Sunday, July 5, 2009

Meeting my younger self

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

Disclaimer: This post seems to me, on re-read, rather narcissistic. I hope it doesn't offend.

We meet our younger selves all the time, often in unplanned ways – in photographs of graduations and bar mitzvahs and weddings, in anecdotes we'd long forgotten but others have remembered, in visits to places we had once lived, in essays and stories buried in drawers and unearthed quite by accident.

This past week I had a particularly strong visit with myself, as I re-started work on WebShas.

The origin of WebShas is a long story, but in a nutshell, it was a project I created in the beginning of my semichah studies (1995 - before graphical browsers!), as a way to consolidate my learning and make it more useful/accessible for myself. It started as a simple list of topics covered on each page of gemara, and mushroomed quickly into a topical index of the gemara, organized in an hierarchy of categories. Working on it taught me much more than gemara, though; it gave me an education in library science, data taxonomy/classification/organization, research, and presentation.

I worked on WebShas for about three years, but then stopped when I entered the rabbinate. Now, a dozen years later, after a few false starts over the years, I think I'm ready to devote a little time each day to completing the job, with an eye toward accomplishing that within 3-4 years. And as I re-visit the work of my younger self, I am gaining real insight into the person I once was.

I'll admit I'm not terribly impressed with his presentation skills; certainly, I was more focussed on covering ground than on taking the time to express ideas clearly. (To be fair, I also envisioned it more as a research tool for advanced students than a resource for the layman.)

On the other hand, I am in awe of the hubris I displayed in starting the project to begin with. The breadth of it, in terms of the elements and themes I tried to sort an categorize, is enormous. From items on braita structure to pigul of a korban to talmudic insights into economics to the makeup of rabbinic decrees... it seems I was brave and stupid, a combination that actually sounds about right.

And as I add information to the index, every so often I have to stop and think about where some abstract concept or complex topic should go - and when I call up the file, I find that I already thought this through more than a dozen years ago, and came to the same conclusion. It's a funny feeling.

There's more to say, but that's enough navel-gazing for one night.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Please continue Webshas. I used to use it all the time but somehow stopped when I realized you weren't continuing. Maybe you can even get a grant to work on it.

  3. Glad to hear you've returned to WebShas.

    As for hubris, without it many ambitious projects would never be started.

  4. Chanie-

    R' Gil-
    Thanks; I've been doing about a daf a day on it for the past week, and it feels good although I'm really still re-learning my system.
    I wouldn't accept a grant, though; thank Gd, I have enough to live on, and there are others who really need the tzedakah.

    R' Mordechai-
    Very true. Of course, without hubris many ambitious and worthless projects would never be started, either...

  5. I stuck a link to Webshas on my blog, and I definitely hope you continue it. I would've spent a lot more than just 45 minutes going through it- if I hadn't been interrupted in the middle.

  6. Wonderful! This kind of data-organization and analysis will prove useful regardless of technological changes. Keep at it!