Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

June 15, 2006

Reconstructing Maimonides

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:40 am

… As literally as possible. A reader alerts me to this story:

British university to reassemble crumbled works of medieval Jewish scholar

Tue Jun 13, 01:02 PM EST

LONDON (AP) – Scientists at a British university hope to use digital technology in reassembling some 300,000 tiny fragments of an 800-year-old Jewish philosopher’s oeuvre.

The University of Manchester’s Centre for Jewish Studies is reassembling the life works of Moses Maimonides, a scholar and writer whose findings were hugely influential on modern Judaic thought.

Maimonides worked as a physician, lawyer and scientist in the Middle Ages, project leader Philip Alexander said. His writings were obtained from a medieval document storeroom – called a “genizah” – discovered in a Cairo synagogue.

Documents gleaned from the Cairo genizah, both by Maimonides and other Jewish scholars, are in repositories all over the world, said Stella Butler, head of special collections at Manchester’s John Rylands University Library. More than 10,000 pieces from the ancient manuscripts are in the Manchester library.

“Internet technology means we can collaborate with colleagues around the world to solve some of the puzzles contained in the genizah collections,” Butler said.

“We hope to link together fragments from our collections with those held in other libraries, and so achieve greater understanding of the genizah as a whole,” she said.

The grant money will enable the centre to buy a special camera to take digital images of the fragments.

“Until we got image technology, it was very difficult for people across the world, if they’ve got one bit of a document, to know if another fits,” Butler said.

I can’t help but imagine that Maimonides (often known among Jews by the Hebrew acronym for his name, which is pronounced “Rambam”) would have really loved the internet. He corresponded with people all over the world, which took quite a lot of doing 800 years ago. (He would have loved weather satellites even more, since his brother died when his ship went down in a storm — taking the family fortune with it.)

By the way, this story is also a reminder of the bad new for people who shred their confidential documents. If computers can scan the decayed fragments of an 800-year-old handwritten document and reconstruct it, imagine what they can do with a document that’s printed in a stable font and “shredded” into pieces with nice, straight-line edges. Someone who is willing to spend the money can get the document reconstructed.

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