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After 15 Years, Talmud Translation Makes Ancient Text More Accessible

January 13, 2005
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You don’t have to know Hebrew or Aramaic any more to become a talmudic scholar. Indeed, say those behind the Schottenstein Artscroll English translation of the Talmud — whose 73rd and final volume will be published next month — some Jews have completed study of nearly the whole series of talmudic tractates without speaking a lick of either language.

“Many of them attribute the fact that they’ve been able to get through this to the Schottenstein text, to the fact that we’ve been able to remove the language barrier for them and elucidate the text in a way that is comprehensible and relevant,” said Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, chairman of the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group that funded the project.

The publication of the final volume of Tractate Yevamot marks the culmination of a 15-year, $20 million effort that has seen as many as 80 scholars at a time working on the more than 35,000 pages in the series, in locations from New York to Baltimore to Cleveland to Jerusalem to Bnei Brak.

The project “introduces the Talmud to people who have never studied it,” said Rabbi Nosson Scherman, general editor of Mesorah, the series’ publisher. “It has never been done before in English with this depth and accuracy.”

The Talmud comprises 36 tractates of rabbinic discussion and commentary on Jewish civil and religious law. Likely assembled between the first half of the third century C.E. and the year 499 C.E., it often expresses itself in a shorthand confusing to the uninitiated.

The Artscroll translation — Scherman prefers to call it an “elucidation” — overcomes this obstacle by offering a literal translation in bold type, interspersed with “connecting words” making clear the text’s intent to less experienced readers.

“The literal translation of the Talmud, word for word, would be virtually incomprehensible” to people unschooled in talmudic nuance, Scherman said. “The Talmud expects its readers to read between the lines.”

The Schottenstein edition, which takes an Orthodox approach to Talmudic study, also offers extensive notes on the text and suggestions on further research.

“It is one of the greatest Jewish literary accomplishments in the past 100 years, opening up the sea of the Talmud to everyone,” said Rabbi Stuart Grant, principal of Judaic studies at the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School on New York’s Long Island. “The notes on the bottom open up a whole world of medieval and relatively contemporary commentaries, which are not necessarily found immediately on the page.”

Still, Grant said, students at his yeshiva use the Artscroll as a reference in Talmud study, not as a primary text.

“It shouldn’t become a crutch and thus an impediment to being able to make one’s own learning of the material in its original,” he said.

Since the project’s second year, Artscroll writers and editors have turned out one volume every nine weeks. An average of 20,000 copies of each volume have been printed, with more popular tractates getting runs of 50,000 to 60,000 copies.

Each volume, which includes the original Hebrew text facing English-language pages, cost Mesorah roughly $250,000. On average, it takes four English pages to explain one Hebrew page.

Some non-Orthodox scholars have noted that Artscroll does not use archaeology or ancient languages to elucidate the text, nor does it consider the Greco-Roman culture that was influential at the time of the Talmud’s composition.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, called the Artscroll translation “a marvelous teaching tool” that allows her students to come to class better prepared.

Still, Hauptman said, when she has a question about a particular talmudic word’s meaning, she does not go to the Schottenstein translation for an explanation.

“It is an ideological translation,” Hauptman said. “They have a certain point of view — that the Talmud is the greatest book of the Jewish people and the Talmud is always right — and they translate accordingly, which can sometimes be frustrating.”

In the 1960s, JTS began publishing its own translation of the Talmud, known as El ‘Am, but put out portions of only three tractates.

“It did seek to incorporate critical questions, and it was a failure,” said David Kraemer, a Talmud professor at the seminary. “It failed for a very good reason: The critical commentary overwhelmed the text itself.”

Experts cite two other major English translations of the Talmud. The Soncino edition, published in the mid-20th century and sometimes called “the mother of all Talmud translations,” offers a literal rendering of the talmudic text. The more recent Steinsaltz edition — now out of print — shares several of the advantages of the Artscroll, though full translations of all 36 tractates were never completed.

“Never in the last 1,000 years of Jewish history has such a talented team of scholars been assembled to produce such a monumental project as the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud,” Jay Schottenstein, whose family has donated millions of dollars to the project, said in an e-mail. “The Schottenstein Talmud has enabled tens of thousands of people from all levels of study to better learn and appreciate the foundations of Jewish law, ethics, history, culture and Bible.”

The completion of the Artscroll translation does not mean that the company’s scholars are slowing down: They are now about halfway through the Hebrew edition, seven volumes into a French translation and getting started on a translation of the Jerusalem Talmud. The Mishnah, or oral interpretation of halachah, was actively studied both in Israel and in Babylon, and a distinct Talmud came out of each locale. The nearly complete Artscroll translation is of the Babylonian Talmud.

“If we had known in the beginning how hard it would be and how much money it would have taken to do it, we never would have done it,” Scherman said. “Thank God we didn’t know.”

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