The Stone Chumash: Reviewing Its Torah
Among contemporary chumashim, The Stone Chumash (hereafter SC), edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz and published by ArtScroll (an imprint of Mesorah Publications Ltd.), stands out for its user-friendliness and elegance. Indeed, its physical and aesthetic qualities are important contributors to its appeal. Though first published back in 1993, it remains popular in Orthodox synagogues, and has become a bread-and-butter work in the Orthodox community.
The introduction, called “An Overview: Torah—Written and Oral,” announces that the commentary and translation will conform to the classical doctrines, that the Torah as we have it today was dictated word for word to Moses at Sinai, and will never be changed (Maimonides’ 8th and 9th principles):
These principles are essential parts of the faith of the Jew, and they are also fundamental to the way one studies the Torah. For the attitude of one who approaches a book as the immutable word of God is far, far different from that of one who holds a volume that was composed by men and amended by others over the years. As we begin the study of the Torah, we should resolve that this recognition of its origin and immutability will be in our consciousness always. (p. xix)
This doctrinal stance makes itself felt throughout the volume, not only in the commentary but in the very translation.
SC’s editors explain their method:
The new translation in this volume attempts to render the text as our Sages understood it. Where there are differing interpretations, we follow Rashi…. (p. iv).
This demure statement hardly conveys to readers what they will be experiencing in SC’s translation. For even if they do read the statement, they likely don’t realize that SC’s commitment is not necessarily to convey the Hebrew text as faithfully as possible. In other words, SC is not using “translation” the way it is normally defined.
For example, the Cambridge Dictionary defines the noun translation as “to change the words of one language into the words in another language that have the same meaning.”
When the text lends itself to more than one understanding, and Rashi offers a peshat reading, it is perfectly reasonable to follow it. A good illustration of this is the way SC translates Cain’s ambiguous words (Gen 4:13) גדול עוני מנשוא as “Is my iniquity too great to be borne?” following Rashi. Another option would have been to follow ibn Ezra, as NJPS does, who understands Cain’s words as an exclamation—“My punishment is too great to bear!”
In sum, every biblical translator has to make choices where a word or phrase is equivocal. The choice to always be guided by Rashi veers from the practice of most latter-day translators, who consult a wide panoply of scholarship and then decide each crux on the soundest evidence. But as long as SC stays with Rashi’s philology – or peshat – the choice remains in line with the standard definition of “translation” noted above. However, in addition to peshat, Rashi also offers midrash.
Midrash, by its very nature, is licensed to depart from peshat; nobody expects it to do otherwise. Translations do not have that license if only because they are intended primarily for a readership less than proficient in the source-language. Such a readership depends on translation to gain as accurate an acquaintance as possible with what the original text actually said. But SC all too often comes between the reader and the Torah text.
“Chose to Sing”
A subtle nod to Rashi’s midrash is in the introduction to the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:1), אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַי־הוָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר, which is generally translated as “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD, they said…” (NJPS). SC translates “Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song to Hashem, and they said the following” (p. 375). The commentary explains that the “chose to” is meant to highlight the unusual use of the imperfect/future tense here (p. 376), which the midrash (Mekhilta de-R. Ishmael, Shira §1; b. Sanhedrin 91b) claims is a hint that in the messianic future, the dead will rise from their graves and sing this song.
“It Is I”—Jacob Is No Liar
When the blind Isaac asks Jacob who he is, Jacob responds (Gen 27:19), אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ. Most translations render this as “I am Esau, your first-born.” Not so SC that gives instead: “It is I, Esau your firstborn” (p. 137). Elsewhere, SC does not translate אָנֹכִי with the awkward “it is I.” But here, as intimated in the commentary, SC wanted to shield Jacob from an imputation of fibbing (and, perhaps, of misleading a blind man; see Deuteronomy 27:18). Rashi, no less troubled by Jacob’s apparent lapses, had proposed that what Jacob really said was “It is I [=Jacob]; Esau [however] is your firstborn.” While SC’s translation stops short of flagrant distortion, it leaves room for Rashi’s creative reading.
Jacob Is Not Deceitful
Analogous qualms over the patriarchs sinning underlie SC’s handling of certain occurrences of the Hebrew word מִרְמָה. When Isaac informs Esau that his blessing has already been given to Jacob, they render (Gen 27:35) בָּא אָחִיךָ בְּמִרְמָה וַיִּקַּח בִּרְכָתֶךָ as “Your brother came with cleverness and took your blessing” (p. 139).
And yet, the only attested connotation of the noun מִרְמָה is negative. It derives from the root ר.מ.ה/י “to deceive or betray” and is distinct from similar sounding עָרְמָה, “cleverness,” from the root ע.ר.מ meaning “to be prudent or crafty.” The editors of SC know what מִרְמָה means, as shown by its correct rendering at Jeremiah 9:5:
ירמיה ט:ה שִׁבְתְּךָ בְּתוֹךְ מִרְמָה בְּמִרְמָה מֵאֲנוּ דַעַת אוֹתִי....
Jer 9:5 Your dwelling is amid deceit, through deceit they refuse to know me….
The decision to describe Jacob’s trickery as cleverness could not have been prompted by philology.
Again at Genesis 34:12, SC cannot tolerate Scripture’s report that Jacob’s sons beguiled the Shechemites. So when it says: וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב אֶת שְׁכֶם וְאֶת חֲמוֹר אָבִיו בְּמִרְמָה, SC renders: “Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor cleverly” (p. 183).
In both cases, SC takes its cue from Rashi’s gloss בחכמה “with wisdom.” This apologetic tactic deprives readers of the Torah’s depiction of its heroes as imperfect human beings.
Judah’s Father-in-law: Not a Canaanite but a Prominent Merchant
The Torah describes how Judah left his brothers and moved to the vicinity of an Adullamite man, where he met his wife:
בראשית לח:ב וַיַּרְא שָׁם יְהוּדָה בַּת אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי וּשְׁמוֹ שׁוּעַ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ.
Gen 38:2 There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man whose name was Shua, and he took her as a wife and came unto her.
SC gives “prominent merchant” for the words אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי. To be sure, כְּנַעֲנִי on its own can denote a merchant (see Hos 12:8, Isa 23:8, Zech 14:21, Prov 31:24), but never איש כנעני. Nevertheless, SC relies on the Talmud (b. Pesachim 50a):
מאי כנעני? אילימא כנעני ממש - אפשר בא אברהם והזהיר את יצחק, בא יצחק והזהיר את יעקב, ויהודה אזיל ונסיב? אלא אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש: בת גברא תגרא, דכתיב כנען בידו מאזני מרמה, ואיבעית אימא מהכא אשר סחריה שרים כנעניה נכבדי ארץ.
What does kenaʿani mean? If you want to say it means literally, a Canaanite, is it possible that Abraham warned Isaac [not to marry a Canaanite] (Gen 24:3), and Isaac warned Jacob (Gen 28:1), but Judah went and married one?! Rather, R. Shimon ben Lakish said: “[It means] the daughter of a merchant, as it says (Hos 12:8), ‘A trader (kenaʿani) who uses false balances.’” Or, if you like, from here (Isa 23:8) “Whose merchants were nobles, whose traders (kenaʿaneha) the world honored.”
Thus, the Talmud argues, since elsewhere in Genesis, intermarriage with Canaanites is discountenanced, Judah cannot be allowed to break rank. Therefore, Onkelos and Rashi prefer “merchants” and SC goes along. In so doing, the idea that Genesis 38 might preserve a different attitude to exogamy is withheld from those who rely on SC.
Roasting the Pesach
The Torah contains two directives for how to prepare the paschal lamb that appear, at first glance, to contradict each other. Exodus says:
שמות יב:ט אַל תֹּאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ נָא וּבָשֵׁל מְבֻשָּׁל בַּמָּיִם כִּי אִם צְלִי אֵשׁ...
Exod 12:9 Do not eat any of it raw, or boiled at all in water, but roasted over the fire…
Deuteronomy, however, states (Deut 16:7), וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ, which means “you shall boil it and eat it.” Throughout Scripture sacrificial meat assigned for human consumption is invariably boiled; Deuteronomy requires boiling because its pesach is a sacrifice, while Exodus 12:9 does not reckon the pesach meal celebrated in Egypt to have been a sacrificial ritual. Hence it enjoins roasting to emphasize the non-cultic nature of that pre-Exodus meal.
Nevertheless, Deuteronomy’s boiling versus Exodus’s roasting must have irked the Book of Chronicles to judge by the ingenious harmonization we find in its description of the paschal sacrifice in the time of Josiah:
דברים הימים ב לה:יג וַיְבַשְּׁלוּ הַפֶּסַח בָּאֵשׁ כַּמִּשְׁפָּט וְהַקֳּדָשִׁים בִּשְּׁלוּ בַּסִּירוֹת וּבַדְּוָדִים וּבַצֵּלָחוֹת...
2 Chron 35:13 They cooked the paschal sacrifice in fire, as prescribed, while the sacred offerings they cooked in pots, cauldrons, and pans…
The verse distinguishes between “cooking in fire,” for the paschal offering, and “cooking in pots and pans” for the other offerings. This solves the contradiction, but “cooked in fire,” i.e., roasting, isn’t the meaning of ב.ש.ל, which denotes exclusively “boiling”; the word for roasting in Hebrew being צלי, as used in Exodus 12:9.
Ancient translations, such as the Latin Vulgate, as well as modern translations, such as the NJPS and NRSV, soften the perceived dissonance by translating ב.ש.ל in Deuteronomy with the vaguer term “cook” (coquo in Latin) instead of boil. Others, such as the Greek LXX, play safe by double translating with “cook and roast” (καὶ ἑψήσεις καὶ ὀπτήσεις). The King James Version simply gives “roast,” and so does SC – without commenting in the notes.
Building a Stone Altar
Exodus presents two options for building an altar:
שמות כ:כא מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי... כ:כב וְאִם מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי...
Exod 20:21 You shall make an altar of earth for me… 20:22 and if you make for me an altar of stones…
SC translates the beginning of verse 22 “and when you make for me” (p. 415), using “when” instead of “if” – in deference again to Rashi, who says הרי "אם" זה משמש בלשון "כאשר" “the word ʿim here serves for ‘when’ for behold, building an altar of stones [on Mount Ebal] is commanded”
דברים כז:ה וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים...
Deut 27:5 There you shall build an altar to YHWH your God, an altar of stones…
To reconcile, Rashi, following R. Ishmael, reinterprets the passage in Exodus to mean that initially an altar of earth will be built but later a stone altar.
The Chalalah Category
Leviticus lists the women whom the high priest may not marry.
ויקרא כא:יד אַלְמָנָה וּגְרוּשָׁה וַחֲלָלָה זֹנָה אֶת אֵלֶּה לֹא יִקָּח...
Lev 21:14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is defiled by harlotry—such he may not marry…
The Masoretic Text presents three categories of women prohibited to the high priest. In contrast, the Samaritan Pentateuch reads four categories here: אלמנה וגרושה וחללה וזונה, “a widow, a divorced woman, and defiled woman, and a harlot”; and the same reading is reflected in the LXX. This is also how the Talmud construes the verse (see, e.g., b. Kiddushin 77b), despite the lack of a conjunctive vav in the MT between the third and fourth word. R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) tries to uphold the rabbinic foursome:
וחללה זונה – חסר ו"ו הדבק, כמו (חבקוק ג:יא): "שֶׁמֶשׁ יָרֵחַ עָמַד זְבֻלָה."
The phrase “and a ḥalalah zonah” is missing the conjunctive vav [though it should be understood]. This is similar to (Hab 3:11), “Sun [and] moon stand still on high.”
SC translates as if there were four categories: “a woman, a divorcee, a desecrated woman, a harlot” (p. 675), to accommodate the halakhic category of chalalah, without explanation.
Gods of Others
The second verse of the Decalogue reads:
שמות כ:ג [=דברים ה:ז] לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי.
Exod 20:3 [=Deut 5:7] You shall have no other gods beside Me. (NJPS)
The simple meaning of the verse is about loyalty: YHWH does not brook his worshipers worshipping additional gods—but this could imply a recognition of other gods. To preclude such an implication, Rashi, in the wake of the Mekhilta (Bachodesh §6), writes:
אלהים אחרים – שאינן אלוהות, אלא אחרים עשאום אלהים עליהם. ולא יתכן לפרש: אלהים אחרים זולתי, שגנאי הוא כלפי למעלה לקראותם אלוהות אצלו.
“Elohim acherim” – they are not divine; except that others made them gods over them. But it is impossible to construe it as “gods other than me,” for it is insulting to Heaven to call them divinities alongside Him (God).
Rashi treats “elohim acherim” not as an adjective and noun (other gods), but as two nouns in the construct state (gods of others). And that is how SC treats the phrase throughout the Torah. The following two examples are typical.
שמות כג:יג ...וְשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים לֹא תַזְכִּירוּ לֹא יִשָּׁמַע עַל פִּיךָ.
Exod 23:13 …Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.
Exod 23:13 …The name of the gods of others you shall not mention, nor shall your mouth cause it to be heard. (p. 437)
דברים כט:כה וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּם וְלֹא חָלַק לָהֶם.
Deut 29:25 They turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted to them.
Deut 29:25 And they went and served the gods of others and prostrated themselves to them—gods that they knew not and He did not apportion to them. (p. 1089)
Treating this phrase as if it were in the construct state is obviously motivated by theology rather than philology, since grammatically speaking, “gods of others” in biblical Hebrew would be אֱלֹהֵי אֲחֵרִים.
Interpretation: The Commentary
SC’s commentary often intermingles the simple and midrashic to an extent where the reader isn’t sure which is which. In the story of Jacob buying the birthright, it glosses the phrase וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן הַשָּׂדֶה “Esau came in from the field” (Gen 25:29):
The great of all the nations stood in the mourner’s row and lamented, “Woe to the world that has lost its leader; woe to the ship that has lost its pilot!” (Bava Basra 91b), but Esau went about his evil business as usual, uninvolved in his family’s bereavement. (p. 127)
This comment presupposes that Abraham died that day and the lentil pottage Jacob cooked was for the post-funeral meal – all of which SC takes as given.
Only One Prisoner
When the Canaanite king of Arad attacked Israel on their route of Atharim, the text says וַיִּשְׁבְּ מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁבִי which means “and he took prisoners from him.” The word שֶׁבִי, however, is in the singular, functioning as a “collective noun,” i.e., a singular that represents a plural, like the English words “family” and “police.” Such a form is grist for the midrashic mill, and Rashi, like Midrash Aggadah, takes the opportunity to read it thus:
אינה אלא שפחה אחת.
It was only one maidservant.
Ever loyal to Rashi, SC translates “and took a captive from it,” which they explain,
They took only one captive, a female slave (Rashi), whom the Jews had captured in a previous skirmish with the Canaanites. (p. 849)
While the content of the above glosses are relatively innocuous, sometimes the midrashic translations and glosses bring up controversial issues of contemporary import.
SC tends to portray the Torah as being about “Jews” instead of “Israelites.” So when Abram stops first at Shechem and there builds his first altar, SC explains:
Shechem would be the first place to be conquered by Jews. (p. 56)
“Conquered by Jews” is an odd way to describe Simeon and Levi’s massacre of Shechemite males (Gen 34:25). Similarly, in glossing Balaam’s blessing “a star has issued from Jacob” (Num 24:17), SC writes:
Though speaking of future Jewish kings, Balaam spoke in the past tense… (p. 872)
Jew is a term that developed from the name Judah, the main tribe that remained after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. It is more than a little anachronistic to refer to ancient Israelites as “Jews.” Furthermore, by substituting Jews for Israelites, the Ten Tribes are effaced. Apart from the anachronism of employing the designation Jews for the nation in pre-exilic history, it seems perplexing why anyone should wish to tacitly write the non-Judean Tribes out of the narrative.
Discomfort with Science
The commentary deploys a variety of tactics to deal with biblical texts that, prima facie, conflict with science. Sometimes, it ignores the very existence of any friction by assuming a pre-modern position. When Jacob uses peeled rods with spots as a visual device to make his unspotted sheep give birth to spotted offspring, based on the ancient belief in maternal impressions, SC simply quotes R’ Bachya (the bolding is mine):
R’ Bachya observes that this concept contains an important lesson. If imagination is a determining factor in the nature of unborn lambs, as this verse indicates, then how much more important will it be when sensitive, thinking human beings procreate! Therefore, when husband and wife unite, they must purge their minds of all impure thoughts and every element which is foreign or which concerns third parties. The degree of their moral and spiritual purity will effect (sic) the souls of their children (R’ Munk). (pp. 160–161)
The suggestion: maternal impressions actually impact the physical and spiritual formation of a child.
An alternative tactic is polemical. According to modern geologists and paleontologists the earth’s age is 4.5 billion years, and life on earth began hundreds of millions of years ago. Yet a literalist reading of Genesis would assign the earth a vastly younger age. Presumably for the purpose of neutralizing the modern dating, SC employs a version of the young-earth-creationist theory:
In addition, the upheaval of those months of intense heat and turmoil caused a great shifting and turning of geological strata and a deep burial of animal remains. Thus the attempt to date the earth and fossils is futile (Malbim), for no one can know how much the heat and water pressure affected the geology of the planet and the animal and plant remains. (pp. 35–37)
This pseudo-scientific assertion (made apropos of the Deluge at Gen 7:20), in confident, authoritative language, gives the impression that the fields of scientific geology and paleontology are filled with experts who are just spinning their wheels, sadly unaware that Noah’s flood has upended all their work.
At times, the commentary expresses insensitivity to the issue of race. For instance, it glosses Noah’s curse of Canaan that he will be עבד עבדים “a slave of slaves” thus:
Indubitably, many descendants of Shem and Japheth too, have been sold into slavery, while not every Canaanite is or was a slave. The curse is that from birth the Canaanites will be steeped in the culture of slavery and not seriously desire freedom. The descendants of Shem and Japheth, however, will have a nobler spirit; they will always crave freedom even if they are enslaved (Haamek Davar). (p. 45)
This comment is disturbing given the way such a classification of certain populations as natural-born slaves has been harnessed for all sorts of atrocities – most notoriously the enslavement of black Africans. Indeed, this very curse was invoked by antebellum defenders of slavery (even Jews) to justify the enslavement of black people!
The commentary’s racialist bent resurfaces in connection with Moses’ Cushite wife (Num 12:1):
Zippora was from Midian, not Ethiopia. The description of her as a Cushite was a euphemistic reference to her great beauty. It is common in Scripture and Talmudic literature to attach a derogatory epithet to a loved one in order to prevent an evil eye. (p. 795)
The identification of Moses’ Cushite wife as Zippora goes back to Rashi and earlier; and so does the business about the evil eye. Yet of all the available expositions, why select one with the potential to perpetuate a malign and hopefully obsolete prejudice?
Genesis Rabbah (1:12) offers the following midrash:
פילוסופוס אחד שאל את רבן גמליאל אמר לו צייר גדול היה אלהיכם אלא מצא לו סמנים טובים שסייעוהו, אמר לו מה אינון, אמר ליה תהו ובהו וחשך ומים ורוח ותהומות, אמר ליה תיפח רוחיה דההוא גברא, כולם כת' בהם בריאה...
A philosopher challenged R. Gamliel: “Your God is certainly a great artist. However, he found good ingredients such as chaos, the void, darkness, wind, water and the abyss.” “Get lost,” retorted the rabbi. “Every one of those items was itself created.”
This midrash, like countless others, articulates the fundamental belief that whatever is other than the Creator owes its existence to the One and only Creator of all.
Just in case any doubt lingers in our minds, the sages expounded that the loftier entities of the world were also created (b. Pesachim 54a; b. Nedarim 39b):
שבעה דברים נבראו קודם שנברא העולם, ואלו הן: תורה, ותשובה, וגן עדן, וגיהנם, וכסא הכבוד, ובית המקדש, ושמו של משיח.
Seven things were created before the world was created: Torah, Repentance, Paradise, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple and mashiah’s name.
The operative word is created; professing that even these had their genesis through an act of creation just like the rest of the universe. Content as they are to recognize the priority of these seven exceptional entities, the rabbis still insist that whatever is other than Creator had its beginning in the time and fashion determined by the same First Cause. Not Torah, not the Throne of Glory came into being independently.
Contrast these sentiments with the following un-contextualized midrash excerpted by SC to introduce its Overview:
When a human being builds a palace, he does not build it according to his own wisdom, but according to the wisdom of a craftsman. And the craftsman does not build according to his own wisdom, rather he uses plans and blueprints in order to know how to make rooms and corridors. The Holy One blessed be He did the same אִסְתַּכֵּל בְּאוֹרַיְתָא וּבָרָא עַלְמָא, He looked into the Torah and created the world (Midrash). (p. xix)
Two constructs emerge from this excerpt. Firstly, the being referred to as the Holy One depends on the Torah, and secondly, that the Torah is pre-existent, analogous to the blueprints that pre-exist and are not “according to the craftsman’s own wisdom.” So in order to aggrandize Torah, the Creator is kivyachol downsized— a conception akin to that of the philosopher who accosted R. Gamliel.
By presaging their work in this tone, the editors allege from the outset the impossibility of fathoming the Torah. While we humans experience the Torah as narratives about the history of the world and the people of Israel, as well as laws made for the latter, on an esoteric level it is the blueprint of creation. “There is more,” SC continues, “the Torah is the essence of the universe” (p. xx). This sets the stage for a pre-modern approach to the text, and a willingness to offer a translation that seems to care less about encountering the text on its own terms and more about viewing it through the prism of a highly selective range of rabbinic and medieval sources.
As noted, SC remains the most popular chumash in many synagogues after more than two decades, with so far no serious competitor on the horizon. Average synagogue goers are not comparing this chumash with its counterparts, nor are they typically studying the introduction and factoring it into their evaluation of the work.
What this review has tried to do, is to show what the reader gets when using The Stone Chumash.
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Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash An Adventure in Torah: A Fresh Look Through a Traditional Lens (KTAV 2023), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2023).
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