Friday, October 26, 2018

The Steinzaltz Humash

By Paul Shaviv

Although I have done so in the past, I do not usually publish book reviews. But when I believe the occasion warrants it, I do. This is one of those occasions. The Koren Steinzaltz Humash has been reviewed by renowned Jewish educator, Paul Shaviv. Although he is probably too modest to say so, Paul is one of the top Jewish educators in all of North America. His experience and expert advice is sought everywhere. He submitted a review of this new publication and I am happy to publish it. His words follow.

Accessible, elegant and user-friendly commentary – the new Koren Steinsaltz Humash.

·         You can see sample pages and layouts at this link

Koren publishers, now more or less established as the major publishing house of modern, or enlightened Orthodoxy (Sacks and Steinsaltz are their leading authors), has just published a one-volume Humash with an English commentary by Rabbi Steinsaltz. 

It is an important event.

Let me say at the outset that my comments here are in the capacity as a ‘consumer’ – not a Biblical scholar.  The volume is clearly designed for the pews of the Anglo synagogue, next to the Koren siddur and the Koren machzorim.  It deserves its place!

There are several things that the Steinsaltz Humash is not.   It is not a rival to Artscroll, but an alternative.  They are two different products.  It is not an anthology of commentaries; it is the ‘pshat’ of the Humash seen through the distinctive eyes of Rav Steinsaltz, and presented in his characteristic (and compelling) style.  It is not controversial; nor is it dogmatic. 

There are several elements to the work.  The main element is, of course, the Commentary.  This is presented in the style pioneered by Rav Steinsaltz in his original Hebrew Talmud.  The translation of the text, in bold print, is interweaved with a running commentary/elaboration in plain print.  The result, which might take a few minutes to get used to, is actually compelling.  It is rather like sitting and listening to a master teacher giving a continuous shiur on the parashah.  The reader does not have to continually turn away from the translation to read an explanation at the foot of the page , although the distinction between text and commentary remains typographically very clear.  

This is Chumash through the eyes (and considerable mind) of a Gadol.  The language is fluent and contemporary.  Rav Steinsaltz skillfully and artistically inserts traditional background and narrative, explaining and amplifying the pshat.  He has a major skill – the commentary is neither too complex nor too simple, at least for me.  It should be emphasized that all of his sources are traditional; Talmud, Midrashim, Targumim etc.  There is nothing radical in the commentary.   This style means that the reader does not have to continually turn away from the translation to read an explanation at the foot of the page; once you have got used to that, it is attractive.

The second element are the items marked ‘D’, for ‘Discussion’.  These are short pieces, listed by pasuk, at the foot of most pages, and are elaboration, exploration or discussion of more complex issues generated in the text which are not dealt with in the commentary.  It might be suggested that the title for these pieces –‘Discussion’ – suggests that they provide material for Friday-night table talk; but in fact that is not so.  However, they are, again, clearly written and informative.  (As a whole, the standard of English in the work is altogether clear and elegant.)  

In addition to the “Discussion’ references, there are small numerals scattered in the commentary.  These refer to notes of sources on which the commentary is based.  For some reason, these notes are right at the end of the book, when they should have been footnotes on the relevant page.  They are also very brief, and mostly general (“See Ramban”).  Almost all are from Chazal or medieval sources.  S.R. Hirsch, Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, Dovid Tzi Mecklenburgh are occasionally cited.  A brief survey of the list of references (I may have missed some) showed only two 20th century authors – fascinatingly, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, whose essay in English on Ber. 18:32 is fully cited (on the concept of Morality separate from Revelation), and a brief reference which I think is to Eliahu Ki-Tov’s Sefer ha-Parshiot.

As expected from Koren-Steinsaltz, there are numerous notes, photos and illustrations of realia, archaeologia, flora, and fauna.  These range from the really helpful to the occasionally banal – a glum-looking cow stares out from p.540 simply labelled ‘Cattle’!

Finally, a full pointed, reset, punctuated Rashi is provided.  This is a delight, but who is it for?  If you can understand Rashi, you could probably cope with the original Ivrit edition of the Humash/commentary….

A couple of gripes.  There is no Index, which I think is a mistake.  The Haftarot (each with a few lines of introduction) are simply given in translation.  The Introduction explains that the commentary and notes were left out ‘for reasons of space’.  Another mistake; for Mr/Ms average English-speaking shul-goer, the Haftarot need far more explanation than the Parashah.  (A companion volume of Haftarot would be good…)

But altogether, this is an excellent production.  It is very accessible and user-friendly. It does not have the dogmatic style of Artscroll; and is more fluent than the late Arye Kaplan’s ‘Living Torah’ (which can still be used with profit).  It is neither overburdened nor underburdened with scholarship, which means it will sit comfortably in a wide spectrum of denominational pews.  Brief introductions to parshiot and themed sections are to the point and lucid.  I enjoyed it!

The Koren Steinsaltz Humash. 2018 / 1,311pp/ approx.. $50.00