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Q & A: Torah In English (Part I)


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QUESTION: Is one allowed to publish Torah discussions in any language other than in the original Hebrew?
A Reader
Wilkes Barre, PA
ANSWER: Your question reminds me of comments made by my uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, founder of The Jewish Press, whose Torah columns graced these pages.He told me how, years ago, with the demise of the old Yiddish-language Morgen Journal, he was approached by Rabbi Chaim Uri Lipshitz of Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath, on behalf of Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva, asking him to publish a new Yiddish newspaper.

My uncle’s response was that his field of expertise was in the English language, and besides, English was quickly replacing Yiddish as the spoken and written language of the Orthodox community. Thus, he would only consider publishing an English-language newspaper for the community.

The Jewish Press, whose raison d’?tre was to promote Torah, love of Israel, and news of the American, Israeli, and world Jewish communities, became an instant hit. It also became a source of Torah for many in the community and reached out to those not yet reconnected to their great heritage. Countless Jews testify to the fact that they owe their religious observance to The Jewish Press.

Today there is no dearth of Torah-related material published in English. Great credit must be given to the numerous publishers who have issued a wealth of Judaica in English, particularly ArtScroll-Mesorah, whose efforts focus on Torah and Talmud.

The question you ask, whether one is allowed to publish Torah matters in any language other than the original Hebrew, is an important one. We will bring numerous sources showing that this may, indeed, be done.

The Talmud (Temura 14b) states: “But did not R. Abba, son of R. Chiyya b. Abba, say in the name of R. Yochanan, ‘Those who put down in writing the Oral Law are [punished] like those who burn the Torah, and he who learns from them does not receive a heavenly reward’?

“R. Yehuda b. Nachmani, the meturgeman (the public translator) of Resh Lakish, gave the following explanation on the verse (Exodus 34:27), ‘Ketov lecha et ha’devarim ha’eleh ki al pi ha’devarim ha’eleh… – Write these words for yourself, for according to these [oral] words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’ This teaches that laws received as oral traditions may not be recited from written texts (i.e., you are not allowed to commit them to writing), and those that are written [the Pentateuch, Prophets, and Hagiographa, which together are called the Tanach] may not be recited orally (that is, from memory).”

The Gemara continues, “They learned in the academy of R. Yishmael: ‘Write these words for yourself’ implies that these you may write, but you may not write halachot – oral laws.” The Gemara now asks whether a hiddush, a new interpretation, is different, as we find that R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish would study from books of Agadta on the Sabbath and they would expound on the verse in Psalms (119:126), “Et la’asot l’Hashem, heferu Toratecha – When it is a [critical] time to do for Hashem [when so needed], we may void Torah [rules].” They explained: “It is far better that we uproot [a] Torah [rule] than that the [entire] Torah be forgotten in Israel.”

When the Gemara poses the query whether a new interpretation is different, Rashi (ad loc., s.v. chad’ta) notes that indeed they had not known how to answer [difficulties in] certain baraitot and they were now able to do so; or, as in the case discussed by this Gemara, the libations [on the altar] are compared via hekesh to shelamim sacrifices that are offered only during the day. But when the libations are offered alone, they may be brought even at night. Rashi gives another reason – because there is a possibility that a halacha might be forgotten.

The Maharsha (Gittin 61) explains that the Oral Law is not to be written down, except when it is impossible [to remember], and it is “a time to do for Hashem.” The Maharsha comments that a person should not rely exclusively on the written text (which is always available), for that may be conducive for him not to study Torah any longer.

It is certainly impossible to write down all the matters that scholars speak about while learning Torah. Therefore, in earlier generations, whose understanding was far greater than ours, the Sages ruled that we were not to write down these oral laws so that we would constantly review our mishnayot and Talmud, and thus always study them in order to perform them.

Today, however, as the Maharsha explains, “when the heart [i.e. the understanding] of men is weakened and it is impossible to remember all by learning orally from one’s teacher and, just the opposite, much is forgotten through such oral study – ‘then it is a time to do for Hashem.’ In order to ensure that the laws learned orally will be performed, they must be written down in spite of the fact that we are voiding a Torah law, because the student will not necessarily review his lessons constantly and will rely on the written text.”

There are additional sources for writing Torah matters in English or in the vernacular. The verse (Proverbs 22:6) states, “Chanoch lana’ar al pi darko, gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimenah – Train the youth according to his way, and even when he grows old he will not depart from it.”

Metzudat David explains in his commentary (ad loc.): Start to get the youth used to the ways of service to Hashem according to his wisdom and capabilities, whether they are limited or vast. Thus, when the youth is accustomed to serve Hashem, his habits will not desert him when he becomes older.”

What is implied, according to Metzudat David, is that instruction must result in the subject matter being grasped by the child. Thus, if English is the language that the youth understands, he should be taught in that language.

We also find (Sotah 32a-b, Mishna) that certain texts may be recited in any language, such as Parashat Sotah, the viddui (confessional) upon presenting the tithes, and the recital of the Shema and the Grace after Meals. Others, however, such as the declaration upon presenting the First Fruits (bikkurim), the text of chalitza, the Blessings and the Curses, and the Priestly Blessings must be recited only in Hebrew. Following the discussion of the Blessings and Curses, which were to be said upon the entry of Bnei Yisrael into Canaan, the Mishna states: “. . .After that they brought the stones, built the altar, and plastered it with plaster, and inscribed thereon all the words of the Torah in 70 languages, as stated (Deuteronomy 27:8), ['Ve[k]atavta al ha’avanim et kol divrei haTorah hazot] baer heitev – [You shall inscribe on the stones all the words of this Torah], well clarified’.”

Rashi (infra 35b s.v. “Hei’ach lamdu ummot haolam”) explains that the reason the Torah was inscribed on these stones in 70 languages was that the nations of the world, who will be held accountable for not accepting and studying the Torah, will not have the excuse that they could not learn the Torah because it was [given] only in Hebrew.

The Maharsha (32a) explains that the Torah’s idiomatic expression “baer heitev” means to explain it in 70 languages, i.e., to clarify the Torah to each and every one ["well clarified," as translated by the ArtScroll Stone Chumash]. The Maharsha cites the Ram, who explains that the word heitev in its “tzeruf” – the grand total of the subtotals (of the numerical equivalents) of progressively larger initial sequences – is 70: heh is 5; heh and yud is 15; heh, yud, and tet is 24; and heh, yud, tet, and bet is 26.

(To be continued)

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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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