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The Talmud - The Steinsaltz Edition by Orrin Tilevitz
The Talmud - The Steinsaltz Edition

Volume 3 , Issue 4

The Talmud ‑ The Steinsaltz Edition, A Reference Guide and Volume 1 ‑ Tractate Bava Metzia, Part I, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, published by Random House (1989). $40 per volume. Reviewed by Orrin Tilevitz

The Talmud and its myriad commentaries, codifications, and commentaries on the codifications embody the Oral Law; the Torah, given to Moses at Mount Sinai and transcribed by him, embodies the Written Law. Of course, the Oral Law is, today, for the most part, written, but its origins are oral. The Mishnah, comprised of rabbinical statements and debates on legal and non‑legal matters, was first transmitted orally in the yeshivot of Israel, to be transcribed by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (The Prince) in the third century C.E. only because persecutions and massacres of scholars made oral transmission increasingly chancey. The Gemara is a record of rabbinical debates on the Mishnah, and thus, too, is merely a transcription of the Oral Law. Moreover, the Talmud, though now written, bears all of the imperfections of a transcription: rabbis of the Gemara continually cite variant versions of Mishnaic statements, and the Gemara itself frequently appears to be internally inconsistent. Part of Talmud study consists of reconciling discrepancies and, if need be, reconstructing the ?correct? text.

Talmudic commentaries and codes were generally written ab initio, yet even they preserve their character as fundamentally oral documents. For the commentators and codifiers had students, the students had students, and so on for generations. These students relay teachings which often appear to be at odds with the written version before us, and when that happens, sometimes the oral tradition controls. For example, Rabbi Jospeh P. Soloveitchik's students frequently quote his oral halakhic dicta, even when the dicta were never written down and appear to contradict standard written texts.? Too, halakha is replete with such self‑contradictory concepts as halakha v'eyn morim ken ‑ ?it is the law, but one does not publicize the fact? and binding minhagim, customs, which seemingly contravene the halakha. Plainly, one needs a live teacher who has received the oral tradition in order to interpret the written text correctly; as the Mishnah tells us, assey lecha rav, ?make a teacher for yourself.? No talmid chacham is self‑taught; yeshivot do not give correspondence courses.

Yet not everyone has ready access to a qualified teacher, so there exist written guides for the student. The tradition of these guides is old. The commentary of Rashi (1040‑1105) and sometimes that of Rabbenu Gershom (c.960‑1028) or Rabbenu Chananel (c.990‑1055) are printed with the standard Talmud text. These commentaries explain and generally attempt to simplify words and passages which the commentators thought might be unclear to the reader. Bet Habechira by Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo (1249‑1316) (both the author and the work are universally called ?the Meiri?), summarizes and explains the concepts discussed in passages of the Talmud. A friend once described the work as ?Cliff's Notes on the Talmud.? Yad Ramah by Rabbi Meir ben Todros Halevi Abulafia (c. 1165‑1244) paraphrases and explains the text wonderfully coherently. Alas, only Tractates Sanhedrin and Bava Batra survived the Middle Ages.

The earliest Talmudic dictionary is the Aruch of Rabbi Natan ben Yechiel of Rome, a contemporary of Rashi. The most popular Talmudic dictionary today, and reputedly the best, is an Aramaic‑English dictionary published in 1903 by Marcus Jastrow, a Reform rabbi. The un‑Orthodox pedigree of the author and the occasional tendency of Jastrow (as the dictionary is universally known) to reflect the author's religious inclinations (as pointed out in an essay by Rabbi Salomon Alter Halperin which was included with Jastrow when I purchased it in Jerusalem in 1978) has made Jastrow liber non gratus in some Orthodox circles. Too, Jastrow's comprehensiveness limits its utility for the beginner. More basic is a thin paperback, Aids to Talmud Study by Aryeh Carmell (London, 5734), which translates common Talmudic expressions and abbreviations and gives a good introduction to Talmudic Aramaic.

There are even Talmudic encyclopedias. The 10‑volume Ozar Yisrael, edited by J.D. Eisenstein (New York, 1912), describes itself as ?an encyclopedia of all matters concerning Jews and Judaism, in Hebrew.? Although it reputedly contains many errors, it is often useful in understanding Talmudic concepts or identifying people or places mentioned in the Talmud. Eighteen volumes of the Talmudic Encyclopedia (also in Hebrew), originally edited by the late Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, have been published since 1947 and the project appears to be one‑third complete. And there now exists a concordance (in about 40 volumes, I think) of the Babylonian Talmud. 

In a class by itself is Madrich LaTalmud (Guide to the Talmud) by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Jerusalem, 1984). Its 288 pages define commonly‑used Talmudic concepts, words and abbreviations and contain a synopsis of Aramaic grammar and syntax. The book gives the metric equivalents of Talmudic weights and measures. It sets out the historical background of the Talmud and the assumptions underlying Talmud study. It briefly summarizes the contents of each Talmudic tractate, identifies the authors of the commentaries on the page of the standard, Vilna edition of the Talmud and those printed in the back.  It also contains a bibliography of secondary works on the Talmud and what appears to be a comprehensive index. The book is a marvelous tool for the novice with no yeshiva background and useful even to a moderately‑advanced student ‑ provided one realizes that the definitions given, though handy, are no substitute for studying the concepts in context and with a teacher. But the book is all in Hebrew and, since it is printed and bound in Israel, it is likely to disintegrate in 20 or 30 years. It costs about $20.

In addition to these reference tools, there exist translations. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, individual or groups of tractates have been translated into Latin, German, French, English and Yiddish. The first translation of the entire Talmud into German was done ?single‑handedly? by Lazarus Goldschmidt between 1897 and 1935. The ?first attempt at what purported to be an English translation was an unscholarly abridgement in 20 volumes (1896‑1903) by M.L. Rodkinson.? I have seen this work: deleted passages appear to be those which the author could not translate. 

The only other (to my knowledge) complete English translation, by a number of scholars, was published by the Soncino Press between 1935 and 1952 and reprinted several times since, most recently with facing pages from the Vilna edition. Soncino (as the work is popularly called) seems to be sanctioned by the yeshiva world: it is often cited by charedi yeshiva‑trained teachers in my downtown Brooklyn Agudah‑sponsored daf yomi class, and one often sees black‑coated men studying from the Hebrew‑English edition on the F train from Borough Park. This is perhaps ironic since Soncino draws on and often cites Jastrow. 

But Soncino has its drawbacks. Not all of the translators appear to have understood the original as well as, or show the facility with English of, for example, the late, revered Rabbi Leo Jung, who translated Tractates Yoma and Arachin; some translations are archaic, pedantic, imprecise or confusing.  Also, not all the translators had Rabbi Jung's respect for the subject matter: the introduction to Tractate Kinnim, for example, complains of the ?unlikely and far‑fetched? subject matter. In addition, the annotations are often no more than literal translations of Rashi's commentary, which is no help when, as is true on occasion, the commentary is itself translatable but incomprehensible.

More recently, there have been published translations into modern Hebrew. The bibliography in Madrich LaTalmud lists eight translations of various tractates. The most comprehensive project, that of Rabbi Steinsaltz, has since 1970 published 18 volumes and appears to be about halfway complete. The translation ‑ really both a literal translation and paraphrase, incorporating at times Rashi's commentary ‑ contains annotations which summarize complex arguments, sets out alternative interpretations and variant readings of the Talmud, indicates how the halakha is ultimately codified, and gives thumbnail sketches of various flora, fauna, persona and archeologica referred to in the text. The Hebrew text is vocalized and punctuated. The commentaries of both Rashi and Tosafot are printed on the page, punctuated, but not vocalized. Other commentaries are listed in the back, but no date for the authors are given.  The Steinsaltz Talmud is ideal for the beginner; if one systematically and diligently studies one tractate ‑ particularly the earlier ones in the set, which appear to have been prepared with particular care ‑ one might even be ready to graduate to the Vilna edition, and then use the Steinsaltz edition for reference only. But using the Steinsaltz edition requires a facility with (fairly elementary) modern Hebrew, and users may learn to depend on it instead of trying to wean themselves from it. Each tractate is in one or two volumes and costs about $20 per volume. The volumes are printed in Israel; the pages of the volumes that I bought in 1975 are already yellowing.

The latest aid to the Talmud student is The Talmud ‑ the Steinsaltz Edition, the first two volumes of which were published late last year by Random House under the supervision of Rabbi Stein?saltz. The first volume, entitled A Reference Guide, is essentially a 323‑page faithful English translation of Madrich LaTalmud. It has some minor added features: it explains a few more halakhic concepts and it givens the non‑metric as well as the metric equivalents of Talmudic weights and measures. While Madrich LaTalmud notes the existence of two opinions as to the precise equivalents, only The Reference Guide attributes the opinions.  One wonders if this was done to appease the followers of Rabbi Eliezer Shach, Rabbi Steinsaltz's chief tormentor these days: The author of one opinion is Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878‑1953), known as the Chazon Ish, who was a resident of and demigod in Bnai Brak, Rabbi Shach's headquarters. The Reference Guide was printed and bound in the United States on what appears to be good‑quality paper, so it will probably last longer than Madrich LaTalmud

The major drawback of The Reference Guide is precisely that it is in English. Most potential users of it probably understand enough Hebrew to use Madrich LaTalmud and would learn more by forcing themselves to operate completely in Hebrew, which is, after all, the language of the texts they are studying. In addition, it is so easy to use that one may be tempted to forego other sources which explain Talmudic concepts in greater depth. Nevertheless, The Reference Guide is a useful addition to the library of anyone who will or may study Talmud, and at $40 is probably worth the price.

The second volume is the first chapter of Tractate Bava Metzia. Each page of Bava Metzia contains the Hebrew text, punctuated and vocalized as in the Steinsaltz Hebrew edition, together with Rashi's commentary in the original Rashi script, punctuated, but not vocalized. Surrounding the text are a ?literal translation? into English which is the equivalent of the Soncino translation and a ?translation and commentary? which appears to be no more than a faithful translation of the Steinsaltz Hebrew translation‑paraphrase. In the translation‑paraphrase, the ?literal translation? is highlighted in boldface, making its separate appearance on the page almost superfluous. The footnotes appear to be a faithful translation of the notes in the Hebrew edition, with an occasional expansion and deletions of more difficult material. Also, Bava Metzia does not contain the variant readings or illustrations found in the Hebrew edition. The list of commentaries at the end of the volume provides the authors' dates. 

As a translation, Bava Metzia is leagues beyond Soncino. Even the ?literal translation? is superior, and the translation‑paraphrase has no equivalent in Soncino. Compare the following passages from Bava Metzia 7A:


Our Rabbis taught: Two [people] cling to a bill, the lender saying, `It is mine; I dropped it and found it again,' and the borrower saying, `[True,] it was yours, but I paid you;' [the validity of] the bill has to be established by its signatories [verifying their signatures] ‑ this is the view of Rabbi. Rabban Simeon b. Gamliel says: They shall divide [the amount]. If it [the bill] fell into the hand of a judge, it must never be produced again. R. Jose says: It retains its validity.

The Steinsaltz literal translation:

Our Sages taught: ?Two people are firmly holding on to a note, [and] the lender says: `It is mine, and it fell from me, and I found it,' and the borrower says: `It is yours, but I have paid you. The note must be authenticated by those who signed it. [These are] the words of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi]. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: They shall divide [it]. [If] it fell into the hand of a judge, they cannot extract [it] ever. Rabbi Yose says: It [remains] under its presump?tion [of validity].?

The Steinsaltz translation‑paraphrase:

Our Sages taught the following Baraita: Two people, a borrower and a lender, appear before the court firmly holding on to a promissory note, and the lender says: ?The note is mine, as I have not yet been repaid. It fell out of my pocket, and I found it again.? And the borrower says: ?It is true that the note was yours, but I have already paid you what I owed you. You then returned the note to me. I dropped it and then found it again.? The law in such a case is as follows: The note must be authenticated by those who signed it. These are the words of Rabbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi). Rabbi's point of view seems to be that if the witnesses whose signatures appear on the document confirm that their signatures are genuine, the lender may use the promissory note to collect his debt. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: The lender and the borrower divide the amount of money stipulated in the note. The lender is only entitled to half of his claim, since we do not know which of the two claimants is telling the truth. The Baraita continues: If such a promissory note fell into the hands of a judge, neither of the claimants may ever extract it from the judge's possession, and they must wait until positive proof as to its ownership is established. Rabbi Yose says: The promissory note retains its status of being legally valid, and the lender may use it to collect his debt.

Soncino's footnotes on the passage are skeletal.

The Steinsaltz translation is more sophisticated than Soncino's in other ways. Halakhic concepts, e.g., peah (the requirement to leave the corners of one field unharvested for the poor) are transliterated, not translated, and explained in a footnote at the first reference or in The Reference Guide. By contrast, most of Soncino's translators give an inexact, and therefore confusing, English equivalent (e.g., peah is translated ?gleanings?). Also, as shown in the example, Soncino translates Hebrew names. Rabbi Yose becomes Rabbi Jose, Rabbi Yehoshua becomes Rabbi Joshua, etc. This practice, though traditional, is foolish and annoying: Who ever heard of John Sebastian Bach or Larry from Beethoven? Sensibly, Rabbi Steinsaltz follows the lead of the Koren Tanach and transliterates Hebrew names.

A major drawback of the volume is its cost‑benefit ratio: the first volume, containing only one chapter which consists of the first 21 pages of the Vilna edition, costs $40. Bava Metzia has 10 chapters and 119 pages in the Vilna edition. At this rate, a complete set of Bava Metzia alone would cost at least $240 in 1990 dollars, and a complete set of the Steinsaltz English edition, if it is ever published (and at the current projected rate of one volume per year, the project would take 150 years to complete), would cost perhaps $6000 in 1990 dollars. By contrast, Soncino can be purchased for under $500; a complete set of the Steinsaltz Hebrew edition should eventually cost $700 in 1990 dollars; a good‑quality copy of the Vilna edition costs about $300.

And therein lies the rub. For mid‑level students like me who rely on Soncino, not as a primary text, but for help when we are hurried or lost, the Steinsaltz English edition could provide an excellent alternative, but at the current price and projected publication schedule it does not now, and probably never will do so. Then who will purchase it, and more important, who should? Without doubt, no day school or yeshiva student should normally be permitted to use it; using the Steinsaltz English edition approaches spoon‑feeding, and a student who uses it will never learn to use the traditional reference works and never learn to decipher the text on his (or her) own. Older, religiously‑committed students interested in studying Talmud, but lacking? the facility with Hebrew to use even the Steinsaltz Hebrew edition probably also do not have the background in Torah and Mishnah to make Talmud study worthwhile, and should be encouraged to acquire the latter first; along with it will come the needed knowledge of Hebrew, which would also make the English edition unnecessary.

Indeed, Rabbi Steinsaltz has said that Bava Metzia is aimed at Jews who are not religiously committed but who might be brought around through the intellectual approach of Talmud study,; certainly Random House is not in the business of selling books of interest only to religious Jews. But one wonders whether Talmud study can be more than an academic exercise to a person who does not believe that the commandments, the mitzvot, are divinely ordained, a belief doctrinally rejected by the Reform movement and honored only in the breach by most of the Conservative movement. 

Let us hope that Random House and Rabbi Steinsaltz are right and that many non‑observant Jews will be moved to purchase ‑ and study ‑ Bava Metzia. But I hope that the project eventually takes on a somewhat different shape. Initial news reports suggested that Rabbi Steinsaltz had agreed to translate the entire Talmud into English. According to recent reports, however, Random House has committed to publishing only Bava Metzia and will then decide what to do next. Perhaps Random House should consider publishing only the translation‑paraphrase, perhaps with facing pages from the Vilna edition, deleting most of the footnotes, the literal translation, the punctuated Hebrew text and Rashi's commentary. The resulting project would be completed much more quickly and would be much more affordable.

Orrin Tilevitz is an attorney in Brooklyn.



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