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The following is from the preface to the Jewish Publication Society's 1917 edition of the Hebrew Bible in English:
The sacred task of translating the Word of God, as revealed to Israel through lawgiver, prophet, psalmist, and sage, began at an early date. According to an ancient rabbinic interpretation, Joshua had the Torah engraved upon the stones of the altar (Joshua 8:32) not in the original Hebrew alone, but in all the languages of mankind, which were held to be seventy, in order that all men might become acquainted with the words of the Scriptures. This statement, with its universalistic tendency, is, of course, a reflex of later times, when the Hebrew Scriptures had become a subject of curiosity and perhaps also of anxiety to the pagan or semi-pagan world.
While this tradition contains an element of truth, it is certain that the primary object of translating the Bible was to minister to a need nearer home. Upon the establishment of the Second Commonwealth under Ezra and Nehemiah, it became imperative to make the Torah of God 'distinct and giving sense' through the means of interpretation (Nehemiah 8:8 and 13:24), that the Word of God might be understood by all the people. The Rabbis perceived in this activity of the first generation of the Sopherim the origin of the Aramaic translation known as the Targum, first made orally and afterwards committed to writing, which was necessitated by the fact that Israel had forgotten the sacred language, and spoke the idiom current in a large part of western Asia. All this, however, is veiled in obscurity, as is the whole inner history of the Jews during the Persian rule.
The historic necessity for translation was repeated with all the great changes in Israel's career. It is enough to point to the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Scriptures, the product of Israel's contact with the Hellenistic civilization dominating the world at that time; to the Arabic translation by the Gaon Saadya, when the great majority of the Jewish people came under the sceptre of Mohammedan rulers; and to the German translation by Mendelssohn and his school, at the dawn of a new epoch, which brought the Jews in Europe, most of whom spoke a German dialect, into closer contact with their neighbours. These translations are all historical products intimately connected with Israel's wanderings among the nations and with the great events of mankind in general.
Ancient and continuous as this task of translation was, it would be a mistake to think that there were no misgivings about it. At least it is certain that opinions were divided as to the desirability of such undertakings. While Philo and his Alexandrian coreligionists looked upon the translation of the Seventy as a work of inspired men, the Palestinian Rabbis subsequently considered the day on which the Septuagint was completed as one of the most unfortunate in Israel's history, seeing that the Torah could never be adequately translated. And there are indications enough that the consequences of such translations were not all of a desirable nature. However, in view of the eagerness with which they were undertaken almost in every land and in every great epoch of the world's history, it is evident that the people at large approved of such translations, thinking them to be a heave-offering to the Lord of each newly acquired vernacular adopted in the course of the ever-changing conditions of history, and in particular a tribute to the beauty of Japheth dwelling in the spiritual tents of Israel.
The greatest change in the life of Israel during the last two generations was his renewed acquaintance with English-speaking civilization. Out of a handful of immigrants from Central Europe and the East who saw the shores of the New World, or even of England and her colonies, we have grown under Providence both in numbers and in importance, so that we constitute now the greatest section of Israel living in a single country outside of Russia. We are only following in the footsteps of our great predecessors when, with the growth of our numbers, we have applied ourselves to the sacred task of preparing a new translation of the Bible into the English language, which, unless all signs fail, is to become the current speech of the majority of the children of Israel.
The need of such a translation was felt long ago. Mention may here be made of the work of Isaac Leeser in America, which was both preceded and followed by two translations produced in England: the one by Dr. A. Benisch, the other by Dr. Michael Friedlander. The most popular, however, among these translations was that of Leeser, which was not only the accepted version in all the synagogues of the United States, but was also reproduced in England. Its great merit consisted in the fact that it incorporated all the improvements proposed by the Mendelssohn School and their successors, whose combined efforts were included and further developed in the so-called Zunz Bible, which enjoyed a certain authority among German Jews for several generations. With the advance of time and the progress made in almost all departments of Bible study, it was found that Leeser's translation would bear improvement and recasting.
Steps leading to the preparation of a new translation into the English language were taken by the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1892. It was intended to secure, if possible, through the co-operation of scholars in the United States and in Great Britain, a new translation of each book, and to place it in the hands of an Editorial Committee, who by correspondence with the translators should harmonize the results of the work of the individual contributors. This method was followed until 1901 under the general direction of Doctor Marcus Jastrow, Editor-in-Chief, with Doctor Kaufman Kohler and Doctor Frederick de Sola Mendes as the other members of the Editorial Committee.
There is given herewith a list of the translations prepared for the Society:
Genesis, Max Landsberg, Rochester, N. Y.
Exodus and Leviticus, L. N. Dembitz (deceased), Louisville, Ky.
Numbers, David Philipson, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Deuteronomy, F. de Sola Mendes, New York.
Joshua, Joseph H. Hertz, London, England.
Judges, Stephen S. Wise, New York.
II Samuel, Bernard Drachman, New York.
Jeremiah, Sabato Morais (deceased), Philadelphia, Pa.
Ezekiel, Henry W. Schneeberger, Baltimore, Md.
Joel, Oscar Cohen (deceased), Mobile, Ala.
Amos, H. Pereira Mendes, Now York.
Obadiah and Jonah, J. Voorsanger (deceased), San Francisco, California.
Micah, Maurice H. Harris, New York.
Nahum, L. Mayer (deceased), Pittsburgh, Pa.
Zephaniah, M. Schlesinger, Albany, N. Y.
Haggai, S. Mendelsohn, Wilmington, N. C.
Malachi, D. Davidson, New York.
Job, Marcus Jastrow (deceased), Philadelphia, Pa.
Ruth, Joseph Krauskopf, Philadelphia, Pa.
Ecclesiastes, Gustav Gottheil (deceased), New York.
Esther, William Rosenau, Baltimore, Md.
I and II Chronicles, M. Mielziner (deceased), Cincinnati, Ohio.)
It became apparent in 1901 that by this procedure the publication of a translation of the entire Hebrew Bible would be indefinitely delayed, and accordingly the Book of Psalms, translated by Doctor Kohler and revised by his colleagues, was given to the press and issued in 1903. The death of Doctor Jastrow in that year required the formation of a new committee under the chairmanship of Doctor Solomon Schechter. This committee, however, soon found that the method adopted was too complex, and that it was impossible to accomplish by correspondence the extensive work required.
In 1908 the Jewish Publication Society of America and the Central Conference of American Rabbis reached an agreement to cooperate in bringing out the new translation upon a revised plan of having the entire work done by a Board of Editors instead of endeavoring to harmonize the translations of individual contributors. As a result of this understanding the present Board, composed of Doctor Solomon Schechter, Doctor Cyrus Adler, and Doctor Joseph Jacobs, representing the Jewish Publication Society of America, and Doctor Kaufman Kohler, Doctor David Philipson, and Doctor Samuel Schulman, representing the Central Conference of American Rabbis, was constituted, and by mutual agreement Professor Max L. Margolis was chosen as the seventh member, he to be the Editor-in-Chief of the work and Secretary to the Editorial Board, of which Doctor Cyrus Adler was elected Chairman. Incidentally the selection thus made resulted in an equal representation of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America at New York, of the Hebrew Union College at Cincinnati, and of the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning at Philadelphia. For one year Professor Israel Friedlaender acted as a member of the Board in the stead of Doctor Schechter.
The method employed by the Board was as follows:
In preparing the manuscript for consideration by the Board of Editors, Professor Margolis took into account the existing English versions, the standard commentaries, ancient and modern, the translations already made for the Jewish Publication Society of America, the divergent renderings from the Revised Version prepared for the Jews of England, the marginal notes of the Revised Version, and the changes of the American Committee of Revisers. Due weight was given to the ancient versions as establishing a tradition of interpretation, notably the Septuagint and the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, the Targums, the Peshitta, the Vulgate, and the Arabic version of Saadya. Talmudic and midrashic allusions and all available Jewish commentators, both the great medieval authorities, like Rashi, Kimhi, and Ibn Ezra, and the moderns S. D. Luzzatto, Malbim, and Ehrlich, as well as all the important non-Jewish commentators, were consulted. On this basis, a manuscript was prepared by the Editor-in-Chief and a copy sent to every member of the Board of Editors. Sixteen meetings, covering a period of seven years and occupying one hundred and sixty working days, were held, at which the proposals in this manuscript and many additional suggestions by the members of the Board were considered. Each point was thoroughly discussed, and the view of the majority was incorporated into the manuscript. When the Board was evenly divided, the Chairman cast the deciding vote. From time to time subcommittees were at work upon points left open, and their reports, submitted to the Board, were discussed and voted upon. The proof of the entire work was sent to each member of the Board for revision, and the new proposals which were made by one or another were in turn submitted to a vote by correspondence and to a final vote at the last meeting of the Board, held in October-November, 1915.
The present translation is the first for which a group of men representative of Jewish learning among English-speaking Jews assume joint responsibility, all previous efforts in the English language having been the work of individual translators. It has a character of its own. It aims to combine the spirit of Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern. It gives to the Jewish world a translation of the Scriptures done by men imbued with the Jewish consciousness, while the non-Jewish world, it is hoped, will welcome a translation that presents many passages from the Jewish traditional point of view.
The repeated efforts by Jews in the field of biblical translation show their sentiment toward translations prepared by other denominations. The dominant feature of this sentiment, apart from the thought that the christological interpretations in non-Jewish translations are out of place in a Jewish Bible, is and was that the Jew cannot afford to have his Bible translation prepared for him by others. He cannot have it as a gift, even as he cannot borrow his soul from others. If a new country and a new language metamorphose him into a new man, the duty of this new man is to prepare a new garb and a new method of expression for what is most sacred and most dear to him.
We are, it is hardly needful to say, deeply grateful for the works of our non-Jewish predecessors, such as the Authorised Version with its admirable diction, which can never be surpassed, as well as for the Revised Version with its ample learning--but they are not ours. The Editors have not only used these famous English versions, but they have gone back to the earlier translations of Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, the Bishops' Bible, and the Douai Version, which is the authorised English translation of the Vulgate used by the Roman Catholics; in a word, upon doubtful points in style, all English versions have been drawn upon. The renditions of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures by Lowth and others in the eighteenth century and by Cheyne and Driver in our own days were likewise consulted.
As to the text and order of the biblical books, the present translation follows Jewish tradition, the Sacred Scriptures having come down in a definite compass and in a definite text. They are separated into three divisions: Law (Torah, Pentateuch), Prophets (Nebi'im), Writings (Ketubim). Each of these possesses a different degree of holiness or authority. In the Prophets and the Writings the order of the books varies in manuscripts or among Jewish authorities; but there is absolute agreement as to the compass of these two divisions, and no book is transposed from the one into the other. Thus Ruth, Lamentations, and Daniel are all placed in the division of Writings--not among the Prophets, as in non-Jewish versions.
With every step by which each of the three parts was sealed, nothing to be added or to be taken away, the text was likewise fixed and thenceforth made the object of zealous watchfulness. Even with regard to the latest book of our Scriptures, we read its text substantially in the form in which the great Rabbi Akiba read it, he who said that the system by which the sacred text was guarded constituted a fence about the Scriptures. In that system, at first oral and later committed to writing, the letters were actually counted and lists made, to the end that no alterations should creep in at the hands of careless scribes. The first to collect the notes known as Masorah was Jacob ben Haim Ibn Adonijah, the editor of the second Rabbinic Bible. In our own day many scholars have been prominent in this field of labour, chief among whom are Wolf Heidenheim, S. Frensdorff, S. Baer, and C. D. Ginsburg. We have followed Baer's text (It should be noted that in the otherwise excellent edition of Baer the word ____ has been omitted by mistake in Pr 5:20. In Eze 9:9 the Board deviated from the Baer edition and accepted the reading ____ instead of ___. In Ps 62:4 the. vocalization of Ben Naphtali was followed instead of that of Ben Asher usually adopted by Baer.) and for the parts not edited by him that of Ginsburg. Not only does the text known as the masoretic represent the text current in the Synagogue with regard to consonants, but also with regard to its signs standing for vowels and accents, both of which embody the interpretation accepted by the Synagogue. While in the scrolls which are read in the Synagogue the bare consonants are alone permitted, readers must prepare themselves from copies allowed for private use, in ancient times written and now printed, which contain the additional signs for vowels and accents. A translation must naturally follow the guide of the latter. Moreover, the public reader is bound in certain cases to substitute mentally other consonants in the place of those found in the scrolls, in accordance with the marginal annotations in the copies intended for private use. These variants are taken traditionally for corrections, and the public reader who persists in ignoring them forfeits his position. It is true that in the case of such variations the Jewish commentators of the Middle Ages sought to elicit a meaning also from the textual reading, and seem here and there tacitly to give it preference, but all this partakes of the nature of private judgment, and does not affect the uniform practice of the public readings in the Synagogue. While as a rule the margin (Kere) was followed, we have occasionally adopted the consonants of the text (Ketib), as for instance in Ps 139:16, and 2Ch 24:27 34:9.
A translation destined for the people can follow only one text, and that must be the traditional. Nevertheless a translator is not a transcriber of the text. His principal function is to make the Hebrew intelligible. Faithful though he must be to the Hebrew idiom, he will nevertheless be forced by the genius of the English language to use circumlocution, to add a word or two, to alter the sequence of words, and the like. In general, our rule has been that, where the word or words added are implied in the Hebrew construction, no device is used to mark the addition; where, on the other hand, the addition is not at once to be inferred from the original wording and yet seems necessary for the understanding, it has been enclosed in brackets. Naturally opinion will differ as to what may be deemed an addition warranted by the Hebrew construction and what may not, but as intelligibility was the principal aim, the Editors have felt justified in making their additions, sparingly it is true, but nevertheless as often as the occasion required.
We have thought it proper to limit the margin to the shortest compass, confining it to such elucidation of and references to the literal meaning as are absolutely necessary for making the translation intelligible. The Rabbis enumerate eighteen instances in which the scribes consciously altered the text. We have called attention to a change of this nature in Jud 18:30.
Personal pronouns referring to the Deity have been capitalized. As an aid to clearness direct discourse has been indicated by quotation marks. In the prophetical writings, where the speech of the prophet imperceptibly glides into the words of the Deity, and in the legal portions of the Pentateuch, it has been thought best to use quotation marks sparingly. Although the spelling of proper names in the English Bible in many instances deviates somewhat from an accurate representation of the Hebrew, it has nevertheless been deemed wise, owing to the familiarity of Hebrew names in their usual English form, generally to retain the current spelling.
In all externals this translation is especially adapted for use in synagogue and school. The Keriat ha-Torah, or the reading of the section from the Five Books of Moses, is the central feature of the Synagogue service. The Pentateuch is divided into fifty-four sections; beginning with the Sabbath following the Feast of Tabernacles, the readings on the Sabbaths of the year are taken in their order from the Five Books of Moses. The reading consists either of the whole section or of a selected portion. There was a variant custom according to which the reading of the Torah extended over a period of three years instead of one year. However, the one year cycle gradually superseded the three year cycle, and has become the universal custom in the Synagogue.
The Pentateuchal readings are supplemented by readings from the Prophets known as Haftarot. Readings from the third portion of the Bible, though customary at one time, have now largely fallen into disuse. The five small books known as the Five Megillot are given a place in the Synagogue service in their entirety. On the feast of Purim the book of Esther is read; the book of Lamentations is read on Tish'ah be-Ab (Ninth of Ab), the fast-day observed in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem; Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes are read respectively on the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
The sections of the Pentateuch as traditionally read on the Sabbath are indicated, and a table gives all Scriptural readings, both on the Sabbath and on feast days and fast days.
By the favor of a gracious Providence the present company of Editors was permitted to finish the work which is now given to the public. The final meeting in November, nineteen hundred and fifteen, was closed with a prayer of thanks to God that the great task was completed and that the group which during seven years had toiled together was intact. Since that day two of our number have been called to the academy on high, Solomon Schechter and Joseph Jacobs, be their memory for a blessing. We grieve that it was not granted these cherished colleagues to live to see the final fruition of their labours; their wholehearted and devoted service is herewith recorded in grateful appreciation. In all humility their co-workers submit this version to the Jewish people in the confident hope that it will aid them in the knowledge of the Word of God.
September 27, 1916.
In 1955 The Jewish Publication Society decided to issue a new edition of its translation of the Holy Scriptures set in larger type and produced in more attractive format than its edition of 1917. Advantage was taken of this opportunity to correct a number of typographical errors and to identify the haftarot and other Scriptural readings. No changes were made in the text of the translation.
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last updated: 17 December 2002