update deskReligion

Israeli scholars confirm ancient rabbinic theories via machine learning algorithm

The algorithm was able to confirm the theories of Rashi—the foremost biblical commentator—and other prominent Torah scholars.

A page of Talmud. Source: Public domain/Wikimedia
A page of Talmud. Source: Public domain/Wikimedia

A new study of the Talmud, the vast Hebrew and Aramaic body of Jewish oral law, confirms ancient rabbinical theories about linguistic variations in certain tractates of the religious texts, according to Israeli scholars.

Through the innovative use of a machine learning algorithm, a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University and Ariel University in Samaria successfully pinpointed several sections of the Talmud that the rabbis had designated as “special tractates” due to their unique language.

“The Babylonian Talmud, primarily composed in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, exhibits various non-standard linguistic features, interspersed throughout it,” per the abstract of the peer-reviewed study, which was first published in the Journal of Jewish Studies in early April.

“Medieval rabbis highlighted some tractates, often referred to as the ‘special tractates,’ which possess a more abundant number of occurrences of these features than others,” the authors explain.

Jakub Zbrzeżny, one of the authors of “A computational analysis of the special Talmudic tractates,” told Israeli media on Monday that the research provides “the first comprehensive statistical proof of what humans intuitively have been aware of for centuries.”

The algorithm was able to detect “a large percentage of non-Babylonian features in all special tractates,” confirming the theories of Rashi—the foremost biblical commentator—and other prominent Torah scholars.

One tractate, Tamid (“daily burnt offering”), which discusses the sacrifices in the Temple, was found to have a large number of lines flagged by the algorithm when discussing stories about Alexander the Great, possibly indicating that they were added from a different source.

The algorithm also flagged other sections of the Talmud whose language is close to the special tractates, and several tractates whose dialect is more uniform than the average, the researchers noted. They added that Jewish studies scholars had yet to study this phenomenon.

The Babylonian Talmud contains the Mishnah—the oral Torah—and the Gemara, the latter representing some 300 years of analysis of the Mishnah at the religious academies in Babylon, present-day Iraq.

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