בסיעתא דשמיא

Liturgy and related work

  • Collections of Women’s Supplications
  • Art
  • Craft
  • Transcriptions
  • Translations

An Economic Argument for Open Data by Efraim Feinstein

There are two principles on which the success of data on the contemporary web rests: the web makes content available, and it adds value to that content by linking it to other related information.

When considering bringing old content online, both of these aspects are important. A first level of digitization involves simply making data available. Google Books and Hebrewbooks.org work at this level, providing PDFs and/or OCR-ed transcriptions of the material. A second level of digitization involves semantic linkage of the data, both internal to the site and external to the site. The Open Siddur Project and Open Scriptures digitize at the semantic level. This second-level digitization is required to do all of the cool things we expect to be able to do with online texts: click on a word and find its definition or grammatical form, find the source of a passage in one text in another text, find how the text has evolved historically, etc. Even the simplest form of a link: a reference from another site, requires some kind of internal division.

Digitization that takes advantage of the web therefore requires a number of steps: (1) getting the basic text online, (2) getting it in an addressable form (to make it more like typed text, instead of a picture of a page), (3) assuring the text’s accuracy, and (4) marking it up for semantic linkage. Some of these steps, or parts of them can be done automatically, but, overall, they require some degree of intelligent input. Even step 1, which is primarily mechanical in nature, requires design of the procedures.

I hope that this outline of the required steps to getting a text online suggests that the most expensive part of making content available is human labor — it takes time to do it, and it takes even more time to do it right.

And now for the rhetorical questions:

  • How many times has the Tanach been digitized?
  • … the siddur?
  • … the Talmud?
  • … major commentaries on the siddur, Torah, Talmud (Rashi, Tosefot)?
  • … full codes of Jewish law (Mishneh Torah, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Aruch Hashulchan)?
  • … uncommon piyyutim (liturgical poems)?

In some cases, the answer is: it’s been done many times. In other cases, the answer is: it’s never been done. And, both answers lead the all-important question: why? Why are there so many digitizations of the Tanach and no full digitizations of Shulchan Aruch online? Why isn’t the siddur already hyperlinked to its Talmudic sources?

I would propose that we have been wasteful with our resources. Earlier, I pointed out that the primary resources that go into these advanced digitizations are time and human labor. In some cases, these resources equate directly to money, in others, the linkage is more indirect.

The core material of all of the above-mentioned works comes from the public domain. It is ownerless, and free for anyone to copy for any purpose. Every time we encounter a basic text that we have to digitize again because of “new copyright” claims or EULA-style contractual constraints, that is an indication of a failure somewhere in the system. This is particularly true if the claims are being made by non-profits, “social” businesses, or academic institutions. In the Jewish world, even for-profit published books are sometimes donation-supported. Each common text that has to be digitized a second, third, or hundredth time equates to another less common text that is not being digitized. Redoing basic OCR work and transcription takes resources away from establishing semantic linkages.

Some people and organizations get it. As of now, we only need one digitization of the Leningrad Codex (Masoretic Bible). That’s because Christopher Kimball and the J. Alan Groves Center for Advanced Biblical Research digitized it, transcribed it, and released it as free data. The Westminster Leningrad Codex is now perhaps the most built-off version of the Hebrew Bible online. The base texts (which may be used “without restriction”) are present in both commercial and non-commercial products. The Open Siddur Project is using it both for its technology demonstrations and as the basis of all biblical texts in the siddur.

There are precious few examples of free data in the Jewish community, even on the Internet. There are copious examples of donation-funded organizations presenting primarily public domain data with new copyright claims.

Free data prevents the necessity of duplication of effort, which, in turn, prevents the community as a whole from unnecessarily wasteful spending. Particularly for organizations with a social mission, its use is a win for everyone.

Last updated: Tuesday, June 10, 2014  13:10 PM

About Efraim Feinstein


Efraim Feinstein is the lead developer of the Open Siddur web application.

Related liturgy and liturgy-related work:

1 comment to An Economic Argument for Open Data by Efraim Feinstein

Leave a Reply. (All comments are shared with a CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported license unless another free-culture license is indicated.)

Recent Posts

"Vallgraven utanför judiska församlingen, Göteborg, Sweden" (credit: Averater, license: CC BY-SA)תְּפִלָּה לְהַצָּלָה מִפִּגּוּעֵי טֶרוֹר | Prayer for Rescue from Terror Attacks | Bön om skydd från terrorhot by R’ Hillel Ḥayyim Lavery-Yisraëli

Let us not fear or be afraid, for you are our protector. “…Jacob shall return and live in peace and security; no one will terrify him again.” Guard our going out and our coming in, from now until eternity, and let us say, Amen.

Included in the scanned work from which this transcription was made, an inscription on the flyleaf  from M.B. Levy to his wife, Sarah, on Ḥanukah 1866, San Francisco, California.אמרי לב | Imrei Lev – Meditations And Prayers For Every Situation And Occasion In Life by Jonas Ennery, translated by Hester Rothschild, and adapted by Isaac Leeser (1866)

General public forms of prayer may not always be adapted to the peculiar exigencies of every mind; the compilers of this work have therefore striven to supply in some measure this spiritual need, by meditations and prayers suited to every situation and occasion in life; and it has been the humble yet anxious endeavour of […]

"Collection of One Hundred Plaster Surrogates, 1982-90" by Allan McCollum (CC BY-SA).להבין את התפלה | Rav Amram Gaon’s letter to Rav Yitzḥok b. Shimon of Sepharad, circa 9th century (Abe Katz, Burei HaTefila Institute)

The order of prayers and Brakhos for the entire year that you requested, that has been shown to us by Heaven, we deem appropriate to set forth and lay out in the manner in which the tradition was passed down to us, as compiled by the Rabbis during the period of the Mishna and of […]

"Manatee nursing calf" (credit: Gaylen Rathburn, USFWS, Public Domain)ברכת המזון | Thanks for the Food, the Birkat Hamazon by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

We do this to fulfill Your command which states:
“Eat Your fill praising Adonai your God
for the earthy goodness which the Almighty
so freely gave to you.”

"Orchard at Sunset" (credit: "Public Domain Pictures", license CC0)ידיד נפש | Yedid Nefesh – You who love my soul (translation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)

You who love my soul
Compassion’s gentle source,
Take my disposition and shape it to Your will.
Like a darting deer I will flee to You.
Before Your glorious Presence Humbly I do bow.
Let Your sweet love
Delight me with its thrill
Because no other dainty
Will my hunger still.

בסיעתא דארעא