[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: An English Talmud for Daily Readers and Debaters

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An English Talmud for Daily Readers and Debaters
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.2.10


    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
    follows along.

    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
    Talmudic concepts.

    "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
    current cycle.)

    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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