A rabbi and a nun walk into a bar
G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen"

The new Koren Talmud Bavli


I just got my copy of the first volume of the new Koren Talmud, Volume א: Berakhot. One of my bat mitzvah students was in my office this afternoon and caught sight of it on my desk. "What is that?" she asked, so I opened it up -- first from the right-hand side, to show her a page of Talmud, which she had never seen. (I think she was mostly impressed by the columns of non-English characters.) And then I flipped it open from the other end, to show her what it looks like in English. "Wow," she said. "It has pictures!"

Indeed it does. Here's how the publishers describe it:

The Koren Talmud Bavli is a groundbreaking edition of the Talmud that fuses the innovative design of Koren Publishers Jerusalem with the incomparable scholarship of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The Koren Talmud Bavli – Standard Edition is a full-size, full-color edition that presents an enhanced Vilna page, a side-by-side English translation, photographs and illustrations, a brilliant commentary, and a multitude of learning aids to help the beginning and advanced student alike actively participate in the dynamic process of Talmud study.

(The new Koren Talmud is available for $50 a volume -- a reasonable price, though of course at 41 volumes, it'll add up -- but this first volume is currently selling on Amazon for half that.)

It's a beautiful edition. If you open it from the right (like a Hebrew book), you get tractate Brakhot ("Blessings") in the original: mishna and gemara, marginal commentaries, all arranged in the classical Vilna format, with Koren's typical eye to readability. If you open it from the left (like an English book), after a few introductions, you get mishna and gemara in Aramaic neatly lined-up alongside English translation, and in the margins there are contemporary commentaries explaining, for instance, what the text means when it uses the word תרומה (terumah, an offering made for the consumption of the priests), or the implications of language about time, or bios of the various rabbinic personalities who appear in the text.

The commentary on the English side of the book bears a bit of explanation. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz spent a lifetime translating the Talmud into modern Hebrew; for those who can read and understand Hebrew, his translation is the gold standard. The English material in this new Koren Talmud is an English rendering of Rabbi Steinsaltz's Hebrew. (Still with me?)

And while the pages are primarily taken up with text (as is only appropriate!), there are also illustrations which illuminate aspects of what the text is talking about. A depiction of the knot on the tefillin shel rosh when the text alludes to God's own tefillin; a full-color illustration of the coiled-clay-snake stove known as the oven of Akhnai (which plays quite a central role in a fabulous, and rightfully famous, set of Talmudic stories); a diagram of early synagogue layout alongside a passage about entering two doors in order to pray.

Koren Talmud Bavli Sneak Peek #2. If you can't see the embed, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

Will this edition entice those who are maybe otherwise a bit intimidated by Talmud to give it a try? I can only hope. Of course, it's not the first bilingual edition; but this one is made with Koren's characteristic attention to beauty and to detail. In places where the text offers us poetry (prayers, quotations from psalms, etc), the English-language text is laid-out like English-language poetry, a visual cue which tells the reader something meaningful about the text at hand. This is one of the reasons why my pocket Koren siddur is my standard daily siddur -- as a poet, I can't help loving a siddur (and by extension a publishing house) which makes poetry look like poetry! -- and I love that they've done that here, too.

My real question now is: do I invest in the whole set of beautiful hardbound editions, or via the forthcoming iPad app? The bibliophile in me wants the tangible books (and I love the translucent paper book jacket with the pomegranate on the cover); the part of me that loves shiny new technology (and portability!) wants the multimedia capabilities and searchability of the iPad version. (Please don't tell me to buy both, unless you feel like giving me the $2000 a full set will cost.) Nu: it's a good problem to have.

Kol hakavod (all the honor) to the folks at Koren for putting together this truly beautiful, truly readable, truly usable bilingual Talmud. I can't wait to spend a lifetime diving in.



For another perspective (and many terrific photographs), try Andrew Greene's post Review: The Koren/Steinsaltz English Talmud Bavli.