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First impressions of the Koren English Talmud

May 31, 2012

I’ve had my copy of Tractate Berachos in the new Koren English Talmud for all of about fifteen minutes now.   It is a translation of Adin Steinsaltz’s Hebrew version of the Talmud, and we first discussed it here on BLT.  Obviously, I haven’t been able to read it length, but I do have some initial impressions that I would like to share:

  • The volume is laid out beautifully.  But I still prefer the layout of the old Random House translation of Steinsaltz’s volume more.  The old Random House edition had much better paper, gilded edging, but in terms of content, it had the Aramaic (with nikkud vowelization), a literal translation, Steinsaltz’s expanded translation (with the “original words” being highlighted in bold and “elucidation” not highlighted), and notes of many types (halacha, personalities, background, other notes, etc.)  The new English Koren volume includes most of these elements but omits the “literal translation.”  That’s a very great pity, and I regret it.
  • On the other hand, the English Koren volume is much more compact – Tractate Berachos goes through amud 64A (125 folio pages in the original) and the translation fit into xviii+419 pages.  The Koren is a single volume, compared with Artscroll’s two volumes.
  • The English Koren is a bargain.  The current Amazon price is $29.22 (even cheaper for the Daf Yomi edition, which may have print that is too small to read and certainly lacks color) but it also includes a coupon for a $10 rebate (expiring August 31, 2012).  Let me repeat that point because I wanted to make it clear to those who might skim this post:

The volume includes a coupon for a $10 rebate.

  • The English Koren has color illustrations.  This turns out to be very nice, and not at all tacky as I feared.  On the other hand, the translucent color dustjacket is certain to be ripped soon, which is a pity, because it is so beautiful. 
  • Unlike the Artscroll, the contributors to the volume are explicitly named.  I was interested to see that there were women involved in the production of the volume (e.g., the translators include an “Amy Fay Kaplan Benoff” and a “Eliana Kinderlehrer Silver”; the editors include a “Sally Mayer” and the language consultant for Greek and Latin was a “Dr. Stephanie E. Binder.”  “Dr. Shai Secunda,” of The Talmud Blog was the Persian language consultant.  (Other than Binder and Secunda, no one else with the honorific “Dr.” is listed as being involved with the production of this volume, although there fourteen people with the title “Rabbi” (sixteen if one counts one who assisted with “images” and another who assisted with the “digital edition.”)
  • The haskamos (rabbinical approbations/endorsements) are a bit misleading.  They are from Moshe Feinstein (died 1986), Menachem Mendel Schneerson (died 1994; also recall that Adin Steinsaltz is a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe), Moshe Zvi Neria (died 1996), and Mordechai Eliyahu (who died in 2010, but the haskama is dated 7 Tishrei 5754 = 22 September 1993).  In other words, none of the haskamos are current – they are all for the Hebrew version – although it is clear that a significant amount must have changed between the Hebrew and English version.
  • No Ashkenazi pronunciation here – everything is transliterated in Modern Israeli Hebrew pronunciation; although I found it interesting that the Kaddish to be said at the siyum (printed on page 418) of this volume included both the Nusach Ashkenaz and Nusach Sephard variation; the Artscroll only gives the Ashkenazi version.
  • The blessing (including the line “may I not stumble in a matter of law and cause my colleagues to rejoice over me”) printed on the inside covers of the Artscroll are missing here – which is a good thing, in my opinion.  (Actually, this line is from Berachos 28b, so I looked it up in the Koren gemara – there it is expressed as “rejoice in me”
  • The Hebrew part is de-emphasized compared to the Artscroll.  For example, look at the long quote from Deuteronomy on p. 119 (at the start of Perek (Chapter) III).  There is no Hebrew, and even the book name Deuteronomy is not transliterated as Devarim.  Also sadly missing is the mixed Hebrew/English style of the Artscroll, which very much resembled a classical shiur presentation (the lecturer first reading the Hebrew and then translating it.)
  • The introductions are much more concise than the Artscroll introductions, and the notes contain less information (although, arguably, the information in the English Koren is better organized).  This certainly looks like a simpler volume to read than the Artscroll, and I can almost imagine reading it as pleasure reading.
  • There are some poor design decisions.  Most pages have three columns:  notes, Hebrew/Aramaic (with nikkud vowelization) and English translation.  These columns vary in width (compare the width of the notes on p. 121 and p. 123, for instance).  The print is a bit small, and the decision to print the notes in a small san-serif font is especially regrettable – while it makes the notes easy to recognize, it also makes them hard to read.
  • Especially welcome are the many indices in the back of the Koren – the “Index of Background,” “Index of Language,” and “Index of Personalities.”  (The indices are bilingual but arranged in Hebrew alphabetical order.)   On the other hand, the Artscroll has a (somewhat useful) glossary and a Scriptural index.
  • The Vilna layout is not nearly as convenient in the English Koren as it is as the Artscroll.  The Artscroll opens like a Hebrew book, and each double page contains one side the Vilna layout and on the other side the Hebrew-English explanation.  Since in most cases the English goes on for several pages for each Vilna page, that means there are multiple reproductions of each Vilna page, and highlighting in the margin indicates where one is on the Vilna page.  In contrast, the English Koren opens from both sides – if one opens it up as an English book, one gets the main part of the text.  When one opens it up as a Hebrew book one gets the Vilna text.  This means that going back and forth is not nearly as convenient – one needs to keep on flipping pages.  That is made somewhat easier by page cross references both in the main part of the book and on the Vilna pages
  • However, the Vilna text has nikkudos (vowels) – not only for the main Mishna/Gemara, but also for the Rashi (which is printed in Rashi script, but with nikkudos).  Tosafos still appears without any vowels. 
  • The page layout of the Vilna edition on the book pages is a bit weird – the margin at the top is super small (less than a quarter of an inch).  On the other hand, this allows room for the cross reference indexing on the bottom.  The main part of the text is very comfortably laid out, and there is plenty of margin room to add notes.
  • The Koren volumes have two ribbons (red and blue) which is necessary – one to keep one’s place in the main text, the other to keep one’s place in the Vilna pages.  Artscroll volumes only have one ribbon (but arguably, only need one ribbon.)
  • Based on a very small sampling of the English Koren text, it is considerably less hectoring and has fewer weird-Haredi-isms compared to the Artscroll.  (This is not to say that the Koren is in anyway a “liberal” translation; but it seems well matched to the general Modern Orthodox orientation of Koren.)  It is also nicely self-contained.
  • On the downside, the English Koren text has relatively little about later interpretations – these only appear in the halachic notes, and then mostly refer to very standard sources such as Rambam and Shulchan Aruch.
  • Sadly, my favorite volume in the entire Steinsaltz Talmud, the Reference Guide, appears to be missing entirely form the English Koren translation.  It is out of print with Random House too, although it is available used. 
  • Both the Artscroll and the new English Koren are scheduled to be released soon in digital versions for platforms such as the iPad.
  • Overall, my initial impression is that English Koren is much more user-friendly text than the Artscroll, and is especially well suited to those who are not expert or who have to struggle a bit to keep up with the daily “Daf Yomi” reading schedule.  I think Artscroll has some serious competition on its hands.

I hope to soon post a more detailed comment about the relative content of the English Koren and the Artscroll editions.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2012 4:40 am

    It seems from the Koren brochure that they will be coming with the reference guide shortly

  2. June 1, 2012 11:26 am

    Interesting — I haven’t seen that brochure and could not find mention of it online. But I hope that they do publish it — it is quite useful (for anyone reading any edition of the Talmud.)

  3. June 4, 2012 8:17 am

    An audio interview with Raphael Freeman, head graphic designer for the new Koren Talmud.

    http://blog.webyeshiva.org/podcast/the-koren-talmud-bavli-with-rav-steinsaltz-commentaryscusses

  4. June 4, 2012 12:57 pm

    Thanks Courtney! I think the stuff that comes out of webyeshiva is pretty uneven sometimes, but I consistently like the Jeffrey Saks interviews and audio book reviews that come out as part of it “educator series” — including the entry you mentioned.

    (In fact, I was planning to refer to the interview immediately preceding it: “Shaul Stampfer and the History of Jewish Education” — I have almost finished reading Stampfer’s books and they portray many aspects of 19th century Eastern Europe that are not very well known. I particularly liked his discussion about the roles of men and women in that society and how they are in so many ways the opposite of modern preconceptions.)

    I’m going to listen the Raphael Freeman interview now.

  5. June 4, 2012 1:44 pm

    I have just finished listening to the Freeman interview. It was interesting, but did not describe as many of design decisions as I had hoped.

    Freeman described the path of one type of reader, who knows some Hebrew/Aramaic and attends a daily shiur. Freeman described that path for the reader (here, I will use male pronouns, but I meant to be understood as also applying to women): he first reads the Hebrew/Aramaic in the main body of the text first. When he find words he does not know, he looks at the English column to gain an understanding. If he does not understand a particular sugya, again, he looks to the English column (based on the Rashi) to understand it. Meanwhile, he also reads Steinsaltz’s notes to identify certain historical background, certain personalities, and basic halachic implications. Now, this reader is able to attend his daily shiur, and follow along on the Vilna page.

    Freeman also mentions that other paths through the text are possible, for readers who do not know Hebrew/Aramaic, for example.

    I think that the Artscroll has a different philosophy. To me, the Artscroll reads a lot like the transcript of a shiur. The Hebrew/Aramaic is mixed freely with the English, so that first the Hebrew/Aramaic is read, and then an expanded version of that is given in English, with various side remarks being put into the copious footnotes. When I listen to a Daf Yomi shiur, for example, it is often very easy to follow along in the Artscroll, and when I miss a Daf Yomi shiur, I feel like the Artscroll can replace that shiur.

    My initial impression is that the Artscroll is trying to do more than the Koren. But sometimes is less is more too, and I can certainly see how reading the Koren could be a more focused learning experience than working through the Artscroll. And then, of course, there are the ideological issues driving both sets of publishers — roughly a Haredi vs Modern Orthodox approach.

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  1. Artscroll versus Koren: censored text « BLT
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