Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 140 / MAY 1992 / PAGE 82

Scanning the word of the Lord. (using a computer to proofread Torah scrolls) (Column)
by Steven Anzovin

Computers are helping to crack the world's longest-running proofreading problem. One of the oldest texts in continuous use is the book Jews call the Torah (or Pentateuch), which consists of the first five books of the Bible. The Torah is written out in Hebrew on a large scroll that's read in the synagogue on every Sabbath. This scroll, which according to traditional Jewish belief contains the word of God as it was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, is the most precious and often the single most expensive possession of a Jewish congregation.

There are exactly 304,805 Hebrew characters in a Torah scroll, and ideally, all of them have to be perfect for the scroll to be considered fit for use in worship. To use a defective scroll would be an insult to the Almighty. But making a perfect Torah is no trivial task--you can't just type one out on a word processor and use a spelling checker. According to Jewish law, the scroll must be inscribed by hand with a quill pen and special vegetable-based ink on parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal, such as a sheep or a goat. Highly trained Torah scribes and proofreaders, who take up to a year to complete one scroll, follow strict rules laid down in the twelfth century by the sage Maimonides. Great pains are taken to avoid mistakes and to correct any that are found before the scroll is delivered. Inevitably, however, some errors creep through. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 85 percent of the scrolls written since World War II (when thousands of accurate scrolls were destroyed by the Nazis) contain mistakes.

The problem of imperfect Torah scrolls is an interesting example of how difficult it is to transmit exact information using analog means--in this case, looking at words and copying them by hand. (The word analog itself comes from the Greek roots ana- and -logos, meaning "according to the word.") Just one repetition is all it takes to corrupt analog information, as anyone who has ever been the victim of gossip can attest. Only with great effort has it been possible to transmit the text of the Torah essentially unchanged over the 2 1/2 millenniums since its codification. Now a company in Israel is applying digital technology to increase the accuracy of Torah scrolls. Mishmeret Stam of Bnai Brak (offices in Jerusalem, France, and New York, among other places) uses an optical character reader (OCR) to scan photocopies of Torah scrolls for errors. The software to proofread the Torah text is lengthy and complex, since it's far more difficult for an OCR program to recognize handwritten characters than printed ones, which are much more uniform. Once a particular scroll has been scanned, it's compared with a computer copy of the text of the Torah which has been checked and rechecked for accuracy. A list of errors is then returned to the scroll's owner, who can arrange for a scribe to make repairs to the original. The computer doesn't guarantee a perfect Torah--the OCR scanner may not be able to recognize certain subtle mistakes--but Torah scrolls checked by computer are so much more accurate overall that most contracts for new scrolls require that they be checked by optical scanner before the scribe is paid.

A proper Torah can never be generated by a PC, but study of the Torah and the Bible can certainly be enhanced by computer. PC-based Bible-study tools are offered by several different software publishers, each with its own slant on this vast subject. Parsons Technology (One Parsons Drive, Hiawatha, Iowa 52233; 800-223-6925) offers the most comprehensive selection, including Hebrew Tools, which contains a Hebrew lexicon database, a set of flashcards, and a Hebrew word processor for those studying Hebrew scriptures in the original language. There's also Greek-Tools, for those who want to master enough Biblical Greek to check out the New Testament in its original language. Parsons also publishes several on-disk English Bible translations--the King James and the New International, for example--for use with its Quick-Verse 2.0 searching, indexing, and annotation program.

These programs, with their instant access and a wealth of approaches, make Bible study and scholarship easier than ever before.