Lost in Translation

 The novelist Jonathan Rosen has written evocatively of the parallels between rabbinic literature and the World Wide Web: “When I look at a page of Talmud and see all those texts tucked intimately and intrusively onto the same page, like immigrant children sharing a single bed, I do think of the interrupting, jumbled culture of the Internet.” Rosen’s insight is compelling, but the Talmud is not the only rabbinic work to create this experience and arguably not even the first. In 1517, four years before he would produce the first printed edition of the entire Talmud, Daniel Bomberg, the great Christian publisher of Hebrew books, published Mikraot Gedolot, containing the text of the Pentateuch together with several influential translations and commentaries.


The innovation of Bomberg’s Mikraot Gedolot was typographical, elegantly displaying the different commentators and the biblical verses they interpret on the same page. But, of course, it was not merely typographical. Like the printed Talmud, Mikraot Gedolot offers a synopsis in the most literal sense of the word—a seeing together—of commentators who lived generations and worlds apart.


First, placed immediately alongside the biblical text is an Aramaic translation by Onkelos (2nd century). Beneath it, we see the French contingent, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (known by his famous acronym, Rashi) and his grandson, Rabbi Shlomo ben Meir (Rashbam). Rashi’s commentary combines linguistic brilliance with an unflagging commitment to classical rabbinic midrash. He is the indispensable commentator to the Torah (and, amazingly, to the Talmud as well). Rashbam is deeply committed to the plain sense, or peshat, of the Torah. Further down the page, we find the great Spanish writers: Abraham Ibn Ezra, a contemporary of Rashbam, who was born in Muslim Spain but wandered throughout Europe and the Middle East, and Nahmanides (Ramban), whose expansive commentary investigates the biblical text in relation to its plain sense, to rabbinic midrash, and to kabbalistic interpretations. In addition, we have Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak), the outstanding representative of the Provençal philosophical tradition of exegesis, and Obadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno, the late Renaissance Italian doctor and commentator. The innumerable editions of Mikraot Gedolot that followed Bomberg’s collected these commentaries (and others besides, depending on the interests and whims of the publisher) and put them on the same page as the biblical text on which they commented. In doing so, they created a new experience for the reader: the illusion of entering a timeless realm of conversation, a set of nested hyperlinks as it were, reaching all the way back to revelation.


ichael Carasik has attempted to reproduce this experience for the modern reader of English in The Commentators’ Bible, of which the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) has now published Exodus and Leviticus. Genesis, with its voluminous commentaries, will be such a daunting task that Carasik is apparently saving it for last. This is an ambitious project and JPS has spared no effort in producing a visually breathtaking Bible (the late Adrianne Onderdonk Dudden is credited with the design). Unfortunately, the contents do not live up to their setting.


Indeed, JPS’s decision to translate Mikraot Gedolot into English requires some explanation, since all of the major commentaries are already available in English. Carasik addresses this question in his introduction to the volume, noting that past translations “were either made for scholars, assume a high level of Hebrew knowledge, or are literal and difficult to follow.” So Carasik and JPS do have a justification for all the bowdlerizing to come, albeit a misguided one. They want to provide a “user-friendly text” which recreates the intellectual experience of reading Mikraot Gedolot without any of the attendant challenges.


In Carasik’s English version of Mikraot Gedolot, the Aramaic translation of Onkelos has been replaced by the old and new JPS translations (OJPS and NJPS, respectively), along with his translations of Rashi, Ramban, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and “additional comments,” a selection from other classical commentators. But how does one make scholarly, largely philological, always erudite, sometimes deep medieval Bible commentaries “user-friendly”?


In his “Principles of Translation,” Carasik tacitly admits this is not ultimately possible: rather than striving for a faithful rendition of the Hebrew, he produces a hypothetical text based on the assumption that “the commentators are rewriting their original comments today, in contemporary English, for readers who do not know Hebrew.” So, “when an added word, phrase, or clause will make the commentator’s meaning clear, I add it as if it had been written by the commentator.” The emphasis is Carasik’s and the results are dizzying. We are presented with medieval commentators who refer time and again to 20th-century English translations. Thus, Carasik’s Ramban, in his comments to Exodus 6:3, is made to say “the English translations follow Ibn Ezra … [but] the text really means…” The new Rashi similarly notes that “the OJPS translation is preferable here” (Exodus 20:4). The Leviticus volume has Ibn Ezra noting “the English translations—which are correct—ignore the masoretic punctuation” (Leviticus 6:15).


This is bizarre. Would the reader really be deterred if he learned that the 1917 JPS translation followed Rashi, not the other way around, in a bracketed note? And this is only the beginning. Carasik’s principles of translation consist of eight kinds of comments that are “regularly omitted,” four kinds that are “regularly changed,” and “three kinds of comments that are nonetheless retained.”


ne can imagine what Carasik and JPS were thinking but it doesn’t work. What is the non-Hebrew-reader to do with Jacob ben Hayyim’s comment on the second of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods besides Me,” where he writes: “Besides Me: The Hebrew word should correctly be spelled with a patah under the yud, for one who is learned in the mysteries”? (What, for that matter, is the Hebrew reader to do?) Or consider Rashi to Exodus 1:12 (“… the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites”). Rashi glosses the verse “Rather, the Egyptians were weary of their lives” and then cites a rabbinic interpretation: “[O]ur Sages derive from the word va-yakutzu that the Israelites were like kotzim—like thorns in the Egyptians’ eyes.” In translating the second gloss, Carasik reproduces the phonetic play of va-yakutzu (“came to dread”) and kotzim (“thorns”). But an analogous phonetic similarity animates the first gloss as well (“va-yakutzu: the Egyptians katzu [“were weary”] of their lives”), which is passed over in silence.


A similar case occurs in Exodus 1:11, “and they built garrison [miskenot] cities for Pharaoh,” which Rashi glosses: “Rather ‘store cities’ as Onkelos and OJPS have it. That this is the correct meaning is shown by [Isaiah] 22:15, where the same root is used for the ‘steward’ of the palace.” Once again, Carasik’s translation presents a number of difficulties. First, Isaiah 22:15 uses “the same root” as what? Second, how does the existence of a steward argue in favor of “store cities” over “garrison cities” as the better translation for “miskenot cities”? Stewards, after all, manage large estates and would presumably be employed in royal cities of either sort. In fact, Rashi argues quite elegantly that Isaiah 22:15 uses the word sokhen (a cognate of miskenot) to mean “an official charged with the storehouses” (gizbar ha-memuneh `al ha-’otzarot), thus providing biblical proof that the Hebrew root s-k-n refers to storage rather than fortification. But this point cannot be communicated without recourse to at least a modicum of Hebrew and thus would not have been written by a Rashi writing “in contemporary English.” (Rashi, one recalls, was a winemaker as well as a commentator, and there is a saying about the dangers of new wine in old bottles.)


The emphasis on accessibility transcends the translation choices and cuts to the core of Carasik’s project. Medieval commentary often serves as a framework within which broader issues—philosophical, mystical, linguistic—were addressed and these discussions have largely been excluded from The Commentators’ Bible. Ramban was the most wide-ranging of the commentators and he suffers the most. When, for instance, in his introductory comments, he states that Genesis provides an account of chiddush ha-‘olam he is using a philosophical term of art for the doctrine that the world was created from nothing (ex nihilo), thus distancing himself from Maimonides’ suggestion that the biblical account could be interpreted to support the Aristotelian view of an eternal universe. None of this, however, can be recognized in Carasik’s translation that Genesis provides an account of the “origin of the world.” “For this,” Carasik’s bewildered reader asks, “I need Ramban?”


The same is often the case for Ramban’s kabbalistic interpretations, which, Carasik states, “have not [been] included in full,” no doubt because they are obscure, complex, and not in the least user-friendly. But they were also the reason Ramban wrote the commentary, as he makes clear in his famous introduction. Just as problematic are places where the translation includes mystical readings but does not identify them as such. In the same introductory passage to Exodus, Ramban writes that Israel’s exile in Egypt diminished its holiness, but when the people encamped by Sinai and constructed the Tabernacle, the divine presence dwelt among them once again, “she-haya sod ‘when God’s company graced their tents’ (Job 29:4).” The Hebrew words she-haya sod, mean “this is the esoteric doctrine concerning…” and indicate that the verse or the matter then introduced are to be understood according to mystical principles. Carasik omits these words altogether, which is troubling, because it clearly violates both the letter and the spirit of Ramban’s commentary. On what grounds has Carasik concluded that Ramban, in “rewriting” his Bible commentary for contemporary American readers, would have withheld from them the fact that it is Job 29:4 in its mystical interpretation that is relevant to his discussion?


Finally, The Commentators’ Bible obscures the fact that medieval commentary was often a means of preserving and transmitting earlier rabbinic traditions. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Rashi’s discussion of the Sinai epiphany that mostly consists of verbatim citations from earlier rabbinic midrashim to Exodus, chief among them the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. All of this will be lost on the reader of The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus. Similar problems arise in the volume on Leviticus.


The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Bag Bag enjoined his hearers to continually delve into the Torah since “all things are in it.” The medieval commentators took this to heart and integrated science, philosophy, linguistics, Kabbalah, earlier rabbinic sources, and more into their commentaries. But Scripture is no longer the touchstone for the sciences, whose march toward modernity was inextricably tied to their independence from biblical authority, while Kabbalah, biblical grammar and earlier rabbinic sources are unfamiliar to most modern readers. The Commentators’ Bible acknowledges these changes and re-imagines the medieval commentaries as though they had been composed just yesterday. The result is a collection of commentaries whose ties to broader cultural and intellectual traditions are often omitted or obscured, and whose complex discussions are too often simplified beyond recognition. Carasik and JPS are apparently driven by the conviction that not enough had been lost in previous translations.


  1. lkatzper Meyer Katzper

    I teach a class called Torah, Rashi and Commentaries. I have been considering using The Commentators' Bible for the attendees. The cautionary advice in this review has been very valuable for making a decision.

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