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
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
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.
already published new translations of the prayer book and the mahzor (prayer
book for the High Holy Days). Koren uses its own Hebrew fonts.
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.
ago opened the door to thousands of students with his translation of the ancient
text into modern Hebrew and his accompanying explanations.
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
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
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.
lines of tractate Berachot
concludes with the words of Rabbi Elazar quoting
Rabbi Hanina: “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.”
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.