Of Myths, Metaphors, and Artscroll Mistranslations

In a blog post published last week, Sharona Margolin Halickman took Artscroll to task for not including the full writings of some commentaries, as we know them from other publications and modern scholarship, in its new edition of the Mikraot Gedolot. As Dr. Marc Shapiro documented, the passages in question discuss cases where the simple meaning of the biblical text contradicts rabbinic understanding and/or practice.

These cases are important to note and document, because they are the result of a deliberate agenda that is largely hidden from general readers. Perhaps even more disturbing, in the same vein, are deliberate mistranslations that impose a specific rabbinic understanding on the texts they treat.

The 93rd Psalm is read as the conclusion of Kabbalat Shabbat. The Hebrew text is as follows, with a key passage in bold:

ה מָלָךְ, גֵּאוּת לָבֵשׁ: לָבֵשׁ ה, עֹז הִתְאַזָּר; אַף תִּכּוֹן תֵּבֵל, בַּל תִּמּוֹט. נָכוֹן כִּסְאֲךָ מֵאָז; מֵעוֹלָם אָתָּה. נָשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת, ה נָשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת קוֹלָם; יִשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת דָּכְיָם. מִקֹּלוֹת, מַיִם רַבִּים אַדִּירִים מִשְׁבְּרֵי יָם; אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם ה. עֵדֹתֶיךָ, נֶאֶמְנוּ מְאֹד לְבֵיתְךָ נַאֲוָה קֹדֶשׁ: ה, לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים

Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” translates:

The LORD reigns, in triumph clothed,
clothed is the LORD in strength He is girded.
Yes, the world stands firm, not to be shaken.

Your throne stands firm from of old,
from forever You are.

The streams lifted up, O LORD,
the streams lifted up their voice,
the streams lift up their roaring.

More than the sound of many waters,
the sea’s majestic breakers,
majestic on high is the LORD.

Your statutes are very faithful.
Holiness suits Your house.
The LORD is for all time.

and comments:

Although this poem may glance back, as many scholars have proposed, to Canaanite cosmogonic myths of the conquest of a primordial sea monster, the mythology is no more than a distant memory here. Indeed, the idea that God is “forever,” before all national entities, is an implicit argument against a primordial battle of the gods. This notion of creation as assuring the safety and firmness of the land against the sea is one that makes special sense for a culture flourishing along the edge of the Mediterranean (in biblical idiom, “The Great Sea”). The waves pounding against the shore are a reminder of the precarious nature of the land dwellers, but God’s majestic power, far greater than even the power of the sea, is a reassuring guarantee of the stability of civilized life.

The forceful use of incremental repetition in this line…may be deliberately deployed to suggest a wavelike movement in the formal pattern of the verse.

These motifs and themes are perfectly suited for the beginning of Shabbat. As the turmoil and unpredictability of the workweek recedes into serene contemplation, appreciation and enjoyment of creation in all of its fullness, we offer testimony through reenactment of God setting order to chaos and then majestically presiding over His creation.

These motifs and themes are, however, almost entirely lost on the readers of the Artscroll Siddur (even the RCA edition), who find the following rendering:

Artscroll Ps. 93

There are several problems with this translation. In particular, with the added words “like rivers,” the Artscroll translation tells us that we are not talking about actual (or mythic) rivers, but something else – something like rivers. This is, of course, incorrect. The Hebrew original is נהרות, not כנהרות. The rivers are not meant to be a metaphor. In the mind of the Psalmist, they are real.

The commentary, stitched together from several classical sources, explains that this entire Psalm is really describing God’s battle through history against the “enemies of Israel,” who make a great noise like rushing water. The repetition of language is taken as a reference to the multiple destructions of Jerusalem before God finally establishes His throne with the coming of the Messiah.

There is resonance to the Artscroll take on this Psalm. The idea of Shabbat as a “taste of the world to come” is certainly well-founded in Jewish tradition; it may, therefore, be appropriate to begin Shabbat with a prayer expressing our faith in that ultimate fulfillment of creation.

However, by presenting the imagery the Psalm employs as entirely metaphoric – even to the point of mistranslation – all of its actual meaning is lost. As Artscroll translates and explains it, there is no longer any reference in this Psalm to God’s creation of the world, the original meaning of the Psalm – and of Shabbat itself.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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