to develop sophisticated archives and class hand-outs. With a little practice, it is possible to prepare first-rate source-sheets in a fraction of the time that it would have taken to drag a pile of books to a photocopier (assuming one even has all the texts available), cut the copies into fragments and paste them into a single document. The result is easier to read, produces no waste and can easily be improved at a later date.

The range of texts available is astonishing. Even an outline list of topics is lengthy. It includes: Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, classic commentaries from all eras, Rambam, standard halachic works, responsa, mysticism, chassidut, prayer, festivals, Jewish philosophy, encyclopaedias and periodicals.

Looking first at free resources, try Mechon-Mamre for a selection of basic texts, including the entire JPS English translation of the Bible. has over 15,000 classic texts for free download, mostly of old editions or out-of-print books, many quite obscure; it also offers a really excellent selection of digitised commentaries on the Rambam and some unusual material published during the nascent years of the American Jewish community. Some chassidic websites also allow downloads of specialist Hebrew texts.

Two types of purchasable resources are available: those accessed across the internet for a monthly or annual fee, and those that are purchased outright on disk. The advantages of the web versions are that the cost is spread, they may be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection, and don’t ever need upgrading. The versions bought outright generally work faster, deliver higher functionality and can be used even when no internet connection is available, but must be carried around and may be expensive to purchase.

There is a good range of disks available at the lower end of the market. They supply fundamental texts, such as Bible, Talmud and basic commentaries on CD. Some contain English texts, such as translations of the Bible, Talmud and Midrash. In the middle range, also on CD, there is DBS, offering a huge range of commentaries on the Bible and Talmud and a good range of chassidic literature and the Bar Ilan Responsa project, which contains a plethora of rabbinical responsa from across the ages. For the most serious scholars, Otzar HaChochma contains over 28,000 searchable books and periodicals in their original format. Available across the internet or on a 500Mb hard drive, it comes with a price to match its power.

Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah more than 3200 years ago. While the message of the revelation remains vibrant and exciting, the medium has changed beyond recognition. Using the amazing techno-Torah tools at our disposal is a real way to connect the past, present and future.


Bi-directional word-processors, keyboards and keyboard stickers:

Selected Torah websites:




Jewish Law:



Virtual Beit Midrash:



Selected blogs



The Seforim Blog;

Eruv Online:


Hebrew calendar and Shabbat-time calculators

Hebrew calendar:

Shabbat times only:

Index of Torah and Jewish academic articles


Free Torah libraries


Purchasable Torah libraries

Basic libraries:

Bar Ilan Responsa project: (online access) (buy)


Otzar HaChochma: (online access or buy)

These are only examples. Many other excellent resources are available.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.