“As the Waters Cover the Sea”

28 01 2011

There are various places online where you can read about the top applications for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. Assuming that you are interested in games, or various forms of social organisers and search tools, these lists can be quite helpful. But what happens if your tastes are a little more… boutique? What are the best applications for the Hebrew scholar? For the purveyor of rabbinic literature? For the biblical geek? Well, my friend, you have come to the right place, for while I don’t want to out myself as a “fan-boy”, the number of Apple devices that I now use has reached a disconcerting five, and I am told that I am a bit of a Jew.

What follows is not only in praise of Apple (although I suspect that various mediaeval artists were correct when they depicted it as the fruit of all knowledge), but is simply my top-five list of Hebraic/rabbinic/biblical applications in general. Those who are interested in such things: knock yourselves out. (Those who are not: what are you doing here?)

[And to all of you: I am sure that this list is not nearly exhaustive! If you know of other applications that you can recommend, please share them in the comments thread.]

5. Even though I no longer use it, I feel the need to draw people’s attention to “the iPhone application 1800 years in the making”. Crowded Road’s iMishna is fantastic. I am surprised that it is presently selling for $15 (I seem to remember it being very cheap when I purchased it originally), but I do think it’s excellent. It contains the full text of the Mishna (I cannot tell you which manuscripts it relies upon), and the commentaries of Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura and the Tosafot Yom Tov. Apparently, you can also download lectures by a certain Rabbi Chaim Brown, although this is not a feature that I have ever utilised and so I cannot vouch for their quality. As an application that enables you to search for Hebrew words within individual tractates, individual orders, or throughout the Mishna as a whole, this is an excellent product. I almost got hit by a car once because I was somewhat engrossed in Tractate Avot while walking from Chatswood to Artarmon, but I’ve nobody to blame for that but myself. Knowing Mishna off by heart is much safer.

4. Now, I got excited once before about a website that enabled me to download the full text of the Hebrew Bible, spoken by a fellow with a beautiful Sephardi accent. It remains a marvellous site, but I have found something better. Granted, it won’t suit everybody. Indeed, it may not even suit anybody, but it has provided me with hours of genuine fascination, and so I share it with you: Rav Nissan Kaplan, the mashgiach ruchani at the Mirrer Yeshiva, Jerusalem, has uploaded a very large number of audio files. While driving, I occasionally listen to his mussar schmuessen, although mainly for the nostalgia value. When I have more time on my hands, I listen to a halakha or a gemara shiur. Other excellent (and decidedly more “academic”) lectures are available from Merkaz, but the audio quality is generally pretty poor. And of course, neither of these sites are actually “applications”, but they make my iPod happy.

3. I have heard lots of good things about Bible Works, but I have never used it. Instead, I use a program called Accordance, which runs like a charm on both my iMac and my MacBook. Without this program, I would never have been able to write my Honours thesis (which was a fascinating analysis of the frequency and distribution of locative-heh suffix forms in Chronicles), and I am tremendously impressed me with the acumen of former generations of scholars who were able to find such information without the aid of a computer program. I am running an old version of the software (6.9.1), and despite spotting the occasional error, an ability to search quickly and easily for grammatical and syntactic features of the Hebrew text (BHS, with Groves-Wheeler Westminster Hebrew Morphology) makes it well worth whatever it was that I paid for it back in 2005. I use it less today than I used to, but it remains a sensational resource.

2. Why don’t I use “Accordance” as often as I once did? Because I have a concordance in my pocket! Bill Clementson’s HebrewBible is the very best thing about the Apple iPhone. As you can see from the link, it has a wide variety of different features, but its most useful one is the fact that it contains a fully functional concordance. Many a time I have whipped out my iPhone in class in order to quickly search for a Hebrew root. The application finds the various occurrences for me, and even presents the individual verses that feature that particular word. It relies on an internet connection in order to operate, but if there’s a network available (or if you have 3G on your device), you will also be pleased to note the inclusion of the full text of the BDB.

As for the biblical text, the Hebrew is taken from a variety of different manuscripts (the Aleppo Codex is given preference, although they have apparantly privileged the Leningrad Codex in those places where the Aleppo is unavailable), and you can even switch to Aramaic (Onkelos, based on various Yemenite manuscripts). The English is based on the 1917 JPS, although I find it handy to also utilise Paul Avery’s (free) Holy Bible, which has the King James Version amongst others. At $9, Bill Clementson’s “HebrewBible” is worth every cent.

1. And this brings us to number 1. The absolute greatest in 21st century gadgetry! Good.iWare’s Goodreader for the Apple iPad is a product that I cannot recommend highly enough. This is where my search for the perfect e-Reader ended. I wanted something with a large screen, PDF functionality and full Hebrew support. The only device with E Ink that seemed to be available was the Pocketbook 902, and I can certainly recommend it to those whose PDFs are very small, or who are also likely to read material in alternative formats. But if, like me, you are getting your literature from HebrewBooks.org, then you are going to need something that can handle files approaching 200MB. As beautiful as the Pocketbook 902 is, it just doesn’t cut it.

Goodreader on the iPad enables you to go online within the program itself and download PDFs directly from the website. It then allows you to rename them, create folders for them, organise them within your folders, preview them before viewing them, and even make your own notes on them when you do. It loads pages quickly (at worst, a little over a second), allows you to jump to specific pages in advance, lets you search within the documents (in Hebrew as well as in English), and reloads the pages if you zoom so that the writing is still sharp. It has a number of other features as well, which I’ve not yet had the time to encounter, and is absolutely perfect for those who wish to have a rabbinic library on the go. I have already dumped the entire Mishna onto it, the entire Babylonian Talmud, some PDFs of Hebrew and Greek verbal paradigms, Midrash Rabba, Torat Kohanim and a handful of inscriptions: the Mesha Stele, Tel-Dan Inscription, Kilamuwa Inscription, Kuntillet Ajrud Inscription and the Gezer Calendar. Next stop: Rambam’s Mishne Torah and the Shulchan Arukh! And all for a whopping $4. (Not including the cost of the iPad).

Now I know what you’re going to say: why would you want to read these sorts of things on an eReader anyway? Indeed, I have asked the same question myself. When faced with the choice, I will opt for printed literature 100% of the time, and my overcrowded bedroom is a testament to that fact. But in truth, we are none of us always at our desks. And when attending a conference, sitting at the university, travelling on a bus, sleeping in a tent, hiking through the bush, even walking down the street, there are times when I wish to consult something, confirm something, prove a point, or simply sit and learn. The fact that the 21st century has provided regular people with an ability to do this, wherever they may be and whatever they might have been otherwise doing, is astonishing.

I sometimes wonder what Maimonides might have said, had he been transported from the 12th century to the 21st, and had he been able to witness the tremendous proliferation of Torah, made readily available to all manner of individuals excluded in the past. Whether it’s the awe-inspiring Bar Ilan Responsa Project, the far-reaching commentaries of Rav Adin Steinsaltz, or the tremendous proliferation of vernacular translations by Artscroll, this would surely have been considered a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (11:9) that the knowledge of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. When you consider the ready availability of these texts and their highly portable nature, I imagine that there is only one word that Maimonides could have used to describe it.




One response

8 02 2011
Malki Rose

See! Told you there was something/s nice to say about Steinsaltz!
(Less thrilled about Mr Rambam, but I’ll save those comments for another, lesser forum)
I am so thrilled that all of these texts are so readily and efficiently available in iApp form. All I can plead re the iPad is total and utter envy. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of e-Ink to the iPad, and though it may tarry, I await its coming everyday.

.. By then, hopefully, with g-d’s help, I will be able to afford one and rejoice in its Tanaic and Mishnaic ‘Taavot’ as you do!

Until then…
living vicariously it is.

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