Review of Koren Publishers’ Steinsaltz Reference Guide to the Talmud

This is the promised review of the newly released Koren Publishers’ Reference Guide to the Talmud. I know, I know, I promised at some point to continue the Constructing a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism series; that promise stands. I have a second post partly composed, but I need to get through a few rabbinical school-related tasks before I can return to that; it will be a few weeks yet, I think.

So–onto the review. 

Photo comparing volume sizes to iPhone

Koren and Random House Reference Guides compared to traditional Talmud volume and iPhone 4

This is a new version of the translation from Hebrew of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s Guide to Talmud Study, which is a companion piece to Steinsaltz’s Modern Hebrew translation/commentary/elucidation of the Talmud. The guide was originally published in English in 1989, as part of Random House’s partially complete (and eventually aborted) project to translate/interpret the Hebrew Steinsaltz Talmud in an English edition. The effort to bring the Steinsaltz materials to an English-speaking audience has been taken up by Koren, which publishes its Noe series. (Koren also publishes a couple of different version of the Steinsaltz Hebrew commentary, including one that, like the Artscroll Talmud, puts the commentary on a page facing the Vilna Romm printing of the Shas.)

I’ll start with an overview of what’s different, but in insignificant ways; after that, I’ll discuss what the most significant changes are, and assess them.

The Minor Stuff

Much of what’s in the new edition is essentially retranslation and, to some extent, reordering of chapters. For example, the new edition (I’ll call it “NE” and use that to refer to page numbers) uses de facto and de jure in the article on the history of the Talmudic period, where the old edition (“OE”) used “in fact” and “in name” for the same phrases. NE uses some softer-edged language in places, describing a talmudic sugya as not proceeding “systematically” from easier to harder issues; OE described this as not proceeding “logically.” Some of this almost certainly reflects a change in expected audience: the Random House project was a much more mass-market affair, and in most of the English-speaking world we think it logical to proceed from easy to hard in educational contexts. The translation choice of “logically” in OE captures that difference from a mass-market Jewish perspective from back when people who bought Jewish books when to mass-market bookstores to browse. (Remember those days!?)

Not every translation choice makes a tremendous amount of sense, however. For example, in discussing how Talmud study occurs, OE stated that it is only in “the most Orthodox” environments that the continued, intensive oral study of Talmud happens. (OE p. 80) NE says “ultra-Orthodox” here. (NE p. 121) That’s a curious decision, though perhaps it, too, reflects its audience, as the majority of purchasers of Koren products are likely Orthodox; supposing them not to be among the “most Orthodox” doesn’t quite suit, I suppose, though I can’t see how “ultra-Orthodox” makes sense, either. Perhaps simply saying haredi, which the likely audience of NE would know, would have been better?

The Major Stuff

Now, for the big changes. The best way of assessing this was to use NE and OE together to study some Talmud. I chose a text with which I was already very familiar, Berakhot 2a (the first full amud of Talmud I studied in my first year of graduate school).

There has obviously been some error correction in NE. Not all of the Hebrew/Aramaic terminology in OE was correctly spelled. This became very clear when I worked with NE on Berakhot 2a, looking up each talmudic term of argument and logic. Near the bottom of the Gemara on 2a, in a discussion of why the Mishnah starts with a discussion of the evening Shema, we find this discussion:

The tanna in the Mishnah said [when setting forth when the time for recitation of the evening Shema begins], “From the time that the priests [who had been ritually impure and have, by virtue of appropriate sacrifices, immersion in the mikveh, and passage of time become pure] go in to eat their teruma [which they cannot eat while ritually impure].” Now, when do the priests go in to eat teruma? From the time that the stars come out. [Since that is] so, the tanna should have taught [that the time for reading the Shema] is when the stars come out! This [teaching of the tanna] comes along to tell us something in addition [to the plain sense of what it says–that is, it’s not the seeming misdirected statement it might be; the Aramaic here is milta agav orchei kamashma lan, which we’ll return to in a bit]. When do priests go inside to eat teruma? From when the stars come out. And this teaches us that [not having offered] the kapparah [sacrifice] does not prevent [the priest from being pure enough to eat teruma; i.e., immersion and the passage of the appointed time are necessary for the priest to be sufficiently pure to eat teruma, but the sacrifice is not necessary; this is proved through a bit more argumentation from scripture and a baraita].

This was a big chunk of material to talk about a correction, and I apologize for that bit. Here’s the correction: in OE, the bit of Aramaic for teaching an additional point is presented as agav orcha kamashma lan; in NE, the Aramaic is presented as agav orchei kamashma lan. The NE is correct; the OE is not. This seems inconsequential–what’s “a” (pronounced “ah”) versus “ei” (pronounced like the “ay” in “clay”), after all?–except that the consequence is referring to an entirely different gender in Aramaic, and maybe the wrong word or concept in the argument!

It’s not only that there are corrections. One of the most useful bits of both editions is a section that provides an extensive listing of halakhic concepts. In each, the terms are arranged alphabetically. In OE, all the concepts–no matter what they are about–are just lumped into a big pool, to be consulted not unlike a dictionary. In NE, however, these are arranged by the order of the Talmud in which they appear, and also by subject within those orders. So there are terms that relate, in Seder Zeraim (which includes tractate Berakhot), to prayer. These are separated out from those that refer to reading the Torah, etc.

The upshot of this is that it’s possible to start working on a tractate and keep in mind–and readily at hand–the core concepts associated with the Mishnah and Gemara in a particular subject without having to search endlessly for those concepts in the undifferentiated 125 pages of text in which these were contained in OE. This is, I think, the single most important change from OE to NE–and an incredibly beneficial change, at that.

This isn’t simply a nice-to-have thing. One of the most significant problems for a new student of Talmud–or even someone new to a particular tractate–is that there is no differentiation of levels of competence in the text of the Talmud. The text assumes that, at any point, you know all the issues at stake, and so having the ability to know and load easily into memory the concepts most at stake in the texts you’ve chosen to study is invaluable. There wasn’t really a reference source that did this well until NE, I think, and that change alone makes the book worth purchasing for anyone engaged in studying Talmud at an entry level–and probably for those involved with teaching these students.

Comparison of Random House and Koren Reference Guides for thickness

Random House and Koren Reference Guides from the side; iPhone 4 provided for comparison

Note, though, that the substance of the definitions in all areas of NE have not been updated from the 1989 version (since it’s largely a retranslation and emendation of the results of an existing work). This means that, while NE has some heft, its definitions are accurate but not always extensive; serious Talmud students at all levels will still need a copy of Frank’s Practical Talmud Dictionary to navigate less common terms or to grasp some of the more nuanced uses of argumentative and technical phrases.

So, my advice? This is probably a “buy.” (In fact, I’m considering selling my OE, since its material is almost 25 years old, but I can see situations where the thinner profile of OE would fit better in a bag. So I’m torn.)

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