Sunday, November 02, 2014

In Praise of ArtScroll

Tractate Yevamos - currently being studied in Daf Yomi
I find it curious that a simple criticism of a publisher about one aspect of his work has generated so many negative comments about him and his publishing house. I am in fact very disappointed in that. Because I have nothing but the highest regard for what Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz have accomplished. I am in awe of them. They have revolutionized the religious publishing industry and have created a ‘monster’ of a publishing house.

Please understand that I am not minimizing my criticism of their biography series. I feel very strongly that ArtScroll biographies shortchange their readership by omitting challenges that their subjects faced - painting them all as saints from womb to tomb. This is a serious flaw in my view. But to say that this is the sum and substance of ArtScroll would be a major mischaracterization of what they have accomplished. There is no question that their magnum opus is the ArtScroll Talmud Bavli - sometimes called Shas Bavli.

If they published nothing else, their Shas Talmud Bavli (circa 500 CE) is an achievement of unprecedented proportion in the anals of publishing. This is not some quicky half-hearted translation. It is a meticulous painstaking translation and elucidation of the entire repository of oral law that took years to complete. ArtScroll recruited some of the finest Talimdei Chacham (scholars of the Talmud) available to work on it full time steadily for years.

Shas (Bavli) is the Hebrew acronym for Shishe Sidrei Mishna - the six orders of the Mishna. The Mishna was the first written version of oral law as stated by Tanamim (sages circa 10 – 220 CE). It was written in somewhat abbreviated form and it recorded disputes among the Tanaim. The Talmud is the later discussion and debate about these Mishnayos. The Talmud is also  the repository for much of Jewish culture of the time; a bit of its history; the and lifestyles led by the Jewish people as well as the gentiles of their time.

It contains discussions of biblical passages using the rules of exegesis to derive conclusions about Jewish law.  The Talmud was written with no punctuation and is often difficult to understand by way of a simple reading – even if one masters the Aramaic in which it was written.  Much of it entails difficult to follow logic and/or mathematics and requires studying the classic commentators (like Rashi and the Tosaphists) just to get a basic understanding of a Talmudic passage. This only scratches the surface of what it is like to study , let alone master the Talmud.

Needless to say it takes many years just to master the technique to study it let alone to study it in full and understand it.  Medieval commentators have written many volumes of their own trying to do just that. As have more recent commentators.

So complex is their interpretation that many version of the laws derived of the Talmud have been published. Perhaps the most famous of these is Maimonidies’ Yad Hachazaka - often referred to by the Hebrew acronym of his name:  RMoshe Ben Maimom – the Rambam. The culminating volume of this was written about 450 years ago by R’ Yosef Karo and is commonly referred to as the Shulchan Aruch. This is what Jewish law is based upon today. The Shulchan Aruch which is what we follow today - which include glosses by R’ Moshe Isserles (Rema) for those of us of European heritage. And even that was not the last word on Halacha as later commentators add their own understanding which in some cases revise Jewish law as stated in the Shulchan Aruch by R’ Karo and the Rema.

And I haven’t even scratched the surface of how difficult a task it was for ArtScroll to embark upon and this project and bring it to its highly successful conclusion.

Talmidei Chachamim were well paid in order in order to assure complete devotion as a full time vocation for the duration of the project. This included many revisions and corrections suggested by editors that were talmidie Chachamim in their own right.  They also made sure that their English elucidation was written with proper English grammar in clear language - uniform across the entire 72 volume set.   

All of that investment in time and money has paid off. There has been an explosion of Talmud study by laymen since they have competed this project. More laypeople than ever are studying Daf Yomi. Daf Yomi is a concept (attributed to Rabbi Meir Shapiro) where a single Daf or Blatt (leaf – 2 sides of a page) is studied per day by everyone. It tales about 7 ½  years to complete Shas. While this does not replace the hard work required to really understand Shas, it serves to allow laypeople to ‘swim the sea of talmud’ and to get a feel for what Talmud study really is. If anything it makes me appreciate exactly how much I don’t know!

While there are many reasons for this increased level of Talmud study, no one can deny – nor should they minimize ArtScroll’s part in this. The ArtScroll Shas Bavli can be seen in Shuls everywhere. Just about every everyone attending a Daf Yomi Shiur can be seen using an ArtScroll Gemarah. There was in fact a humorous picture photo-shopped during the Bush-4 era of President Bush carrying an ArtScroll Gemarah – looking as though he was on his way to a Daf Yomi Shiur.

The ArtScroll Shas has been made available in Hebrew and French. As I indicated - I study Daf Yomi. I use an ArtScroll.  I prefer the Hebrew ArtScroll when I can find it. I find it easier to use with my Yeshiva background. I make no apologies, however, for using an ArtScroll Gemarah in either language. And I am grateful to Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz for initiating and completing this project. It took a lot of courage and determination to do it. Kol HaKavod

The only caveat is that the ArtScroll Talumd Bavli should not necessarily be considered the only legitimate elucidation. A true understanding of Shas can only come with years of diligent  study in the original Aramaic - using commentators like Rashi and Tosophos among others. But there is not a scintilla of doubt about what Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz have accomplished here. In my view, their place in the world to come is assured.

There have been other translations and elucidations of Shas. Some of them very good. The Koren Talmud Bavli by Rabbi Adin Shteinsatz comes to mind. It contains features that the ArtScroll Shas does not. Like little bios about the Amoraim mentioned on the page. But in my view, ArtScroll volume is the overall much better tome.

What about ArtScroll’s faulty bios? Small potatoes in comparison to their achievement with the ArtScroll Shas. Besides - I  do not necessarily even recommend a complete avoidance of their biography series. I have read quite a few of them and have enjoyed them. But they should be read with a grain of salt – realizing that they are incomplete - and only a flattering depiction of the lives their subjects led. Which is unrealistic. I know that there is a lot more to the subject of an ArtScroll bio than what is written in it. This is how I approach them. I think that this is how everyone should approach them.