The Steinsaltz Humash – with English on the right

Graphically, what sets it apart from most other Hebrew-English translations is the location of the texts on the page.

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (photo credit: THE STEINSALTZ CENTER)
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
RABBI ADIN Even-Israel Steinsaltz, the renowned Israeli rabbi and scholar, who has spent much of his life translating the Talmud – first into modern Hebrew, and most recently into an English edition – has now turned his attention to the most basic and essential book in the Jewish canon – the Five Books of Moses, known in Hebrew as the Humash.
The result is the new Steinsaltz Humash, and it features an aesthetically pleasing layout, complete with photos, diagrams, maps and explanation, attractively organized and printed on high-quality paper. The Hebrew text of the Humash is displayed in Koren Publishers’ distinctive, stately typeface, and Rashi’s Hebrew commentary appears at the bottom of the page, fully vocalized and punctuated.
Graphically, what sets it apart from most other Hebrew-English translations is the location of the texts on the page. Most Hebrew- English works, such as ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash, present the Hebrew text on the right side, and the English translation on the left-facing page. By contrast, the Steinsaltz Humash places the English translation on the right side of the page, and the Hebrew text of the Humash, along with Rashi’s commentary, on the left-facing page. This feature allows the Hebrew side to be the first side viewed when turning pages, and makes for a smoother reading experience.
Beyond the undeniably attractive form, what of its function? In what ways does it differ from the competition? The most striking difference between the Steinsaltz Humash and similar Humash books lies in its distinctive English translation, explanations, and notes, which are based on hundreds of Rabbi Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s weekly Torah classes that he delivered over a 15-year period. The book itself was produced by a team of editors, educators, and graphic designers, who took the recently produced Hebrew-only Steinsaltz Humash, and modified it for English-speaking readers.
The Humash translation is much more than a word-for-word explanation of the Hebrew text. Inserted between the words of the translation is explanatory text that amplifies and clarifies the actual translation. The bridging sentences and words that are inserted between the words of translation make the translation more understandable. The actual translation appears in bold text, which sets off the explanatory text from the translation.
For example, Chapter 18 of the book of Genesis relates the story of three visitors who came to Abraham’s tent and the hospitality which he offered them. When they arrived at his tent, Abraham offered them a respite from their travels. The ArtScroll translation of Abraham’s words in verse 4 reads, “Let some water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree.”
The Steinsaltz translation incorporates the translation in bold, along with further explanatory text, and reads: “Abraham turned to the men and said: Please, let a little water be taken, and wash your feet, since you have come from afar and you certainly need to rest. Washing one’s feet, whether he wore shoes or not, was one of the first steps a traveler took to relax. And recline beneath the tree, in the shade.”
Steinsaltz’s more complete explanation makes the narrative more readable and interesting, and the decision to mark the actual translation in bold letters maintains the integrity of the actual translation.
Occasionally, words and phrases within the Steinsaltz Humash are marked with the letter ‘D’, indicating a ‘Discussion’ section, or a ‘B’, indicating a ‘Background’ section, both of which appear below the translation.
Chapter 18, verse 2 relates that Abraham saw the visitors and ran toward them. The ‘Discussion’ section relates a Talmudic statement that the sages learned from Abraham’s behavior that gracious hospitality is greater than receiving the Divine presence.
The ArtScroll Chumash mentions the same statement. However, the text in the Steinsaltz version stands out a bit more, due to its more elegant layout. Overall, the English portion of the text, including translation, discussions, and background, allows the reader to participate fully in the text. While the Steinsaltz Humash mentions the explanations of many traditional commentators, the reader never feels overwhelmed by the weight of the commentary.
The Steinsaltz English translation is further enhanced by numerous images, maps, charts, and scientific and historical notes distributed throughout the text. One vivid example is in Chapter 11 of Leviticus, which lists the various kosher and non-kosher species of animals. The Steinsaltz Humash displays color photos of various birds and animals, as well as their hooves – illustrating the difference between kosher animals, which have split hooves, and those that are not kosher, whose hooves are not divided. Additionally, the ‘Background’ section there provides scientific explanations as to possible modern-day names of certain birds listed in the text.
Historical and archeological explanations within the English translation help to make the text more relevant and understandable.
Chapter 14 of the Book of Exodus relates the story of the beginning of the Israelites’ journey into the wilderness after leaving Egypt. The Torah mentions several towns outside Egypt, including Sukot, Migdol, and Baal Tzefon. Displayed alongside the translation is a map, showing the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Suez, with the possible location of these three places.
The story of the crossing of the Red Sea features a map that marks three different possible locations where the Israelites may have crossed. And, since the text mentions the Egyptian chariots that were threatening the Jews as they stood near the Sea, a picture of a mural of Egyptian warriors on chariots found in Rameses II’s temple in Thebes, dating from the 13th century BCE provides an approximation of their appearance.
The English translation also notes that in addition to the driver, who held the reins, and the warrior who held a weapon, usually a bow, Pharaoh added an officer over each chariot. The addition of these elements makes for a more interesting and accessible study experience, especially for the casual reader.
The Steinsaltz Humash includes the weekly readings from the Prophets at the end of the Humash, accompanied by a direct translation of the verses and an introduction before each reading that offers a connection between the Prophetic selection and the weekly Torah reading. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, the Steinsaltz commentary to these readings was not included. Additional notes for the Torah readings appear at the very end of the book, and while they are helpful, it would have been more convenient had they been placed at the end of each Torah reading, rather than at the very end of the Humash.
And while the Humash is largely a triumph of form and function, instead of displaying the Rashi text in a standard Hebrew font, which would have been especially helpful for beginners, Koren used a stylized version of the older Rashi script, which can be difficult for some to decipher.
The Steinsaltz Humash, with its graceful look and readable content, was written primarily for the American audience. In the United States, the Reform movement uses its own version, which was first published in 1981, and the Conservative movement produced the Etz Haim Humash in 2001.
In the Orthodox world, the primary competition to the Steinsaltz Humash is the ArtScroll Stone Edition, which is widely used in Orthodox synagogues, schools and homes. Is there room for the Steinsaltz Humash on today’s Jewish bookshelf, or will ArtScroll continue its domination of the Humash market? When the ArtScroll Chumash first appeared in 1993, with its superior layout and content, it quickly relegated the Soncino Pentateuch and Haftorahs that had been used for decades, to the dust heap of Jewish publishing. The introduction of the Steinsaltz Humash shows that there is room for improvement and creativity.
When the two books are placed side by side, the ArtScroll edition looks somewhat stolid, and while the rabbinical admonition of ‘do not look at the jug, but rather what is in it’ applies, the Steinsaltz Humash is more than just an attractive container – there is quite a bit within.