TEL AVIV — One scholar likened it to finding the orphaned socks for generations of a family. Another compared it to law-enforcement’s use of DNA databases and face-recognition software.
The idea is to harness technology to help reassemble more than 100,000 document fragments collected across 1,000 years that reveal details of Jewish life along the Mediterranean, including marriage, medicine and mysticism. For decades, scholars relied mainly on memory to match up pieces of the Cairo genizah, a treasure trove of papers that include works by the rabbinical scholar Maimonides, parts of Torah scrolls and prayer books, reams of poetry and personal letters, contracts, and court documents, even recipes (there is a particularly vile one for honey-wine).
Now, for the first time, a sophisticated artificial intelligence program running on a powerful computer network is conducting 4.5 trillion calculations per second to vastly narrow down the possibilities.
“In one hour, the computer can compare 10 million pairs — 10 million pairs is something a human being cannot do in a lifetime,” said Roni Shweka, who has advanced degrees in both computers and Talmud and is helping lead the effort. “It’s going to be a very powerful tool for every researcher today that’s going to work on one fragment. In a few seconds, he’ll be able to find the other fragments, like finding the needle in the hay.”
The genizah project is part of a growing movement to unleash advanced technology on the humanities. In recent years, geeks and poets have been collaborating on databases and digital mapping that are transforming the study of history, literature, music and more.
Recovered in 1896 from a storeroom of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo, this cache of documents was collected from the ninth century to the 19th, awaiting burial as required by Jewish law for anything bearing God’s name. But because a genizah is essentially a garbage can, most of the manuscripts were tattered and torn; Solomon Schechter, one of the earliest to study the collection, called it “a battlefield of books.”
The 320,000 pages and parts of pages — in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic (Arabic transliterated into Hebrew letters) — were scattered in 67 libraries and private collections around the world, only a fraction of them collated and cataloged. More than 200 volumes and thousands of academic papers have been published based on the material, most focused on a single fragment or a few. Perhaps 4,000 have been pieced together through a painstaking, expensive, exclusive process that relied a lot on luck.
“We see a document in Cambridge, England, and another in St. Petersburg, Russia, and we think if the handwriting matches,” explained Mark R. Cohen, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University who has been studying the genizah since 1972. Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, a paleographer at the Sorbonne, acknowledged that such work is left “to charms and your memory — and whether you are tired or not, and whether it rings a bell or not; this is not very scientific.”
The digitization is part of a nearly $20 million effort to organize and explore the genizah that a Canadian hedge-fund mogul, Dr. Albert Friedberg, began in 1997.
First there was a computerized inventory of 301,000 fragments, some as small as an inch. Next came 450,000 high-quality photographs, on blue backgrounds to highlight visual cues, and a Web site where researchers can browse, compare, and consult thousands of bibliographic citations of published material.
The latest experiment involves more than 100 linked computers located in a basement room at Tel Aviv University here, cooled by standup fans. They are analyzing 500 visual cues for each of 157,514 fragments, to check a total of 12,405,251,341 possible pairings. The process began May 16 and should be done around June 25, according to an estimate on the project’s Web site.
Yaacov Choueka, a retired professor of computer science who runs the Friedberg-financed Genazim project in Jerusalem, said the goals are not only to democratize access to the documents and speed up the elusive challenge of joining fragments, but to harness the computer’s ability to pose new research questions.
“Which is really what computers should do, not just process salaries and monitor traffic,” said Professor Choueka, who was a leader of the team at Bar-Ilan University that developed the Responsa Project, an electronic collection of questions and answers about Jewish law that won a prestigious Israel Prize in 2007.
“I want from the computer to give me something new, a new horizon, a new tool that was never there before.”
Another developing technology is a “jigsaw puzzle” feature, with touch-screen technology that lets users enlarge, turn and skew fragments to see if they fit together. Professor Choueka, who was born in Cairo in 1936, imagines that someday soon such screens will be available alongside every genizah collection. And why not a genizah-jigsaw app for smartphones?
“The thing it really makes possible is people from all walks of life, in academia and out, to look at unpublished material,” said Ben Outhwaite, head of the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University, home to 60 percent of the fragments. “No longer are we going to see a few great scholarly names hoarding particular parts of the genizah and have to wait 20 years for their definitive publication. Now everyone can dive in.”
What they will find goes far beyond Judaica. Mr. Outhwaite’s team, for example, has uncovered a prenuptial agreement in which Faiza bat Solomon made her fiancé, Tobias — nicknamed “Son of a Buffoon” — promise to “abandon foolishness and idiocy,” and “not associate with corrupt men,” or face a hefty penalty of 10 gold dinars. Another document spells out a legal agreement between Sitt I-Nasab and her husband, Solomon, preventing his mother and sisters from entering his wife’s quarters or making “any request of her at all, not even a match.”
There is also alchemy: combine mercury, horse manure, pearl, white alum, sulfur, clay mixed with hair and “a couple of eggs,” one fragment advises, and “you will obtain good silver, God willing.”
Marina Rustow, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, said about 15,000 genizah fragments deal with everyday, nonreligious matters, most of them dated 950 to 1250. From these, she said, scholars learned that Cairenes imported sheep cheese from Sicily — it was deemed kosher — and filled containers at the bazaar with warm food in an early version of takeout.
Most towns had three kinds of synagogues: Iraqi, Syrian and Karaite. The triangle formed by Egypt, today’s Tunisia and Sicily was an important trade route in the 11th century; the Malabar Coast via the Red Sea and Aden were big in the 12th. And the best-sellers were not fancy items like spices, glass, gold and brass, but flax and soap. “Everyone wore linen all the time,” Professor Rustow explained.
She is now studying recycled documents — Arabic government decrees, for example, with liturgical text scrawled on the other side.
“What does that mean about the connection that Jews may have had to the government?” she asked. “What does it tell us about the archiving processes of 11th-century governments?”
Those are questions no computer can answer. Indeed, even the matchmaking requires a human touch. Once those 12 billion potential pairs are digitally compared, the computer will offer lists of a few hundred probable “joins,” but it will be up to scholars — or hobbyists — to confirm.
“If there’s a danger of the new method, it’s that you sit at home in front of your computer, you are losing touch with the objects,” warned Professor Olszowy-Schlanger. “We should not forget this tedious work of going through the manuscripts, going to the library. The objects should be handled. In order to understand them better, it’s important to have a feel of the parchment.”
About the author: Jodi Rudoren became Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times in May, 2012, after 14 years as a reporter and editor at the paper. She previously served as the paper’s Education Editor, deputy Metropolitan editor and Chicago bureau chief.