Concerning Witztum's response to our article
"Codes in War and Peace - a reply to Doron Witztum"

In the article [W01], Witztum responds to our article [M01]. Here we respond to his article and show, as we showed in [A01], that it consists of many red-herrings and one serious bibliographical mistake.

The indented passages in italics are quotes from his article.

1. Our Experts

Witztum: A. Concerning comment #1: We are scientists, not detectives. It is well known that Mr. Levitan (who is no expert in the field of rabbinical bibliography) prepared the lists for McKay (and McKay does not deny this). But now McKay surprisingly claims that he is hiding some other mysterious person (hitherto never mentioned), who also helped prepare his lists. We are certain that were this enigmatic person as expert as Prof. Havlin, or even equal to Dr Emanuel, McKay would never have kept him under wraps for so long.

We suggest to Witztum that he stops making ad-hominem arguments, and starts talking to the point. See the parent page for McKay's replies to these points.

Witztum (continued): May we remind the reader (see [W00], chap. 2, "The Cohen Affair") McKay et al's claims which were publicized in two stages:
a. Their claim that Prof. Cohen helped prepare their list.
b. Their claim that Prof. Cohen certified that they "did the same thing" as WRR.
Both these claims were proved false [W00]!

Claim (a) was never made as Witztum presents it here, it was a misunderstanding due to a poor choice of words by us. Claim (b) is correct and was never proved false. In fact Prof. Cohen is now in the middle of writing a comprehensive document on this subject, and it will be published in due time.

2. Havlin's Role

Witztum (continued): Concerning comment #3: McKay repeats his absurd claim that Professor Havlin did not prepare the lists of names and appellations that were published by WRR, ignoring the report of Havlin himself who wrote:

"In 5746 I was asked by Mr. Doron Witztum to prepare a list of the names and appellations of 34 Torah sages. The list of sages was presented to me by Mr. Witztum, and I was told that it was based on the Encyclopedia of Great Men in Israel (Hebrew; ed. Dr. M. Margalioth). The criteria for inclusion of a personality in the list was simply that his entry contains at least three columns of text and that a date of birth or death be specified (day and month). The list of names and appellations I prepared and forwarded to Mr. Witztum was later published by him (together with Professor A. Rips and Y. Rosenberg) in the article "Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis," in both the first version thereof (from early 5747), pp. 40-42, and the second version of the above-mentioned article (5748), pp. 16-17. I shall hereinafter refer to this list as "the first list." A year later, Mr. Witztum asked me to prepare a second list of names and appellations. This time, the criteria for inclusion of a personality in the list was that his entry contains between one and a half and three columns of text and that a date of birth or death be specified (day and month). I forwarded this additional list of names and appellations to Mr. Witztum, and it was subsequently published in the second version of the above-mentioned article (5748) on pp. 25-26. I shall hereinafter refer to this list as "the second list." At that time I confirmed that each of these lists of names and appellations "was based on my own personal judgment and on the examinations I carried out with the assistance of the database in the Data Retrieval Institute at Bar Ilan University - the Responsa Project." (Emphasis mine).

We find it hard to believe that the lists that were used in the experiments were exactly the same to the letter as the lists that were prepared by Havlin. By the way, we don't know how Havlin can be so sure of it himself. How can he remember after so many years all the fine details of the role he played in this experiment and of the data he gave to Witztum? Be that as it may, one reason for our skepticism is that the data that was used in the experiment contains at least one serious biographical error that we don't believe could have been approved by such a top expert as Prof. Havlin.

We are taking here about the death date of Rabbi Yaacov Beirav (in the second list). WRR list it as the 30th of Nisan, but the correct date is 1st of Iyyar. Let us expand on this a bit. In the Margalioth Encyclopedia the death date of R' Yaacov Beirav appears as "Rosh Chodesh Iyyar", which could mean either 30th of Nisan or 1st of Iyyar. So some research had to be done to determine which of these is the correct date. Now, according to the testimony of his important student HaMabit (in HaMabit responsa, part 1, response 103), R' Yaacov Beirav died on Saturday. But as every religious Jewish school child can calculate, by the rules of the Jewish calendar the 30th of Nisan can never fall on Saturday! So the correct date must be 1st of Iyyar (this date has been confirmed by the way by Dr. Simcha Emanuel). The testimony of HaMabit can be found easily by anyone who has even a minimal expertise in Jewish bibliography, for example it appears in R' Beirav's entry in the encyclopedia "Otzar Israel". Therefore we cannot believe that such a top expert as Prof. Havlin could have approved such a shamefully erroneous date.

How can Witztum expect us to believe that he followed Havlin's advice to the letter regarding the appellations, when he clearly didn't follow it regarding the dates?

3. Appellations for War and Peace

Witztum (continued): B. Concerning McKay's comments about appellations: - Confirmation by an expert in rabbinical bibliography who knows Hebrew is a necessary condition for a list of names and appellations which is claimed as being "the same" as Havlin's list (i.e., it is compatible with the spelling rules and Havlin's rules, or breaks them to "the same extent"). Even McKay et al understand this. Therefore, with their first list they deceivingly tried to represent Cohen as an expert in rabbinical bibliography, and gave the impression that he had sanctioned their list.
But after we disqualified their list in our article [W98] "A Refutation Refuted", McKay et al no longer dared to rely on any expert (or even on any identifiable person) to sanction their second list publicized in Statistical Science (See details in [W00] chap.2).
 Instead, McKay et al tried to cast a smoke screen through a long response [A99] signed by "anonymous" to our article [W98]. McKay claims that we ignored "Anonymous". But we already wrote in [W00] (the end of chap. 3): "This work has all the deficiencies of its predecessor, including lies and deceptions obvious to anyone knowledgeable in Hebrew grammar and rabbinical bibliography." We consider the refutations in our article [W98] sufficiently clear and thorough for any expert and anyone capable of examining the bibliographical material. For anyone else, a new detailed response would be of no avail. Only expert opinion can convince such people. And we did indeed bring the opinion of authentic experts agreeing to [W98], and opposing the opinion of "anonymous".

Witztum is again trying to run away from answering "Anonymous", and he has a good reason for it. He knows that everything "Anonymous" wrote is bibliographically sound and irrefutable, and that this is obvious to anyone knowledgeable in Hebrew grammar and rabbinical bibliography. [A99] was published more than 2 years ago and up to this day Witztum hasn't been able to find any flaw in it, nor did anyone else. The first and (for the time being) only place where Witztum tried to point to a flaw in [A99] is in footnote 8 of [W01], but as we show in [A01] it turns out that his criticism is based on amateurish and careless research, and his conclusion is totally mistaken. Let this example be before the eyes of the reader when he comes to judge the value of Witztum's opinion in matters of bibliography.

As for the "authentic experts" that Witztum mentions here, we presume that by this term he refers to the 4 rabbis that he mentions in his article in chapter 3, where he brings two letters that these rabbis signed, which criticize our first list on WNP. But contrary to what Witztum tries to imply here they don't comment at all on [A99], nor do they comment on our corrected version of the list on WNP. They couldn't possibly do that since these letters are dated September 98 and April 99, whereas [A99] and the second version of our list were published only on May 99!

The truth then is that Witztum has no expert opinion that refutes the claims we made in [A99]. We'll emphasize again that we have learnt during our continuing debate with Witztum that he'll never miss an opportunity to attack our work when he believes he has basis for it. Therefore his lack of ability to present even one argument against the claims we made in [A99] shows that he wasn't able to find any flaw in them, and thus testifies to their validity.

4. Spelling Rules

Witztum (continued): Examples of McKay-"Anonymous" work:
1.      Let us clarify one of the main methods they use to mislead their readers.
The linguist Yaakov Orbach o.b.m. established the following rule for our experiment: The spelling should be grammatical orthography - "ktiv dikduki" (this is the correct spelling in a vowelized text), which is in accordance to the spelling found in the Torah. His rationale was obvious: When searching for codes in the Torah, one's spelling must conform to the spelling found in the Torah. This rule was actually established before the first experiment and could certainly not be altered for the second experiment. Therefore, the only way would be to write the names with the help of an expert, who will apply the spelling rules as they were phrased by Orbach in the first pre-print of our paper (and as McKay et al asked Dr. Emanuel to do).

It can be asked whether the rationale "When searching for codes in the Torah, one's spelling must conform to the spelling found in the Torah" is indeed so obvious. It depends on how you read the mind of the hypothetical encoder of the codes. But we don't want to get into this debate here, for although we don't necessarily agree with Witztum's rationale on this point, we accepted this restriction in practice, and all the appellations in our final list in WNP are spelled according to the Torah spelling. But what we want to ask Witztum is, if it's so obvious to him that only the Torah spelling should be used, why didn't Witztum himself use the Torah spelling in other experiments he designed!?

For example, in the experiment about the Mishna described in [WRR96] p. 14, Witztum says that he's spelling the names of the Talmud's tractates as they are spelled in the Vilna Shas (the most common edition of the Talmud nowadays, printed at the 19th century). And this he does despite the fact that the names in the Vilna Shas are spelled in 'full' spelling, which differs in several instances from the grammatical orthography as determined by the Even-Shoshan dictionary. More than that, the names of some of these tractates appear also in the Bible, and still Witztum spells them in full spelling as they appear in the Vilna Shas, and not in defective spelling as they are spelled in the Bible! In the following scan from [WRR96] p. 14 we marked in red 2 such words.

  1. Witztum writes MGYLH, while in the Bible it appears only as MGLH [about 20 times].
  2. Witztum writes CYCYT, while in the Bible it appears only as CYCT [It appears 3 times in Numbers 15:38-39, a portion of the Torah that is recited in prayer twice each day].

We have also marked in green several other words that are not spelled according to grammatical orthography (as defined by the Even-Shoshan dictionary). We pointed at this striking inconsistency between Witztum's different experiments a few years ago (here and here), but got no explanation from Witztum up to this day. We are still waiting.

Witztum (continued): McKay and "Anonymous" assume that most their readers know little Hebrew and are ignorant of the following simple fact: Unvowelized texts like newspapers, books and rabbinical responsa, are spelled with a different method than the Torah. They are spelled with 'full' spelling, which incorporates the usage of extra letters, as compared to the Torah's spelling. Therefore McKay's repeated insistence that the names from rabbinical responsa should be used "as they appear" - is based (at best) on lack of basic understanding. Similarly, all McKay et al's "proofs" collected from street signs, books, and even from quotes of Havlin himself - are irrelevant to our experiment, because all these texts are intentionally written with an alternative spelling method.

This argument by Witztum is yet another complete red-herring! Like we said above, although we don't necessarily agree with Witztum's rationale we have in practice used only grammatical orthography. As we can see here, Witztum is making a lot of noise but he cannot give even a single example from our final list in War and Peace where we use an appellation that is not spelled according to grammatical orthography, for there is no such appellation.

In our original list in WNP we had one appellation that we spelled in a way that might arguably be considered as the non-vowelized way (the famous AWPNHYYM). In fact we have received an opinion from the Academy of Hebrew Language that states that it is nevertheless legitimate to use it even in vowelized texts (see more on this in assertion 4 in [A99]). But despite that we eventually removed this appellation in order to please Witztum, so our final list is 100% "glat kosher" grammatical orthography.

Moreover, except for one short general comment in the beginning of [A99] and the passage about AWPNHYYM there, not one of the arguments we raise against Witztum in that document have got anything to do with the issue of defective spelling vs. full spelling. Likewise the quotes we brought from Havlin have nothing to do with the issue of defective spelling vs. full spelling. We brought them to show 2 variants of family names that were not used by WRR - Benbenishti and Abulafia. Any Hebrew speaking reader can tell that these are not the full-spellings of the forms used by WRR (Benbenesht and Abu-El-Afia), but completely different variants that are pronounced differently. So, Witztum is once again misleading the non Hebrew-speaking readers. Apparently he assumes that most of his readers don't know Hebrew. As a side note we'll also add that Witztum's claim that "full" spelling is different from the spelling of the Torah is only partially correct. In fact the spelling in the Torah is not full and not defective, but rather a complex mixture of both.

Witztum (continued): Besides, it is clear that a writer (or an editor) who wishes to mention a name or an appellation of a certain personality in an article, can usually do so freely: he need not be particular in choosing the most proper of several alternatives. Moreover, he can even allow himself to "jargonize" and use irregular expressions (like "HaBeit Yosef").

But all these should be considered a loose and inappropriate approach to dealing with expressions sought for in the Torah. See Havlin's report [H96] (and also in [W98], Part A).

We don't understand why an appellation like "HaBeit Yosef" that is used extensively by many writers cannot be looked for in the Torah. Incidentally, we have now noticed that this expression appears also in the title of the scholarly book that Havlin reviews here. But in any case all this was just a side remark, for although we don't agree with Witztum's rationale on this point, we accepted this restriction in practice, and our list in WNP doesn't include any expression of this kind.

5. Reference Sources

Witztum (continued): 2. The work of "anonymous" relies on many books as sources for alternative appellations (and spellings) and to attack Havlin's work. But not one of these books pretends to be a source for making decisions in linguistic and spelling problems (as was explained in the previous paragraph), and therefore they are irrelevant to this issue. 

As we explained above, what Witztum wrote in the previous paragraph is a red-herring. All the books that we used in [A99] are very relevant to this issue, and are just as legitimate as sources for alternative appellations as are the Margalioth Encyclopedia and the Responsa database that Havlin used to build WRR's list. See what he says in [H96] especially in rules (b) and (f) and point 7. Oh dear! Prof. Havlin! Didn't you see that Witztum said in the previous paragraph that rabbinical responsa are irrelevant to this issue because they use alternative spelling methods!? 

Witztum (continued): Besides, It should be noted that many of those books are bibliographically deficient. Here is the opinion of Dr Simcha Emanuel, McKay's own expert, on some of these books [E]:

  1. "Chachmei Yisrael" (Halachmi) - is worthless.
  2. "Otzar HaRabbanim" (Friedman) - is worthless. It is merely a collection.
  3. "Melitzei Eish" - is unprofessional.
  4. Encyclopedia "Otzar Yisrael" - is antiquated and second rate. Nowadays it is not regarded accurate.
  5. Concerning "Atlas Etz HaChaim" (Halperin) he said that he is familiar only with the volume of medieval rabbis, and that is generally accurate (he did not mention the spelling).

We have Dr Emanuel's exact wording regarding each of these works.

It would have been more interesting if instead of Dr. Emanuel's exact wording, Witztum had supplied us with the exact wording of his questions to Dr. Emanuel. We suspect that he didn't ask him at all about the value of these books as sources for appellations and spellings of appellations, but rather on their value as sources of biographical details on these rabbis. This is suggested by Witztum's remark here on "Atlas Etz HaChaim" that "he [i.e. Emanuel] did not mention the spelling".

In order to check our suspicions we asked Dr. Emanuel (in an e-mail from Brendan McKay):

"1. Did Witztum ask you about the value of these 5 books as sources for decision in linguistic and spelling problems?
2. What do you think of these 5 books as sources for alternative appellations of rabbis and alternative spellings of appellations of rabbis (as compared to Margalioth Encyclopedia and the Responsa Project)?"

And this is what Dr. Emanuel wrote to us in response (in a letter to Brendan McKay, 15 June 2001) [translated from Hebrew]:

"(1) As far as I can recall, the conversation with Witztum was about the books' value in reference to the rabbis' biographies and not in reference to the rabbis' appellations.

(2) I do not sufficiently recall the first three books and cannot offer an opinion about them. As for the last two books (Otzar Israel and Etz Chaim Encyclopedias), the appellations found there reflect the habits of the authors and the spellings they were accustomed to, just as the appellations in the Responsa Project reflect the habits of other authors."

In other words - our suspicions were proven to be correct, and this is yet another red-herring from Witztum's factory. We certainly accept Dr. Emanuel opinion about the value of these books as sources for biographical details. But this is totally irrelevant to the question at hand, since we didn't use them for this purpose. When we needed a source for biographical details such as birth and death dates we contacted an expert (Dr. Emanuel himself) who supplied us with the correct dates according to his opinion and referred us to his more reliable sources on this matter. What we did use these books for is as sources for appellations, and we see that for this purpose Dr. Emanuel considers them to be as legitimate as the Responsa Database, which Havlin himself tells us he used when he built his list (as we show above). So, as we said, we have here another red-herring from Witztum.

Witztum (continued): It is obvious to us that no expert would ever dare rely on these works. Perhaps this is why their critic hides behind the alias "Anonymous"!

As we said a few lines above we definitely agree that no expert would ever dare rely on these works for biographical details, and we indeed never tried to do that. The ones who have actually done exactly that are WRR themselves!

For in the first preprint [WRR86] we find that WRR relied on one of the aforementioned works as a source for changing the death date of R' David Ganz in the first list! It is the "antiquated and second rate" Encyclopedia "Otzar Yisrael", and this book is in fact the only biographical source that is mentioned in the bibliography of the first preprint besides the Margalioth Encyclopedia. So what does it tell us about the expertise of the people responsible for the lists of dates for WRR's experiments? It shouldn't now come as a surprise to the reader that Dr. Emanuel has found several errors and omissions in WRR's lists of dates, as we reported in our Statistical Science article. It is yet another reason to doubt that Havlin had approved the data for WRR's experiments.

We should add for honesty's sake that the date that WRR derived from "Otzar Israel" for the death of R' David Ganz happens to be correct, and is verified by other sources, but much more so are the appellations we obtained from it and from the other works Witztum mentions. We will note here by the way that all the appellations that we obtained from these 5 sources also appear in other sources we mention in the same document.

Witztum (continued): Please note that McKay's whole response to our article [W00] discusses only bibliography, relying on the fact that the reader understands little about it. But precisely because of this, our article [W00] concentrated on a factual, logical and scientific analysis to enable even a lay reader to understand the deception behind the work of McKay et al and how it is utterly refuted. Regarding this analysis McKay has no reply - because he has nothing to say.

Our first impression when we read [W00] is that all the "factual, logical and scientific analysis" in it doesn't contain anything that deserves a response and that we haven't already answered before. But if Witztum insists we'll look at it again and if we find upon second reading that we missed something in there that we didn't already discuss, we'll respond to it later.

6. The Remez

Witztum (continued): Here too, we will not enter into a bibliographical argument which the average reader cannot follow. We will merely mention that in the case of the name "Zacuta", McKay completely ignores the fact that he tried to deceive his readers by claiming that "Zacut" was never called "Zacuta" or "Zacuto". He brought purported "proof" for this from a certain bibliography, confident that no one would have the patience to check it out. However we revealed the whole thing as a deception.

We never claimed that Zacut was never called "Zacuta" or "Zacuto". What we actually said in our original article was "The last name of Rabbi II-27, Rabbi Moshe Zacut, is ZKWT, and not ZKWTA or ZKWTW". By this we meant to say that Zacut is the main form of the family name, the form used by the name bearer itself (as we now prove decisively in the article [A01]), whereas Zacuto and Zacuta are merely variants of this name. Therefore we had all the justification needed to remove them, just as Havlin claims he removed variants of other family names on the same ground (i.e. that they were not used by their name bearers).

7. Who breaks the Rules?

Witztum (continued): Because McKay's War and Peace" list has no professional backing, and because the average reader cannot check its bibliographical claims, McKay's trustworthiness is of paramount importance. The "Zacuta" example is an obvious case of McKay's unreliability, and so far he has given no reply sufficient to remove this impression.

On the contrary! It is Witztum's slander against "Anonymous" that has no professional backing. He just throws general accusations of lies, deceptions and ignorance without supporting them by any argument or example. He refuses to answer "Anonymous", because he knows he has nothing to say. The only place where he thought he might have a case against "Anonymous" is the "Zacuto" example he brings in footnote 8 of [W01]. But as we show in [A01] it actually turns out to be yet another demonstration of Witztum's own lack of expertise in bibliography. If he had consulted Prof. Havlin before writing what he wrote about Zacuto's signatures he could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment.

However, one point which Witztum complains about here (and in other places) may have something in it, and this is that maybe [A99] is too long. The reason that it has become such a large document was not of course to discourage people from reading it, as Witztum accused us, it was simply that we wanted to make a thorough job and to respond to each of Witztum's points. We also included in our document the full quotes of Witztum's claims, that are quite lengthy themselves, and that also added weight to the document. But on second reflection perhaps Witztum is correct and the length of this document has discouraged some people from reading it. So, maybe in order to solve that problem we'll publish an abridged version of it. But for the time being, until this document is ready, we'll give here a taste of our arguments in [A99] for those readers who have avoided reading [A99] because of its length. Of the many examples of "rules breaking" in Witztum's work that we present in there, we picked here one example that can be easily understood even by people who have no background in Jewish bibliography, and even by those who don't know Hebrew at all.

The appellation HRAB"D (The Raavad) is used to describe three medieval rabbis ("Rishonim"). Two of them appear in WRR lists: Rabbi I-1 (no. 1 in list I) and Rabbi II-1 (no. 1 in list II). Of these three rabbis, the one who is most important and most well known by the appellation is Rabbi I-1 (Raavad Baal HaHasagot). This can be confirmed by anyone who has any knowledge of rabbinical literature. It is absolutely certain that were you to ask anyone, from the lowliest yeshiva student to the greatest rabbi, "Who was the Raavad?" the first rabbi who would come to mind would be Rabbi I-1 and not Rabbi II-1. It is doubtful whether the average yeshiva student would have even heard of Rabbi II-1. More important, even those readers who have no knowledge of rabbinical literature can verify this fact! All that is needed for this is to observe that Rabbi I-1 was included in WRR first list (the list of the more important rabbis), because the length of his entry in Margalioth Encyclopedia is over 12 columns, whereas Rabbi II-1 appears only in the second list, because the length of his entry is only about 2 columns.

Now let's quote what Havlin said in [H96] (emphasis ours):

"(b) A researcher concerned with the biography of a single person will also mention the appellations relating to the subject of his work. However, a researcher preparing a list of names and appellations of individuals and Torah sages must take account of the fact that some appellations were used over the generations to refer to several different individuals. A well-known example of this is the appellation "Maharsha" referring to Rabbi Shemuel Eliezer Edels. This appellation is also found on occasions with reference to other sages, such as: Rabbi Shemuel Aboab, Rabbi Shlomoh Amarilio, Rabbi Shemuel Eliezer Alfandar and others. In an historical list of the appellations of Torah sages, Rabbi Shemuel Eliezer Edels will receive the appellation Maharsha, since he is the most famous of the sages referred to by this appellation, since his work is the most famous among all Talmud students in all the Diaspora communities, and since he is known by this appellation by them."

Further on in that document we see several examples where Havlin applies this rule to reject several appellations for certain rabbis on the ground that they are more well known as appellation for other rabbis (e.g. points 10, 19 and 21).

According to this rule, in the case of Raavad we can say that in an historical list of the appellations of Torah sages, Raavad Baal HaHasagot will receive the appellation HaRaavad, since he is the most famous of the sages referred to by this appellation, since his work is the most famous among all Talmud students in all the Diaspora communities, and since he is known by this appellation by them. Now, had WRR really built their lists according to this "shared appellation" rule, we could expect them to include HaRaavad as an appellation only for Rabbi I-1. However, by looking at their lists we see that they included it for both rabbis!

How can Witztum explain that!?


[A99] Anonymous (1999). Equidistant letter sequences in Tolstoy's "War and Peace": Witztum's "refutation" refuted.
[A01] Anonymous (2001). How did R' Moshe Zacut spell his name in Hebrew?
[E] A telephone conversation with Dr S. Emanuel, 19 Jan. '00, about 20:00.
[H96] Havlin, S. Z. (1996). Statement of Opinion. Document 1.
[H99] Havlin, S. Z. (1999). A Letter to Professor Leon Gleser (the Executive Editor of Statistical Science).
[M01] McKay, B. D. (2001). "Codes in War and Peace - a reply to Doron Witztum".
[W00] Witztum, D. (2000). Of Science and Parody: A Complete Refutation of MBBK's Central Claim.
[W01] Witztum D. (2001). Concerning McKay's Response to our article "Of Science and Parody".
[W98] Witztum, D. (1998). A Refutation Refuted, or: How the List of Famous Rabbis Failed in War and Peace. (Part 1, Part 2 )
[WRR86] Witztum D., Rips E. and Rosenberg Y.(1986), Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis, (a.k.a the first preprint).
[WRR96] Witztum D., Rips E. and Rosenberg Y.(1996), Hidden Codes in Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis, The Statistical Significance of the Phenomenon, Hebrew preprint accompanying a lecture given by E. Rips in the Israeli Academy of Sciences.