Sunday, April 27, 2014

The First Two Books You Should Buy

When you decide to start exploring Judaism, the number of books and websites is overwhelming. But really, all you need is two books. Everything else is just productive procrastination at this point.

  • The Tanach
  • A Siddur
Tanach: The Bible
"But I already own a Bible!" you might say. "I just won't read the New part!"

I understand; that's totally logical. But that's not going to be very helpful to you.

You know this, but people (especially Americans) often forget: translation matters, and it can be manipulated. Further, remember that the Christian scriptures are translations of translations. In most cases, the "Old Testament" will be the Hebrew translated into Greek translated into Latin, then translated into English, probably just "updating" the archaic English of the King James version. (I just read a fabulous book on the New Testament and its translations: Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman!) Worse, the included books may be different! (You know that the Protestant and Catholic bibles have different books included, right?)

So yes, you need a "Jewish version" of the Old Testament. Though still in translation, it'll be only Hebrew to English, and the "translation choices" will be made with Judaism in mind. Remember that even then, a specific section could be translated very differently and still be within the Jewish perspective. Midrashim will often pick up on that. 

There are two most popular versions of Tanach (which includes the Chumash - the 5 books of the "Torah" - and the other books you may have previously called "The Old Testament." 
The Artscroll Tanach (as of right now, the smaller Student Edition is more expensive)

Note that neither of these sefarim - books - will be what you use in synagogue on Shabbat during Torah readings. That book will, most likely, be the Artscroll Chumash. (Chumash is only the first 5 books, while the Tanach has all 24 books.) If it is important to you to have the same book as you use in shul, then buy the Artscroll Tanach because the English translation and commentary of the first 5 books should be the same as you would have in shul, but you'll have the benefit of the "extra" books without buying 2 books. If you're nerdy like me, you may want the JPS at home so that you can see a different translation before reading the Artscroll one during the Torah reading at shul. Alternatively, you can also read the Chabad translation on their website's Torah portion section. Personally, I really enjoy seeing how JPS, Artscroll, and Chabad translate ideas differently so that I can get a fuller understanding of the Hebrew. Chabad's printed Chumash is the Gutnik Chumash. I don't know whether this edition is the same translation as that on the Chabad website, and everyone I've asked doesn't know either, but I hear it has a great deal of commentary included.

Siddur: The Prayer Book
Then you'll need a siddur: a prayer book. Jewish prayer is very...regulated, for lack of a better word. It's formalized. But don't forget that your prayers in your own words are just as important and meaningful. However, you'll need to learn the Jewish approach to prayer, which has many benefits after the initial sticker shock of "who has enough time to say all these prayers every day?!"

But which siddur? The list of available siddurim grows every year, and now you can even get several different siddurim on your phone! A) You'll want a paper one instead of only a digital one. B) Your best best is to use the same siddur your synagogue uses. If you don't have a synagogue yet, you should probably start with the Artscroll Ashkenazi one, since it is the most used in America. There is a pocket-size edition, which is great for a purse or backpack, but I suggest getting a full-size version first because the font is larger and easier to read. The full-size edition will be especially helpful for reading vowels when you move into the Hebrew text. I plan to go more in depth on the "which siddur?" question later this week, so hold on to your seats!

Which siddur do you use, and what do you like about it? And which siddur to Sephardim generally use? (I don't know much about Sephardi shul norms.)


  1. For a Siddur, I would recommend the Koren Siddur. The translation by Rabbi Sacks is far more readable than Artscroll

    1. That's a common comment, but I personally disagree. I think the translation is more readable, but I think the siddur is less helpful because it has much less instruction for the person who isn't familiar with the liturgy. And I do think there is a lot of value in choosing the siddur your shul uses for your first one. If nothing else, it's easier to get page numbers to follow along. But the problem with that is that I can't daven with the Koren English translation now because I have (one of) the Artscroll translations memorized. However, I think the Hebrew is easier to read because of the wider spacing. All in all, I think the Koren is a more "advanced" siddur than the beginner needs.

    2. Another vote for Koren - I'm a baalat teshuva and the Koren siddur was the best thing that happened to me. After months of struggling to learn the prayers in the large blocks of text in my Artscroll, the linear format of the Koren (along with the reversed layout and the font) was a welcome change that made a world of difference in both my learning the prayers and my kavanah.

      Also to note is the hashkafic difference - I was VERY turned off by the right-wing flavor of the Artscroll siddur, and warmed much more easily to the Koren's progressive/modern/Zionist/etc. outlook. Some people may see this and go the other way, of course, but had I been stuck with Artscroll, I'd hate davening.

    3. Koren also has by far the prettiest Hebrew font, which made a difference to me when I was learning to pray in Hebrew. Also, some of us just plain get pleasure from an attractive font.

  2. Depends on the kind of Sephardi. Spanish-Portuguese use the siddur translated by David de Sola Pool. Copies are sold by Shearith Israel in NYC and online.

  3. There is a Lubavitch (a/k/a "Chabad") version called the "Gutnick Edition."
    It is great for comparison but someone new to Torah should be aware that the translation and commentary is from a distinctly mystical perspective.

    Something to keep in mind is that Jewish tradition allows for, if not encourages, multiple interpretations of the same text. "Unpacking" the meaning is something that we have been doing for ~3000 years. There are rules (it's not a free for all!) but divergent interpretations abound.
    My point is that some people will take a technical approach, others a linguistic, others mystical, and some halachik (Jewish law).
    Kochava is right: use different versions to see how they compare.
    You may find some that resonate with you and some that just "don't do it."
    That's OK. Remember that you're wading into an ocean!

  4. For Nach, the serious person with a lot of time to read would benefit from the Judaica Press 20 volume (or so) edition.

  5. "There are two most popular versions of Tanach (which includes the Chumash - the 5 books of the "Torah" - and the other books you may have previously called "The New Testament." "
    As far as I know "The New Testament" is the four Evangiles, St.John's apocalypse, Apostle's letters and the like - in brief, "The New Testament" is the part of the Christian Bible that concerns Jesus. So I don't think any Tanach will include "The New Testament".

    1. You're right; that was a typo. It should have said "Old." I've updated the text.

  6. I live in Seattle, where the Sephardi communities (largely from Rhodes) use Siddur Zehut Yosef. Supposedly it's widely used elsewhere, but I have to say this is the only place I've ever seen it. It's great material, though I wish the layout was more methodical. Though that's not a very nice criticism of a siddur written entirely by one guy.

    When not davening nusach Sepharad, it's the skinny Hebrew-only Koren nusach Ashkenaz, every time. Gorgeous type, easy-to-follow layout, and no extra stuff. I have wrist problems and it's both very light and uses font that's large enough to read. It was my step-up siddur from the English-Hebrew Koren-Sacks, which is also beautiful.

    Both are better than Sim Shalom, which was my first siddur (my community uses Sim Shalom, and I hate, hate, hate leading from it because the translations are only a little better than Artscroll's and the layout is crap. It could be half the size, but no! They need to have all that white space because... I don't know why, actually). Don't even get me started on Artscroll. I'll just say that it doesn't come into my house.

  7. For a Tanach (and as a teacher) I recommend the Koren Jerusalem Bible. It is Hebrew/English. The translation by Prof. Fisch is very good, with proper names transliterated rather than translated. The Hebrew side is the standard, now classic Koren layout which has become pretty much the standard among students of Tanach (along with the Horev edition). Most importantly, the English side is laid out the same as the Hebrew. This is very important for good study, since the layout of text throughout Tanach is the first clue to an interpretive approach of the text. I don't think any other English Tanach does it.

  8. A great translation of the Humash is The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.

  9. I use Tehillat Hashem, though I'm not Chabad, but because it holds a lot of sentimentality for me. When I was in elementary school, we lived in a small town in Georgia, so the only place my mom could think to get siddurim for us kids was through Chabad. Since then, I hardly touched the siddur until I started returning to Jewish practice a couple of years ago. Now it sees heavy use for home davening. Thank G-d for moms and their foresight. :)

    When I started using a siddur, I wondered how I would ever make sense of what to read when, and how to find anything in it. But the more I read it, the easier the structure is to see, and now I don't need help with page numbers because I can follow the logical order of the service (different siddur in shul).

    I agree, having instructions written in the book itself is useful (stand, say this silently, etc.). And I agree that going back and forth between the Hebrew and the English (as I do) helped me learn more Hebrew words even when I wasn't trying much. Also, I guess this would apply for most siddurim, but I like how the Tehillat Hashem covers almost all occasions, with a list of food brachot, for yom tov, for travelling, for children's illness, for weddings, for seeing lightning, for seeing a rainbow, etc. Of course, Chabad puts in some mystical-minded stuff that I prefer to skip, as well.

    For a chumash, I just realized (literally right now) that I have an Artscroll! It's not printed clearly, so I simply thought it was called "the Stone Edition", but looking at the side-binding, it says "Artscroll Mesorah: The Stone Edition".