‘The changing nature of human society demands a fresh Tanakh translation which speaks to each and every one of us while remaining rooted in the eternal essence of the Torah. The Tanakh is a living script, the screenplay of the history of humanity from Creation to the present. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt’l was the authentic Torah voice for our generation, simultaneously steeped in Torah tradition and deeply engaged with people of all faiths. He succinctly understood and eloquently conveyed both the particular Jewish identity of our sacred writings as well as their universal relevance. We pray that this unique, traditional, and painstakingly researched and annotated translation of Tanakh animates and enlivens Torah for Klal Yisrael, uniting us in our traditions, exposing us to new ways of thinking, and ultimately bringing us closer to the Redemption.’
These are the words of Debra and David Magerman – sponsors of the new Magerman Edition of The Koren Tanakh (Koren, 2021) – which, as explained by Matthew Miller in his Publisher’s Preface, is a new translation of the Tanakh with the goal of ‘authentically conveying the hadrat kodesh, the sacred majesty, of the original Hebrew’, while providing a translation that is ‘readable and stylistically sound to the modern eye and ear without compromising accuracy or scholarly integrity’, that ‘whispers the tonality of the Hebrew original’, that ‘maintains the beauty and the majestic quality of the poetry and prose of Tanakh’, which ‘is faithful to the classical Jewish interpretive tradition, while cognizant of contemporary scholarship’, and that ‘invites the contemporary reader to experience afresh the timeless stories and wisdom contained in the Hebrew scriptures’.
In terms of the translation found in the Magerman Edition, all of the Torah and much of Tehillim was penned by Rabbi Sacks zt’l. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb translated Yirmiyahu and Mishlei, while the translators for all the other books in the Tanakh are: Jessica Sacks, Sara Daniel, Rachel Ebner, Lauren Gordon, Serylle Horwitz, Annie Kantar, Tichye Krakowski, Adina Luber and Dafna Renbaum (nb. a detailed list of which books each translated can be found on p. xxii). Beyond this, a lengthy and impressive list of scholars who reviewed the translation and who produced the helpful footnotes that appear on many of its pages is also found in the opening pages.
In terms of size, the Magerman Edition’s 2032 pages make it a substantial volume. However, unlike some other Tanakhim with both Hebrew and English, the standard (hardback) Magerman Edition’s neat size (5.3 x 8.15 inches) means that it can be carried with ease, and if you were to buy the flexcover (3.9 x 5.9 in) or paperback compact edition (3.9 x 5.9 in), it would neatly fit into any small bag. Beyond this, an extra feature in the standard and flexcover edition are the navigation thumb tabs enabling readers to find the book of Tanakh that they are looking for with ease, and I also very much appreciate the two thread bookmarks available in the standard edition – which help me not lose my place when referencing more than one verse at once. All this, along with the beautiful cover and the crystal clear and fact-packed tables, diagrams and maps which introduce each book of Tanakh and which are also found at the back of the volume, makes the Magerman Edition not only an impressive volume, but one that has undoubtedly been produced with the various needs of Tanakh learners in mind.
However, the purpose of this review is not, primarily, to discuss these features, but instead, to speak about this new translation of the 929 chapters, the 23,204 verses, or the 306,757 words of the Tanakh which has been over ten years in development. Simply put, does the translation found in The Magerman Edition of The Koren Tanakh, ‘whisper the tonality of the Hebrew original’? Does it ‘maintain the beauty and the majestic quality of the poetry and prose of Tanakh’? And is it ‘faithful to the classical Jewish interpretive tradition, while cognizant of contemporary scholarship’?
Admittedly, to answer these questions one would need to invite an expert in Bible translation to make such an evaluation, and while I have been privileged to learn and teach Tanakh over the years in various institutions, I don’t purport to be an expert in Bible translation. However, as I was privileged to learn and receive semicha from Rabbi Sacks zt’l, and given that I am considered to be somewhat familiar with his teachings whose ‘authentic Torah voice’ is so dearly missed by us all, I have decided to take a close look at how the translators of the Magerman Edition – including Rabbi Sacks zt’l himself – translate a variety of verses which I have selected and which I believe to be among the most oft-quoted in his incredible collection of books. In doing so, not only do I hope that this review will help gauge some of the nuanced translations found in the Magerman Edition, but also provide us with the opportunity to celebrate Rabbi Sacks as a profound biblical scholar.
- Bereishit 18:19
To begin this process, I would like to look at Bereishit 18:19: כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט which is translated in the Magerman Edition by Rabbi Sacks as: ‘For I have chosen him so that he may direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.’
Significantly, in some of his earlier books, Rabbi Sacks chooses to translate the words לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט as, ‘to do righteousness and justice’, or as, ‘doing charity and justice’. However, in more recent books he generally adopts the translation which he has used here in the Magerman Edition of, ‘doing what is right and just’. Still, it should be noted that even in Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (which was the last book published while Rabbi Sacks was alive), he translates לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט as ‘doing what is right and just’ in his preface, but later on in that same book he adopts the translation of, ‘by doing righteousness and justice’.
For some, this inconsistency may be strange. However, all this is understandable when we realise that Rabbi Sacks considered the word tzedakah to be ‘untranslatable’, and this is, as he explains in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, ‘because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice.’
Personally, I think that it would have been great for Rabbi Professor Yitzchak Berger, the author of the footnotes to the translation of the Torah in The Magerman Edition, to have recorded this fact as a counterbalance to the translation and as a reflection of Rabbi Sacks’ deep understanding of the term צְדָקָה. In doing so, this would have reminded readers that even a well-considered translation doesn’t always fully capture the translators’ understanding of a word or phrase. However, without such a note, readers may reach the incorrect conclusion that Rabbi Sacks translates the word צְדָקָה as ‘right’ – whereas, as explained, he has much more to say about the meaning of that word.
- Shemot 23:9
Moving onto a further example let us look at Shemot 23:9 which states: וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם and which is translated by Rabbi Sacks in The Magerman Edition as: ‘you know what it feels like to be a stranger; you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.’
Significantly, Rabbi Sacks adopts this, or translations close to this, in a number of his books, while in some of his other books, he translates the phrase יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ as ‘you know the heart’. Still, it is significant that Rabbi Sacks chose to use the translation ‘you know what it feels like to be a stranger’ because a central theme in the teachings of Rabbi Sacks is that the Jewish people are uniquely experienced and qualified to help those who are marginalized by society because this was their experience in Egypt. Consequently, to ‘know what it feels like’ powerfully captures this measure of emotional intelligence that the Jewish people are expected to maintain.
- Vayikra 19:18
We now consider the verse that Rabbi Akiva famously referred to as a ‘general rule of the Torah’ – namely, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי ה'(Vayikra 19:18). Yet while Rabbi Sacks, in all his books and articles, translates this phrase as ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’, here in The Magerman Edition he translates is as, ‘love your neighbour as your own self’.
Significantly, we are not given any reason why Rabbi Sacks decided to translate this verse here with the words ‘as your own self’. Still, by using this phrase, Rabbi Sacks sharpens the meaning and our understanding of the word כָּמוֹךָ – perhaps to emphasise the duty of self-love as a springboard for other-love. To my mind, this is among the many special hidden gems found in this translation.
- Melachim I 19:12
Moving onto the prophets, I would like to discuss the translation of the phrase קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה as found in Melachim (Kings) I 19:12. As noted above, Rabbi Sacks is not the translator of this book in The Magerman Edition. Still, because it is among the most quoted biblical verses throughout Rabbi Sacks’ writings, I would like to explore the translation provided in The Magerman Edition with that offered by Rabbi Sacks elsewhere.
In general, Rabbi Sacks translates the words קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה as, ‘a still small voice’. Nevertheless, as he writes in Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, ‘there are many ways of translating the Hebrew phrase usually rendered as ‘a still, small voice’, or ‘a gentle whisper’. Literally it means ‘the sound of a thin silence’. My own interpretation is that God’s voice is a sound you can hear only if you are listening.’
In terms of The Magerman Edition, the translation of this verse, as provided by Sara Daniel, is ‘a faint sound of silence’ which, whether intentionally or not, reminds the reader of the title of one of Simon & Garfunkel’s most famous songs, The Sound of Silence. However, the difference between this translation and the one offered by Rabbi Sacks are substantive, because while Daniel’s understands the phrase קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה as being a silent sound, Rabbi Sacks looks beyond its literal meaning and interprets it as a voice or whisper.
Naturally, this does not render the beautifully crafted ‘a faint sound of silence’ incorrect. Still, what it does suggest is that each translation reflects each translators own understanding of a phrase, and while Koren have promoted The Magerman Edition alongside the name of Rabbi Sacks, there are translations in this edition which do not reflect the explanation or interpretation of Rabbi Sacks.
- Yirmeya 2:2
A further verse, also often quoted by Rabbi Sacks, is Yirmeya (Jeremiah) 2:2 which speaks of זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה. Throughout his writings, Rabbi Sacks translates this either as, ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed me through the wilderness, through an unsown land’, sometimes ‘I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal – how you were willing to follow Me through the desert in an unsown land’, sometimes, ‘and followed Me in the wilderness, through a land not sown’. However, in The Magerman Edition, this verse is translated by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb as, ‘I recall on your behalf the devotion of your youth, your bridal love, when you followed Me into the wilderness, a land unseeded.’ Clearly there are many similarities between these translations, but purely in terms of maintaining ‘the beauty and the majestic quality of the poetry and prose of Tanakh’, I believe that the word ‘unsown’ certainly seems more apt than ‘unseeded’.
- Hoshe’a 6:6
On numerous occasions in his writings, Rabbi Sacks makes reference to Hoshe’a (Hosea) 6:6 – כִּי חֶסֶד חָפַצְתִּי וְלֹא זָבַח וְדַעַת אֱ-לֹהִים מֵעֹלוֹת – which he generally translates as, ‘for I desire loving-kindness, not sacrifice; Acknowledgement of God, rather than burnt offerings’. Contrasting this, the translation of this verse by Dafna Renbaum in The Magerman Edition is, ‘for it is goodness I yearn for, not sacrifice; awareness of God rather than burnt offerings.’
It should be noted that even Rabbi Sacks, as he writes in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, acknowledges the challenges of translating the word חֶסֶד. As he explains, ‘it is usually translated as ‘kindness’ but it also means ‘love’ – not love as emotion or passion, but love expressed as deed’. Yet here, Renbaum translates חֶסֶד not as kindness, or loving-kindness, but as goodness – which I personally think takes something away from the nuance of this word. At the same time, I have to say that I am very much taken by her translation of the term דַעַת אֱ-לֹהִים as ‘awareness of God’.
- Mikha 6:8
One of the most precious teachings of the prophets is that of Mikha (Micah) 6:8 where we are told that what is expected of us is כִּי אִם עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ – which is generally translated by Rabbi Sacks as, ‘to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’.
In terms of The Magerman Edition, the translation of this verse, here too provided by Dafna Renbaum, is ‘only do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with your God’. Clearly, the term ‘only do’ is a more accurate translation of the words כִּי אִם than simply ‘to act’. However, rather than translating חֶסֶד as mercy, Renbaum again translates it as ‘goodness’, and rather than translating וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת as ‘and to walk humbly’, she translates it as ‘and walk modestly’.
As mentioned, my comments here are not as an expert in Bible translation, and there are certainly merits in how this verse has been translated. Nevertheless, it is essential to note that the words that we use to explain precious verses such as this speak volumes about how we understand the meaning of some of Judaism’s most treasured words and concepts.
- Kohelet 1:2
I end this survey by examining the translation of Kohelet )Ecclesiastes) 1:2 – הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל. In the Koren Sacks Machzor, Rabbi Sacks boldly and originally translates this as ‘Shallowest breath, said Kohelet; the shallowest breath, it is all but breath.’ Admittedly, the translation of this verse in The Magerman Edition by Jessica Sacks of, ‘Fleeting breath, Kohelet said: Fleeting breath – it is all mere breath’ is not identical. Still, it is very much expressive of the approach of Rabbi Sacks – which suggests that the translator here was not only cognizant of, but adopted the spirit of, Rabbi Sacks’ translation (nb. one would hope this is the case as Rabbi Sacks zt’l is her uncle!).
In conclusion, The Magerman Edition of The Koren Tanakh is a tremendous achievement. It is a Tanakh which has been translated with sensitivity to the modern ear and which has been produced with an array of resources that will enrich our learning of Tanakh. Still, even with a work so carefully scrutinized, involving so many scholars, it is clear that some books are translated differently to others, and while all the translations in this Tanakh, in their own way, ‘whisper the tonality of the Hebrew original’, it seems clear that some translations ‘maintain the beauty and the majestic quality of the poetry and prose of Tanakh’ more than others.