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.