In Praise of ArtScroll

In my last post I was critical of ArtScroll’s approach to biographies of great religious personalities. But in truth their accomplishments in furtherance of Torah study far outweigh the problems with their biography series.

The truth is that I have nothing but the highest regard for what Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz have accomplished. I am in awe of them. They have revolutionized the religious publishing industry and have created a ‘monster’ of a publishing house.

Please understand that I am not minimizing my criticism of their biography series. I feel very strongly that ArtScroll biographies shortchange their readers by omitting the challenges that their subjects faced – painting them all as saints from womb to tomb. This is a serious flaw in my view. But to say that this is the sum and substance of ArtScroll would be a major mischaracterization of what they have accomplished. There is no question that their magnum opus is the ArtScroll Talmud Bavli (sometimes called Shas Bavli).

If they published nothing else, the ArtScroll Shas Talmud Bavli (originally written circa 500 CE) is an achievement of unprecedented proportion in the anals of publishing. This is not some quicky half-hearted translation. It is a meticulous painstaking translation and elucidation of the entire repository of oral law that took years to complete. ArtScroll recruited some of the finest Talimdei Chacham (Talmudic scholars) available to work on it steadily for years.

Shas is the Hebrew acronym for Shishe Sidrei Mishna – the six orders of the Mishna. The Mishna was the first written version of oral law as stated by Tanamim (sages circa 10 – 220 CE). It was written in somewhat abbreviated form and it recorded disputes among the Tanaim. The Talmud is the later discussion of and debate about these Mishnayos. The Talmud is also  the repository for much of Jewish culture of the time; a bit of its history; and the lifestyles led by the Jewish people as well as the gentiles of their time.

The Talmud contains discussions of biblical passages using the rules of exegesis to derive conclusions about Jewish law.  The Talmud was written with no punctuation and is often difficult to understand by way of a simple reading – even if one masters the Aramaic in which it was written.  Much of it entails difficult to follow logic and/or mathematics and requires studying the classic commentators (like Rashi and the Tosaphists) just to get a basic understanding of it. This only scratches the surface of what it is like to study , let alone master the Talmud.

Needless to say it takes many years just to master the technique to study it let alone to study it in full and understand it.  Medieval commentators (Rishonim) have written many volumes of their own trying to do just that. As have more recent commentators (Achronim).

So complex is their interpretation that many version of the laws derived of the Talmud have been published. Perhaps the most famous of these is Maimonidies’ Yad Hachazaka – often referred to by the Hebrew acronym of his name:  RMoshe Ben Maimom – Rambam. The culminating volume of Jewish Law was written about 450 years ago by Rabbi Yosef Karo and is commonly referred to as the Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Aruch is what we follow today. It includes the glosses of R’ Moshe Isserles (Rema) for those of us of European heritage. And even that was not the last word on Halacha as later commentators add their own understanding which in some cases revise Jewish law as stated by Rabbi Karo and the Rema.

And I haven’t even scratched the surface of how difficult a task it was for ArtScroll to embark upon and this project and bring it to its highly successful conclusion.

Talmidei Chachamim were well paid in order in order to assure complete devotion to the project. This included many revisions and corrections suggested by editors that were Talmidei Chachamim in their own right. The editors also made sure that their English elucidation was written with proper English grammar in clear language – uniform across the entire 72 volume set.

All of that investment in time and money has paid off. There has been an explosion of Talmud study by laymen since they have competed this project. More laypeople than ever are studying Daf Yomi. Daf Yomi is a concept (attributed to Rabbi Meir Shapiro) where a single Daf or Blatt (leaf – 2 sides of a page) is studied per day by everyone.

It takes about 7 ½  years to complete Shas. While this does not replace the hard work required to really understand Shas, it serves to allow laypeople to ‘swim the sea of talmud’ and to get a feel for what Talmud study is really like. If anything it makes me appreciate exactly how much I don’t know!

While there are many reasons for this increased level of Talmud study in our day, no one can deny – nor should they minimize ArtScroll’s part in it. The ArtScroll Shas Bavli can be seen in Shuls everywhere. Just about every everyone attending a Daf Yomi Shiur can be seen using an ArtScroll Gemarah. There was in fact a humorous photo-shopped picture during the Bush-4 era of The President carrying an ArtScroll Gemarah – looking as though he was on his way to a Daf Yomi Shiur.

The ArtScroll Shas has been made available in Hebrew and French. As I indicated – I study Daf Yomi. I use an ArtScroll.  I prefer the Hebrew ArtScroll when I can find it. I find it easier to use with my Yeshiva background. I make no apologies, however, for using an ArtScroll Gemarah in either language. And I am grateful to Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz for initiating and completing this project. It took a lot of courage and determination to do it. Kol HaKavod

The only caveat is that the ArtScroll Talumd Bavli should not necessarily be considered the only legitimate elucidation. A true understanding of Shas can only come with years of diligent  study in the original Aramaic – using commentators like Rashi and Tosophos among others. But there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind about what Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz have accomplished here. In my view, their place in the world to come is assured.

There have been other translations and elucidations of Shas. Some of them very good. The Koren Talmud Bavli by Rabbi Adin Shteinsatz comes to mind. It contains features that the ArtScroll Shas does not. Like little bios about the sages mentioned on the page. But in my view, ArtScroll volume is the overall much better tome.

What about ArtScroll’s faulty bios? Small potatoes in comparison to their achievement with the ArtScroll Shas. Besides – I  do not necessarily even recommend a complete avoidance of their biography series. I have read quite a few of them and have enjoyed them. But they should be read with a grain of salt – realizing that they are incomplete – and only a flattering depiction of the lives their subjects led. Which is unrealistic. I know that there is a lot more to the subject of an ArtScroll bio than what is written in it. This is how I approach them. I think that this is how everyone should approach them.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.