A Wikipedia for Jews

There’s a new craze among religious students in Israel. As regular folk get in on the act of shaping the world’s knowledge by writing, editing and improving articles on Wikipedia, religious students are busily working on their own Jewish Wikipedia-like project.

The Responsa Project, run by Bar Ilan University, is digitizing tens of thousands of rabbinic rulings from throughout Jewish history — essentially the basis on which contemporary Jewish law is built. Traditionally the preserve of scholars who know in which dusty volume to find what, now the responsa are there for everyone. Key words are hyperlinked making it easier than ever to navigate the body of material.

The latest edition of the database has just been released on DVD, containing more than 92,000 responsa and more than 455,000 hypertext links between the databases, totaling 210 million words. As well as responsa, important Jewish texts like Bible and Talmud are also included on the DVD.

The project itself is not new — an early version was available in 1967. But in the past it was scholars who inputted the texts. Now, however, with the rise of netbooks — cheap mini-laptops — within the price range of young yeshiva students and soldiers, many religious Israelis have started volunteering and transcribing documents. Spare moments on trains and buses, or on army bases, have been transformed in to opportunities to help record Jewish history.