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Englishing the Talmud

According to a rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 12b), God’s angels do not understand the Aramaic language in which the Talmud itself is mainly composed. As many a modern reader can testify, they’re hardly alone.

Relevant Links
From the Sublime to the Ridiculous  Alan Jay Gerber, Jewish Star. The Koren edition of the Talmud is a boon to students of the Talmud worldwide—which is more than can be said for the new translation of the Talmud into Arabic.
Indexing the Talmud  Yitz Landes, Talmud Blog. Daniel Retter’s index of the Talmud in terms of ideas rather than words may be tricky to use, but it is a useful reminder that a search engine can’t do everything.
The Literary Scoundrel  Fred MacDowell, On the Main Line. The first English translation of the Talmud, by Michael Levi Rodkinson, was castigated for its poor scholarship and even worse English. But unlike his critics, Rodkinson has gone down in history for the attempt.
The Essential Talmud  Adin Steinsaltz, Basic Books. An historical overview with chapters on the beliefs, the attitudes, and the methods of the rabbis.

But how can angels, who “know the thoughts in every man's heart,” be ignorant of Aramaic? The early commentators had a tough time explaining it. According to the medieval authority Asher ben Yehiel, the answer is that the angels are in fact perfectly familiar with Aramaic, but think that using it is beneath them. Closer to our own time, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) said something similar, with a twist: focused as they are on the big picture of humanity and the universe, angels can’t be bothered with the details, worked out again and again in the knotty particulars of Jewish thought and experience.

Audacious flights of mytho-poetic theology, with an obsessive attention to minute details and a sinuous poetry all its own: this is the mind-bending mix that has made the Talmud, love it or hate it, the central text of Judaism. Yet for all its centrality, it is far from accessible. Not only is the material often cryptic and allusive, but much of the Talmud’s massive text resembles, in itself, an intricate internal scaffolding, commenting on and arranging layers of traditions and argumentation in a latticework—or labyrinth—of its own devising.

Hard enough to understand in the original Aramaic (as the angels certify), in translation the Talmud can be no less daunting. In an illuminating essay on the subject, Adam Mintz has detailed the history of Talmud translations and their attendant controversies. When it comes to English translation in particular, he introduces us to Michael Rodkinson, a turn-of-the-20th-century British rogue, who was soon succeeded by the incomparably more serious and distinguished team of rabbis and scholars that produced the monumental Soncino Talmud (1935-1952). But the Soncino edition presented mental challenges of its own to anyone trying to maneuver through it, while later editions of specific tractates by the American academic Jacob Neusner and his students are of uncertain quality and also largely inaccessible to non-specialists.

In recent decades, things have changed for the better. In 1967, the unique Israeli scholar and educator Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz inaugurated his own translation of the Talmud—in this case, from Aramaic into modern Hebrew.  The Steinsaltz edition sold more than a million copies and in the process helped initiate a renaissance of Jewish culture in contemporary Israel. Replicating this success in English was a natural next step; in the late 1980s, Random House, the mainstream American publisher, launched what it hoped would be a colossal Steinsaltz project of its own. Yet that effort, which resulted in 21 overpriced and ungainly volumes, covered just four tractates and eventually ran aground.

Not long afterward, a different translation appeared on the horizon. This was the Schottenstein Talmud: an enterprise of the ultra-Orthodox publishing house ArtScroll, whose highly popular editions of traditional prayer books and other works featured smooth English translations, sophisticated production values, and a reactionary ideological edge that has been the bane of non-Haredi religious intellectuals. But the Schottenstein Talmud (named for the benefactor supporting it) was another matter. As volume followed volume into print, the translation remained almost uniformly lucid, moving with the flow of the text and helpfully anticipating the questions that close readers would ask; the notes conveyed with remarkable economy not only a fuller understanding but even the flavor of classic talmudic interpretation; and underneath it all one could sense the basic humility before the text that is a sign of true scholarship.

And now the latest development is that the Steinsaltz Talmud, too, is experiencing a second coming into English. Translated and edited afresh, it is being brought out this time around not by a major trade publisher but by the Koren Press of Jerusalem, well known for its meticulously produced, finely presented editions of classic texts.  The first volume, Tractate Berakhot, has just appeared, and the publisher promises to bring the entire project to conclusion in the coming few years.

How do the Schottenstein and Steinsaltz editions stack up against each other?

To begin at the beginning, Schottenstein offers a more literal and minimalist translation; Steinsaltz is fuller and more elegant. Schottenstein has more extensive discussion of later rabbinic literature; in Steinsaltz, the surrounding materials focus on the plain sense of the text and the decisive halakhic applications derived therefrom by Maimonides and the authoritative 16th-century code, Shulhan Arukh, compiled by Joseph Karo.

In Schottenstein, the brunt of rabbinic explication is carried by the footnotes, which typically proceed through an impressive array of commentators down through the centuries. By contrast, Steinsaltz often adduces, within the running commentary, a single source that concisely answers a question raised by the plain sense of the text.  Other explanatory materials in Steinsaltz also stay close to the plain sense, explaining technical terms and difficult passages, offering brief biographies of sages, illustrating realia in full color, and showing a subtle but unmistakable debt to academic Talmud scholarship (whose very existence goes unacknowledged by ArtScroll).

In the Steinsaltz edition, Koren’s strengths as a publisher in design, layout, and visual accessibility are all on display, as detailed in an enthusiastic early review by Andrew Greene.  In addition, where ArtScroll works to give its products the heft and ornamental gravitas of traditional bound volumes, Koren’s design both exudes the look of classical Hebrew and retains traces of the modernist minimalism of Zionist aesthetics. Another Zionist element is evident in Koren’s transliterations of Hebrew words in the so-called Sephardi pronunciation ("Massekhet Berakhot"), as opposed to ArtScroll’s faithful adherence to Ashkenazi Hebrew ("Massekhes Berachos"). 

Nor is the vast legacy of accumulated commentary absent from Steinsaltz, though the relation to it is oblique. The difference is manifest in the way the two English projects make use of the Vilna Talmud, the classic late-19th-century edition of the full text with its accompanying glosses and discourses. Schottenstein presents the photocopied Vilna text on full facing pages opposite its own translation and commentary, while Steinsaltz places the same text in its entirety at one end of the volume, reproducing the individual passages as needed to match the ongoing flow of the translation and commentary. In so doing, Steinsaltz distances the reader, however slightly, from the aura cast by the great Vilna edition.

If I had to sum up in a word the differences between these two editions, that word would be empowerment. Schottenstein does a great job of explaining the text, and also ushers the reader into the precincts of rabbinic authority through its presentation of the commentarial tradition, so rich and multilayered that if you want really to grasp its details, you'll have to ask a rabbi (from this edition you'd never know there was such a thing as a Talmud professor).   In short, it aims for an audience somewhat closer-in, albeit one in need of translation.

Steinsaltz, in both design and style, reaches for a wider audience. Which is not to say that Steinsaltz is less faithful to the text, or requires less of the reader. That reader, however, is likely to come away with more of a sense of the Talmud as a living text, a text to think with and through as it presses its demands on our hearts and lives.

Finally, both editions, each in its way, succeed in leading us to the classic bottom line: “the rest is commentary, go and learn” (Shabbat 31a).

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anonymous on June 26, 2012 at 5:56 am (Reply)
Excellent review!

One minor correction: the transliteration in Artscroll does NOT faithfully follow Ashkenazic pronunciation: the consonants are transliterated this way, but the vowels aren't. Hence the transliteration in Schottenstein, and similarly in other Artscroll publications, is likely to be jarring to the philologically inclined.
QLineOrientalist on June 26, 2012 at 9:49 am (Reply)
"the Steinsaltz Talmud, too, is experiencing a second coming"

Cynthia Tyler (yehudit beruriah) on June 26, 2012 at 10:01 am (Reply)
I got started with volume 1 of the original publishing of Steinsaltz - it was a gift on my birthday. I have since been able to acquire another 5 volumes, or so. Recently, a course at my synagogue focused on a section of Talmud, using the Schottenstein. To say the least, I found it, shall we say, oblique. It was fortunate that I had the same text in my home library, courtesy of Rabbi Steinsaltz. In my opinion, Steinsaltz does not change any meanings, but he adds enough, in terms of prepositions, mainly, or prepositional phrases, that one can finally understand who is doing what, to whom, for whom, because of whom... If there is a new edition that will be published in its entirety, in English, I am delighted. But I must say that I had looked forward to a shelf full of tall volumes in their pale yellow dust jackets (purchased individually, from used books dealers, lowest price possible)...Do I complete the original, as I am able? Do I stop midstream and start with the new? Life is short, and there are always too many books. But, I do cast my vote for the clarity of Steinsaltz.
    Shuki on June 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm (Reply)
    The original Steinsaltz edition only has 4 Tractates.
Marvin Schick on June 26, 2012 at 10:02 am (Reply)
Yehudah Mirsky's balanced and informative discussion of the ArtScroll and Steinsaltz editions of the Talmud is marred by the gratutious and somewhat bigoted description of the latter as "the ultra-Orthodox publishing house," followed up by the nasty phrase, "reactionary ideological edge." Mirsky could have made his point without stooping low.

Marvin Schick
    Moshe on June 26, 2012 at 3:41 pm (Reply)
    Mirsky is right on both points.
      tzvee on June 26, 2012 at 7:45 pm (Reply)
      No, they were cheap shots.
    Eliyahu Konn on June 27, 2012 at 7:02 am (Reply)
    Mirsky is saying what most people know anyway concerning Artscroll. Your reaction appears to be a taught one. Are you not taught to attack the person if they don't sound like a carbon copy of your leader? That is a tactic of those that can't think logically. Notice I didn't say those that don't study. Just give data to support why his statements are gratuitous and bigoted. The definition of those words, at least 100 years ago, were quite clear. Otherwise allow for other opinions.
m brukhes on June 26, 2012 at 10:37 am (Reply)
A great review, Yehudah!!! Thanks for your elucidation, as ever!
Sidney Slivko on June 26, 2012 at 10:58 am (Reply)
Very well-written review, Yehudah. The only thing I would add are 2 more words to your closing "go and learn" quote from Shabbat 31a: ...with someone!
Ira Stoll on June 26, 2012 at 10:59 am (Reply)
I agree with Marvin Schick.
Jonathan D. Sarna on June 26, 2012 at 11:14 am (Reply)
Michael L. Rodkinson was indeed a rogue, but we cannot blame him on Britain. He was born (Frumkin) in Dubrovna in 1845, arrived in US in 1888/89 and died in NY in 1904. This small caveat aside, a fine article.

Jonathan D. Sarna
Charles Chi Halevi on June 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm (Reply)
Interesting, BUT: the most important question, not addressed, is this. If the G'mara (Talmud) is so important, why (to the best of my knowledge) don't any Jewish day schools or yeshivot (seminaries) teach Aramaic, the same as they teach Hebrew? We are setting up our children for failure because they are taught Talmud by rote. Instead, they should have a solid grounding in Aramaic as a language, just as they do in Hebrew.
Lawrence B. on June 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm (Reply)
I appreciate the review very much. Does the author or the commenters have suggestions for good beginning and intermediate grammars of Talmudic Aramaic
yehudah on June 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm (Reply)
Great piece, but what makes Rodkinson British? He seems to have moved from eastern Europe to central Europe to America.
tzvee on June 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm (Reply)
Cheap shots Yehuda. Mirsky says, "But the Soncino edition presented mental challenges of its own to anyone trying to maneuver through it, while later editions of specific tractates by the American academic Jacob Neusner and his students are of uncertain quality and also largely inaccessible to non-specialists." I don't know what Mirsky is talking about. The Soncino edition is just plain excellent all around and Neusner's translation series, which includes my own elegant translation of Hullin, is accurate, accessible and formidable.
    m. brukhes on June 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm (Reply)
    "Cheap shots" seems to be your idée fixe, Tzvee! Re Neusner's series, Yehudah's criticisms aren't only constructive: they're generous.
      irving on June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm (Reply)
      Funny comment about Soncino and Neusner translations (has Mirsky read them?). He says: Soncino "presented mental challenges of its own to anyone trying to maneuver through it, while later editions of specific tractates ... are of uncertain quality and also largely inaccessible to non-specialists." Whoops. That just about sums up how most people describe the Talmud itself, mental challenges and uncertain quality and largely inaccessible. Reviewer beware what you say. It applies too readily to your "central text of Judaism" itself.
Shalom Z. Berger on June 27, 2012 at 3:26 am (Reply)
Try Yitzhak Frank's Practical Talmud Dictionary (English and Hebrew Edition) and his Grammar for Gemara & Targum Onkelos : An Intoduction to Aramaic Frank&ie=UTF8&search-alias=books&sort=relevancerank
Abe Weschler on June 27, 2012 at 4:34 am (Reply)
For anyone who would like to step into the world of Aramaic as a language:
YS on June 27, 2012 at 5:58 am (Reply)

I haven't opened a Steinzaltz in years but I recall, as a Yeshiva bachur, occassionally trying to use it to understand pshat and often finding that the commentary basically consisted of translating the Aramaic to Hebrew, without providing the necessary (to my mind) explanation. I'm referring to passages or sections where I understood the words in the Gemara but needed more than a translation - and I felt that Rav Steinzaltz didn't provide it.
Eliyahu Konn on June 27, 2012 at 7:17 am (Reply)
"... the Talmud, love it or hate it, the central text of Judaism." I would hope the author means the text that is studied the most, (at the expense of the Tanakh), and not the fundamental text of Judaism. The fundamental text of course would be the Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim, which are the fundamental texts which the Mishnah helps elucidate. Never have understood not having a good grasp of the fundamentals but trying to build on them.
Jack Bershad on June 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm (Reply)
I have and use the previouly published volumes of the Steinsaltz Edition of The Talmud published by Random House, but never completed. Do we know if the new volumes will include the same or different translations of the four tractates previously published. Also, I do not find the earlier Steinsaltz volumes "ungainly". And finally, as to the merits of Soncino vs. Steinsaltz vs. Schottenstein, I can only say we are blessed to have them all.
charles hoffman on June 28, 2012 at 3:34 am (Reply)
It's not for naught that the Artscroll is know as "the Gospel according to St. Agudah"

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