The State of Jewish Digital Publishing (Part 2)

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Ben Denckla continues his discussion of the challenges of creating reflowable digital texts that incorporate challenging elements present in a wide variety of Jewish books. Read part 1.

By Benjamin Denckla

Digital Shabbat

Ben Denckla

Ben Denckla

Shabbat poses a challenge for Jewish digital publishing for some audiences. Shabbat is a day on which a lot of reading happens, but it is also a day on which some Jewish readers do not use electronics actively. This applies mostly to Orthodox audiences, who are not the focus of this article. But it also applies to Conservative audiences who adhere to their denomination’s official statement on the topic, “The Use of Electrical and Electronic Devices on Shabbat,” by Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly. (A more lenient attitude toward ereaders is advocated in a dissenting opinion by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz.)

Nevins grants an exception based on the ereader’s assistive capabilities:

If such an ereader [was used in a restricted way, and was used only] for the sake of a visually disabled person who had no other way to read, we would override the rabbinic level prohibitions in deference toכבוד הבריות, the demands of human dignity.

I assume that Nevins is referring to the visual assistance afforded by font magnification. But perhaps he also means to include text-to-speech (audio) capabilities. Nevins’ use restrictions (no networking, screen saver) can be self-imposed using today’s technology. But Amazon and others could add a mode to their devices that would help users conform more closely to the spirit of his restrictions. In particular, features resembling durable writing would be disabled in such a mode. These might include highlighting, note-taking, and the automatic saving of the user’s location.

Torah commentaries

I began this article by indicting Jewish digital publishing as unexceptional. This may seem mild but I meant it as a serious accusation of a culture that has a glorious past and present on vellum and paper. I moved on to discuss some of the technical challenges of Jewish digital publishing. Despite the severity of some of these challenges, they only partly excuse our unexceptional performance.

Though it is perhaps not polite to “name names,” neither is it polite to criticize broadly without concrete examples and counter-examples. So, I’ll present a motley sample of successes, failures, partial successes, and even failures that became successes. I do not claim that this sample is representative. It merely reflects digital publications I have come across for work or pleasure. A representative sample would of course be desirable but it is beyond the scope of what I can accomplish.

Why not start with the Torah? In particular, how have Reform and Conservative Torah commentaries fared in these trying digital times?

There are two major Reform Torah commentaries:

  • A Modern Commentary (Plaut 1981; revised by Stein 2005)
  • A Women’s Commentary (Eskenazi & Weiss 2007)

The English parts of the Modern were released on the Accordance Bible software platform in 2014. It is a case worth presenting in some detail not only because it achieved high quality but also because I know how its high quality was achieved.

The first digital release of the Modern was peppered with errors. The errors stemmed from two main sources. One source was very usual, and not very Jewish. It was the same old villain of most digital publishing: ocr of Latin-alphabet text. The other main source of errors was very Jewish, and yet unusual even in Jewish digital publishing: the manual re-typing of vowel-pointed Hebrew-alphabet words and phrases. (This is unusual since very few publishers even attempt to fully encode such text in digital media.)

I pointed out these and other errors and offered my services in correcting them by redoing the conversion. Instead of using OCR and typing, I proposed to redo the conversion using the sources, that is, the files that were used to create the paper book. To my surprise, my offer was accepted, and the result is, I believe, of exceptional quality. Unfortunately, this digital product is more or less unknown, at least within the Jewish world. As far as I know, the URJ Press did not advertise this product, perhaps because the Press was, at the time, in decline (it is now defunct).

A Women’s Commentary has no digital life. Its publishing rights have been transferred from the URJ Press to the CCAR Press. The CCAR Press has shown commitment to digital publishing, so there may be hope yet.

The major Conservative Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, has no digital life, nor were there any plans along those lines when I inquired about it. Etz Hayim is, in part, a product of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). The JPS not only one of the more venerable players on the Jewish publishing scene, it is also still one of the most important. Yet, their digital record is mixed.


The Kindle edition of the JPS Tanakh has lots of errors. The JPS should be embarrassed by it, but my guess is that they are not, because they suffer from a widespread problem I call PDDD: Publisher’s Digital Dissociative Disorder.

The main symptom of pddd is the association of Kindle and other ebook products with the distributor (Amazon, Apple, etc.) rather than with the publisher. I do not know to what extent pddd arises from a technical misunderstanding versus a more subjective misunderstanding about branding. Regardless, I’m pretty certain that one of the best ways to contract pddd is to outsource the creation of ebooks, as most publishers do.

I’m not familiar with the world of paper publishing, but I wonder whether publishers’ outsourcing of ebook creation is based on a faulty analogy with the outsourcing of printing. I imagine that the outsourcing of printing works fairly well, since it is a well-defined task with well-established practices. Publishers may have long-standing, trusting relationships with printers, such that they can hand the book’s pdf over to the printer and more or less forget about it. If this is what printing is like, printing is nothing like the creation of ebooks.

Getting back to the JPS Tanakh, it is telling that it exists at higher quality on the Logos Bible software platform. (It is also available for other platforms such as Accordance and BibleWorks, but I cannot attest to its quality on those platforms.) So it seems that the JPS allowed Logos to create a digital edition of its Tanakh but the JPS failed to take advantage of Logos’ work when creating a Kindle edition. This suggests a rather scattered approach to digital publishing, in which not only are paper and digital dissociated, but even different digital domains are dissociated from each other.

More generally, the case of the Tanakh reminds me how, not just in capabilities but also in content, even yesterday’s Bible software was far ahead of today’s generic ebooks. A famous comment by C. A. R. Hoare on the ALGOL 60 programming language shares a similar sentiment:

Here is a language so far ahead of its time, that it was not only an improvement on its predecessors, but also on nearly all its successors.

The JPS Torah and Bible Commentaries are not available as generic ebooks, but they are available on the Logos Platform.

The JPS missed the mark with their Kindle edition of Reuven Firestone’s An Introduction to Islam for Jews (2008). In this case, they (or, more likely, their unsupervised contractor) used the “half digital” technology of Adobe ClearScan, or something similar. Perhaps this was done because macron is used widely in this book in its romanization of Arabic, and it was feared that macron was not widely supported on ereaders of the time. This may have been true when the ebook was released but is no longer true. As such the book should have been updated, or its release should have been delayed until the technology was ready. I cataloged a sample of this book’s problems.

A Bride For One NightA special factor that may contribute to the dissociation between JPS and its ebooks is its relationship with the University of Nebraska Press. Since 2011, the JPS seems to have outsourced most of the details of publishing to the U. of N. Press. Presumably this includes the creation of ebooks. The U. of N. Press, in turn, may outsource the creation of ebooks. If true, this would place the content people, namely, the JPS, at two organizational levels of indirection away from the ebook creation people who are making a mess.

On the bright side, the JPS (via the U. of N. Press) did achieve good quality in the following recent ebooks:

  • Kurshan’s translation of Calderon’s A Bride for One Night (2014)
  • Rabow’s The Lost Matriarch (2014)

Perhaps these books were converted from sources rather than scans. Most current publishing software, like Adobe InDesign, makes conversion from sources easy, so for recent books there is not much excuse for using (or reason to use) OCR. (Still, it happens surprisingly often.) Firestone’s Islam for Jews, being from 2007, may have been just old enough to have made OCR the easiest option. But “it was the easiest” is not a valid excuse for low quality. It is a reflection of the sad state of digital publishing that I feel I must point that out.

Also on the (mostly) bright side, the JPS created an interesting web site called Tagged Tanakh. It provides the JPS Tanakh and a platform for user comments on that text. The site’s status is unclear; it still works, but it doesn’t seem to be used anymore, and is not officially supported anymore.

A Mixed Bag

I should mention the ventures of Alexander Gendler (all closely related): Varda Books, eBookShuk, and the Judaic Scholar Digital Reference Library on the Publisher’s Row platform. Though these ventures are pdf-based, I feel they deserve mention, if only because of the sheer force of will and iconoclasm that I sense was needed to make them happen.

Though it is now defunct, let’s return briefly to the URJ Press (formerly the UAHC Press). Other than the Modern Commentary, it never attempted a digital version of any of its books containing the Hebrew alphabet. As I mentioned, I hope that the CCAR Press will be bolder with the URJ titles it now owns, notably the Women’s Commentary.

Many URJ titles ended up at Behrman House, so they, too, will have a part to play in determining the digital legacy of the URJ Press. Behrman House has a substantial business in Jewish educational software, showing an in-house level of tech savvy that is promising. Yet, to call out one example, with their Kindle version of Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf, they fell into the same ClearScan-like morass that JPS did with Firestone’s Islam for Jews. Hopefully this one disappointment is unrepresentative of Behrman House’s work. Or, at least I hope it is not representative of what they’ll do with the many great URJ titles they now own, including the under-appreciated commentaries of Kravitz and Olitzky.

My People's PassoverJewish Lights is a publisher with a substantial commitment to ebooks. I am most familiar with their rather monumental “My People’s” series:

  • My People’s Prayer Book (10 volumes; 1997–2007)
  • My People’s Passover Haggadah (2 volumes; 2008)

These books pose many challenges for digital publishing:

  • use of the Hebrew alphabet
  • columns for parallel Hebrew and English
  • Talmud-reminiscent, spread-based layout

Unfortunately most of these features were lost in the ebooks: Hebrew text became images; columns and other layouts were lost. To be fair, these features would have been difficult or impossible to capture in generic ebook formats. At least Jewish Lights found a way to capture the content in the more one-dimensional (serial) form that most easily suits an ebook. Then again, the line between layout and content (form and function) is not always so clear. For example, a two-column layout of Hebrew with English translation has more than just a decorative function. So perhaps it is better to say that they captured all the content they could without pressing the capabilities of the medium to (and beyond) its limits.

Volume 2 of My People’s Passover Haggadah had a false start, worth recounting as a cautionary tale. The initial ebook release was based on a somewhat botched, ClearScan-like conversion. Jewish Lights re-converted the book, but, at least on the Kindle platform, failed to update the existing product, instead removing the existing product from sale and introducing a new product. This caused various problems. Notably, this means that customers who bought the initial release are stuck there; they’ll never get the re-converted ebook, since there was no update to the product they bought.

Though fixing an ebook is a laudable (and all-too-rare!) thing, this incident shows some of the “growing pains” that publishers (and customers!) are experiencing in the first few years of these platforms, even when trying to do the right thing.

Koren the Brave

In my sampling of Jewish digital publishing, I’ve only ever seen one ebook attempt to represent Hebrew natively, i.e. fully digitally. That is, I’ve only ever seen one ebook represent Hebrew without recourse to “half digital” approaches like the use of images or image-like, non-Unicode fonts. That brave book is Steinsaltz’s The Essential Talmud (30th anniversary edition). Though the paperback is published by Basic Books, the ebook is published by Koren, who also published the original (non-30th anniversary) hardcover edition.

What seems to have happened with The Essential Talmud is this. Two chapters (2 and 14) were added in the 30th anniversary edition. These chapters, unlike the original edition, use the Hebrew alphabet, with vowel points no less. Whoever did the ebook conversion for Koren decided, bravely, to represent these characters fully digitally. Or was it foolish, not brave, to do so? Because, apparently, little or no attention was then paid to how these characters came out. For example, a single phrase was mangled in these multiple ways:

  • Words are out of order within the phrase.
  • Letters are out of order within words.
  • A patach vowel point has become tragically separated from its consonant (nun) and has floated all the way to the beginning of the word. It seems to apply to nothing. Or perhaps it is trying, in vain, to vocalize (Judaize?) the em dash at the beginning of the word.

Here is an image of the phrase in question, followed by an image of what it should look like.

Jewish Digital Publishing

Some final highlights

To raise our spirits after that sad example, let’s return to some Jewish digital publishing successes, or at least promising directions. Here I won’t get into details; I’ll just offer a list with links. It is perhaps telling that none of them come from the generic ebook world of Kindle, etc. Only one of them charges for content; this may be a bad sign for the business models of both traditional publishing and Bible software.

I’ll conclude with a couple of quotes that refer to the Jewish tradition of accuracy in religious texts. This tradition should inform our approach to digital publishing, religious or otherwise.

Matthew (5:18) reports a famous Jew as having said:

Until heaven and earth disappear, not one yod or even one tag (serif) of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.

Rabbi Meir recounts (Eruvin 13a):

He [Rabbi Yishmael] said to me: “My son, be careful with your [scribe] work, for it is the work of Heaven. Should you perhaps omit one letter or add one letter ― it could result that you destroy the entire world.”

About the Author

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.