Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Talmud - Soncino, ArtScroll, and Koren

I receive a lot of books in the mail with a request to review them. The truth is that as much as I would like to read all of them and write reviews, I do not have that kind of time. But on occasion I do read one and write a review. Last Friday I received a copy of the Koren Talmud Bavli, Volume One - Meseches Berakhot.  One may have noticed the massive publicity campaign by Koren.

First let me say that I prefer the Hebrew versions of these ‘elucidation’ type translations. The Talmud is written mostly in Aramaic without vowelization or punctuation. Some times in cryptic form. In order to understand it, one needs to look in the commentaries like Rashi that translate, expand, and explain various words and passages.  

The Hebrew elucidation versions of Shas use these commentaries and often incorporate portions of them into the text printed on a page facing the original unaltered text. It’s kind a ‘cheaters’ version of learning Gemarah.  Having attended Yeshivos and studying the Talmud common words and expressions used by the Gemarah become integrated into the English used during Talmud study.

The Hebrew versions make the Gemarah easier to study since those words are part of the lexicon of the Yeshiva student. For example, using the word Tameh is much easier for me than using the term ritual impurity when discussing the Talmud.  There are several versions of this kind of Sefer - The ArtScroll Hebrew edition, Chavrusa,  Mesivta, and  my personal favorite, V’Shinantom among them.

That said, I admit to owning the entire ArtScroll English language Shas Bavli (The Babylonian Talmud). The completion of the ArtScroll Shas was a monumental achievement. Although Shas Bavli was first translated into English by Soncino Press, I found that it was often more confusing than simply working out the Pshat (meaning) the old fashioned way.

ArtScroll did more than translate Shas Bavli. They employed  many Talmidei Chachamim who used their expertise in combing a great many resources available to them. They then explained the meaning of every passage in the Talmud as clearly as they could in the English language using a consistent style of expression throughout and adding footnotes for additional clarity.

One would think that this was it! The epitome of all English language versions of Shas Bavli has been achieved. But one would be wrong.

There is a new kid on the block. Well, not so new, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a Zaken and Talmid Chacham with few peers.  Rabbi Steinsaltz actually preceded ArtScroll – with the first Hebrew elucidation of Shas.

The original Steinsaltz Shas has the approbation of some of the greatest rabbinic figures of the 20th century, including Rav Moshe Feinstein, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, and former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu. The actual letters of approbation have been reproduced in the opening pages.

The Steinsaltz Shas has now been translated into English and elucidated by yet another group of Talmidei Chacahmim. Koren Publishers has just completed the Koren Talmud Bavli. It too is presented in a clear and concise way. But it is more than an elucidation.

The look of these volumes is very different than ArtScroll. The graphic design of its pages is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  Very pleasing to the eye.

Instead of having the classic Vilna page facing the English translation and elucidation – using multiple English pages to explain a single Vilna page - the Koren Shas has the entire Mesechta printed in one section. So when opened as a Hebrew Sefer one sees the classic Vilna Mesechta as originally published. Except that each word is vowelized and each passage punctuated.

When one turns the Sefer over and opens it as an English book one will see distinct Hebrew paragraphs on the left with English translations and elucidations on the right. What makes the Koren Talmud stand out is all the sidebar notes,

They are organized into various categories: background - about what the passage discusses; personalities - which are mini biographies of the people mentioned in the Mishnaic or Talmudic passage; and perhaps most importantly Halakha - extracting the actual Halacha as discussed by Rishonim like the Rambam and as redacted in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Editor in Chief is Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb; Senior Content Editor is Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger; andManaging Editor is Rabbi Joshua Schreier.

 As noted Berakhot is already out and according to the publisher each Meschta will be available prior to the Daf Yomi schedule. I believe this is a valuable new addition to any library and resource for both the beginner and the experienced student of the Talmud. The complete set will contain 41 volumes.