Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why the Bar Ilan Responsa Project can be bad for the Jews

In his recent article on the decision by certain rabbis to rule on complex issues rather than consult senior scholars, Rabbi Hershel Schachter condemned those who use searchable databases like Otzar haChochmah and the Bar Ilan Responsa Project in order to research topics and then think themselves experts.

To this some have responded that these searchable databases constitute a democratization of information which elevates more people to the level of being able to decide halachic matters.

The response is flawed by a fundamental error: mistaking learning-via-search for true knowledge handicaps the learning process and produces inferior results both in the particular researched topic and in one's broader Torah learning.

Full disclosure: I believe I was the first person, back in 1995, to create a free Internet-based tool which would enable people to search and find Torah sources they wanted – that was my WebShas (which I still hope to return to, and complete, someday...) I strongly believe it is important to create such tools and raise the general level of Torah learning. However, those who learn with such tools should never delude themselves into thinking that they are accomplishing true scholarship.

The scholarship needed to decide serious halachic matters requires that one find the sources not by searching for keywords (or by reading summaries in publications like the Journal of Halachah and Contemporary Society or Techumin, which presents a related problem), but by learning, analyzing, absorbing and memorizing large amounts of primary text, and then bringing it to bear on these halachic matters as they come up.

Here are just a few reasons why searching Torah databases produces only the illusion of scholarship, and an inferior halachic analysis of any given topic:

Inferior Breadth of Knowledge
You only find what you set out to find. Rav Amital z"l of Gush Etzion is reported to have said that he learned the most from the pages before and after that which he sought when he opened a given text. I can say the same from my own narrow experience. If all you want is to read a responsum that mentions nashim and tefillin within 20 words of each other, then you will not see the preceding responsum - and if it lacks interesting keywords then it will be forever missing from your repertoire.

This is a particular problem when approaching meta-issues in psak. Many of the most pressing halachic issues of today require an understanding of themes like hefsed merubeh (great loss), she'at hadchak and broader klalei hapsak. But the major sources addressing these themes don't necessarily make reference to popular cases with attractive keywords; some of the best sources on hefsed merubeh deal with arcane matters of purity and impurity. And don't tell me you will search for the words hefsed merubeh - someone who is relying on search for his knowledge isn't going to read through the thousands of results he will find. (More on that under "Inferior Drive" below.)

Further: Reliance on searchable databases encourages people to study by topic, and so they rarely learn an entire sefer. Instead, they search for items related to the topics they want, and just study those. The result is a terrible poverty of true knowledge, and an inadequate basis for approaching new subjects.

And one more note in this category: Those who learn by search are at the mercy of the publishers. Of course, all of us are at the mercy of publishers; I am more apt to use a source on a source sheet if I can find it in a cut-and-paste text on And I learn Tosafos before I learn Rosh, because printers put that collection of Tosafos on the page of gemara. But if you rely on search not just for crafting a source sheet, but for your primary research, then all you have is whatever the publisher had on hand.

Inferior Comprehension
When I read a responsum from a writer whose broader work I do not know, I miss out on the meaning invested in the writer's choice of words and selection of sources. I can only compensate for this by learning more of the writer's work, to gain a greater familiarity and therefore a greater understanding. If all I know is the one piece that showed up in my search, then I really don't understand what the writer was getting at, and how it fits into a greater worldview.

Inferior Memory/Retention
Doing a search to find phrases involves less struggle. As scientists have been saying for years, information is retained better if it is processed in multiple ways; without struggle, little processing is needed. And if it's not retained, then you don't have a broad range of information in your head with which to make associations (see "Inferior Depth" below), or catch your own mistakes.

Further: When you find items by database search, you don't need to memorize them, because you can just find them again by searching; it's like GPS vs. directions, or Speed Dial vs. a phone book.

Inferior Drive
In an ideal world, everyone would have sufficient time to research topics in great depth, and to work at the text for however long was necessary in order to gain full understanding. Unfortunately, few of us set aside the time we really need to do things well, for we are greedy in our ambition to forever accomplish "more", and so we give on accomplishing "well". The result is that we take short cuts – and the searchable database is the shortest cut of all, and it is habit-forming. Once people become accustomed to relying on searches, they find it very difficult to do things right, from the ground up.

Inferior Depth
Using database searches means you don't need to analyze and study with depth and creativity in order to find new ideas and make new analogies. You may become an artificial Sinai, but you will lack the depth of understanding to make novel and necessary associations between sources that don't lend themselves to keyword searches.

This is the oker harim phenomenon which I have seen some mis-translate as being about "explaining sources and logic". A true oker harim finds the analogies that help us deal with new issues when they emerge – and this is the mark of a true posek. People whose knowledge of a subject comes from superficial searching will never have it.

There is more to be said, but I'll stop here for now.


  1. I agree with these points and have seen others post similar sentiments. I believe there is a disconnect however in how things are presented. Piskei halacha are still presented to the hamon am as a fait acompli. If the average person is far more educated than any time in the recent past does that not warrant a different way of presenting a psak halacha to them?

    I have no problem with ideas like "libi omer li" or a Gadol saying "this is the way I see the sugya" but the more information that is provided along with a p'sak the better educated we, the consumers, can be. And, hopefully, the more we will appreciate the difficulty, nuance and expertise of those who are able to pasken.

  2. I heartily agree with all of your points, but I would respectfully beg to differ on the point of departure. The issue many had with R. Schechter's statements has more to do with the assumption he makes about the people who allowed women to wear tefillin in general. I highly doubt that the rabbis of SAR did a database search to figure out their pesak, and only a thorough investigation of those rabbis would be able to prove it. In addition, it wasn't clear to me whether R. Schechter was saying that they needed to submit the question to senior scholars, or whether they should merely be consulted (the lashon he used was "ולא הציעו שאלה"). There is a significant difference.

    1. The point is that in trying to defend SAR, Rabbi Harcsztark, and women wearing tefillin, some apparently fell into the trap of defending everything, including individuals relying on Bar Ilan searches to pasken momentous shailos. They should never have defended that, or even local rabbis pakening the momentous shailos, because it's a battle they can't win.

    2. If indeed there were people who argued that (or, more likely, argued their points based on such searches), as I said, I would agree with that point. However, I do not agree with your second point: 1) whether a rabbi is local or not does not detract from his authority; as long as he has the expertise and authority, he can pasken for his community without anyone from the outside imposing on him in the absence of a Sanhedrin (Rambam, Intro. to Mishneh Torah). This is why I asked about submitting vs. consulting. In terms of who will "win," it's largely irrelevant; see

  3. Amen! Anyone who spends a few hours with Igerot Moshe will start to see the difference between amateur psak based on a computer search and knowledge of the whole Torah. He uses sources and analogies that most of us would never have been aware of, and would certainly never have thought to apply l'ma'aseh. I can go on web md or the like and have a lot of good questions to ask my doctor, but I cannot perform heart surgery. And the average family doctor can refer somene to a specialized surgeon, but he cannot responsibly do it himself.

  4. Avi-

    Anonymous 9:59 AM-
    I agree that people will benefit more from a spelled-out explanation.
    The only cautionary note I would provide is Avodah Zarah 35a, where Ulla says that they didn't disclose reasons for gezeiros for a year, lest under-educated people take them less seriously. The decisions we are discussing are not gezeiros, of course, but the logic may apply in certain circumstances.

    Joseph -
    I took Rabbi Schachter's remarks to be more global, and the response I noted here came from a particularly vocal on-line critic. I would cite him here, but I don't think his remarks are worthy of him, or of a platform.


    1. I know the critic and saw his post. I specifically avoided mentioning it but focused on the point of departure in your first sentence of this specific post (of yours). In terms of the global reach of R. Schachter's comments, I would agree with you that real knowledge is not merely book knowledge based on search engines, and that experts should be consulted if necessary. Stated this way, I don't think most people would disagree. I simply question whether this specific case was actually an example of both of these, and what was meant by "consulting" experts.

  5. You missed another important problem with Poskening with a Search Engine, it weakens the important connection between a Rav and student.
    If we think that we can get answers to questions from "Rav Google", we are less likely to make the effort to speak to our own Rav and get his input and strengthen the personal connection. This connection is essential when making a Psak especially as often the context (background, family issues, available options in the area) is an important component of the Psak.

    And this connection with a Rav who you can relate to is important whether you are a beginner student in Yeshiva, or a respected Rosh Yeshiva - we all need a rav that we can consult with and rely on.

    1. Quite true - it is not for nothing that we value שימוש תלמידי חכמים so highly.

  6. It is interesting that you find it valuable to understand a posek's approach so that the psak on a particular topic can be understood in the context of his overall approach. On the other hand, many discount taking into account perhaps the more important context- the underlying factual assumptions and cultural and historical context in which a psak is made. To take an example from the current topic if discussion- what exactly is guf naki in the eyes of those who have used it and what were the facts they depended on when making their determinations of who is or is not capable of this?
    Certainly reading entire texts is better than cherry picking the parts relevant to a particular topic. But ultimately either it is a good argument on the merits, or it is not a good argument on the merits. Ignoring the factual and historical context is much worse than ignoring the intellectual context. The ideal would be to know and take all of it into account

    1. Noam-
      Agreed re: the need to take into consideration historical context, although I would rank it below the intellectual context. Both are like a dictionary, explaining the posek's words, but one more heavily than the other.

    2. I suggest the facts are most important in cases where observations matter. For example, many poskim stated that a bris should not be done in a baby with a bilirubin level of a certain amount due to the risk of bleeding(a high bilirubin can be an indicator of liver dysfunction and can be related the inability of the blood to clot). We now can test coagulation directly and sometimes a high bilirubin indicates nothing. Yet there are those who still go by the psak that is dependent on outdated science and postpone a bris unnecessarily. Facts and context are crucial in these situations.

    3. So obviously it depends on whether the question is very fact (and medical/science) based or more law based. Doesn't sound like you're arguing noam.

    4. My point is much more applicable than you realize. Rav Schachter criticized the ruling on Tefillin in part because they disagreed with a Rama that no one else disagreed with. However, he did not discuss how the Rama and the others defined guf naki and whether it was still a valid concern. His reference to using it to refer to a spiritual state of mind is not supported by common understanding- see for example Nishmat Avraham discussion of who can or cannot put on Tefillin in those with medical conditions- it is clearly used there as a cleanliness issue. Similarly, the Gemara does not define it as Rav Schachter does. Of course her criticizes those who go back to the Gemara, but that is because his position is not supported by the details in the Gemara regarding guf naki

    5. Noam-
      If your dispute is regarding whether "guf naki" is physical or physical-and-spiritual, then it seems your dispute is not about historical context, but about source-context. [I would also contend that you are reading Nishmat Avraham incorrectly; like the Shulchan Aruch, he reads it as physical-and-spiritual. The catch is that he sometimes uses "guf naki" in a physical-only sense, somewhat misleadingly.]

    6. The issue is both source context and historical context. It is important to figure out what exactly each person meant by the term and what were the factual assumptions that formed the basis for the opinion. Can you point me to am example of what you think is the Nishmat Avrahams true definition?

    7. Noam-
      The way it is used in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 37:2, which explicitly states that "guf naki" includes both a clean body and a focussed mind.

  7. Excellent article. I want to add a few points.

    Rav Chayim Soloveitchik sent a shaila to Rav YE Spector. He asked for a one word response -mutar or assur. Why? Otherwise he would have questioned the rationale of the pask.

    You never mentioned the idea of rov and chashivus. People who use rav google find a position they like and adopt it. Sometimes they are unaware that it's a minority opinion. Othertimes, they attribute too much weight to some poskim. Rav Moshe and others will go with a Noda BYehuda because he carries a lot of weight.
    Recently I read something about prenups. Peopel in Israel with no formal training have used the Bar Ilan database. They have no idea of halacha though. No shikul hadaas.
    R. Yisrael Salanter said that if one has a proof [ra'aya] against a rishon then it has to be considered. But, he said, if the Rosh says "it appears to me" then it is impossible to rebut him. Why? Because, his "nireh li" is based on a lifetime intuitive understanding of all Shas. This is missing obviously from all the students of rav google.
    One last point: Yiras shamayim. A true posek is an anav. A yirei chet. His yirah precedes his chochma. and it's a yirah based on Torah. I do not doubt the good intentions of those using google and BI in searching to help agunos, tefillin, et al. But I beleive that they don't have real yiras shamayim. It's misplaced lishma. Yiras shamayim means yirah of the Torah and only the Torah. A Torah driven agenda, Not a feminist driven agenda. Or egalitarian agenda. Or humanist agenda. True poskim are driven only by the torah. And they still have compassion for agunos et al.

    1. Agreed re: understanding the weight to be assigned to a particular source.
      Your other points are also good, but expand into a realm I think requires its own post; for this post, I think it's important to focus on the academic qualities of this research method.

  8. While all the points are valid, it really depends on two things - which really stem from the question of who the meishiv is:
    1. The question - simpler and less serious questions where one finds an explcit teshuvah or explicit Mishnah Berurah, for example, do not need every Rav to be a Rav Schachter. When it is more serious, one must be modest enough to know his limitations and consult with a posek or even refer the question on.
    2. The approach of the person using the software.
    If it is your first step in your research process - and not simply a way to find a quick answer - then I think it is most positive.
    a. Very few can know all Shas and Poskim - so what can you do? If you find a teshuvah that quotes sources and offers a certain shitah, and/or you find simanim in the Tur and Beit Yosef, and/or simanim in Shulchan Arukh - these are great places to start one's research into a question.
    b. There is also the fact that the software offers you access to far more sefarim than you would have in your library or in your memory, so you might even find an explicit source for your very problem.
    c. Community rabbanim are often too busy to devote 3 hours of research to every question. The software may offer the same results in far less time.

    1. Sholem-
      1. Agreed, of course.

      2a-b. Absolutely; a search can be a good catalyst.

      2c. True - but as someone who served as a community rabbi for 12 years, I believe the community rabbi must know when it's time to outsource the question, rather than to plead lack of time to do proper research.

  9. Bar Ilan is hardly the first effort at making Tshuvah literature more broadly accessible. Would you say S'dei Hemed is bad for the Jews? Even Beit Yosef is in large part an attempt to organize the tshuvot of the Rishonim to make it more accessible. And Maharsha"l and others criticized the Shulchan Aruch on similar grounds. All these developments are positive for Torah study and good for the Jews. Of course, one has to have enough sense to realize that to be a posek requires tens of thousands of hours of learning, shimush of older posekim, and enough practical experience in the world to understand the consequences of one's p'sak. Unfortunately, we seem blessed with an abundance of people who disdain either the first one or the last two of those three. But the problem lies not with tools but with the attitude of some of those who use them.

    In terms of memory and the like, each generation in every field seems to bemoan that new and better tools is making old skills obsolete and thereby damaging people's abilities. I can point you to mathematicians complaining that logarithms made multiplication too easy, and I'd bet there were folks who complained that Arabic numerals made arithmetic too easy and weakened people's minds.

    But better tools for Torah learning are a certain good for the Jewish people.

    1. Mike-
      I usually benefit from your comments, but in this case I'm afraid you didn't catch what I was saying. I didn't criticize use of databases, other than in the one comment where I explicitly included similar print resources. My criticism is of the use of searching, which is a bad technique, as I outlined here.

    2. I reread the post, and I think I understand what you are driving at a little better now. And I agree with a fair amount of it. But I still think the problems you cite come from misusing search engines rather than from their being bad tools.

      I find the Bar Ilan database invaluable when preparing a sugya. Being old enough to greatly prefer reading print, I first learn through the gemara, Rashi, Tosfot and the Rishonim in the Vilna Shas and at least look at Maharsha. Then using Bar Ilan's commentary features I look and see if any of the others addressed issues that were bothering me. Then, (using the Ein Mishpat print index) I look up the Shulchan Aruch and Ramba"m (and often the Tur and B"Y) (print again.) Then I find the best shiur I can find on the web. And then, at least for many issues, I like to search through the Shu"t literature to see how it has been applied to real cases. This is particularly true for cases where there is an economic, medical or social background that has changed dramatically since the time of the Shulchan Aruch and the early Nosei keilim. My learning would be much poorer without the database for sure, and without the search engine as well. Not to mention all the times when I remember coming across a related discussion somewhere and can now find it in a minute instead of having something like a twenty percent chance of finding it before I run out of patience like used to happen.

      Yes, you have to recognize that access to a searchable database is no substitute for real knowledge. But it sure is an invaluable supplement.

      And you'll be happy to know that I also sometimes just read through hardcopy sifrei shu"t also. An interesting example from the past couple of weeks that prompted the "shimush" comments in my early posting has been the shailot in Shu"t Beit Meir addressed to him by the young R. Akiva Eiger.

    3. Mike S.: I think the question is whether you would then based on your personal process you described make non-standard halachik decisions for a community and publicize them. Or to put it differently, how much faith should we place in a "posek" who uses that process to answer real-life halachik questions.

    4. Mike S. (4:41 PM)-
      I don't disagree with anything you write here.

  10. Shmuel, I wouldn't even make standard halachic decisions for my community and publicize them on that basis. Bar Ilan is a great tool for learning--it isn't going to make a ba'al habayit, even one who can spend 2-3 hours a day learning, into a posek. As with any tool, one has to know what it is for.

  11. Mike S.: then we agree. Unfortunately, there are people who think that having been certified in issur v'heter issues along with having access to these research tools makes them a posek, and there is a segment of the public who doesn't discern the difference.