Is The New Koren Talmud Any Good?
I spent some time over the past 10 days with the new (and bizarrely named) Koren Talmud.
The Koren Talmud, of course, is really the Steinsaltz Talmud – Chabad Rabbi Adin (Steinsaltz) Even Yisrael's translation of and commentary on the Talmud translated from the Hebrew to English.
(The Babylonian Talmud itself is a creole of Aramaic and Hebrew with terms and words from many other ancient Middle Eastern and Southern Europen languages mixed in, along with small, almost pure, older Hebrew sections called Mishnayot, Mishna.)
Steinsaltz is known worldwide for his translation and commentary. He won an Israel Prize for it. He's been featured over the years in leading magazines and TV news magazine worldwide, and his name is very well known as a result.
Non-Orthodox Jews involved in Jewish study usually know Steinsaltz, whose books on Jewish theology like The Thirteen Petalled Rose and The Essential Talmud have often been textbooks for the courses they took.
Steinsaltz is also very well known in Orthodoxy, and while haredim often dislike him, changing the name of his Talmud won't change that.
Koren threw away what could easily have been millions of dollars in free publicity with that name change – a point, I'm told, professionals tried in vain explain to them.
Somehow Koren felt the name of a relatively obscure Hebrew Bible publisher was more important than the name Steinsaltz, a bizarre choice that will surely cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales over the years from befuddled Jews who will go in looking for Steinsaltz and come out empty-handed – or with ArtScroll.
Coupled with my shock at Koren's naming choice, I feared that Koren would repeat the same mistakes made by Random House in its failed attempt two decades ago to publish the Steinsaltz Talmud in English.
Random House's Talmud opened like English language books do, spine on the left, page edges on the right – something very off-putting for many involved Jews.
It also took many expensive Random House volumes to amount to one tractate of Talmud, meaning Random House's Berachot might have 6 or more volumes at $60 each in today's money while ArtScrolls' might have two priced significantly lower.
Koren handles both these problems well.
While the Koren Talmud also opens and reads like an English language book, it also opens and reads like a traditional Talmud. It does this by having Steinsaltz's commentary and translation, along with Koren's reset Hebrew text in the English side of the book and the traditional Vilna Shas pages in the Hebrew. Each volume has two page markers, one blue, one red, to be be used to mark your page on each side.
While Koren's type is small for a Talmud, it is very legible, largely because the columns are narrow and each block of text is very small. That's because Koren chose to break up the page into small textblocks based on an idea or halakhic concept, or by the person making a particular argument, as it notes in the video posted above.
And because of this typesetting and design. Koren is able to keep the page count much lower in its version compared to the old Random House version.
And this radically reduces the number of volumes needed to complete a tractate, which means the cost of owning a complete Koren Shas will be much lower than the cost would have been to own the Random House version – if it had ever been completed.
Koren also prints the Steinsaltz section of the full-sized volumes in color, which allows for great photographs of archaeological finds, charts and other illustrations to be printed.
Koren's version is ideally set up for those following the Daf Yomi cycle of Talmud learning (it says it will release new volumes as needed slightly ahead of that schedule) or for those who attend a weekly Talmud class. Material can be prepared ahead of time in the Steinsaltz side and then the Vilna Shas side can be used to follow along in class and to access Rashi and Tosfot.
Koren's Talmud may one day be the staple Talmud found in Modern Orthodox and Chabad synagogues, along with the libraries of non-Orthodox synagogues and university classrooms.
Of course, to do that, the new Talmuds will have to sell.
And that brings us back to Koren's bizarre naming choice and its marketing.
Time will tell us if Koren's choices in these regards are survivable.
Those who want a literate English language Talmud and commentary available – and those who, for a multitude of good reasons, loathe ArtScroll – should be hoping (or praying, as the case may be) that they are.