A new chapter for Jewish scholarship

The Koren Talmud Bavli includes subtle differences that set it apart from other translations.

July 19, 2012 12:54
4 minute read.
A new chapter for Jewish scholarship

A new chapter for Jewish scholarship. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Last year, the film Footnote (Hebrew: He’arat Shulayim) was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Film. Many of the viewers didn’t know much about the Talmud except, perhaps, for knowing it is a law book, different from the Jewish Bible. It wasn’t necessary to have studied so much as a page to rave about the film and to identify with the strained relationship between two talmudic scholars, a father and son teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Talmud is made up of two parts: the Mishna and the Gemara. The Gemara is the much longer part, commenting on the laws outlined in the Mishna. The text of the Mishna is printed in the center of the page without any punctuation. It is not clear where sentences begin or end, and it is written in a stenographic style in order that a full understanding of the text means the reader has to fill in the concepts between words or phrases.There are actually two Talmuds: the longer Babylonian Talmud and the briefer Jerusalem Talmud. The Talmud was not even finished when various rabbis began to comment on it, and there is rarely a rabbi to this day who doesn’t, in one way or another, rely on the Talmud for teaching and for sermonic material.

The most famous commentators are Maimonides, Rashi, and his grandsons, who are called the Tosafot.

The Koren Talmud Bavli, commonly referred to as the Steinsaltz because of its commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, is the latest English translation of the Talmud.

Koren has already published new translations of the prayer book and the mahzor (prayer book for the High Holy Days). Koren uses its own Hebrew fonts.

Time magazine has called Steinsaltz a “once-in-a-millennium scholar,” and his new endeavor underlines that accolade.

Certainly, part of the enormous hope for these volumes (the plan is to publish a tractate a month) is to engage Englishreading students in the Daf Yomi course of study. Daf Yomi is a systematic study of the Talmud a page at a time every day of the year, thus taking seven years to read the entire Babylonian Talmud.

Steinsaltz long ago opened the door to thousands of students with his translation of the ancient text into modern Hebrew and his accompanying explanations.

Many years ago, the rabbi published some volumes with English translation and commentary through Random House. The Koren Talmud is quite different from those volumes as well as from other texts with English translation. The venerable Soncino English translation is still a monument to the Wissenschaft des Judentums – that is, the scientific study of Judaism. However, Steinsaltz is a pioneer in that he edited the actual text with punctuation and also added pointing to indicate vowels. For good measure, these new volumes punctuate and point the commentary of Rashi as well.

The studious might ask what the difference is between this new Koren edition and the already available ArtScroll by rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz. Both fill in the blanks, so to speak, illuminating the translation to make it more understandable. Some of the differences are quite subtle. ArtScroll uses the Ashkenazi pronunciation for words in its commentary, whereas Steinsaltz uses Sephardi. ArtScroll prints the traditional page of the Vilna edition facing a page of translation, going phrase by phrase. The new Steinsaltz presentation features all of the pages of the Talmud with the pointing, and the Rashi is pointed as an entire uninterrupted set. Readers seeking the English translation begin on the opposite page to read the Hebrew and Aramaic texts side-by-side with the English translation. The Steinsaltz has the entire tractate in one volume; ArtScroll covers the same material in two. The Koren volume also has color plates of archeological discoveries that illuminate the talmudic text.

However, a significant difference appears to be in the use of the color of the paper. The Steinsaltz uses a cream-colored paper which is probably easier on the eyes; ArtScroll’s is white. The Koren font makes this version easier to read.

An impartial reader might have difficulty seeing the differences in the presentations in these volumes.

Both present the Talmud as a holy book and a serious guide to daily Jewish life. It might seem that ArtScroll has dominated the market: its prayer books are well known and widely used. Nevertheless, Rabbi Steinsaltz has a very wide following and is much admired for his scholarship.

The last lines of tractate Berachot concludes with the words of Rabbi Elazar quoting Rabbi Hanina: “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.”

In his commentary, Rabbi Steinsaltz observes, “There is a principle among the Sages that one should conclude on a positive note.”

And so, my positive note: This is an important contribution to Talmud study and to living a Jewish life.

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