Koren’s Steinsaltz Chumash: What’s Peshat?

I recently received a copy or Koren Publishers’ new Chumash[1], complete with the commentary and elucidation of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, shlita. As someone who has appreciated Rav Steinsaltz’s writing for many years as well as being an avid reader of Torah, this new Chumash was quite a valuable acquisition to my ever-growing bookshelf. After using the Chumash throughout the parshiyot of Sefer Bereshit and Sefer Shemot, I have many thoughts and reflections.[2]

Perhaps the aspect of the Steinsaltz Chumash which I most appreciated was its emphasis on and dedication to providing a strictly peshat-level commentary. To quote Rav Steinsaltz in his introduction to this Chumash:

“This commentary seeks to offer the reader the plain meaning of the text, the peshat. Ostensibly, this is the simplest level of interpretation, but the elucidation of the plain meaning is actually the most difficult type of interpretation… discovering the plain meaning of the text requires the interpreter to adhere closely to the literal meaning of the words while paying attention to syntax and context… [this work] aims to present what might be called a “transparent” commentary, one whose explanations should go almost unnoticed and serve only to give the reader and student the sense that there is no barrier between him or her and the text. The aim is to let the Torah speak for itself, to allow the prophets to prophesy and the wise men to impart their wisdom.”[3]

When it comes to being a “transparent” commentary, the Steinsaltz Chumash succeeds with flying colors. In typical Koren fashion, Rav Steinsaltz’s commentary flows in and out of the literal translation of the text and is differentiated only by the text translation being bolded. This translation-elucidation interplay is only occasionally interrupted in order to provide necessary background information to an upcoming segment of text.

The commentary itself does a wonderful job of keeping its promise of being peshat-based and only rarely brings in outside sources. This allows the reader to be fully engrossed in the text of the Torah and Rav Steinsaltz’s contextual aid and not have to look up references in other works in order to feel like they are getting a full picture. Whenever Rav Steinsaltz feels the need to bring in additional commentators, the reader is directed to the “discussion” section of the page. Likewise, if there is any information that would be too wordy or distracting from the text itself to be included in the usual elucidation or historical context that requires explanation, the reader is directed to the “background” section of the page.

Unfortunately, the Steinsaltz Chumash is perhaps too good at being “transparent.” The pages are often so thin that the pages both before and after bleed over into them, making reading the light font very difficult at times. This is especially true when there are colored pictures bleeding into the page, but also happens regularly when the dark Hebrew text is opposite the smaller, lighter English. While this is clearly a printing issue and not an issue with the commentary itself, it was incredibly distracting and took away considerably from the overall experience of reading Rav Steinsaltz’s thoughtful comments on the words of the Torah. Such poor readability would also make this Chumash quite hard to be used in synagogues, particularly ones with congregants who are visually-impaired to some degree.

Other issues that I had when reading through the Chumash were consistent issues figuring out where footnotes (both numbers and letters) pointed to on any given page, a lack of Targum Onkelos to look at for reference and use for Shenayim Mikra during the week, and a slightly altered Rashi font which took a little bit of getting used to in order to read through quickly.

Despite these complaints, I believe that Koren’s Steinsaltz Chumash is a worthwhile addition to any Jewish bookshelf. Rav Steinsaltz’s comments are full of mostly self-contained insight that a reader on any level will benefit from and the colored images/photographs help the reader form a mental picture of the text with incredible clarity. Thank you to the Koren team as well as Rav Steinsaltz for putting this wonderful edition of Chumash together!

[1] https://www.korenpub.com/koren_en_usd/the-steinsaltz-humash.html

[2] These reflections are on the merits and flaws of the Steinsaltz Chumash alone and will not be comparing it with any other chumashim (including but not limited to Hertz, Artscroll, and Etz Chayim). Such a comparison would cause this review to go far over its intended word-limit, but may be touched on in a future blog post.

[3] Steinsaltz Chumash, ix.

About the Author
Steven Gotlib is a recent graduate of Rutgers University, where he studied Communication and Jewish Studies. He is now pursuing rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
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