Abigail Klein Leichman
December 15, 2022

Tens of thousands of handwritten medieval manuscripts in the National Library of Israel’s KTIV International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts will be analyzed by AI-driven technologies thanks to an unprecedented 10 million euro grant from the EU European Research Council.

In the world of historical document research, optical character recognition is commonplace, but deciphering and transcribing handwriting has remained impossible, especially for less common alphabets like Hebrew.

The grant will enable a consortium — Paris Sciences-Lettres University, Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University, with the participation of Haifa University and the National Library of Israel – to embark on a six-year project to develop computational methods to analyze the 95,000 full and fragmented manuscripts hosted by KTIV.

Handwritten medieval Hebrew manuscripts will be searchable
Illuminated menorah from a 1300s Spanish Bible. Image hosted by KTIV – The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts/National Library of Israel

Prof. Emeritus Nachum Dershowitz from the School of Computer Science at Tel Aviv University, said, “This bold and daring project will allow anyone from any background to wander through this trove of millions of manuscript pages that, as part of the culture and heritage of the Jewish people, were handwritten and copied – even tracing the notes added in the margins of these writings – and handed down from generation to generation.”

Handwritten medieval Hebrew manuscripts will be searchable
A medieval Hebrew manuscript at the National Library of Israel. Photo by Hanan Cohen

The project, dubbed “MIDRASH” (Migrations of Textual and Scribal Traditions via Large-Scale Computational Analysis of Medieval Manuscripts in Hebrew Script), is the first ERC Synergy grant in Jewish studies and the first for computational manuscript studies.

Handwritten medieval Hebrew manuscripts will be searchable
New project will project will allow anyone to search the National Library of Israel’s trove of millions of manuscript pages. Photo by Hanan Cohen

“This is an unprecedented technological achievement whose results will open new horizons for research in Jewish studies,” said Oren Weinberg, CEO of the National Library of Israel.

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