They set out to produce an “accessible” Mishnah. The price: $645

JTA — As an avid book collector and operator of an independent Jewish press, Larry Yudelson was thrilled to learn that a new annotated version of the Mishnah, the first collection of the Oral Torah, was on the way.

Then he found out how much it would cost.

“At this point, I’m not going to go out and buy a copy,” Yudelson said.

That’s because Oxford University Press priced the three-volume set in August at $645 — a steep but not unheard of cost for an academic text, and among the most expensive of its own offerings.

“It was a huge disappointment,” Hayim Lapin, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Maryland and co-editor of the project, said of the award. “Unfortunately, we had no say in this calculation.”

Oxford University Press explained the award in an email to JTA: “As an expansive and ambitious three-volume scholarly undertaking, intended to be the definitive edition of the founding text of Rabbinic Judaism, it is expensive to produce and involves a significant investment in publishing. , proofreading, typesetting and printing.

Oxford said a lower-cost version could still be released in the future, and the authors hope it could happen next year. Still, the surprise award underscores the complicated role that academic publishing plays in creating Jewish texts: University-affiliated presses publish works that otherwise could never attract a massive audience, but their prices can be prohibitive. for average readers.

“The academic price is good at the library, but it’s not really good for beit midrash,” Yudelson said, referring to Jewish study halls. “And I think there are a lot of batei midrash where they would be welcome these days.”

PhD students and rabbis who were otherwise enthusiastic about the book balked at the price on Twitter. But the authors suggested that the target audience – at least for now – is made up of specialists for whom an explained Mishna would be an essential tool.

“My ideal audience would be a New Testament teacher,” said Shaye Cohen, co-editor of the project. “I kept thinking of scholars who are very bright, very learned, who have worked on related issues, but for whom the Mishnah is basically a closed text because there is nothing there. “

Illustration: An illuminated manuscript of the Mishnah, part of the De Rossi collection of the Palatine Library, dated to the 11th century. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

Lapin, Cohen and a third scholar, Robert Goldenberg, set out over a decade ago to create a text that would be accessible to scholars not fluent in Mishnaic Hebrew or Aramaic. (Goldenberg, who was a professor of history and Judaic studies at Stony Brook University, died in 2021, before the project was completed.) Over time, they collected contributions from 51 scholars with knowledge. depth of the technical language unique to the Mishna, which was compiled in present-day Israel at the end of the second century CE.

“If you ever looked [the] Mishnah, you will instantly know how hard and difficult it is,” said Cohen, Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University. “The language I like to use is ‘lapidary’. You need to come over there with a chisel and start kicking it. And then you can kind of mold it into something that you can relate to. But if you pick it up and start reading it, you have no idea what it’s about.

If you just picked up [the Mishnah] and start reading it, you have no idea what it’s about

Nevertheless, the study of classical Jewish texts is not restricted to scholars and is central to the practice of many observant Jews, both clergy and laity. And building a Jewish library is an investment: while the Oxford Mishnah has no direct competitor, other editions of the Mishnah can cost close to $300. A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud, which includes both the Mishnah and the expansive commentary known as the Gemara, can cost over $2,000. The Jewish Publication Society’s five-volume commentary on the Five Books of Moses sells for $360, or $75 a volume.

“In general, pricing has two main factors,” Yudelson explained. “Production costs, which include the number of pages, and comparable titles, which show what the market will bear.”

Some of the most aggressive access experiences are priceless. Sefaria, which launched in 2011, is an online, open-source library of Jewish texts that includes free versions of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the Mishna, the Talmud, classic commentaries, prayers, and more. texts, as well as many texts in English. translations. But Sefaria is a participatory enterprise, which has its own limitations, and not all of its Mishnah commentaries are translated or annotated with explanations of technical terms. (Sefaria CEO Daniel Septimus is a board member of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent company.)

“Sefaria is an extremely useful tool,” Cohen said. “And I salute them and I am delighted for them. However, our Mishnah project has, I would say, higher quality control.

“Everyone in my project has a PhD,” he added. “They are academics and academic institutions. They teach rabbinical texts to earn a living.

Illustration: This fragment of the Tractate Avodah Zara of the Mishnah represents the earliest evidence of a rabbinical text found in the Persian-speaking lands east of the traditional rabbinical center of Babylon. (National Library of Israel)

Now that the Annotated Mishnah is complete, Cohen says he can turn to Sefaria to discuss “whether the two projects could live together or work together.” But in the end, Oxford owns the copyright.

The new set is not the first time Oxford University Press has tackled the Mishnah. In the 1930s he published the first-ever English translation of the Mishnah by Anglican priest Herbert Danby. Danby was also notable for his writings on Christian-Jewish relations and used his position as a professor at Oxford to defend himself against anti-Semitic attacks on Nazi leader Alfred Rosenberg’s Talmud.

Danby’s version, although translated, has not been annotated and does not include explanations of technical terms, which the Mishnah of Cohen, Lapin and Goldenberg sets out to do.

“I tried to convince Oxford that this can be another Herbert Danby if they market it properly, they fix it properly, they present it properly,” Cohen said. “I think it could also live for the next 70 years until our successors do it again.”

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