Thursday, January 4, 2024

Parshas Shemos 5784




Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shemos – Mevorchim Chodesh Shevat

24 Teves 5784/ January 5, 2024


On a Shabbos morning in 1990, I was walking to shul with my father and a neighbor. My father and my neighbor were discussing how comprehensive the newly published Artscroll Mishnayos were. At that time, Artscroll had published quite a few volumes of Mishnayos but they still had ways to go before finishing all of it. What they had already published was well received. My father commented to our neighbor that he had read that Artscroll was working on a Gemara that due to be published in the coming months. The neighbor was incredulous that Artscroll would publish the translation of an entire masechta of Gemara with insights and footnotes. But a few months later, Artscroll indeed released its first masechta, Makkos.

Until then, the only available English translation of the Gemara was the Soncino Talmud. Those gemaras were published by Rabbi Yechezkel Epstein, a talmid chochom of note who had learned in the yeshiva of the Chasam Sofer and was reputed to know all of Shas by heart. The Soncino project of translating the entire Talmud began in 1936 and was completed in 1948.

The challenge of using the Soncino Gemara is that the translation was in the King’s English, and not the more familiar American vernacular. In addition, although the Soncino Talmud has footnotes, they are concise and without much elaboration. Unlike the Artscroll Gemara which spoon-feeds the Gemara to the reader, the Soncino Gemara simply gives the reader a head start with some background knowledge. But the reader still needs to invest effort to fully comprehend the text.

One of my rebbeim in yeshiva was very witty and innovative. As a major test on a few dafim (pages) of Gemara, he gave us a list of 20 footnotes copied from the Soncino Gemara. Our task was to figure out what daf Gemara the quote was from. One really had to know the Gemara well to figure out where a Soncino footnote would have been said.

In the pre-Artscroll world, the only other option to decipher ancient Talmudic Aramaic aside from Soncino, was the Jastrow dictionary. Although the author, Marcus Jastrow, was a great scholar, he had a tarnished reputation. Yeshiva students would therefore often keep their Jastrow dictionaries hidden under the table. That was no small feat considering that it was a small but thick volume. In addition, when using the Jastrow Dictionary one had to search one word at a time.

Since they have completed their monumental 73-volume project, Artscroll has literally created a Torah revolution particularly by making Gemara accessible to the masses.

In the yeshiva world however, the Artscroll Gemara is viewed differently. Rebbeim engrain in their students that using an Artscroll to learn Gemara hampers their ability to learn how to learn properly. During one’s formative years when he has time and guidance of rebbeim for in depth study, he has the opportunity to learn how to decipher and plumb the depths of Gemara. Doing so is tedious and difficult but is the only true road to becoming a talmid chochom. A student who chooses the easy and quick route of perusing through the Gemara with an Artscroll, is cheating himself. He may be able to ace a Gemara test, but he likely will not be able to develop into the scholar he has potential to become.

It’s a valid and important point, and I have conveyed that message to my students as well. However, at times I hear yeshiva students speak disparagingly about Artscroll generally. It’s as if anything published by Artscroll is to be treated like an allergen. The fact that it is less than ideal for the yeshiva student to use an Artscroll Gemara during his yeshiva years does not diminish the value of what Artscroll has accomplished. The letters of approbation from many great Torah leaders in the front of every Artscroll Gemara attests to how valuable Artscroll’s contribution has been and is.

A yeshiva student once told me he wouldn’t use an Artscroll Siddur because his rebbe told his class that they shouldn’t use Artscroll. I explained to him that he seemed to misunderstand his Rebbe’s point. I don’t know anyone who would argue that using a Siddur with translation and comments isn’t a great way to enhance one’s tefillos.

This is an important idea because it goes far beyond a Yeshiva student’s attitude towards Artscroll. In general, people often have a hard time parsing ideas and seeing the full picture. We like it when things are black and white and don’t deal well with blurred lines. But life isn’t so clear cut. There are always nuances and factors that need to be taken into account.

Life often needs elucidation and annotation, kinda like what Artscroll did for the Gemara. Maybe Artscroll should publish a book about who should use their Gemaras and who shouldn’t and when. The only problem is that those who could benefit from the book may not want to read it if it is published by Artscroll.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

        R’ Dani and Chani Staum