Translating the TaNaKh — a new Jewish translation based on the World English Bible

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This week on the holiday of Simḥat Torah, the Jewish people will begin to read the Torah anew, starting with Parashat Bereshit. The JET is a new English translation of Parashat Bereshit that is meant to be readable (and enjoyable to read), useful to people who want to study the parashah, and faithful to the Hebrew text of the Torah.

JET stands for the “Jewish English Torah” (or for the “Jewish English Tanakh” if we want to be very ambitious).

An initial example

This translation of Parashat Bereshit is meant as a sample and as an example. I do not plan to translate the entire Torah myself (let alone the whole Tanakh). Rather, this translation of the first portion of the Torah is meant to serve as a model in order to encourage others to create their own modern translations of the Torah/Tanakh (parts of it or all of it), so that the Open Siddur Project can become the host for a collaborative effort to create new Tanakh translations under free licenses that anyone can use freely.

In order to further that goal, I would like to describe how I did this translation of Parashat Bereshit, and why I did it that way. Then others can either adopt the same method or change it according to their personal needs and tastes. There is no one particular style of translation that is right for everyone, but in a collaborative Open Content environment such as the Open Siddur Project there is also no problem creating alternatives and adaptations. My translation of Parashat Bereshit is just one example of a particular way it can be done.

Other translations as sources

First I must begin by saying that I didn’t write this translation from scratch. I wanted a translation that, while in modern English, was still firmly within the literary tradition of high-quality English Bible translations, specifically the tradition that began with King James Version (KJV), and continued to be adapted in the 19th and 20th centuries with the American Standard Version (ASV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

For Jews whose healthy instinct is to react negatively to the names of all these mostly Christian “versions” (though the NRSV also included some Jewish scholars), I ask you to consider two points: First, “accept the truth no matter who it comes from” (Maimonides, preface to the Eight Chapters). We are not talking about the truth of Torah here, but about how to render that truth tastefully in English. The English-speaking Christian world has accumulated vast expertise in this area over the course of centuries. We should make use of that expertise.

Second, it is important to realize how dependent Jewish translations have always been on this English literary tradition. The JPS 1917 version, which is currently being edited and made freely available here at the Open Siddur Project, was based heavily on the KJV. The new JPS version, while far more original, still fits squarely into the same literary genre and openly draws upon its style. And even Orthodox translations such as Artscroll draw heavily on these classic Jewish and non-Jewish translations (though they rarely acknowledge it).

So as raw material, I used an existing translation into modern English rather than starting from scratch, one that is itself based upon this literary tradition and has been released into the public domain. The translation I used, called the World English Bible (WEB), is a basically good one (though very far from perfect). Even though it is mostly the work of a single person, it still competes surprisingly well with other similar translations that were prepared by accredited committees. It is very much a Christian translation in its style, in its frequent Christological interpretations, and in its preference for the Greek text in certain places (though it usually reflects the Hebrew), and as such it is unsuitable for Jewish use in its current form. However, as raw material for a new translation it is quite useful. I will post more about this translation and its author later on my user page.

Revising the base text

As I went over the raw text of the WEB, I first and foremost compared it with the Hebrew throughout, and also made numerous stylistic changes. I often consulted the classic Jewish commentaries for their insights on the peshat level (the “plain sense” of the text). In many places I also compared it with my own favorite translations, namely the NJPS translation, the NRSV, and Robert Alter’s new translation of the Torah. Often, when it seemed both feasible and tasteful, I adopted Alter’s method keeping the keeping the English word order in line with that of the Hebrew, but not always in the same way Alter did nor to the same extent.

In terms of copyright, I followed the reasonable approach of the WEB that any new translation offered freely to the public should be “different enough to avoid copyright infringement,” which means that “the wording is about as different from any one Modern English translation as the current translations differ from each other.”

There is a great deal of “theological translation” in the WEB, not all of it overtly Christological. For instance, the word “soul” is often used, even though that concept is difficult to justify as peshat in the Torah. It goes without saying that I have modified the translation in such places, as well as for all of the blatant Christological translations. One special example is in the translation of Genesis 4:1 in which I followed Rashi (“Now the man had known Eve his wife…”), though not too many people know that controversy about the meaning of the form of this verb was a major example of Jewish-Christian polemics in the Middle Ages. The Jewish interpretation, influenced by the midrash and by the form of the verb, was that Eve conceived while still in Eden, i.e. that marriage and parenthood are a part of an ideal world. (Cf. the similar verb form in 3:1; the serpent did not just then become the shrewdest of the wild beasts, but already was!)

Besides larger matters of style and interpretation, specific technical changes made throughout to the raw base text include the following: The divine name pronounced “Adonai” is rendered as “the Lord” and pronouns referring to God are capitalized. In both cases this means returning to the KJV tradition, as opposed to the ASV and the WEB which abandoned it in these two cases. (In terms of the divine name, the ASV proudly announced in 1901 that it would reject a “Jewish superstition” by no longer rendering that name as “Lord.”) The use of contractions (which the author of the WEB justified based on the informal Greek language of the Christian New Testament) has also been abandoned (since the Hebrew Bible is normally in elevated language).

Conclusion

To conclude, I would like to emphasize that Parashat Bereshit is only an example. I do not plan to personally translate the Torah (much less the Tanakh), but in the future I will probably contribute various sections that I re-translate on my own for teaching purposes. More importantly, I would like to invite others to contribute further Open Content translations for parts of the Torah or Tanakh to the Open Siddur Project, whether by following my method or in any other style. In time, together we could create a rich resource full of translations of all parts of the Tanakh in a variety of useful forms. That would be a wonderful thing to start on Simḥat Torah.


Parashat Bereishit

The Seven Days of Creation (1:1-2:3)

1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 1:2 Now the earth was formless and empty, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and God’s wind was hovering over the surface of the waters. 1:3 God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 1:4 God saw that the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. 1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. There was evening and there was morning, a first day.

{P} 1:6 God said, “Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it divide water from water.” 1:7 God made the expanse, and divided the water which was under the expanse
from the water which was above the expanse; and it was so. 1:8 God called the expanse Heaven. There was evening and there was morning, a second day.

{P} 1:9 God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered to one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. 1:10 God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering of the waters He called Seas, and God saw that it was good. 1:11 God said, “Let the earth yield grass, herbs yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with its seed in it, on the earth”; and
it was so. 1:12 The earth yielded grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with its seed in it, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. 1:13 There was evening and there was morning, a third day.

{P} 1:14 God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of Heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be signs for the seasons, and for days and years. 1:15 And let them be for lights in the expanse of Heaven to give light upon the earth”; and it was so. 1:16 God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, and the stars. 1:17 God set them in the expanse of Heaven to give light to the earth, 1:18 and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness, and God saw that it was good. 1:19 There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

{P} 1:20 God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the expanse of Heaven.” 1:21 God created the large sea creatures, and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. God saw that it was good. 1:22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” 1:23 There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

{P} 1:24 God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures after their kind, livestock, creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. 1:25 God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the livestock after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind, and God saw that it was good. 1:26 God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the
heavens, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

1:27 God created the man in His image,
in God’s image He created him,
male and female He created them.

1:28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 1:29 God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed on the surface of all the earth, and every tree bearing fruit yielding seed. It will be yours for food. 1:30 To every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is the breath of life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so. 1:31 God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good. There was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

{P} 2:1 The heavens and the earth were finished, and all their legions. 2:2 On the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He ceased on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. 2:3 God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because in it He ceased from all His work that He had created to do.

The Garden of Eden (2:4-3:24)

{P} 2:4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, on the day the Lord God made Earth and Heaven. 2:5 No plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground. 2:6 But a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground. 2:7 The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 2:8 The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there He put the man whom He had formed. 2:9 Out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 2:10 A river goes out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it parts and becomes four heads. 2:11 The name of the first is Pishon, that is the one which flows through the whole land of Havilah where there is gold. 2:12 The gold of that land is good, bdellium is there and lapis lazuli. 2:13 The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush. 2:14 The name of the third river is Hiddekel, the one which flows east of Assyria, and the fourth river is the Euphrates. 2:15 The Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it. 2:16 The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may surely eat. 2:17 But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.”

2:18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a fitting helper.” 2:19 The Lord God formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 2:20 The man gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the heavens, and to every beast of the field, but for the man there was not found a fitting helper. 2:21 The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. 2:22 He made the rib, which the Lord God had taken from the man, into a woman, and He brought her to the man. 2:23 The
man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She will be called Woman [‘ishah] for from man [‘ish] was she taken.” 2:24 Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will become one flesh. 2:25 They were both naked, the man and his wife, yet they were not ashamed.

3:1 Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts which the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'”

3:2 The woman said to the serpent, “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may surely eat. 3:3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”

3:4 The serpent said to the woman, “You will surely not die, 3:5 for God knows that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

3:6 The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise. She took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband beside her and he ate. 3:7 The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves loinclothes. 3:8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

3:9 The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 3:10 The man said, “I heard Your sound in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked and hid myself.”

3:11 God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 3:12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate.”

3:13 The Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.”

3:14 The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, you are more cursed that all livestock, and above every beast of the field. On your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. 3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.”

{S} 3:16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain will you bear children. Your longing will be for your husband and he will rule you.”

{S} 3:17 To the man he said, “Because you heeded the voice of your wife, and ate from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you, in toil you will eat from it all the days of your life. 3:18 It will yield thorns and thistles to you, and you will eat the herb of the field. 3:19 By the sweat of your face will you eat bread, until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

3:20 The man called his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all that lives. 3:21 The Lord God made coats of skins for Adam and for his wife and clothed them.

{P} 3:22 The Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, now what if he should reach out his hand, and take as well of the tree of life, and eat and live forever?” 3:23 Therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 3:24 So He drove out the man, and He placed the Cherubs at the east of the garden of Eden, and the flame of the revolving sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.

Cain and Abel (4)

{S} 4:1 Now the man had known Eve his wife. She conceived and gave birth to Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the Lord‘s help.” 4:2 Again she gave birth, to Cain’s brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 4:3 After some years, it happened that Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground. 4:4 Abel too brought from the choice firstlings of his flock and of its fat. The Lord accepted Abel and his offering, 4:5 but Cain and his offering He did not accept. Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 4:6 The Lord said to Cain:

“Why are you angry,
and why has your face fallen?
4:7 Surely if you do well,
there will be lifting up.
But if you do not do well,
sin crouches at the door.
Its longing is for you,
yet you can master it.”

4:8 Cain said to Abel his brother: And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

4:9 The Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

4:10 The Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 4:11 Now you are cursed through the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 4:12 When you till the ground, it will not yield its strength to you. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth.”

4:13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear. 4:14 For You have driven me out this day from upon the surface of the ground, and I must hide from Your face. I will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

4:15 The Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever slays Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” The Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any finding him should strike him.

4:16 Cain left the Lord‘s presence, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 4:17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch. He became the builder of a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. 4:18 To Enoch was born Irad. And Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methushael, and Methushael begot Lamech.

4:19 Lamech took himself two wives, the name of the one was Adah and the name of the other was Zillah. 4:20 Adah bore Jabal, who was the father of those who dwell in tents with livestock. 4:21 His brother’s name was Jubal, who was the father of all who play the lyre and pipe. 4:22 As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-Cain, who forged every instrument of brass and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah. 4:23 Lamech said to his wives:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice!
You wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech!
For I have slain a man for wounding me,
a young man for bruising me.
4:24 If Cain will be avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy and seven times.”

4:25 Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called him Seth: “For God has given me other seed instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” 4:26 There was also born a son to Seth, and he named him Enosh. It was then that men began to call on the name of the Lord.

From Adam to Noah (5:1-6:8)

{S} 5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in God’s likeness. 5:2 He created them male and female, and blessed them, and called their name Adam on the day they were created. 5:3 Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness after his image, and called him Seth. 5:4 The days of Adam after he begot Seth were eight hundred years, and he begot sons and daughters. 5:5 All the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, then he died.

{S} 5:6 Seth lived one hundred and five years and begot Enosh. 5:7 Seth lived eight hundred and seven years after he begot Enosh, and begot sons and daughters. 5:8 All the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years, then he died.

{S} 5:9 Enosh lived ninety years and begot Kenan. 5:10 Enosh lived eight hundred and fifteen years after he begot Kenan, and begot sons and daughters. 5:11 All the days of Enosh were nine hundred and five years, then he died.

{S} 5:12 Kenan lived seventy years and begot Mahalalel. 5:13 Kenan lived eight hundred and forty years after he begot Mahalalel, and begot sons and daughters. 5:14 All the days of Kenan were nine hundred and ten years, then he died.

{S} 5:15 Mahalalel lived sixty-five years and begot Jared. 5:16 Mahalalel lived eight hundred and thirty years after he begot Jared, and begot sons and daughters. 5:17 All the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years, then he died.

{S} 5:18 Jared lived one hundred and sixty-two years and begot Enoch. 5:19 Jared lived eight hundred years after he begot Enoch, and begot sons and daughters. 5:20 All the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years, then he died.

{S} 5:21 Enoch lived sixty-five years and begot Methuselah. 5:22 Enoch walked with God three hundred years after he begot Methuselah, and begot sons and daughters. 5:23 All the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. 5:24 Enoch walked with God, and then he was not, for God took him.

{S} 5:25 Methuselah lived one hundred and eighty-seven years, and begot Lamech. 5:26 Methuselah lived seven hundred and eighty-two years after he begot Lamech, and begot sons and daughters. 5:27 All the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years, then he died.

{S} 5:28 Lamech lived a hundred and eighty-two years and begot a son. 5:29 He called him Noah, saying, “This one will comfort us from our labor and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.” 5:30 Lamech lived five hundred and ninety-five years after he begot Noah, and begot sons and daughters. 5:31 All the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years, then he died.

{S} 5:32 Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 6:1 Now when men began to multiply upon the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, 6:2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were goodly, and they took themselves women as they chose. 6:3 The Lord said, “My breath will not abide in man forever, because he too is flesh. His days will be one hundred and twenty years.” 6:4 The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God took the daughters of men, they bore them children. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.

{P} 6:5 The Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6:6 The Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him in His heart. 6:7 The Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the surface of the ground, from man to cattle to creeping things to the birds of the heavens, for I regret that I made them.” 6:8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

1 comment to Translating the TaNaKh — a new Jewish translation based on the World English Bible

  • Avatar Christopher

    I think this is an incredibly important project, the TaNaKh simply isn’t available in modern English under an open license. Drawing on the WEB is a fantastic idea, and it has precedent (the OJPS used the Christian ASV as a base way back in 1917 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Publication_Society_of_America_Version#Earlier_translations).

    “As I went over the raw text of the WEB, I first and foremost compared it with the Hebrew throughout, and also made numerous stylistic changes. I often consulted the classic Jewish commentaries for their insights on the peshat level (the “plain sense” of the text). In many places I also compared it with my own favorite translations, namely the NJPS translation, the NRSV, and Robert Alter’s new translation of the Torah.”

    While this is a great edition in its own right, what’s ultimately needed is an agreeable base text that can be drawn upon by anyone who wishes to retranslate the text as the original poster has done here. This would mean creating an entirely new project.

    My idea is as follows:

    1. Use Bible software to compare differences between the ASV and OJPS.

    2. Save a file of the changes the OJPS makes to the text.

    3. Run that file through the software the WEB uses to make stylistic changes that modernize the language (such as taking out the thees and thous).

    4. Graft the updated OJPS file on top of the WEB.

    5. Keep this edition updated with changes from WEB’s upstream (which is updated constantly).

    6. Create a different project file that would remove the Christian Testament, reorder the books, and make basic stylistic changes that would bring it in line with Jewish rendering of the text (for example, the WEB render the Holy Name, Yahweh, this would obviously be changed).

    7. Export the completed edition.

    This would create a basic TaNaKh that anyone could draw upon for projects such as this which seek to retranslate the text by cross-referencing Jewish sources. If I ever find the time, I’d love to lend a hand.

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