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November 09, 2008


Artscroll is the Microsoft of Orthodox Jewish publishing. People use it because it's everywhere, not because it's particularly good.

When I say it's not particularly good, I mean that it doesn't really translate the text as much as it spoon-feeds the reader its preferred interpretation. Sometimes I'll be reading it -- even modern Orthodox shuls have succumbed to the monopoly -- and I'll say to myself, "That can't possibly be what the Hebrew means," and I'll turn to the Hebrew and think, "How in the world did they get that from it?"

The most extreme example is with shir ha-shirim, the Song of Songs. This book is a love poem, and the rabbis decided eons ago that it was really meant as the expression of love not between a man and a woman but between God and the Jewish people. Fine, I guess it has to be that way, or else it would not have been made part of the tanakh. But Artscroll goes a step further. Not only does it inform its readers that this is the true meaning of the book but it refuses to translate the text. In place of a translation, it provides what it calls an "allegorical" reading attributed to Rashi, the great commentator who lived in France in the 11th century and early 12th. The allegorical reading is based on the same idea that the text refers to God's love for the Jewish people. But it drifts into bizarroworld in a few places, like when it "interprets" the line "your breasts are like twin fawns" to be referring to Moses and Aaron. Michael Wex, in his book "Born to Kvetch," has a little aside about young yeshiva boys using "Moses and Aaron" as a euphemism for breasts. Artscroll's insistence on perpetuating this as the only English version it provides is pretty silly.

But that's not what led me to write this piece about Artscroll.

Yesterday, at the end of the Torah reading, God tells Abraham to have all his men circumcised and to circumcise newborn males at eight days. The Hebrew text says "b'sar orlato," which means "the flesh of his foreskin." After initially translating it that way, Artscroll switches abruptly and begins to translate it as "the flesh of his surplusage."

His surplusage? I thought only lawyers used that word. ("We must construe the statute to avoid surplusage.")

So when an uncircumcised man goes to the doctor, does the doctor ever tell him, "You need to keep your surplusage clean"?

And more seriously, when Moses deflects God's order that he speak to Pharaoh by saying, "va-ani aral s'fatayim" (I have uncircumcised lips), is he really saying, "I have extra lips"? No, he's saying "uncircumcised lips." This forces us to confront what the Torah's text could possibly mean by "uncircumcised lips." There are roughly a gazillion pages written on the subject, with all the great commentators weighing in. So why can't Artscroll -- which translates it as "sealed lips" -- simply give us the actual meaning of the text and refer us to the commentary in the notes below? Why does Artscroll think it has to spoon-feed us so that we can't possibly get the "wrong" idea by taking the text literally? And is Artscroll really so prudish that it runs from the f-word "foreskin" as soon as it possibly can? I've been to a lot of brises in my life, and I have never once heard the mohel speak of the boy's "surplusage."

The Artscroll siddur (prayerbook) is another story entirely, but I can't end this screed without citing to the most famous Artscroll publication of them all: the Artscroll Shakespeare. (Warning: it's probably funny only if you've used the Artscroll siddur, but then it's hilarious.)