[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: An English Talmud for Daily Readers and Debaters
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Thu Apr 14 19:27:17 UTC 2005
An English Talmud for Daily Readers and Debaters
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.2.10
By JOSEPH BERGER
Every day, tens of thousands of yeshiva students sit hunched over
dog-eared volumes of the Talmud, arguing the text in an ancient melody
they punctuate with raised thumbs. But the about-to-be-completed
73-volume Schottenstein edition, the first full English version in
half a century, is not intended for them, its editor, Rabbi Nosson
Scherman, explained with Talmudic paradox.
"They'll never study on their own if they use a crutch," he said,
urging such students to wrestle with the Talmud's original mixture of
Aramaic and Hebrew. "It's like any intellectual pursuit, like science.
If you're not racking your brain to figure things out, you'll never
become a scientist."
There is a growing primary audience for the Schottenstein edition,
however, one that the Brooklyn-based ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications
believes justifies the $21-million investment in the project.
Each day, more than 100,000 Jews worldwide use their early-morning,
lunchtime or evening hours to study the same two sides of a page of
Talmud, fulfilling the Jewish belief in study for its own sake, until
all 38 books of the Talmud are completed. The process, known in Hebrew
as "Daf Yomi" ("Page a Day"), lasts seven and a half years. And then
it begins again.
For 14 years, there has been a daily class on the 7:51 a.m. train from
Far Rockaway to Penn Station, with 15 to 20 commuters - accountants,
lawyers, diamond dealers - taking over a section of the rear car,
their lessons interrupted only by the conductor's chant for tickets.
The regulars are all men, though a woman sometimes sits nearby and
Many who participate in the daily study have never delved into Talmud
before; some others are rusty scholars. For both groups, as well as
for yeshiva students pining for an aid, the Schottenstein, with its
anthology of classic commentators like the 11th-century Rashi, allows
them to penetrate the compilation of rabbinic debates, analyses and
The Schottenstein edition is not simply a word-for-word transcription,
but also fills in the logical gaps in the clipped, telegram-like
Talmudic language, with the insertions rendered in a lighter font. For
adjoining "notes," 80 contributing scholars assembled commentaries
from a variety of towering authorities. A ceremony to present a
virtually complete Talmud set to the Library of Congress was scheduled
for yesterday evening.
"There's no question in my mind that the expansion of the Daf Yomi
today is a great deal due to the Schottenstein," said Rabbi Pesach
Lerner, the leader of the bumpy Long Island Rail Road class.
Students of the Daf Yomi have repaid the favor; some of the 72 volumes
published so far have already sold 90,000 copies. Each volume has a
list price of $50, with an entire burgundy-covered set totaling
The Babylonian Talmud is the record of the rabbinic arguments in the
great academies of Babylonia (modern-day Iraq) between roughly A.D.
200 and 500 on laws governing daily blessings, holidays, marriage
contracts, kosher slaughter, business transactions, torts, marital
relations and dozens of other aspects of observant life. (There is
also a shorter Jerusalem Talmud, covering debates among rabbis in
ancient Palestine, which ArtScroll is about to publish, too.)
The Talmud, or oral law, includes the Mishnah, a six-part Hebrew
compilation finished around A.D. 200, but in popular parlance Talmud
usually refers to the 38 volumes of the Gemara, in which later
rabbinic generations used the Mishnah's bare-bones argumentation as a
springboard for more razor-sharp parsing of logic. The Gemara's
volumes are known as tractates, with each page containing the text of
the Babylonian debates in the center, surrounded by later
The tractate Bava Metzia (the Middle Gate), for example, opens with an
examination of what happens if two people come before a court sparring
over a cloak, with each claiming he found it first and saying, "It is
all mine." The Gemara rabbis probe what the earlier Mishna rabbis
meant by the term "finding." Is it simply seeing the disputed object
first, or is physical possession necessary? Like judges analyzing
Supreme Court decisions for precedents, they deduce from the Mishna's
language that by adding the statement "It is all mine," the Mishna
rabbis meant that merely seeing an object is not acquiring it.
But since there were no witnesses to the cloak's discovery, how can
you prove possession? The rabbis require an oath by each litigant that
he owns at least half. Since it is possible that the two litigants
picked the cloak up simultaneously, the rabbis do not want to put
either one in the position of swearing a false oath.
So labyrinthine is the discussion that Rabbi Scherman - when he is not
wryly comparing it to Bill Clinton's parsing of the meaning of "is" -
likes to compare the Talmud's text to the 14th Amendment, in which two
words like "due process" have resulted in hundreds of volumes of
Some Jews spend their mature lives grappling with Talmud, rendering it
virtually the sole subject of their adult learning. They do so not
just to hone their intellects but also in the belief that such study,
even if the topics themselves are archaic, will teach them principles
that can sustain their character and values.
The last complete English translation was published between 1935 and
1952 by Soncino Press, a 75-year-old British firm now located in
Brooklyn. But the 30-volume Soncino is mostly a translation with
footnotes, not a line-by-line commentary that can sustain self-study.
The Israeli scholar Adin Steinsaltz is perhaps five years away from
completing a 47-volume Hebrew edition aimed largely at secular
Israelis. Random House has translated a portion of that in 21 English
volumes, but has no plans to publish more. Rabbi Steinsaltz said in an
interview that his work is designed to accommodate even beginners with
"the lowest level of knowledge." It provides background like
biographies of the various rabbinic commentators and explanations of
"My idea was that I'm trying to substitute a book for a living
teacher," he said.
ArtScroll, which primarily serves Orthodox Jews, was started in 1976
by Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, a printer of invitations and brochures, who
has built the company into one of the nation's largest publishers of
Jewish religious books. It began publishing the Talmud in 1990 with
the volume Makkot (Corporal Punishment), a tractate in the middle of
the Talmud sequence but among the shortest.
"Once Makkot was accepted and people liked the idea, from that point
on we decided to publish everything in sync with Daf Yomi," Rabbi
Scherman said. (The cycle was started on the Jewish New Year in 1923
and has continued uninterrupted since. On March 1, tens of thousands
are expected to pack Madison Square Garden and the Continental
Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands to celebrate the completion of the
In the Schottenstein edition, the original text is often repeated on
three and four pages so the far wordier English translation and
commentary on the facing pages can catch up. That explains why the
finished set has almost twice as many volumes as the Gemara itself.
There are also occasional diagrams, like the anatomy of animals to
illustrate kosher slaughtering.
The guidelines that governed the translation and commentary were
conceived by Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm, a Monsey, N.Y., scholar who died in
1993, three years after the project began. The last volume, Yevamot,
about the Biblical custom of having a man marry his dead brother's
childless widow, is in galley form and should be ready for the
celebration of the conclusion of the Daf Yomi cycle.
The publishing process has been costly - $250,000 a volume - and that
explains a basic mystery of the undertaking: Why is it called
"Schottenstein"? Rabbi Scherman said that ArtScroll realized that
sales would never cover the costs, and enlisted donors. Jerome M.
Schottenstein, an Orthodox Jew who had studied the Gemara at Yeshiva
University High School for Boys in Manhattan in the 1940's and went on
to found a department store empire based in Columbus, Ohio, financed a
large share of the project; since his death, in 1992, his family has
sustained the gift.
While the Schottenstein and Steinsaltz Talmuds may be regarded as
rivals, a Talmudist will appreciate the apparent contradiction in one
additional event: Rabbi Steinsaltz will appear in April at the Yeshiva
University Museum to give a memorial lecture honoring Jerome
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