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Q & A: Torah In English (Conclusion)


QUESTION: Is one allowed to publish Torah discussions in any language other than in the original Hebrew?
A Reader
Wilkes Barre, PA
ANSWER: Last week we mentioned the founding of The Jewish Press as a response to the communal need for an English language Torah newspaper. A vehicle for promoting Torah, love of Israel, and news of the various Jewish communities worldwide, The Jewish Press has reached and continues to reach many Jews, resulting in increased religious observance. We continued with the premise that publishing Torah topics in languages other than the original is allowed in order to prevent wholesale failure to recall what was taught (Temura 14b). A verse in Psalms (119:126) served as the basis for altering a rule to prevent the entire Torah from being forgotten. A verse in Proverbs (22:6) was interpreted similarly by Metzudat David.We conclude this week with further support for publishing Torah related material in the language spoken and understood by the students.

* * *

Chidushei HaRim offers another reason why the Torah had to be transcribed into 70 languages (Deuteronomy 27:8, ba’er heitev). It was not only for ummot haolam, the nations of the world, but, more importantly, for the benefit of Klal Yisrael. Moses knew that in the future Klal Yisrael would be driven into exile. In order to ensure that they would be able to study Torah wherever they might settle, it was written in all 70 languages.

HaGaon R. Moshe Feinstein discusses the matter in his responsa (Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chayyim Vol. 5:10): “… We find that the Torah Sages’ language, specifically as regards Torah study, was in the local vernacular. For example, the sages in France spoke French and studied Torah in French, [the language] in which they had to explain it to their students.

“As for the sages of Sefarad [Moorish Spain], where the language was Arabic, they taught and wrote their Talmudic compositions in Arabic. We find that Rambam wrote his commentary on the Mishna as well as his Moreh Nevuchim, ‘The Guide to the Perplexed,’ in Arabic. It was only his book of halachic rulings [the Mishneh Torah, also referred to as Yad Hachazaka] that he wrote in the holy tongue, Hebrew, because he did not want to change the language of halachic rulings, which are based on the Mishna and the Gemara, from the language of their source.

“However, even though the sages of France conversed with and instructed their students in French, their many Torah compositions were drafted in the language of the Talmud [Hebrew].

“Similarly, we do not find that the sages of Germany, whose language of conversation and instruction was German, penned their Torah works in any language other than Hebrew….”

R. Feinstein now takes a very novel approach as he continues: “The German language merited [to be a language of Torah] because of the blessing that Noach bestowed on his son Japhet: ‘Yaft Elokim leYephet ve’yishkon be’oholei Shem… - May G-d extend Japhet; he shall dwell in the tents of Shem. . .’ [The Torah (Genesis 9:20-27) has just described how Ham disgraced Noach after he became drunk. According to Rashi, Shem's and Japhet's quick action of covering their father's nakedness restored Noach's dignity. Shem, who took the initiative, was blessed that his descendants were given the mitzva of tzitzit, the fringed garment. Japhet, who joined Shem, was given a secondary blessing that he shall dwell within the tents of Shem].”

R. Feinstein explains that Japhet is connected to Ashkenaz (the German speaking countries). Thus, even after we left the countries of Ashkenaz, German remained a language of the Jews, albeit in an altered version now known as Yiddish. The basic syntax of the language remained the syntax of German. Interestingly, R. Feinstein notes, Jews in different areas developed different dialects of this Judeo-German.

We also find a responsum (dated 27 Adar II 5738) of the Gaon R. Eliezer Menachem Man Shach, zt”l, about learning Torah in Yiddish in order to understand the lectures (shiurim) delivered in the yeshiva gedola, the advanced level of yeshiva.

He rules: “However, in the event that these lectures are delivered in English, the students’ language of fluency, and [if] they do not understand Yiddish, then it is far better to do so [i.e., lecture in English].”

From all of the above it should be clear that the response to your question is that it is certainly proper to publish and circulate as widely as possible Torah topics in the local vernacular. In fact, we have already seen the benefits of spreading Torah in this manner.

May we thus merit to witness the realization of the prophecy of Isaiah (11:9), “Ki mal’ah ha’aretz de’ah et Hashem kamayim layam mechasim – For the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as the water covers the sea bed.”

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

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