I got a sneak peek at the new Koren/Steinsaltz English Talmud Bavli this week. Regular readers of my blog know that I admire both Rabbi Steinsaltz and Koren Publications greatly. I am very pleased to report that this project blew me away, exceeding my expectations. Although I'm sure acquiring the entire set won't come inexpensively, I will find some way to afford to buy these as they come out. They're that amazing. [Disclaimer: Although Koren has been sending me review copies of some of their books, this review is based on a copy that I borrowed for a few days from my rabbi.]
Some background, for those who have not tried learning Talmud in English before.
Until now, the student of Talmud who needed English help had, realistically, two sources. First was the Soncino translation, done nearly a century ago. It's dry, academic, and literal. It doesn't give you any extra help understanding the text. Second, over the last two decades, Artscroll/Mesorah has published the Schottenstein edition, which goes too far in the other direction. Overwhelming the reader with help, it's extremely useful for beginners but its extensive mix of discursions can get in the way and bog the reader down.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Steinsaltz has spent the past forty years creating a rendition of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. Part translation, part explication, he interpolates just enough background and explanatory material to fill in the gaps, without handholding the reader all the way. His marginalia are masterful: some summarize the practical halacha, some explain the archaeological or biological realia, some provide capsule biographies of personalities mentioned in the Talmud. His vowelization of the main Gemara text imposes grammatical rigor on what, for most readers, is usually an incoherent hodge-podge of Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, and Yeshivish. I think it's fair to say that for the Hebrew reader, Rabbi Steinsaltz has truly revolutionized what it means to learn Gemara; he has done for our generation what Rashi did for his.
The English reader was teased when Random House tried to publish an English version of Rabbi Steinsaltz's work. What they produced was not very usable, though: they were great coffee-table books, but too confusing to use as a study tool, and each tractate required so many English volumes in their edition that it was too expensive. They never finished.
So now Koren has started publishing a new English translation of Rabbi Steinsaltz's rendition. (Yes, it's entirely new; this is not related to the Random House edition at all.) And they have scored on all counts.
With the dustjacket:
Without the dustjacket, it looks a lot like the existing Koren Hebrew Steinsaltz edition:
The basic format of the book is as follows: If you open it from the Hebrew side, you get a recreation of the Vilna pages, only the main text and Rashi are provided with vowels and punctuation. If you start from the English side, you get a running translation.
The English pages have been designed brilliantly by Raphaël Freeman. As a software developer, I am tempted to use the phrase "information architecture" to describe what has been accomplished here. The main body of the page is a two-column layout, with paragraphs of Hebrew/Aramaic text (from the Gemara, without any interpolations) set next to their English renditions, which are translations of Rabbi Steinsaltz's modern Hebrew rendition. As has become conventional, bold type indicates the translation, while regular-weight type indicates the interpolations. The translation is top-notch, eminently readable, it is not at all stilted or unnatural. (And for those of us who believe that women should not be excluded from their equal inheritance in Torah study, the presence of women on the translation team should be noted.)
Surrounding the main text block are translations of Rabbi Steinsaltz's notes, with headings, as in the original, indicating what each one is. Now here's one of the brilliant touches: in the main text block, superscript sans-serif letters look like footnote indicators, but simply refer you to which section of marginalia to examine. Each note starts with the text it references in bold, in Hebrew and in English, so it's very easy to find the note you're looking for --- and to go back to the main text when you're done. Had they used numbered footnotes, it would have been far more confusing; one thing that has always annoyed me about Artscroll's footnotes, for example, is that you never know whether it's worth interrupting your reading to follow the number. Are they just going to give you a cross-reference, or are they going to explain some concept in depth? Well, with this system, your eyes can easily gloss over notes that you don't want to follow right now, while easily navigating the page when you do.
The mechanics of this cross-referencing system are never explained. They don't need to be. The design is so clear that its use is intuitively obvious, making the complexity of the interrelated texts easily navigable.
The hand-drawn diagrams and fuzzy reproductions of photographs from the original Hebrew have been beautifully updated with full-color versions. I'll let these photos speak for themselves:
It's tempting to compare these with the DK children's books, and I mean that as a compliment. The photos are clear, eye-catching, relevant, and enhance both the aesthetic experience and the learning. (Just last week, in a class at our synagogue, we were trying to understand the size relationship between unripe grapes, ripe grapes, and white beans. Photos such as these would have made that conversation easier and more rewarding.)
There are two things that I wish were different, but I don't see how they could be.
First, as wonderful as Rabbi Steinsaltz's explication is, I have sometimes found myself in the Hebrew looking at the Rashi on a difficult section. In the Koren English edition, I'll need to use the cross-references at the bottoms of the pages to flip to the Hebrew section to do that. I realize this was necessary to keep the page count manageable, but I anticipate that being an occasional frustration.
Second, the size of this volume limits its use to sitting at a table near the bookshelf. In these photos, you can see how it compares in size with other editions. I know they're also coming out with an iPad version, but I wish it were economically feasible to issue a "Daf Yomi" print edition, where each tractate would be split into some number of smaller softcover volumes, so they could be easily carried in a tallit bag on Shabbat or to work so I could learn over lunch or on the train.
Correction: After posting this review, I have learned that there will, in fact, be a Daf Yomi edition. It will be black-and-white (presumably to keep it affordable). So now I really have nothing to complain about.
Compared to the large-format original Steinsaltz:
Compared to the Daf Yomi size (Merkin edition) Steinsaltz:
Compared to the large-format Artscroll:
Compared to the Soncino:
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.