A New Tanakh for Klal Yisrael
The Koren Tanakh: the Magerman Edition, Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2021, Pp. 2033, $59.95. KJV Topaz Reference Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2022, Pp. 1534, $325.00, reviewed by Darrell Sutton
Ancient texts serve several purposes. Those that read them may find them intriguing, distasteful, boring, or even irrelevant. Whether or not they are esteemed and preserved depends on how successive generations view their value, the worth of which is determined by their origins and interpretations. There is a substantial amount of religious literature extant today. Ample time is devoted to it by academics who investigate everything from old Tibetan works, oral African cults, Hindu legends, Greek and Latin prose and poetry and ancient near eastern tablets whose cuneiform script is notoriously difficult to grasp.
There are texts that have been passed down successively through the ages. The Tanakh (Torah, Nev’iim, Ketuvim), Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is one of them. In the eyes of Jewish partisans, the consonantal text was inviolate. Originally composed without vowels, accents, or breaks between letters, the Hebrew texts came to be conserved through the strenuous labors of Soferim and Masoretes (copyists) who standardized the texts. They counted letters and words and sometimes inserted ‘correct readings’ in the margins. These marginalia, often made on Hebrew MSS, were concerned with notes on forms or phrases that now are referred to as the Masorah. Many comments are details touching on grammatical issues.
The Masorah has been a reference source for hundreds of years. Continually in use among Jews, various groups have placed their confidence in a wide range of Hebrew MSS since the 15th century, and still strictly observe their tradition’s readings today. As stated in the section entitled ‘About This Edition’, for a long time Christians produced the scriptures that many Jews utilized in their devotions and in the writing of their commentaries (p.xvii). Christian scholarship was not deficient, but the Koren publishers’ objective was to produce a Bible that was not a product of ‘gentiles’, i.e., non-Jewish persons. They succeeded. This edition was the first one produced principally by Jews since the 1500s.
Eliyahu Koren (1907-2001), and likeminded persons, sought to honor an ancient text: כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר ה’ מִירוּשָׁלִָם, “For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3). The Koren Tanakh (KT) realizes that purpose. It is a handy tool. Based on the work of Wolf Heidenheim’s (1757-1832) Minḥat Shai and the Leningrad codex, in a beautiful Hebrew font and first issued first in 1962, it takes readers from mankind’s creation in Genesis to Israel’s captivity in Babylon at the end of II Chronicles. Qumran scrolls were not consulted, seeing that they were unused by anyone in Late Antiquity and were not a part of any medieval Jewish tradition.
This book is a noteworthy production although not a critical work, so the authenticity of all that it communicates must be taken on trust. Nevertheless, it contains views on Middle Eastern history still held by millions of Jews and Christians today. Two letters of Approbation (Haskama) by noted rabbis are supplied; but initially they were composed for the first edition of the Koren Bible. And not every adherent to Judaism will be pleased to see the concession made in the use of gender-neutral English terms for gender specific Hebrew words (e.g. see Deut. 4:25). Doubtless it is an interpretative issue, but one that still rankles. KT is user-friendly. Select readings from the Prophets (Haftarot) are provided ‘with variations for Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites and Minhag Anglia’ (p.xxixf.).
The outer margins of the pages are rather wide, and they mark and number the divisions of the Hebrew text according the traditional Jewish sedarim. This step was important. Each page now reflects a form of tradition otherwise ignored in times past. Inner margins contain chapter and verse numbers that do not run into the gutter. It is stated that every ‘page is printed in the style of a sefer Torah’ (p.xviii). That statement slightly misleads. The KT lacks all the commentary usually found on a standard page of Gemara (rabbinical comments on the Mishnah). But the Hebrew text likewise is presented suitably but is not a text that Yeshiva or Kollel students (bocherim) will be able to employ so long as an English translation is appended; even so, the text will find acceptance among more progressive ellements of European Jewry, of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish community as a whole) and beyond.
KT will doubtless be used for research and for personal devotions. Religious traditions differ in every sect. Indeed, because of its insistence on purity and sacrifice, Jewish children often begin learning the Tanakh with Leviticus. One midrash (Jewish interpretation), Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, states that ‘children are pure, so let them study laws of purity’. Not everyone will agree with the latter assertion or with the expressed intention connected with it: neither will all agree with that telling scheme of instruction nor its wished-for results. All the same, in KT, the translated matter for Leviticus does not fail to educate readers.
The English translation of KT is accurate when it is not tilting toward paraphrase, and it draws somewhat on the Authorized Version of 1611. For Psalm 120, these words are printed (in the KT, verse numbers appear to the left of each line),
A song of ascents. I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.“Lord save me from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.” What will be done to you, and what will you gain, O deceitful tongue? – only a warrior’s sharp arrow’s and hot broomwood coals. Woe to me that I dwell in Meshekh, that I live among the tents of Kedar. I have lived too long among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but whenever I speak of it, they are for war.
In this rendering, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) wisely relied on select verbiage in the King James Bible and used that version judiciously. Further explanatory help is given in the footnotes in this edition. Following the above description ‘A song of ascents’, fn.135 declares
The next fifteen psalms carry the same superscription. “Ascents” perhaps denotes a musical instruction, a literary structure, or the physical ascents to the Temple or from exile.
It is satisfying to see that they were open-minded when there was no need to be dogmatic in interpretative matters.
Renditions in the KT reflect astute decisions. Yet there are flaws. At Exodus 5:1 one reads:
After this, Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh; they said, “Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Send My people forth so that they may hold a festival for Me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord that I should obey Him and send Israel forth? I do not know the Lord, and I will not send Israel forth.” “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us,” they said. “Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God, or He may strike us with the plague or with the sword.” The King of Egypt said to them, “Why, Moshe and Aharon, would you take the people from their work? Get back to your labor! Look,” said Pharaoh, [sic]”.
The punctuation for the English is sometimes baffling. In numerous places the literary editors failed to see where revision was needed. All the renderings do not clarify and are not true manifestations of the underlying Hebrew. At I Sam 4:14, Dr Binyamin Goldstein translates it as
when Eli heard the sound of screaming, he asked, “what is that cacophony?” and the man ran over and broke the news to Eli. [italics mine]
It is hard to imagine that a question worded in this way would be employed among modern speakers of English idiom, much less among ancient Hebrews. ‘Cacophony’ (a bad sound, i.e. like nails clawing an old black board) does not convey the intensity or disturbing nature of the sound. The context refers to more than the tone and pitch of human voices. The loss of the ark of the covenant unnerved the city. It was a frantic moment- hence the Hebrew wording; but there were more than disagreeable sounds heard among the people. It was an undivided noise of fear, a chaotic tumult or uproar. At Ezekiel 22:3 one reads,
Say: So says the Lord God: City that spills blood in her own midst….
This sentence is infelicitous. Regarding the Hebrew term for ‘city’, the word עִיר stands in the text. It is indefinite in this line. So why not write ‘ A city that…’. Or preface it with an interjection, ‘O city…’. Indeed ‘oh, city that…’ would not be inapt. In previous sentences reference had been made to ‘the bloody city’. Essentially the same train of thought continues. Further cavils are unnecessary.
In truth, KT’s translation would make a good topic of discussion within translation-studies if the instructor is a clear-headed thinker and able to compare versions. Hebrew personal names are transliterated in English; and although the English does not reflect it, Hebrew texts of the two songs of Moses (pp.163;493), and Deborah’s (p.585), are displayed lyrically, just as they are in the excellent Jerusalem Crown Hebrew Bible (2001), which was founded on The Aleppo Codex, and like the KT, was also printed in Jerusalem. But in KT the Psalms are not fortunate enough to receive such poetic display. In this regard, but in comparison with the Jerusalem Crown Hebrew Bible, KT’s renditions of Psalms is less attractive.
As for reference material, there are more than 30 pages at the volume’s end. Most important are the Textual Variants on pages 2000-2004. Maps are included. Several pictographic timetables, with outlines of content, are inserted at the beginning of each Hebrew book.
Rabbis and pastors, seminarians and university students who can read Hebrew should acquire KT. Obviously a great deal of planning and thought went into the composition of this volume. Eliyahu Koren, a creative typographer, pioneered this decades-long project. It is a stand-out artistic achievement. His name will be remembered for generations to come. The hardcover edition looks impressive, bound between two stiff boards in navy blue and maroon, with Hebrew, the script and the titles embossed in silver.
Pastor Darrell Sutton is a classicist and biblical scholar