Steinsaltz is at it again.
When I was in Seventh Grade, my class learned Eilu Metziot, the second Chapter of Gemara Bava Metzia. Two beautiful new English-language editions of the Perek came on the market around that time. ArtScroll’s came with endless approbations, lengthy notes, and the classic Vilna Page facing the English pages. Steinsaltz was just out with his first offering of an English Gemara. His cream-colored page looked more scholarly, erudite, clean, and neat – all as compared to the hodge-podge of alternating bold and non-bold phrases and voluminous, technical notes cluttering up ArtScroll’s cacophonous page.
Because some of my family’s friends had teamed up and bought me all ten currently-available English Steinsaltz volumes for my recent Bar Mitzvah (there would eventually be something like twelve), this became my Gemara of choice. My friend Ariel, whose mother had purchased him the ArtScroll, became the official classroom advocate of that volume, and we went at it almost daily, each of us trying to prove the relative advantages of our own Gemara against the obvious setbacks of the other. Our Rebbe wanted nothing to do with any of this, because this was the dark ages when an English Gemara in a classroom was assumed to be an insult to the Rebbe. (I still take that stance.)
Steinsaltz has learned a few things since then: People like the Vilna page. Get it into fewer volumes – no one wants a ten-volume Bava Metzia. Add more Practical Halacha to the page. But even now, I accede to Ariel, though not for reasons that would have been understandable to either of us at the time. It turns out that ArtScroll’s chaotic and cluttered page is far closer to an accurate portrayal of what the Bavli is all about – and probably a more apt visual metaphor for the Bavli than the pretty pictures dotting the landscape of either Steinsaltz Gemara – the old one, or the new one, billed as “The New Koren Talmud,” part of that company’s odd new effort to exploit famous Anglos’ good names to gain a foothold in the lucrative American marketplace.
If you haven’t had a chance to preview Steinsaltz’s new English edition, think of it as ArtScroll’s ADHD younger brother. On the pages we are given to preview here, for example, we are supplied with glossy, high-definition pictures of bamboo shoots (necessary “background material” for understanding a Sugya which mentions that one should bow in prayer like a cane), in case we forgot what bamboo looked like since last Succot. I had a chance to spend time with the full volume in Teaneck last week, and I was amazed at how much work seems to have been invested to produce a gorgeous, high-gloss cross-section of a pomegranate, as if generations of Talmud learners had no idea how to understand the Sugya in question without this vital visual aid.
Once again, it seems as if Steinsaltz has missed the point. ArtScroll could put in pretty, full-color pictures too, and it would look just like Steinsaltz in five minutes. What distinguishes ArtScroll’s Gemara, however, is something altogether different and far more important. It is the feeling that a Rebbe is sitting right there with you, explaining the Gemara phrase by phrase, introducing each new step with a directional narrative (“The Gemara questions Rabbah’s assumption”). And yes, like a Rebbe in the middle of a class, or a bedroom in the process of being cleaned, ArtScroll’s “lecture” entails some clutter en route to building the clear, well-organized structure that emerges at the end. Steinsaltz has once again put his eggs in the basket of creating a clean, uncluttered Talmudic almanac or encyclopedia, filled with tidbits and pictures but without any evident pilot at the wheel, a Talmud void of any notion of its user being guided gently through the Talmudic jungle by an experienced guide or teacher. A quick look at the page reveals that rather than use the phrase-by-phrase concept that ArtScroll developed, such that one may at some point actually learn the meaning of a common phrase like הכא במאי עסקינן, Steinsaltz’s block-by-block translation doesn’t really allow for that possibility. Ideas and concepts may seep in, but not specific words and phrases, so we can be reasonably well-assured that its users will not become better learners and will depend on Steinsaltz forever. How odd that SteinSaltz, perhaps despite himself, has retained ArtScroll’s alternating bold/non-bold translation. What’s the point, really, if the English block corresponds so peripherally to the Aramaic?
Let’s get down to the specifics to see how Steinsaltz’s ersatz new Gemara does at elucidating the text – the following sample is copied from the free preview on Koren’s website which I linked to before.
It was taught in a baraita:
Rabbi Meir says that the day begins when one can distinguish between two similar animals, e.g., a wolf and a dog.
Rabbi Akiva provides a different sign, and says that the day begins when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a donkey and a wild donkey.
And Aĥerim say: When one can see another person, who is merely an acquaintance (Jerusalem Talmud) from a distance of four cubits.
Before going on, it should be noted that the bold phrases are rather haphazard, often not accounting for other Hebrew words which are also covered in the translation. Also, part of the genius of ArtScroll is that the bold phrases can be read independently of the non-bold phrases and still make sense. It doesn’t seem that Steinsaltz (or Koren? – like the Sacks Siddur, the division of labor is unclear to me) understands that. Overall, the writing here feels like a cheap ArtScroll knockoff, like buying “Niky” shoes on a New York street-corner. Notice the comma missing from the last sentence above. Is your friend merely an acquaintance when he is at a distance, until he comes closer? Is that the point? No? That kind of imprecision will hamper a clear presentation of a subject as complex as Gemara. For all of ArtScroll’s faults, and there are many, their Gemara volumes are surprisingly well-written. I am a finicky editor myself – I have trouble making it through a page of most of ArtScroll’s books – but I have found very few grammatical errors in their Gemara.
Proceeding to the “Background” notes: Steinsaltz felt that before learning this Sugya, it would be prudent to ensure that we learn all about donkeys – or sort of:
Wild donkey – ערור: The habitat of the wild donkey (Assinus onager) is in the desert, and today in the deserts of Asia. It is mentioned several times in the Bible as a symbol of freedom and wildness. The ability to distinguish between a wild and domesticated donkey can serve as an indicator for the amount of light at dusk and dawn.
(Full-color picture of donkey.)
OK, a few things. 1) I am rarely one to resist education, but of what use is it to know the Latin name of this animal right now? 2) Everybody knows that donkeys live in the desert, and most deserts “today” (?) are in Asia. I have caught my own students on such obviously phoney non-research masquerading as valuable information, and I am not letting Steinsaltz get away with it, either. So far, I have learned nothing from this note besides the Latin name, which I could give two hoots about. 3) “It is mentioned several times in the Bible …” – what does this unverified, non-referenced fact have at all to do with this Sugya? 4) “The ability to distinguish” – this line is an exact repeat of what the Gemara itself said! Steinsaltz didn’t look that up in a book or something – that’s what the freaking Gemara just told me! So I have utterly wasted my time with this note. Some points which may have been worth discussing in the notes: what exactly is the difference between these two types of donkeys? What is the compelling difference between all three of these different opinions? What is the point of departure between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva? But I seriously doubt that any of these discussions – which, mind you, might require some measure of an attention span – could have led so seamlessly to that beautiful (but useless) donkey picture gracing the cream-colored page just below all that non-informational drivel. So it comes down to this: If ArtScroll is your familiar, helpful seventh-grade Rebbe, Steinsaltz is your perpetually annoying seventh grade classmate, always quick with a brainy but irrelevant factoid that makes you want to hit him with a stick when your Rebbe turns around.
Incidentally, I have not extended myself unduly for the sake of criticizing – all of the pictures and their accompanying captions in the preview I have linked to above are equally non-helpful. Check it out. Spend some time trying to use the preview pages.
In case you didn’t find Steinsaltz’s “Background” material on the history of donkeys all that helpful, maybe we should try the “Notes.” The first Sample Page provided to us includes a Penei Yehoshua on the bottom. I’m intrigued.
From when does one recite Shema in the morning – מאמתי קורין את השמע בשחרית: There is a basic explanation for the various determinations with regard to time for reciting Shema. In Shema it states: “When you walk along the way, when you lie down, and when you arise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The time for reciting Shema is connected with the time people set out to travel. Since the two greatest dangers at night are wild animals and thieves, they are factors in determining the time of day when Shema is recited. People travel when they can distinguish between domesticated and wild animals, between a dog and a wolf, between a donkey and a wild donkey, or between an acquaintance and a stranger (Penei Yehoshua).
You can try reading that paragraph more than once, but fair warning – it makes less sense the more times you read it. It seems like someone may have understood the Penei Yehoshua to begin with, but then was forced to hack away at it to the point of incomprehensibility so that the donkey picture could fit on the page.
Maybe if we read the actual Penei Yehoshua, we will be able to see what Steinsaltz (or someone who works for him) is trying to say:
במשנה – “מאימתי קורין שמע שחרית” כו’ –
ובברייתא, תניא, רבי מאיר אומר, “משיכיר בין זאב לכלב” כו’.
ונראה לי לתת טעם לכל הנך זמנים הללו, ובמאי קמפלגי הני תנאי:
… ובטעמייהו דהנך תנאי דברייתא, נראה לי, דאסמכוה רבנן אקרא – “ובלכתך בדרך” – דממילא, שמעינן, ד”בלכתו בדרך” הוא זמן קריאת שמע.
וכיון דקיימא לן כי הא דאמר רבי יהודה אמר רב, דלעולם יצא אדם בכי טוב – והטעם מבואר, כדי שינצל מן החיות ומן הלסטים – ומשום הכי, קאמר רבי מאיר “משיכיר בין זאב לכלב;” דקודם לכן, אדם נמנע מלצאת לדרך, כיון שאין יכול להזהר מדריסת הזאבים הבאים לנגדו.
והיינו טעמא דרבי עקיבא, לפי שערוד מין חיה, המזיק את הבריות, כדכתיב, “פרא למוד מדבר,” וכמו שדרשו בפרק קמא דראש השנה [ג' ע"א], “ערוד – שדומה לערוד במדבר.”
וטעמא דאחרים, דאמרי “משיכיר את חבירו ברחוק ד’ אמות” – כדי שידע להזהר מן הליסטים. כן נראה לי.
Here’s the gist: From the Pasuk of “ובלכתך בדרך,” we know that reciting Kriyat Shema is an activity that one does while traveling, but one cannot travel (or thus say Shema) at a time when he cannot tell the difference between a dog (which would not bother him on a journey) and a wolf (which would). Thus Rabbi Meir’s opinion. Rabbi Akiva is similarly concerned that one delay his recital until he could tell the difference between his own donkey – the knowledge of which, again, would not preclude his traveling, or his reciting Shema – and a wild donkey, the presence of which would indeed preclude his traveling, and thus his saying Shema. Acheirim would have us wait to say Shema until the time that one can recognize his friend, because until that point he would avoid travel lest he be accosted by a bandit. Steinsaltz’s summary would have been more clear if he had articulated that “Item A” in each pair is something that would preclude travel (and thus Shema), while “Item B” is something that would not preclude travel (or Shema). There was no room for that, though.
I know, I know – I wasn’t supposed to look up the Penei Yehoshua, or even think for two seconds about it once I had broken the rules by reading it there on the bottom of the page. It was just there to convey the impression that you are not any worse off, from an analytical perspective, with Steinsaltz than you are with ArtScroll. Personally, I wouldn’t have been upset at all if Steinsaltz had left off the Penei Yehoshua entirely, along with any other attempt at “Iyun.” Personally, I would be happy if Steinsaltz was creating an intellectually honest “Bikiut” version of ArtScroll’s heavily “Iyun” Gemara. But once Steinsaltz decided to put the Penei Yehoshua on the page at all, for whatever reason, I wish he had done so with all the care and attention that it deserved.
See, here’s what I find confusing and kind of saddening about this whole endeavor. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s bio on Koren’s website refers to him as “the greatest Talmud teacher of our time,” which is similar to epithets I have seen thrown around about Rabbi Steinsaltz for many years. These descriptions really might be true. But looking at these pages, I am left wondering what this Mater Educator’s methodology might be, or how his status as such a scholar or educator of any repute might be confirmed by his presentation on the page. Am I supposed to gain some sort of methodology by using this Gemara? Revadim? DCC? Gemara Berura? It looks to me like he’s pasting in blocks of Hebrew text, spoon-feeding me the translation, and filling me up with pretty pictures and useless botanical and zoological information. Am I missing something here, pedagogically-speaking? A great teacher might show us how the Talmud page distinguishes between Tannaic material and Meimra, or how the flow of a Sugya reveals the order of generations at work in the Bavli, or at least how each step of a Sugya contributes to the whole. A great teacher wants to make his students better learners, not feed them information. I would love to see Rabbi Steinsaltz as Master Educator appear somewhere on this page, but he seems nowhere to be found. Pedagogically, this volume looks rather like the effort of a first-year teacher, and not an altogether good one. What a shame. What a wasted opportunity.
Apparently this video is supposed to somehow convince me. (The one on the top right; the others were added later.) Enter mid-20′s Dati Le’umi American transplant in a Kippah Serugah. Subtle. Great work on the conspicuously-Israeli-but-comfortably-American accent, by the way. But as if I am already so totally sold by the imagery that I am halfway to the store before this man begins speaking, the rest of the video is a pedestrian and shockingly disrespectful rant against a philosophically challenging Sugya which we are not told how Steinsaltz would explain. Now compare that snarky video with this one, put out recently by ArtScroll to advertise their new IPad App. Notice the majesty you feel, the grandeur? That’s because ArtScroll wants to inspire you while they inform you. Steinsaltz wants to amuse you while he entertains you. Take your pick, but I’ll take Aseh Lecha Rav over Kenei Lecha Chaver in my choice of English Talmud.
It could be that the folks at ArtScroll will respond, if indeed they need to at all, by putting a few more pictures in their Gemara in the next go-round of Daf Yomi. Maybe they should; it’s a little dry sometimes, a bit tedious. But they really don’t need to respond in any major way, because the kind of learner who will be attracted by the non-substantive superficiality and eye-candy that Steinsaltz has to offer will probably stick with learning as long as that choice would imply. That, after all, was Steinsaltz’s mistake the first time – to believe that the easy sell will be the committed one. Call it teacher’s instinct or label me a cynic, but I imagine that very few shoppers who choose the full-color, hyperactive version over the one with foreboding notes on the bottom of the page will be sitting in Madison Square Garden in seven years.
As to ArtScroll itself, what makes the overall approach a winning one is that ArtScroll has created a formula in which the Beit Midrash experience is transplanted almost entirely intact to the printed page. Where pictures are necessary, they are provided. Where charts are needed, they are given. Without oversimplification or undue complexity, ArtScroll and its iconic gray bar escort you through the Talmud with the breezy-but-serious veneer of a non-defensive Rebbe whom you look up to with pride and admiration as he brings you along for the journey, the kind that starts with a contended sigh, a knowing nod, and an “OK, let’s see what the Gemara has to tell us today.” Steinsaltz is the well-meaning but pedagogically-bankrupt camp teacher who prints off pictures of donkeys to “explain” the Sugya to you, and whom you find uncomfortably, unsatisfyingly easy to divert to a discussion of sports or comics. When he bangs halfheartedly on the picnic table and says through his laughter, “OK, guys, let’s get back into it,” you know he doesn’t really mean it, because he seemed to enjoy that tangent a bit too much to ever teach you anything real about Gemara. And you’re kind of OK with that, because you know that if you ever do decide to really learn, the picnic table across the field has one seat open and a Rebbe just waiting to put his arm around you and invite you along for the ride.
“The New Koren Talmud Bavli, with Commentary (commentary? what commentary? I don’t see any commentary) by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.” $49.99 for all of Masechet Berachot (half the total price of ArtScroll’s two-volume Berachot – that’s a plus). Available at all Jewish bookstores and at KorenPub.com. Or if you want the few fragmented pieces of Steinsaltz’s original attempt that actually saw the light of day, I’ll sell you the ones gathering dust in my parent’s house for $20.
Coda: Weeks after I’d finished the above review, I was alerted to a review of Steinsaltz’s original English Talmud written by the incomparable Rabbi Aharon Feldman and published in Tradition in 1990. That review is available here and is well worth a read. I would like to add to my review an excerpt from his:
Specifically, the work is marred by an extraordinary number of inaccuracies stemming primarily from misreadings of the sources; it fails to explain those difficult passages which the reader would expect it to explain; and it confuses him with notes which are often irrelevant, incomprehensible and contradictory. The major criticism so far registered against the Steinsaltz English Talmud has been that of Leon Wieseltier in The New York Times Book Review: it fails to transmit the true flavor of “learning” Gemara. This can be explained only by the fact that few if any of the reviewers to date have attempted to probe beneath the external aspects of the translation – the merit of translating the Talmud, the format and the graphics. They have not dealt with the actual “learning” of the Talmudic text, and it is in this cardinal aspect that this work is deficient.
Touche. And how timely, because perusing other reviews for this new edition online, I am saddened and more than just a little bit shocked by the shallowness and superficiality that pervades at least the ones that I have seen. One typical review, which I read just today, has a sponsored ad for this Talmud at the top of the page, but amazingly still prides itself on “objectivity” because it spends an inane amount of time criticizing the fact that it is named the Koren Edition rather than the Steinsaltz Edition (simmer down – Steinsaltz is credited with the “Commentary” right there on the cover, and he had nothing to do with the translation). Another “review” that I read last week takes great pains to showcase screenshots of the new Talmud, then compares the different sizes of various English editions like this is a new smartphone or something, but again never takes the time to really read the words. Remarkably, that review ends with these chilling words:
I look forward to getting my own copy so I can learn from it. When I do, I’ll update this review. My understanding is that Koren Publishers plans to release the entire set over the course of the next four years, faster than the Daf Yomi schedule. I wish them the financial success they deserve; this edition merits to become the new standard for English-language Talmud study.
Wait – you admit that you haven’t even tried to learn from this Talmud, and yet you have already decided that it “merits to become the new standard for English-language Talmud study?” Why?! Because it is slightly smaller than Soncino? Or because it is bigger than the smaller size of the original Hebrew edition? Dude, are you insane? חכמים, הזהרו בדבריכם – bloggers, please, people read you and trust you. Take the time to do a responsible job.
Reviewing the reviews could make a fascinating study in the superficiality and banality of our time, but apparently this is all something that was true a generation ago as well. All the new “reviews” that I have seen, like the ones that Rabbi Feldman had to contend with, “probe beneath the external aspects of the translation” but “have not dealt with the actual ‘learning’ of the Talmudic text.” A pity, perhaps, or maybe the best indication that Steinsaltz is on to something. After all, if all people want is candy, why force-feed them vegetables?