Sunday, May 19, 2013

Deciphering the Talmud: The First English Edition of the Talmud Revisited. Michael Levi Rodkinson: His Translation of the Talmud, and the Ensuing Controversy

In honor of the publication of Marvin J. Heller’s new book, Further Studies in the Making of the Early Hebrew Book (Leiden, 2013), the Seforim Blog is happy to present this abridgment of chapter 13.
                                                                                                                   
Deciphering the Talmud: The First English Edition of the Talmud Revisited.
      Michael Levi Rodkinson: His Translation of the Talmud, and the Ensuing Controversy     

Marvin J. Heller

The Talmud, the quintessential Jewish book, is a challenging work.  A source of Bible interpretation, halakhah, ethical values, and ontology, often described as a sea, it is a comprehensive work that encompasses all aspects of human endeavor.  Rabbinic Judaism is inconceivable without the Talmud.  Jewish students traditionally followed an educational path beginning in early childhood that culminated in Talmud study, an activity that continued for the remainder of the adult male’s life.

That path was never easy.  The Talmud is a complex and demanding work, its complexity compounded by the fact that it is, to a large extent, written in Aramaic, the language of the Jews in the Babylonian exile, spoken in the Middle East for a millennium, and used in the redaction of the Talmud.  Jews living outside of the Middle East, and even there after Aramaic ceased to be a spoken language, found approaching the Talmud a daunting task.  Talmud study was, for many, excepting scholars steeped in Talmudic literature, a difficult undertaking, made all the more so by its language and structure.  After the Enlightenment, when large numbers of Jews received less intensive Jewish educations, these impediments to Talmud study became more prevalent.

Elucidation of the text was accomplished through commentaries, most notably that of R. Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi, 1040-1105).  Within his commentary there are numerous instances in which Rashi explains a term in medieval French, his vernacular.  In the modern period, another solution to the language problem presented itself for those who required more than the explanation of difficult terms, that is, the translation of the text of the Talmud into the vernacular.

There have been several such translations of Mishnayot and parts of or entire tractates beginning in the sixteenth century.  It was not, however, until 1891 that a complete Talmudic tractate was translated into English. In that year, the Rev. A. W. Streane, “Fellow and Divinity and Hebrew Lecturer, of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and Formerly Tyrwhitt’s Hebrew Scholar,” published an English edition of tractate Hagigah.  A scholarly work, the translation, in 124 pages, is accompanied by marginal references to biblical passages and, at the bottom of the page, notes. The volume concludes with a glossary, indexes of biblical quotations, persons and places, Hebrew words, and a general index.

All that was available in English from the Talmud in the last decade of the nineteenth century were fragmentary portions of tractates, Mishnaic treatises, and Streane’s translation of Hagigah.  At that time an effort was begun to translate a substantial portion of the Talmud into English. The subject of this paper is that pioneer effort to produce an English edition of the Talmud.  This paper addresses the background of that translation, the manner in which it was undertaken, and its reception.  It is also concerned with the translator’s motivation and his qualifications for undertaking such an ambitious project.  The paper does not, however, critique the translation, that having been done, and done well, as we shall see, in contemporary appraisals of  the first English Talmud.

The effort to provide English speakers with a Talmud was undertaken by Michael Levi Rodkinson (1845-1904), whose background and outlook made him an unlikely aspirant for such a project.  Rodkinson, a radical proponent of haskalah, proposed to translate the entire Talmud, not only to making it accessible to English speakers, but also to transform that “chaotic” work, through careful editing, into “a readable, intelligible work.”

Rodkinson is a fascinating figure, albeit a thorough scoundrel.  He was born to a distinguished Hasidic family; his father was Sender (Alexander) Frumkin (1799-1876) of Shklov, his mother, Radka Hayyah Horowitz (1802-47).  Radka died when Rodkinson was an infant, and he later changed his surname from Frumkin to Rodkinson, that is, Radka’s son.  Some time after, perhaps in his early twenties, Rodkinson became a maskil, with the result that his literary oeuvre encompasses both Hasidic and maskilic works.  Rodkinson’s personal life was disreputable, his peccadilloes including bigamy and other affairs with women.  Subsequently, Rodkinson worked in St. Petersburg as a stock broker and speculator, and sold forged documents, such as military exemptions and travel papers.  For these latter offenses Rodkinson was sentenced to a year in prison, three years loss of honor, and fined 1,800 rubles.  To avoid these penalties, Rodkinson fled to Königsberg, Prussia.

In Königsberg Rodkinson edited a journal, the Hebrew weekly, ha-Kol (1876-c.1880), described as representing the “radical and militant tendency of the Haskalah.”  He was also the author of a number of monographs on various Jewish subjects, purporting to explain Jewish religious and ritual practice, although certainly not from a traditional perspective.  The antagonism engendered by these monographs was  intensified by his personality, arousing such hostility, that, together with his ongoing legal entanglements, Rodkinson, in 1889, found it advisable to emigrate to the United States.

That Rodkinson should have left the Hasidic fold, become a maskil, and adhered to a radical ideology is not that unusual. The late nineteenth century was witness to the assimilation or casting off of tradition by large numbers of Jews.  However, that someone of Rodkinson’s outlook should undertake to translate the Talmud into English is certainly unusual and perhaps  even unique.  There is, than, a contradiction between his enlightenment attitudes and personality, and his attempts, through his abridgement and translation, to spread Talmudic studies.  Individual maskilim might, as an intellectual endeavor, continue to study Talmud, but none devoted any effort or energy to bringing the Talmud to a public that had largely distanced itself from that repository of Jewish knowledge. 

Nevertheless, Rodkinson’s goal of translating the Talmud had been, as we are informed in the introduction to Rosh Hashana (sample volume), his dream for twelve years.  He had expressed a “desire to revise and correct the Talmud” as early as 1882 in le-Boker Mishpat, and subsequently in Iggorot Petuhot and Iggorot ha-Talmud (Pressburg, 1885); and Ha-Kol (nos. 298, 299, and 300).  In Iggorot Petuhot (repeated in the Hebrew introduction to Rosh Hashana) Rodkinson describes the incredible multiplicity of rabbinic works since the redaction of the Talmud.  He notes the numerous responsa, which, their great number notwithstanding, have not resolved anything.  The Talmudic page is confused and unclear, due to its many commentaries and cross-references.  Rodkinson states that previous exegetes, such as the Vilna Gaon, R. Akiva Egger, R. Pick, and others, rather than clarifying the page, proliferated works that were printed with the Talmud, adding to the confusion. It is Rodkinson’s intent to remove the shame of the Talmud from Israel and restore the Talmud to its original state.  Thought of this project gives him no rest.  He thinks of it day and night.  He writes, towards the end of Iggorot Petuhot that he will “offer and dedicate the remainder of his days on the altar of this work, it will be the delight of his nights and with it he will complete the hours of the day.  . . . it will give purpose to his life.”

Perhaps Rodkinson’s motivation can be found in the criticism leveled by his opponents, that intellectually, Rodkinson’s weltanschauung was bifurcated, that is, he suffered from a conflict between his Hasidic past and radical present.  Joseph Kohen-Zedek (1827-1903), author of Sefat Emet, a work harshly critical of Rodkinson, accused him of being “androgynous,” two-faced, “one time he shows his face as a Hasid, the next as a heretic, and should therefore be called Sama’el instead of Michael, for he is a destructive angel.”[1]  More recently, Joseph Dan, writing about Rodkinson’s Hasidic stories, notes that “Michael Ha-Levi-Frumkin Rodkinson is unique in that he was neither a real Hasid nor a real Maskil, . . .”[2]  Abridging, editing, translating, and, most importantly, modernizing the Talmud may have been, for Rodkinson, a means of reconciling these diverse worlds.  The rationale for the abridged translation, “a work that cannot prove financially profitable, and that will probably be productive of much adverse criticism in certain quarters,” is set forth in the English preamble, “A Few Words to the English Reader,” to Rosh Hashana

Since the time of Moses Mendelssohn the Jew has made vast strides forward.  There is to-day no branch of Human activity in which his influence is not felt.  Interesting himself in the affairs of the world, he has been enabled to bring a degree of intelligence and industry to bear upon modern life, that has challenged the admiration of the modern world.  But with the Talmud, it is not so.  That vast encyclopedia of Jewish lore remains as it was.  No improvement has been possible; no progress has been made with it.  Reprint after reprint has appeared, but it has always been called the Talmud Babli, as chaotic as when its canon was originally appointed.  Commentary upon commentary has appeared yet the text of the Talmud has not received that heroic treatment that will alone enable us to say that the Talmud has been improved.[3]

Despite the “venomous vituperation” of the attacks upon it, a more intimate knowledge of that work would demonstrate that the Talmud “is a work of the greatest sympathies, the most liberal impulses, and the widest humanitarianism.”  Many of the phrases for which the Talmud is attacked were not part of that work, but rather “are the latter additions of enemies and ignoramuses.”  How did its present situation come about?

When it is remembered that until it was first printed, that before the canon of the Talmud was fixed in the sixth century, it had been growing for more than six hundred years (the Talmud was in manuscript for eight centuries), that during the whole of that time it was beset by ignorant, unrelenting and bitter foes, that marginal notes were easily added and in after years easily embodied in the text by unintelligent printers, such a theory as here advanced is not at all improbable.[4]

Rodkinson rises to the defense of the Talmud, a work that he feels will be remembered when the Shulkhan Arukh is forgotten, concluding that the best defense is to allow it to “plead its own cause in a modern language.”  Others have attempted to translate it, for example, Pinner and Rawicz, but their attempts were neither correct not readable, precisely because they were only translations.

If it were translated from the original text one would not see the forest for the trees. . . . As it stands in the original it is, therefore, a tangled mass defying reproductions in a modern tongue.  It has consequently occurred to us that in order to enable the Talmud to open its mouth, the text must be carefully edited.  A modern book, constructed on a supposed scientific plan, we cannot make of it, for that would not be the Talmud; but a readable, intelligible work it can be made.  We have, therefore, carefully punctuated the Hebrew text with modern punctuation marks, and have re-edited it by omitting all such irrelevant matter as interrupted the clear and orderly arrangement of the various arguments.  In this way disappears those unnecessary debates within debates, which only serve to confuse and never to enlighten on the question debated. . . .[5]

In the Hebrew introduction Rodkinson writes that the task of restoring the original, or core Talmud should properly be done by a gathering of great sages.  However, there are none today who wish to undertake such a great and burdensome task.  If he would seek their assistance, it would take years to arrive at some unity of purpose, and if this was accomplished, it would take yet more years before anything was done, for they are occupied with other matters.  Furthermore, the rabbinic figures appropriate for this undertaking are a minority of a minority, for “this work is not a matter of wisdom but of action.”[6]  Therefore, the project only requires men who know the language and style of the Talmud, a sharp eye and ear, who can distinguish between its various parts and contents.  Such men need not have learned in a bet medrash (rabbinic house of study) or have earned the titles of professor or doctor, nor know Latin or Greek.

Actual publication of “The New Talmud” began in stages.  In 1895, Tract Rosh Hashana (New Year) of the New Babylonian Talmud, Edited, Formulated and Punctuated for the First Time by Michael L. Rodkinson and Translated by Rabbi J. Leonard Levy . . .” appeared, issued in Philadelphia by Charles Sessler, Publisher.  The initial volume, with Hebrew and English text, has the names of subscribers, Opinions, and a Few Words to the English Reader from Rodkinson, all repeated in subsequent parts.

That same year, a sample volume, entitled Tract Rosh Hashana, was published. Despite the fact that the title-page describes it as tract Rosh Hashana, the volume actually consists of sample pages of Rosh Hashana (Hebrew), together with sample pages of other tractates, in both English and Hebrew..

The title-page of the sample volume (1895) notes that it is being “edited, formulated and punctuated for the first time by Michael L. Rodkinson, author of Numerous Theological Works, Formerly Editor of the Hebrew ‘CALL.’” The title-page is followed by subscription information, which may be submitted to any one of eight individuals.  Next are opinions from prominent personalities and Jewish periodicals, not all of which can be printed due to space limitations.  In only two of these opinions do the writers state that they have read the advance sheets.  They are Drs. Szold and Mielziner. The former writes that the Rev. M. L. Rodkinson has “laid before me a number of Hebrew proof sheets of the treatise ‘Berachoth’ and the whole of the treatise ‘Sabbath’ in manuscript,” requesting the work to be read critically, and, if it found favor, to “testify to its merit.”  He continues that he has “very carefully read sixteen chapters of the M.S. of treatise Sabbath and it affords me the greatest pleasure . . . [that it] is of extraordinary merit and value. . . .”  Dr. Mielziner writes that he has “perused some advance sheets . . . and finds his [Rodkinson] work to be very recommendable.”[7]  The remaining endorsements are for the “planned edition,” among them the letters of Prof. Lazarus, of Berlin, and Rev. Friedman, of Vienna, dated July, 1885, written in response to Rodkinson’s Ha-Kol articles.

The most prominent supporter of the projected translation was Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), President of Hebrew Union College (HUC), and, from 1889 to his death, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  He writes, in a letter dated January 14, 1895, to an unnamed potential sponsor, “We have the duty to afford him the opportunity to publish one volume. . . . If this volume is what he promises, he will be the man to accomplish the task.”[8]  The “Opinions” are followed by “A Word to the Public,” which informs us that

We have also after 40 years of study and research, supported by frequent consultations with other like-students, corrected many errors, discarded much legendary matter, which we have found, are entirely foreign to the Talmud and its spirit, but have been introduced and “Talmudized” so to speak, through innumerable reprints, unintentional and intentional errors . . . and reduced the Babylonian Talmud from more than 5000 to about 1200 pages.  . . .
The entire cost of publication for the Hebrew and English editions will amount to $7500.00 A sum of gigantic proportions considering our humble means.  Yet we are not the least appalled thereby. . . .[9]

The sample volume concludes with four specimen pages in English of Sabbath, Chapter I; two pages, in Hebrew, of tractate Kiddushin, with Rashi; four pages of sample sheets of “New Year” in English, tractate Rosh Hashana in Hebrew, with Rashi; a long turgid Hebrew introduction; the Hebrew opinions; and a second, brief, Hebrew introduction.

The first volumes of “The New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud” were published in 1896, the last in 1903, followed, that year, by a supplementary volume on the history of the Talmud.

Rodkinson described his approach to translating the text of the Talmud in the Hebrew introduction to Rosh Hashana, and afterwards, in response to criticism, in an article in Ner Ma’aravi, and yet again, translated and in abbreviated form, in The History.  He claims that “in reality we omit nothing of importance of the whole text, in the shape given out by its compilers, and only that which we were certain to have been added by the dislikers of the Talmud for the purpose of degrading it do we omit.”  Omissions fall into seven categories.  Repetitions in both halakhah and aggadah are omitted, whether occurring in several tractates or in only one.  For example, “The discussions in the Gemara are repeated sometimes from one to fifteen times, some of them without any change at all, and some with change of little or no importance.  In our edition we give the discussion only once, in its proper place.”  Long involved discussions, repeated elsewhere, are deleted, with only the conclusion being presented and, “Questions which remain undecided and many of them are not at all practical but only imaginary, and very peculiar too, we omit.”  In some instances Mishnayot are combined.  Concerning aggadic material he repeats his assertion that “any one with common sense, and without partiality, can be found who would deny that such things were inserted by the Talmud haters only for the purpose of ridiculing the Talmud.  It is self evident that in our edition such and numerous similar legends do not find place.”

The groundwork for the translation, as described in the Hebrew introduction to Rosh Hashana, had been done many years earlier.  Rodkinson, therefore, concludes that he is able to do “one page of gemara with all of the commentaries necessary for the work,” without the pilpul, for he has already read all of it in its entirety, as well as the Jerusalem Talmud, the Tosefta, and Mishnayot in the winter of 1883-84.  Some pages will not even require a full hour, but a half hour will be sufficient.  He feels that he is capable of learning and understanding five pages of gemara daily that will [then] be ready for the press, with the result that, by working five hours a day, the entire project will only take about 550 days.[10]

As noted above, Rosh Hashana was translated by Rabbi J. Leonard Levy (1865-1917), rabbi of the Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Philadelphia.  He had officiated previously in congregations in England and California, and would later be rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Pittsburgh, Pa.  Levy was the founder of the Philadelphia Sterilized Milk, Ice and Coal Society, and the author of several books, among them a ten-volume Sunday Lectures

The title-page of the initial printing of Rosh Hashana (1895) credits Rodkinson with only having “edited, formulated, and punctuated” the tractate and Levy for having “translated for the first time from the above text.” There are photographs of Levy and Rodkinson, and a four-page preface by the former.  Levy writes in defense of the Talmud, conservatively and movingly, without repeating the claims made by Rodkinson.  He informs us that he has done the translation free of charge, for he agrees with the editor that the best defense for the Talmud is to allow it to speak for itself. He continues that “From my boyhood, when I sat at the feet of some of the most learned Talmudists in Europe, I learned to love this wonderful work, this testimony to the mental and spiritual activities of my ancestors.”[11]

That Levy was the translator of Rosh Hashana was well known at the time.  For example, the entry for Levy in capsule bibliographies of officiating Rabbis and Cantors in the United States in the American Jewish Year Book for 5664, 1903-1904, includes among his accomplishments, “Translation of Tractate Rosh Hashana of the Babylonian Talmud.”[12]  Indeed, Rodkinson thanks Levy in the Hebrew introduction to Rosh Hashana, acknowledging that the translator, Levy, not only worked without compensation, but also took the time to go over each and every word with him before it went to press.  Nevertheless, Rodkinson writes, there is absolutely nothing in the translation that he has not verified to the original.[13]

Levy also translated a portion of the first chapter of Berakhot, printed in the Atlantic Coast Jewish Annual.[14] The title-page states “Tract Berakhoth (‘Benedictions’) of the Unabbreviated Edition of the Babylonian Talmud Translated into English for the first time by Rabbi J. Leonard Levy . . . Translator of Tract ‘Rosh Hashana’ of the Talmud Babylonian, etc. etc.  To appear in Quarterly Parts. . . .”  Levy’s work here, apparently, was not meant to be an abridgement, or a restoration of the “original Talmud.”  The English text, from the beginning of the tractate to the middle of 6a in standard editions, includes Hebrew phrases and accompanying footnotes.

The title-pages to the “New Edition of the Talmud” state that they were translated into English by Michael L. Rodkinson.  No other translator or collaborator is mentioned, nor is anyone else credited with such a role in the History of the Talmud.  We have already seen that in the sample volume, Rodkinson’s role is defined as editing, formulating and punctuating.  The Prospectus informs us that “The Rev. Dr. Grossman of Detroit will undertake ‘Yumah,’ and the Rev. Dr. Stoltz, of Chicago, ‘Moed Katan,’” and that other tractates will be revised by “competent authorities of English diction,” and the translation of Rosh Hashana was done by Rabbi Levy.  However, by the time that the New Talmud was being sold to the public the only name mentioned, and as translator at that, is Rodkinson.  While some commentators mention that other hands are visible in the work, none of the rabbinic figures associated with the translation seem to have objected to Rodkinson’s omission of their names.  Perhaps this may be attributed, as we shall see, to the responses to the New Talmud and, most likely, a wish by the more prominent translators, to distance themselves from it.

How did Rodkinson justify this?  In the introduction to Rosh Hashana he remarks that books are not called by the names of multiple authors, but rather by one writer, for example, the redactors of the Talmud, Ravina and Rav Ashi.[15]  How then, and by whom was the translation done?  Morris Vinchevsky, who wrote for ha-Kol for two years, from 1877 through 1878, and was, during that time, a frequent guest in the Rodkinson home, describes Rodkinson as being driven to translate the Talmud into English, even though

he did not know a hundred English expressions.  How did he do the translation? Through ‘exploitation’ of indigent young men, with the help of his son (partially), and the assistance of others.  The principle was the translation.  Whether the translations were good or bad - let the forest judge, as Shakespear says (As You Like It).  Rodkinson was never pedantic.  Whether earlier or later, for better or worse, between impure or pure, never mattered.  Not because he was undisciplined and anarchic, but because he was preoccupied all his days and involved with matters that were not within his power.  For that reason he was not careful about the cleanliness of his teeth, and perhaps if he had, in his later years, false teeth, he would have carried them in his pocket, as did the late Imber, owner of ha-Tikva, in his time.[16]

An example of Rodkinson’s difficulty with English can be seen from the title-page of the sample volume issued in 1895, which refers to him as, “Formerly Editor of the Hebrew ‘CALL,’” that is, ha-Kol.  The translation of ha-Kol, correctly rendered on his German title-pages as Der Stimme, is “The Voice”, not “CALL.”  The family has confirmed that Rodkinson was not fluent in English.  Who then, did translate the Talmud into English for Rodkinson? According to Vinchevsky, the work was done by the “‘exploitation’ of indigent young men” whom Deinard reports were paid eight dollars a week for their work.[17]  A fuller description is given by Judah D. Eisenstein (1854-1956), who writes that, not understanding the English language, Rodkinson employed Jewish high school students.  He translated the Talmud into Yiddish for them, and they than translated it into English.  After they had worked for him for a short time, Rodkinson, claiming their translation was unsatisfactory, dismissed them without payment.  He then hired more young men, repeating the process.[18]

A  considerable part of the work appears to have been done by family members.  Mention is made, in the Prospectus, of Rodkinson’s son Norbert.  Credit is also due, based on the family’s oral tradition, to Rosamund, Rodkinson’s daughter from his first marriage, who was his secretary and researcher.  Yet another family member who assisted him was his nephew Abraham Frumkin.  Rodkinson also made use of dictionaries, enabling him to also work on the translation.  Nahum Sokolow describes the process in a kinder fashion.  “He didn’t know English - but his son did.  This would have deterred someone else, but not him.  This elderly man began to learn English, and translated together with his son.  When there were errors in the first volumes, they worked further to correct those errors.  A man such as this is a living melodrama.”[19]

There is a disquieting note to all of this.  It is clear from the above that many of Rodkinson’s contemporaries knew that his English was insufficient for the undertaking.  Nevertheless, Isaac Mayer Wise, referring to Rodkinson’s proposed translation, wrote “he will be the man to accomplish the task,” unless he meant in the role of editor, still a daunting venture for someone not proficient in English.  Afterwards, Rodkinson was credited with translating a difficult, complex work, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, into a language that, if not foreign to him, was one in which he lacked literary competence.  Some reviewers did comment on the work of translating.  Kaufmann Kohler, for example, wrote in his review, “there are different hands easily discerned in the book,” and refers to Rodkinson as the editor.  Nevertheless, most reviewers accepted him as the translator, and he is remembered for that achievement today.

Rosh Hashana and Shekalim were quickly followed by Shabbat, in two parts.  Printed with Shabbat is a letter, dated March 24, 1896, from the revisor, Dr. Wise, to the New Amsterdam Book Company, and three introductory pieces by Rodkinson.  Wise writes:

I beg leave to testify herewith that I have carefully read and revised the English translation of this volume of the “Tract Sabbath,” Rodkinson’s reconstruction of the original text of the Talmud.  The translation is correct, almost literal, where the English idiom permitted it.[20]

The first of Rodkinson’s pieces, the Editor’s Preface, is the “A few Words to the English Reader” printed with Rosh Hashana, slightly modified, with new concluding paragraphs.  Rodkinson writes that he is open to criticism that is objective and will “gladly avail ourselves of suggestions given to us, but we shall continue to disregard all personal criticism directed not against our work but against its author.  This may serve as a reply to a so-called review which appeared in one of our Western weeklies.”  He concludes with heartfelt thanks to Dr. Wise for “several evenings spent in revising this volume and for many courtesies extended to us in general.”  This is followed by a “Brief General Introduction to the Babylonian Talmud,” where Rodkinson restates his opinion as to what has brought the Talmud to its present condition:

Rabana Jose, president of the last Saburaic College in Pumbeditha, who foresaw that his college was destined to be the last, owing to the growing persecution of the Jews from the days of “Firuz.” He also feared that the Amoraic manuscripts would be lost in the coming dark days or materially altered, so he summoned all his contemporary associates and hastily closed up the Talmud, prohibiting any further additions.  This enforced haste caused not only an improper arrangement and many numerous repetitions and additions, but also led to the “talmudizing” of articles directly traceable to bitter and relentless enemies of the Talmud. . . . many theories were surreptitiously added by its enemies, with the purpose of making it detestable to its adherents. . . . This closing up of the Talmud did not, however, prevent the importation of foreign matter into it, and many such have crept in through the agency of the “Rabanan Saburai” and the Gaonim of every later generation.[21]

The third introduction, to tract Sabbath, includes such remarks as “It has been proven that the seventh day kept holy by the Jews was also in ancient times the general day of rest among other nations. . . .”[22]

The text of the remaining tractates are entirely in English.  Much of the text is, as Rodkinson had promised, revised, although expurgated might be a more accurate description; particularly involved discussions or material disapproved of by Rodkinson being omitted.  For example, in the beginning of Yoma (2a), nineteen of the first thirty-one lines of gemarah dealing with the parah adumah (red heifer) are omitted. The first half of the verso (2b) has a discussion of a gezeirah shavah (a hermeneutic principle based on like terms) concerning the application of the term tziva (command) to Yom Kippur, also omitted.  There are no references to the standard foliation, established with the editio princeps printed by Daniel Bomberg (1519/20-23), nor, except for biblical references imbedded in the text, are the indices accompanying the Talmud, prepared by R. Joshua ben Simon Baruch Boaz for the Giustiniani Talmud (1546-51) either present or utilized.  There are occasional accompanying brief footnotes.  Rodkinson informs the reader in “A Word to the Public,” at the beginning of Ta’anit, that Rashi’s commentary has, wherever practical, been “embodied in the text,” denoted by parentheses.  Where this was not practical, due to the vagueness of the phraseology, it has been made an integral part of the text.  When Rash’s commentary is “insufficient or rather vague” he makes use of another commentary.

The New Talmud does not include all of the treatises in the Babylonian Talmud.  All the tractates in Orders Nashim and Kodashim are omitted, as well as tractates Berakhot and Niddah, the only treatises in Orders Zera’im and Tohorot, respectively.  The absence of Berakhot, a popular tractate dealing with prayers and blessings, is surprising, for sample pages, as noted above, were sent out prior to the publication of this Talmud.  In fact, Rodkinson had planned to print Berakhot initially, but, as he relates in the Hebrew introduction, difficulties with the printer prevented him from completing that tractate.  The New Talmud was completed with a supplementary volume, The History of the Talmud from the time of its formation. . . . Made up of two volumes in one, it is much more than a history of the Talmud.  As we shall see, Rodkinson used this book as a vehicle to discuss the publication of his Talmud, his opponents, and the deleterious consequences of their opposition.

The translation received favorable mention in Reform, secular and even Christian journals.  These reviews are general in nature, acknowledging the difficulties of the task undertaken, and the concomitant benefit of opening what was previously a closed work to a wider public.

Excerpts from these reviews are reprinted in The History.  Among them are extracts from The American Israelite, founded by I. M. Wise, which describes the translation as a “work which is a credit to American Judaism; a book which should be in every home . . . a work whose character will rank it with the first dozen of most important books,” and again, after the appearance of volume VIII, in 1899, “the English is correct, clear, and idiomatic as any celebrated English scholar in London or Oxford could make it. We heartily admire also the energy, the working force of this master mind, the like of which is rare, and always was. . . .” The Home Library review, printed in its entirety, concludes, “The reader of Dr. Rodkinson’s own writings easily recognizes in his mastery of English style, and his high mental and ethical qualifications, ample assurance of his ability to make his Reconstructed Talmud an adequate text-book of the learning and the liberal spirit of modern Reformed Judaism.  To Christian scholars, teachers, and students of liberal spirit, his work must be most welcome.”[23]

In the New York Times - Saturday Review of Books (June 19, 1897) the unnamed reviewer expresses considerable skepticism concerning the contemporary worth of the Talmud, but concedes it an antiquarian value comparable to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  Nevertheless, “looking at Mr. Michael L. Rodkinson’s work as literature, it is a production which has required a vast amount of knowledge and infinite patience.  The knowledge of the Hebrew has been profound, and the intricacies of the text are all made clear and plain. . . . An amazing mass of material in these two volumes will delight the ethnologist, the archaeologist, and the folklorist, for certainly before the publication of this work, access to the Talmud has been well-nigh impossible to those who were not of Semitic origin.”  The reviewer finds the strongest endorsement of the work in the testimony of the Rev. Isaac Wise.

Additional reviews, also positive, were published with the completion of volume VIII on Seder Moed in 1899.  The New York Times reviewer now writes (November 25, 1899) that “The importance of Mr. Rodkinson’s work need not be questioned.  The Talmud as he has translated it will take its place in all theological and well appointed libraries indifferent as to creed.”  A third review (July 7, 1900), at the time of the appearance of the volume IX, begins “Mr. Rodkinson must be admired for the courage, perseverance and untiring industry with which he has undertaken and continues to present the English speaking public the successive volumes of the Talmud.”  The review concludes, however, with a cautionary note suggesting Rodkinson “procure for the coming volumes a more careful revision of the translation, because, according to the ‘pains (or care) so much more the reward of appreciation.’”

The American Israelite (August 17, 1899) enthusiastically endorses the work by “the great Talmudist, Rodkinson” taking “special pride” in his “gigantic work” and urging support for “this great enterprise.”  To the question as to how Rodkinson came to this “exceptional clearness” it responds “Mr Rodkinson never frequented any Yeshibah in Poland or elsewhere; so he never learned that Pilpulistic, scholastic wrangling and spouting . . . he is entirely free from this corruption, and this is an important recommendation for his English translation.”  The Independent reviewed the translation at least five times.  The second review (April 7, 1898) notes the opposition to Rodkinson’s translation, and concludes, “If it is not satisfactory let a syndicate of rabbis do better.”  The Evangelist (November 18, 1897), echoing Rodkinson, remarks that the Talmud was previously “almost inaccessible to even Hebrew students” due to the fact that its text is “to the last degree corrupt, marginal notes and glosses having crept in to an unprecedented degree, owing to the fact that it was kept in manuscript for generations after the invention of printing.”  Previous attempts to edit the text were hopeless, a complete revision of the text being required.  “Rabbi Rodkinson has at last effected this textual revision . . . a very valuable contribution to scholarship.”

Several of the later volumes include a reproduction of the Grand Prize Diploma from the Republique Francaise, Ministere du Commerce de l’Industrie des Postes et des Telegraphes Exposition Universelle de 1900 for, according to the accompanying description, “the first translation (into a modern language) of the Babylonian Talmud.  The name of the translator leads those in Group III, Class 13, of the American Collection Exhibit.  Presented by the International Jury of Awards, August 18, 1900.”  Here it is.



Praise in Reform, Christian and secular journals, awards and faint praise from foreign dignitaries notwithstanding, there was significant criticism of the New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud.  Skepticism at an English translation of the Talmud was expressed by no less astute an observer of the Jewish scene than Abraham Cahan:

I hear they are translating the Talmud into modern languages.  It cannot be done.  They may render the old Chaldaic or Hebrew into English, but the spirit which hovers between the lines, which goes out of the folios spreading over the whole synagogue, and from the synagogues over the out-of-the-way town, over the dining table of every hovel, over the soul of every man, woman, or child; that musty, thrilling something which should be called Talmudism can no more be translated into English or German or French than the world of Julius Caesar can be shipped . . . to the Brooklyn Bridge.[24]

Less nostalgic, more critical, and certainly more analytical than the positive reviews, were the negative responses to the “New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud.”  These reviews were written by individuals with Talmudic training, as well as scholarly credentials, for whom the Talmud was not a closed book.  They were, therefore, capable of properly evaluating Rodkinson’s achievement.  Among the numerous negative articles are three by individuals whose endorsements for the projected translation had been printed in the prospectus: B. Felsenthal, M. Jastrow, and Kaufmann Kohler. All took special exception to Rodkinson’s claim of having restored the original Talmud, apart from their criticism of the translation.  Indeed, there is considerable irony in the fact that these reviews were written by Reform rabbis who had earlier expressed support for the concept of the New Talmud.

Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903), rabbi of Rodeph Shalom Congregation from 1866 to 1892, when he became rabbi emeritus, is primarily remembered today for his monumental A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud, Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (London and New York, 1886-1903).  He was also editor of the Department of Talmud of the Jewish Encyclopedia.  Jastrow reviewed Rosh Hashana, edited by Rodkinson and translated by Levy, in The Jewish Exponent (June 14, 1895), contrasting their respective endeavors:

Let it be said in the premises that, while the edition of the original text has not a single redeeming feature which the reviewer would have been but too glad to welcome, especially as he is one of those that, misled by the editor’s specious representations, recommended his work, however guardedly this may have been done: there is a great deal to commend in the translator’s work, which must be welcomed by every friend of Talmudic literature as a first and, as a whole, successful attempt to lend a modern (English) garb to that peculiar mode of thought and logical deduction which the Talmud represents.

Jastrow continues, that instead of the expected abridgement useful for beginning students, it “claims to be a critical edition,” eliminating passages added with the “malicious intention of discrediting that luckless book.”  Not only are these premises absurd, but “the editor’s interminable and abstruse prefaces serve to illustrate his utter incompetency to attack a problem of purgation. . . .” For example, “What can one expect from one who . . . believes, in all earnestness, that a Christian hand has succeeded in smuggling the second Psalm (Lamah Rag’shu) into our canon. . . .”  The reviewer notes that there are fourteen abbreviations in the first twenty-one lines.  Passages are rendered unintelligible by the lack of a natural sequence.  Jastrow concludes his discussion of Rodkinson’s contribution: “We gladly leave this dark production of medieval scholasticism with the gloss of modern scholarship . . . to enter the sunlit fields of modern English in the translator’s preface and translation.”  Jastrow congratulates Levy for his efforts, but notes there are mistakes, which reflect the haste with which the work was done, and inconsistencies in the translation of technical terms.  Jastrow concludes with the wish that the translator will “give us the benefit of a translation from an entire, unabridged and unmutilated text.”

Kaufman Kohler (1843-1926) was a leader of the radical branch of Reform Judaism and served, from 1903 to 1921, as president of Hebrew Union College.  His review of Shabbat, of the “New Talmud Translation by Rodkinson and Wise,” appeared in The American Hebrew (July 17, 1896).  Kohler, whose endorsement stated that he “indorsed the opinions expressed by” the others, became, after seeing a printed tractate, a severe critic of the translation.  He writes that, to his regret, he “must entirely disagree with the venerable President of the Cincinnati College,” that is, Dr. Wise.  After comparing the translated text to standard editions he finds it to be “utterly defective and unreliable.”  He remarks that “in almost every uncommon word a degree of ignorance is displayed which is simply appalling.  The Palestinian town B’nei B’rak, known to every child that learns the Pesach Haggada, is translated . . . ‘the children of Barak’. . . R. Isaac the [black]smith as Isaac of Naphia . . . in the note we are informed by the reviser that Nap’hia is the city whence R. Isaac came.”  Kohler notes that the translator in not conversant with either traditional or modern dictionaries of Talmudic terminology.  Rather, he “transcribes and translates every foreign word in the crudest possible manner.  And yet he pretends to know.”  For example, a form of locust is translated as Vineyard bird and described in a note  as unknown to the commentators.  It is, however, recorded in the dictionaries and “was no bird but a kind of locust.  Such proofs of ignorance are given in many a note.”[25]

Kohler takes issue not only with the translation of terms but also with the fact that, “There are sins against the very spirit of Talmudic lore which cannot be forgiven.”  Indeed, “the vandalism perpetrated against the text is unparalleled.  He mutilates and murders the finest passages without the least cause.  He garbles and spoils the best of sentences. . . . The very first page of the Gemara is so mutilated, bone and marrow of the passages quoted so cut and spoiled, that a comprehension of the whole is made impossible.”  Kohler concludes:

What he understands by scholarship is brought to light in his introduction, about which it is not too much to say that, from beginning to end, it abounds with false and foolish statements.  In one word, the work is a disgrace to Jewish scholarship in America, and it is a sin to encourage, or support it.

J. D. Eisenstein, (1855-1956), author and editor of the Hebrew encyclopedia, Ozar Yisrael (1907-13), and editor of such anthologies as Ozar Midrashim (1915), Ozar Derushim and Ozar Dinim u-Minhagim (1918), had written articles for ha-Sanegor, a Rodkinson publication.  He wrote reviews of both Rosh Hashana and Shabbat, first published in Ner Ma’aravi.[26]  The first review begins with an appreciation of the Talmud, recognizing that it is a complex and difficult work.  Efforts were made, therefore, as early as the time of R. Ahai Gaon, to assist students of the Talmud.  The monumental works of Rambam (Maimonides) and the Rif (Rav Alfas) were designed to address the complexities of the Talmud, by selecting halakhic material only.  One result of their efforts was an increase, rather than a diminishment, of Talmud study.  He is not, therefore, inherently opposed to an abridgement of the Talmud.  Nevertheless, Eisenstein writes, he is ashamed to include this “dwarf” with those giants, for it is tantamount to comparing a gnat to the Leviathan, or a dark candle to the sun.  Where those giants labored for years, this abridger thinks to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, in a time that is neither day nor night.

Eisenstein enumerates eight categories of errors, each supported by examples, in his review of Rosh Hashana,.  The first, dealing with errors in the meaning of the Talmud, begins with “the abridgers” statement that he has not added even a single letter but only removed unnecessary material.  This is reminiscent of the English Bible in the museum in London, where the copyists transcribed the Ten Commandments, omitting one word, “not” before  “adultery,” adding nothing.[27]  His final category of errors deals with the abridgement of Rashi.  Eisenstein finds misrepresentations in the Hebrew abridgement of that exegete, and in references to Rashi in the English by the translator, Levy.  He concludes this review by stating that his purpose was not to “shoot arrows of hate, and envy, nor to diminish the reputation of the author,” but only to review the book, not the writer, and therefore invites him to respond with reasons, for “it is Torah and we must learn.”[28]

            In his review of Shabbat Eisenstein suggests that the Jewish Publication Society undertake a proper translation of the Talmud, for which we will bless the author [Rodkinson] for being the inspiration for such a work.  Noting that Rodkinson has said, correctly, that he would not respond to personal attacks, Eisenstein writes that with this review he will refrain as much as possible from mentioning the author; instead he will take that new invention, the x-ray machine, to reveal the mistakes and errors in Shabbat, which, perchance the author will agree to acknowledge and correct.  Eisenstein, instead of referring to Rodkinson, now limits his references to the author.  He reviews the three introductions to Shabbat, and then enumerates eighteen categories of errors in the abridged translation, supported by 125 examples.  Rodkinson is accused of perverting and misrepresenting the intent of the Talmud, mistranslating, omitting references necessary to the passage under discussion, and for referring to material that he has omitted.

The Rev. Dr. Bernard Felsenthal (1822-1908), author of several books in German and English, among them works to be used in Hebrew studies, was, at the time the New Talmud was published, Rabbi Emeritus of Zion Congregation, Chicago, where he had officiated from 1863 to 1887.  Felsenthal wrote three pieces in the Reform Advocate, the last a review taking four installments to complete, as well as an open letter to Rodkinson, printed in the American Israelite and the Chicago Israelite.  He also wrote a critical letter to the editor in Ner Ma’aravi, in which he states that he concurs with Eisenstein’s review.[29]

Felsenthal’s letter of endorsement, dated February 14, 1895, was particularly warm, recognizing the need for an abridgement of the Talmud for students, and even rabbis, who do not have the time to master the “intricacies of the dialectics” of the Talmud.  He too, therefore, recommends the “intended publication.”  Three months later (May 11, 1895), however, Felsenthal writes that his earlier approval of Mr. R.’s literary project was not in “in the hope that he would lay before us ‘the Original Babylonian Talmud,’ or the supposed ‘Talmud Yashan,’” but only in so far as it is, or will be, “an abridgement of the Talmud, a ‘Talmud katzer.’” He discusses the difficulty inherent in establishing a corrected text, and the proper manner of approaching such a task.  Felsenthal concludes, “I would respectfully suggest that Mr. Rodkinson may descend from his high horse and that he may modestly restrict himself to the work of editing merely a Talmud katzer for the use of younger students and autodidacts.”  One week later, in “An Additional Word Concerning Rodkinson’s New Talmud Edition,” he observes that it is “not more than right and proper” to note that another copy of Rosh Hashana has reached him, in which, on both the Hebrew and English title-pages, the “words have been eliminated by which the editor had claimed his work to be a restoration of the original Talmud, as it was, in his opinion, in its pristine form.”  That being the case, if Mr. Rodkinson restricts himself to an abridgement or anthology, Felsenthal writes, much of what he said in the previous issue “falls to the ground and becomes gegenstandlos.”

Subsequently (September 14 - October 5, 1895), Felsenthal takes Rodkinson to task for his comments, in response to criticism, that his purpose is “to purge the Talmud from the many falsifications . . . it received by the hands of its enemies and thereby to restore the real Talmud, the original Talmud in its pristine form. . . .”  Felsenthal’s introductory remarks, as harsh as those of Kohler and Eisenstein, dismiss the abridged translation “as an absolute failure,” neither useful as a school text-book nor for scholarly purposes, “manufactured, as the author himself naively informs us, in a mechanical way by the use of lead pencils and a pair of scissors.  Certain pieces, first marked by a red or blue pencil, are cut out, and the remaining pieces are then glued together as well as it may be.  In an average, our manufacturer thus finishes, as he tells us, five pages in one day.”  The result is “a mutilated Talmud, aye, it is a falsified Talmud.”  The omission of intricate pilpul, a main characteristic of the Talmud, which the Talmud itself repeatedly speaks of, is a falsification of that work.

Felsenthal takes Rodkinson to task for “throwing aside” passages which demonstrate intolerance or hostility towards gentiles as foreign to the spirit of the Talmud, claiming the insertions were surreptitiously smuggled into the text by enemies of the Talmud.  Felsenthal comments, “How, in heavens name, did now ‘the enemies of the Talmud’ manage to double and treble the bulk of the Talmud by inserting clandestinely and unbeknown to the rabbis and students such enormous additions?” In one example at the beginning of the third installment, a passage Rodkinson claims “never existed in Talmudical Judaism,” but rather is a falsification, is found to exist in parallel passages elsewhere, including the same tractate and in the Jerusalem Talmud.  In the final installment of his review he suggests that Mr. M. L. Rodkinson take as his next project the revision of the Hebrew Bible, purging it from the many interpolations and falsifications Christian enemies “smuggled stealthily into the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews during some dark night while the Jews were off their guard!”

Felsenthal notes that passages declared by R. “To be too difficult to be translated are ill selected.”  For example, “the word tzaphun (treasure), and the word is taken there in the sense of tzaphon (North).  This agadic method of applying Biblical words and of connecting with them new ideas, is to be met with on almost every page of Talmudical literature.”  In relationship to another example cited by Rodkinson, Felsenthal comments, “It is extremely easy, and a tyro in Talmudic studies might master it.”  He notes Rodkinson’s infelicitous transliterations, and writes:

And this man, so unlettered and so uncultured; this man so without any mental discipline and without any methodical training; this man to whom even the elementary rules of Nikud [vocalization] are an unknown country; this man who has not the remotest idea what the words ‘canon of correct criticism’ mean; this man who even to some extent is a stranger in his particular field of learning, in talmudical literature and what is pertaining thereto; - this man undertakes to issue a critical edition of the Talmud!

Not only did individuals providing endorsements withdraw their support.  At least one of Rodkinson’s collaborators, R. Levy, the translater of  Rosh Hashana, also, apparently, dissociated himself from the project.  Richard Gottheil, reviewing Levy’s translation of Berakhot, writes in the Jewish Messenger (May 22, 1896), “I suppose that the word ‘unabbreviated’ is a disclaimer of any further connection with Mr. Rodkinson’s pseudo-critical work, with which Mr. Levy’s name was at one time connected.”  Gottheil then praises Levy’s translation, which he describes “as readable as such a translation can possibly be, even at the certain expense of minor inaccuracies.”

The tepid reception of the New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud was recognized in the press.  For example, the Independent (September 28, 1899), which expresses ongoing support for Rodkinson and his translation, observes that “We regret that this enterprise - tho it might be criticized - is not better patronized. The work should go into a multitude of libraries of Biblical students.” Chagrin at the negative reviews of the “New Talmud” are voiced in an editorial in the American Israelite (September 19, 1901), which restates their initial support for the project.  The editor writes:

The complaint voiced through the Jewish press that Rodkinson’s translation of the Talmud is not receiving the support which its merits deserve is very much in the nature of self accusation.  The truth is that the great undertaking has never been able to overcome the onslaught originally made upon it.  Recognizing its great value, the late editor of this paper [Isaac M. Wise] gave to the work . . . his earnest encouragement and support, which, instead of being seconded by the Jewish press and rabbinate was met by a torrent of abuse and misrepresentation.  . . . As soon as unbiased reviewers were made aware of its merits they changed their unfavorable attitudes, but it was too late to overcome the prejudice created by the first impression.  . . . the non-Jewish press depended largely upon Jewish sources for their information in regard to this work, and therefore reflected the unfavorable opinion expressed by supposed Jewish authorities.[30]

Rodkinson expressed his disappointment in the second revised printing of tractates Shabbat and Rosh Hashana in 1901.  The title-pages of these tractates, unlike those of the other tractates in the second (1916-18) edition, state, “Second edition, re-edited, revised and enlarged.”  Shabbat has a “Preface to the second edition” dated June, 1901, which reflects Rodkinson’s disappointment at the reception to his translation.  He writes:

The translator of the Talmud, who has now reached the thirteenth volume of his task, covering twenty one tracts of this great work, certainly cannot point with any great pride to the fact that this is the second edition of his translation which first appeared in 1896, for he believes that the opening and bringing to light of a book so long withheld from the gaze of the curious, and even the learned, should have attracted more attention and deserved greater consideration than it has received.  However, he is glad to see that thousands of readers have at last taken advantage of the opportunity of looking into the ‘sealed book,’ and to such an extent that second editions have become necessary, both of this volume and of the tract Rosh Hashana of the fourth volume, which he has enlarged upon, adding many historical facts and legends, so that they now appear as practically new works.
This is certainly an encouragement to him to continue his work, with the hope that it will gain the proper recognition and proper attention which he thinks this great work of the sixth century should receive at the hands of all scholars and even laymen.

The modifications between the 1896 edition of Shabbat and the second edition are insignificant.  In the prefatory material, the photographs of Rodkinson and Wise have been omitted, and a dedication to Edwin R. A. Seligman, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, dated June 15, 1901, followed by the preface to the second edition, has been added.  There are unsubstantial modifications to the editor’s preface.  Part one of Shabbat, that is, chapters one through ten, is five pages longer.  Part two of Shabbat, chapters eleven through twenty-four, has not been revised and is identical to the first edition.  An example of these modifications is the first Mishnah, which concluded “or puts something into it, which is drawn to the inside by the master, - they are both not guilty,” now reads “or puts something into it which is drawn to the inside by the master, they are both free.” The following gemara has been modified to include a cross reference, thus: “We were taught elsewhere:” to “We were taught (Shebuoth, IV.2):”.

As noted above, the Talmud was completed with a supplementary volume, The History of the Talmud from the time of its formation . . ., comprised of two volumes in one.  This book, we are told in the preface, is to some extent based on the work of Dr. A. Mielziner; as it “contains essentially all that concerns the Talmud itself, we resolved to take it as a text for our historical introduction, adding and abating as we deemed necessary.”  The first volume is a history of the Talmud, from its inception through the Rholing-Block (sic) affair.[31]  It is followed by an appendix, which includes material on varied subjects, many not pertinent to the books subject matter, and a second appendix on the Karaites, Reformed Jews and resurrection.

Publication of the History provided an opportunity to revisit the translation, which, all the previous, detailed criticism notwithstanding, continued to find approval, at least in non-Jewish circles.  The Nation (December 24, 1903) noted the “storm which greeted the first volumes, but which now, happily, is blowing over. . . . Its causes were evidently in great part personal and racial.  Dr. Rodkinson’s work, on the other hand, has now passed to a public beyond all such limitations and jealousies.”  Rodkinson is described as “a most learned Talmudist of the ancient type,” whose ability to overcome his early rabbinic education to be able to translate the Talmud into an “English most able and nervous at that, is only another proof of the possibilities inherent in the Jewish race and of the transforming and assimilating power of our civilization.”  Rodkinson’s original intent of restoring the original text of the Talmud, is compared to the task “of editing the Arabic text of ‘The 1,001 Nights,’ a similarly gigantic oral and floating compilation.”  The reviewer concludes that “the translation should be heartily welcomed, and the iron industry of the translator - brazen-bowelled as was ever Greek grammarian - must be admired and commended.  He is doing a piece of work of which he may well be proud. . . .”  The reviewer is equally pleased with the History.   The Catholic World (November, 1904) describes the translation as a “memorable event indeed for both scholarship and religion.”  It is less pleased with Dr. Rodkinson’s introductory volume, The History of the Talmud, which is “hardly so instructive as we should have expected.”

Criticism, or disapproval, was not restricted to reviews, nor was it always direct.  Solomon Schecter (1847-1915),  lecturer in rabbinic theology at Cambridge University and, from 1902, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, rejected, as reported in the History, a request from Rodkinson to attend lectures at that insitution.  Schecter puts Rodkinson off, writing, “I have not at the moment any copy of the hours of the lectures either, nor do I really think it would be profitable for you to attend an occasional lecture, as you suggest. . . .”[32]

Criticism was also expressed by simply ignoring the New Talmud.  Subsequent translations into English either ignore or are critical of Rodkinson.  Samuel Malter, who translated Ta’anit (Philadelphia, 1928), refers in passing to the New Talmud, by writing, “and an uncritical fragmentary English translation (L. Rodkinson), none of which was of  any aid to me.[33]  Dr. J. H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of England, writes, in the introduction to the Soncino press translation of the Talmud, “A reliable English translation of the whole Babylonian Talmud has long been looked forward to by scholars.” In an address praising the Soncino Talmud, he remarks that “Super-American hurry in the publication must be avoided,” and in another address, “The Talmud as a Book,” he notes the Goldschmidt German and Soncino English translations, but makes no mention of the Rodkinson effort.[34]

Michael Levi Rodkinson died of pneumonia on January 6, 1904.  He was buried in the public, that is, non-denominational, section of Temple Israel Cemetery (then part of Mount Hope Cemetery), Hastings On Hudson, New York, next to his second wife, Amalia.  His tombstone states that he is the translator of the Babylonian Talmud.  Rodkinson left, according to the publication list at the end of the History of the Talmud, a number of manuscripts, among them The Fiftieth Jubilee (a voluminous book of his autobiography).  His death was briefly noted in an obituary in the New York Times (January 8, 1904), which stated: “Rodkinson - Dr. Michael L. Rodkinson, editor and translator of Babylonian Talmud, died Jan. 6, 1904.  Funeral will take place from his residence Jan. 8, 1904 at 12 0' clock noon.”  Brief obituaries also appeared in The American Jewish Year Book (1904) and the London Jewish Literary Annual.[35]

By the time of Rodkinson’s death even his supporters had abandoned him.  In the Year Book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Gotthard Deutsch (1859-1921), Reform rabbi and professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College, considered by many of his contemporaries, due to his meticulous attention to detail, to be the foremost Jewish historian in the United States, writes, “Hesitatingly I mention the name of Michael Levi Rodkinson, who died in New York, January 6, 1904.  While the result of his literary activity is subject to severe criticism, we have to recognize both his indefatigable energy and the shortcomings of our own public which considers the demand of Jewish science rather a pretext for asking charity than a duty which they owe themselves.”[36]  The American Israelite, which had often strongly defended Rodkinson’s translation, concluded its brief obituary (January 14, 1904) with the remark that “He was rather an odd character and had a hard struggle all his life to get means of subsistence while doing his literary work.” A more informative obituary is in The American Hebrew (January 16, 1904), which includes biographical information, and then concludes, “We understand that the widow and the children were left unprovided for, except for the proceeds from the sale of the Talmud and the History of the Talmud.”

In 1926, Koheleth America, Deinard’s catalogue of Hebrew books printed in America appeared.  He succinctly describes Rosh Hashana and Shekalim, observing that the approbations are from reformed rabbis “who concur with the abridging of the Talmud - after they have all entirely forsaken the Torah of Moses.”  He then remarks that the success of Rodkinson’s condensation can be seen in I. D. Eisenstein’s review in his Ma’amre Bikoret, where it is noted that the Reform rabbis who initially supported the project subsequently publicly regretted giving that support.[37]

After all of the criticism, the minor renewed interest notwithstanding, Rodkinson remained generally neglected.  Where recalled, it was more often negatively, and, concerning his translation, in a disparaging manner.  Rodkinson is not mentioned in Jewish Publishing in America, nor in The Jews in America: A History.[38]  In the latter case, Albert Mordell, reviewing the book for the Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, wrote, “Another woeful lack is that of mention of translations from Hebrew classics in whole or part, even though some of these translations were, like M. L. Rodkinson’s Talmud, not of a high order.”[39]   He is also neglected in Meyer Waxman’s A History of Jewish Literature, where mention is made of several translations in various languages.[40]  Where the New Talmud is remembered it is negatively, as in Yehuda Slutsky’s comment, “In his later years he devoted himself to translating the Talmud.  The value of this translation, printed in two editions, lies only in the fact that it is a pioneering effort.”[41]  A biographer of Wise writes that “In 1898 he gave his name to Michael Rodkinson’s quack translation of the Talmud. . . .”[42]   More diplomatically, Jacob Rader Marcus, writes, that Rodkinson’s translations “were anything but felicitous and did little to enhance the understanding of the Talmud by non-Hebraists.”  Most recently, R. Adam Mintz concludes that “Rodkinson’s work was rejected because of its poor quality, and not because of an objection on principle to this type of abridged translation.”[43]

Rodkinson took great pride in his translation of the Talmud.  Indeed, his tombstone has an inscription stating that he was the translator of the Babylonian Talmud, certainly an attribution of questionable accuracy.  It is ironic that Rodkinson, who did have other earlier accomplishments, is credited with and remembered for, and negatively at that, a work for which he was responsible and did oversee, but was, in truth, performed, either in its entirety or in part, by others.

There is an epilogue to the New Talmud story. After all of the above it would seem evident that the New Talmud has been forgotten, only remembered by students of Jewish literary history. However, that is not entirely the case, for the New Talmud has been revived, particularly in non-Jewish circles, on the Internet.  The Internet Sacred Text Archive has posted the entire text of  the “The Babylonian Talmud Translated by M.L. Rodkinson [1918].”[44]  Their website is cited by a number of other Internet sites, including at least one for Jewish studies.  The New Talmud is available on CD from both the Sacred Text Archive, as one of 500 religious texts ($49.95), and from B & R Samizdat Express, in the latter instance together with several other Jewish texts ($29.95).  A number of used and rare book sites offer individual volumes and entire sets of the New Talmud at a wide range of prices.

Internet Sacred Text Archive and Samizdat Express simply reproduce the text and are neutral in outlook. Unfortunately, other Internet sites, more often than not anti-Semitic, reference and quote from the New Talmud.  This is also the case with a number of anti-Semitic books.  Most surprisingly, to conclude on a relatively positive note, the New Talmud reappears on the reading list for college courses, for example, a lecture on “The Tractate Avot and Rabbinic Judaism,” in Reed College.  It seems that Michael Levi Rodkinson’s New Talmud has in fact not been forgotten.  Whatever its shortcomings, it has found an audience and is alive today in new and unanticipated formats.



[1] Joseph Kohen-Zedek, Sefat Emet (London, 1879), pp. 1-2. 
[2] Joseph Dan, “A Bow to Frumkinian Hasidism,” Modern Judaism XI (1991), p. 184
[3]  Rosh Hashana, pp. xiii-xiv.
[4]  Rosh Hashana, p. xv.
[5]  Rosh Hashana, p. xvii.
[6]  Rosh Hashana (Hebrew Introduction), p. vi.
[7] The opinions (pp. [iii]-vi) in English are from M. Lazarus, M. Jastrow, M. Mielziner, Isaac M. Wise, B. Szold, K. Kohler, B. Felsenthal, and M. Friedman. They are reprinted in Hebrew, with additional opinions from B. Landau, S. Morais, and S. Sonneschein.
[8]  Sample Volume, p. iv.
[9]  Sample Volume, pp. vii-viii.
[10]  Rosh Hashana (Hebrew Introduction), p. xiv.
[11]  Tract Rosh Hashana (New Year) of the New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud (Philadelphia, 1895), p. xx.
[12] “Bibliographical Sketches of Rabbis and Cantors.  Officiating in the United States,” American Jewish Year Book (Philadelphia, 1903), p. 75.
[13]  Sample Volume, Hebrew introduction, p. xix.
[14] Atlantic Coast Jewish Annual (Philadelphia, February, 1896), pp. 85-110.
[15]  Sample Volume, Hebrew introduction, p. xiii.
[16] M. Vinchevsky, HaToren 10 (Dec. 1923), p. 59.
[17] Deinard, Zichronot Bat Ami, p. 37. (G. Kressel, Leksikon of Modern Hebrew Literature 2 (Merhavia, 1967), p. 838), also notes that the translation was performed by others.
[18] Judah D. Eisenstein, Ozar Zikhronotai (New York, 1929), p. 109.
[19] Oved (Nahum Sokolow), ha-Tzefira (January 22, 1904), no. 20 Friday supplement, p. 97.
[20] Wise’s letter is not reprinted in the second edition of the New Talmud.
[21]  Shabbat, pp. xviii-xix.
[22]  Shabbat p. xxiv.
[23]  History II, supplements entitled “Endorsements” (pp. 9-11) and “Some Press Comments” (pp. 12-18).
[24] Abraham Cahan, “Talmudism at the Brooklyn Bridge,” New York Commercial Advertiser, reprinted in Grandma Never Lived in America. The New Journalism of Abraham Cahan, Moses Rischin, ed. (Bloomington, 1985), pp. 54-55. Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) was a journalist, editor and author. He helped found, and was editor from 1902 to his death, of the Jewish Daily Forward. He also wrote for a number of English language newspapers, chronicling the Jewish immigrant experience in America and was the author of The Rise of David Levinsky (New York, 1917), considered an American classic.
[25]  It was noted above that, “not understanding the English language, Rodkinson employed Jewish high school students.  He translated the Talmud into Yiddish for them, and they then translated it into English.”  It is not inconceivable that in some instances the infelicitous mistranslations, such as “the children of Barak,” were not Rodkinson’s errors but rather the errors of the high school students, who, although fluent in Yiddish and English, were likely public school students with only a rudimentary Jewish education and no Talmudic training.  I would like to thank Mr. Joseph I. Lauer for bringing this possibility to my attention.
[26] J. D. Eisenstein, Ner Ma’aravi, reprinted as Ma’amre Bikoret (New York, 1897) and in Ozar Zikhronotai, pp. 285-301.
[27] Eisenstein, Ma’amre Bikoret, p. 20.   
[28] Eisenstein, p. 28. Rodkinson responded in Ner Ma’aravi (reprinted in the History), as noted above.
[29] American Israelite (May 30, 1895); Chicago Israelite (June 1, 1895); and Ner Ma’aravi I:6 (New York, 1895), pp. 33-34.
[30] The following anecdote, reported to me by a prominent southern rabbi, succinctly recapitulates the findings in the negative reviews, from the perspective of an observant user of the “Rodkinson Talmud.”  This rabbi’s father, a Talmudic scholar, emigrated to the United States from Warsaw in 1927.  In the early 1930s he was offered a position teaching an evening Talmud class, with the stipulation that it be in English.  The elderly scholar, solely in order to polish his English, acquired a Rodkinson Talmud.  His son recalls that “As a small child growing up I remember that one day I found the Rodkinson in the waste can.”  His father explained that Rodkinson was both “a major kofer” (disbeliever) and such “a major am haaretz (ignoramus) that he did not want to have his stuff around the house.”
[31] Joseph S. Bloch (1850-1923), editor of the Oesterreichische Wochenscrift and member of the Austrian Parliament, distinguished himself in his defense of Judaism against the charges of the anti-Semite August Rohling (1839-1931), author of Der Talmudjude (1871) and blood libels.  Bloch was yet another opponent of Rodkinson, including an entire chapter, entitled “M. L. Rodkinson, the Third in the League,” pp. 139-51, in his My Reminiscences.
[32] History, I pp. 136-37.
[33] Samuel Malter, The Treatise Ta’anit of the Babylonian Talmud, Critically Edited on the basis of Manuscripts and Old Editions and Provided With a Translation and Notes (Philadelphia, 1928), p. xlvi.
[34] J. H. Hertz, The Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin (London, 1935), editor I. Epstein, p. xxvii; idem, Sermons Addresses and Studies by the Chief Rabbi (London, 1938), II p. 97, and III p. 258.
[35] The American Jewish Year Book (Philadelphia, 1904), pp. 341 and 373; and Jewish Literary Annual (London, 1904), pp. 132 and 146.
[36] G. Deutsch, “Report of the Committee on Contemporaneous History” in Year Book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis XIV (Baltimore, 1904), p. 142.
[37] Ephraim Deinard, Koheleth America, Catalogue of Hebrew books printed in America from 1735-1925 II (St. Louis, 1926), p. 138 [Hebrew].
[38] Charles A. Madison, Jewish Publishing in America. The Impact of Jewish Writing on American Culture (New York, 1976); Rufus Learsi, The Jews in America: A History (Cleveland and New York), 1954.
[39] Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society XLIV (Philadelphia, 1955), p. 125.
[40] Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature (1941; reprint Cranbury, 1960), IV pp. 710-11.
[41] Encyclopedia Judaica, XIV (Jerusalem, 1972), col. 218.
[42]  Sefton D. Temkin, Isaac Mayer Wise, Shaping American Judaism (Oxford, 1992), p. 303;  Jacob Rader Marcus, United States Jewry 1776-1985, IV (Detroit, 1993), p. 358.  
[43] Mintz, p. 125.

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