‘Israel Bible’: Tanakh connects text to the land of Israel

Reviwed by JASON GAINES, Ph.D.,

“The Israel Bible“edited by Rabbi Tuly Weisz. Jerusalem: Menorah Books, 2018. 2190 p.

“The Israel Bible” advertises itself as the first Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, “to highlight the special connection between the Land and the People of Israel.” It succeeds in this goal, with commentary and illustrations that call helpful attention to the interdependence between the Jewish people, their sacred texts, and Israel both ancient and modern.

The biblical text is rendered in two columns, Hebrew beside English. The modern-looking Hebrew font is easily legible, and the English is medium-sized but readable to my trifocaled eyes. The Hebrew contains consonants and vowels but, surprisingly, lacks cantillation marks (which show not only how the text is chanted but also mark accent and punctuation). Conveniently, Hebrew verses that feature editorial commentary are transliterated into English.

The English translation uses as its base the 1985 Jewish Publication Society of America version (abbreviated NJPS), itself a multi-decade collaboration between rabbis and Jewish academics from all three major American denominations. NJPS is a literary work of often astonishing beauty — I rank the translation as a masterwork of 20th century American Jewish literature along with the novels of Henry and Philip Roth or the essays of Cynthia Ozick.

“The Israel Bible” editors have altered NJPS with numerous transliterations of Israelite names and central Jewish concepts. These perhaps disrupt some of NJPS’s beauty, but connects the ancient words even more closely to modern Jewish practice: “The blare of the horn” in NJPS becomes “The blare of the shofar” (Exodus 19:19); the characters Deborah and Jael (NJPS) in Judges 4 become the much more “Jewish” Devora and Yael. Only names or places central to the land of Israel are transliterated; of Isaac and Rebekah’s two sons, one appears as the English “Esau,” while the other becomes the Hebrew Yitzchak.

Rabbi Tuly Weisz with copies of his Tanakh. (Photo courtesy Israel 365)

The editor, Rabbi Tuly Weisz, states in the forward, “We aim to honor the God, the People and the Land of Israel from an Orthodox Jewish perspective,” and it is this audience that will find the book most useful.

Indeed, the Introduction states, “The Tanakh consists of 24 books that are considered by Jews to be the word of God.”  However, only 11% of American Jews believe the Hebrew Bible to be divine word, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report. Those looking for historical, contextual, or other academically-minded, yet Jewishly-sensitive readings of Tanakh would be better served by “The Jewish Study Bible (2nd ed., Oxford, 2014).

The Israel Bible’s” commentary, which “draws from traditional teachings of early Jewish sages and modern rabbinic commentators,” is similarly Orthodox. Four main types of comments are present: “Israel lessons” concerning both the ancient land and the modern State; “Jewish lessons” about Jewish concepts or rabbinic teachings; “Hebrew lessons” that explore the meaning of the Hebrew text; and general comments that are historical, theological, explanatory, or clarifying.

Thoughtful and moving meditations on ancient and modern Israel infuse the notes: “The job of the Kohanim [priests] is to educate the people and work in the Beit Hamikdash [Temple], thereby providing the Nation with spiritual substance. In turn, they are provided with physical substance from the portions of the other tribes. Such is one’s existence in Eretz Yisrael (“the land of Israel”) – the physical and spiritual are continually intertwined.”

Each biblical book is introduced by its editor, and Torah and Haftarah portions are clearly marked. Thumbnail photographs and plentiful maps, charts, and lists add clarity. Full color maps, as well as numerous additional resources on the biblical texts and weekly Torah portions, are available at www.TheIsraelBible.com.

Rabbi Tuly Weisz. (Courtesy Israel 365)

Each Hebrew Bible edition must confront problems caused by the chapters and verses. The verse divisions are ancient and of Jewish origin, but the chapter divisions (and the individual numbers assigned to the verses) are significantly later and of Christian provenance. Modern scholarship has shown that both the ancient verses and the medieval chapters sometimes incorrectly divide sentences or join together multiple sentences.

Consider Genesis 2:4 in the King James translation (completed in 1611): “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens…”. Scholars now understand that Gen. 2:4 contains two sentences, as shown in the NJPS translation: “Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created. When the LORD God made earth and heaven—”. The change from comma to period is small, but it radically alters the meaning of the verse in its ancient context.

The Israel Bible visually separates the Hebrew text and English translation according to the ancient verse divisions, thereby making the text easier to read and study but also perpetuating millennia-old textual misunderstandings, such as in Gen. 2:4.

Relatedly, the Tanakh contains numerous names for God, and both traditional Jewish exegetes and modern biblical scholars see great significance in when the Bible refers to God as El or Elohim (a title meaning “God”) verses as YudHeyVavHey, the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God (usually vocalized with the euphemism “Adonai,” meaning “my Lord”). However, “The Israel Bible” translates El, Elohim, and Adonai all as “Hashem,” depriving the English reader of the chance to contemplate the spiritual and historical implications of God’s different names and titles. (Confusingly, when Elohim appears with a pronominal suffix [“your God”], the editors do not use Hashem.)

One-third of Tanakh is poetry, and reading through these poetic sections was my biggest disappointment. “The Israel Bible” presents the poetic sections also verse-by-verse, even though the parallel line, the basic building block of ancient Hebrew poetry, is frequently mismatched to verse divisions. NJPS indicates poetic cola varyingly through indentions, line breaks, and capital letters. “The Israel Bible” deletes the indentions and breaks but retains the capitals:

    1 Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God.

    2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, And declare to her

      That her term of service is over, That her iniquity

       is expiated; For she has received at the hand of

       Hashem Double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

These stray capital letters are distracting at best.

However, my quibbles with certain editorial decisions do not detract from the fact that “The Israel Bible” is a monumental achievement, a labor of love containing the best of Orthodox Jewish teachings. Its publication coincides with the State of Israel’s 70th anniversary, and it is a moving gift to Israel and all who love her.

Jason M. H. Gaines, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor and undergraduate advisor of Jewish Studies at Tulane University. His book on poetry in the Torah, “The Poetic Priestly Source,” was recently published by Fortress Press.

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