Artscroll Readers of All Stripes Find Meaning in Translation

By Miriam Shaviv

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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Just before 6 a.m. on each weekday, members of Toronto’s Beth Avraham Yosef synagogue make their way across a snowy parking lot to the first of the congregation’s three daily Talmud classes.

About half of them are holding under their arms a volume of the Artscroll Talmud.

According to the synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Baruch Taub, they probably would not be there without it.

“The classes could not have existed on such a scale without the Artscroll edition,” he said. “Without a doubt.”

Indeed, Artscroll’s Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud, whose 73rd and final volume will be published next month after a 15-year effort, has ushered in something of a religious revolution. It has been instrumental in making Talmud study, once the province of a few elite scholars, accessible to the masses and, in the process, helped trigger far-reaching cultural changes in the social and religious norms of American Orthodoxy.

Artscroll, a division of the Orthodox Brooklyn-based Mesorah Publications, launched the project in 1990 with the tractate of Makkot and continued releasing new tractates in synch with the program known as Daf Yomi, in which thousands of Jews from around the world study the same page of Talmud every day. Next month, it will become the first complete English translation of the Babylonian Talmud since the Soncino edition more than half a century ago.

Rather than providing a straight translation, as the Soncino does, the Artscroll edition intersperses a literal translation with “connecting words” in a lighter font, which help elucidate the meaning of the text. In addition, explanatory notes compiled by more than 80 experts run at the bottom of the page, often spilling over onto several other pages. It generally takes several English pages to explain each page of Talmud.

The bill for this monumental enterprise ran to $21 million, and was paid, for the most part, by hundreds of contributors to Artscroll’s Mesorah Heritage Foundation. Chief among them was the late Jerome Schottenstein, the Ohio-based owner of a department store chain, who provided the bulk of the funds and after whom the edition is named. Today, there are more than a million copies in circulation. The project is perceived as such a milestone that earlier this month, the complete edition was presented in a special dedication ceremony to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. There will be a celebration gala in Manhattan next month; 2,700 guests are expected.

Experts agree that it is unlikely the project would have taken off in quite the same way just a few decades earlier. Beyond brilliant marketing, the Artscroll Talmud’s success can be attributed to a confluence of historical factors.

According to Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York, members of an Orthodox community that had shifted to the right seized upon it. The community was looking for ways to demonstrate their increased engagement.

“Orthodoxy is raising the ante,” Heilman said. “To call oneself Orthodox today, you have to do more than in the past. Along comes Artscroll and makes Talmud study easier, giving it to you virtually color coded, line by line. That’s one answer for people who are looking to become more involved in the community.”

Perhaps this was particularly true for a generation of Ba’alei Teshuva, or returnees to the faith, who became Orthodox in the past couple of decades without a yeshiva education. Artscroll was particularly attractive because, unlike Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s rival edition of the Talmud, which is yet to be completed and which changed the traditional layout of the pages, the Artscroll looks and feels like a traditional edition from Europe, endowing its readers with an instant sense of authenticity.

Two other central factors in Artscroll’s success were a serious drop in the ability to read and understand classical Hebrew and Aramaic fluently, which made an English edition particularly welcome, and the financial well-being of the community.

“For these kinds of projects, you need both people of means who can support them, and wealthy enough clientele to buy what they print,” said Rabbi Professor Barry Levy, dean of the faculty of religious studies at McGill University. “This could never have happened in a less affluent time in Jewish history.”

As for the impact of the Artscroll edition, on the most basic level, some Orthodox leaders believe it has led to increased religious observance and involvement.

‘If you have a home where everyone comes home at night and plops down to watch television, that’s one kind of influence,” said Rabbi Nosson Scherman, editor of the project. “A family which discusses political issues and books after supper has another. In a Jewish context, if you have more families which spend a great deal of time studying Torah, they develop differently, too.”

Others observers think that by leading to an upsurge in people attending Talmud classes, the Artscroll edition has reinforced the community’s culture of learning and made it a de rigueur part of an Orthodox lifestyle.

Yet not everyone agrees it has led to an upsurge in actual knowledge.

“There are plenty of people who can’t tell an Aleph from a Bet but still sit through a class of Gemara every day,” Levy said, invoking the traditional term for the ancient rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, which, when printed together, are known as the Talmud. Good for them, he added, “but I’m not sure anyone’s really learning anything.”

Certainly, rabbis in some yeshivas and others resisted the Artscroll Talmud because they believed it discouraged students from grappling with the original text and undermined their learning skills. In addition, according to Heilman, a wide perception has developed that studying Talmud is quick and easy.

“It sounds impressive that a world has been created of people who can say they’ve been through Talmud three times,” he said. “But the ability to distinguish between a layperson and a great scholar has been lost.”

Scherman does not dispute that there are some students who use the Artscroll Talmud “as a crutch.” But he maintains, “The benefits far outweigh any undesirable consequences.”

“Using the Schottenstein edition isn’t easy — you still have to think,” he said. “Anyone who reads it will see there is room for further inquiry and discussion. If you pick up a popular magazine which gives you a 10- to 12-page overview of a particular topic, would any serious person go away saying they’re an expert because they’ve read 10 pages in Reader’s Digest?”

While determining whether the long-term consequences of the Artscroll Talmud are positive or negative appears to depend on where one sits, what is certain is that people of the Orthodox world (as well as a portion of the Conservative world) have voted with their feet. It has sold more volumes than any Talmud in history.

A little more than a century ago, the Vilna printing house of “The Widow and Brothers Romm” brought a standardized edition of the Talmud to the burgeoning yeshivot of Eastern Europe, which along the way acquired a near-holy status. Will the Artscroll Talmud — with its facing page of English translation and explanation — become the holy text of 21st-century American Orthodoxy?

Miriam Shaviv is the former literary editor of The Jerusalem Post.

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