by Aaron Lichtenstein
Hardcover, 201 pages
In the Book of Psalms in Plain English, you will
find the Book of Psalms itself,
its ideas and emotions. The
English rendition is in verse,
just as the Hebrew original is in
poetry – in the various poetic
modes required by the varied
moods and messages.
Read and be moved by the inspiring words of Psalms, translated into clear and readable English by a scholar of Judaism and professor of English.
About the Author:
Aaron Lichtenstein teaches at the City University of New York, and has taught at New
York University, Yeshiva University, University of Denver, Jews’ College
(London), and Yeshiva Hechal HaTorah. He is the author of The
Seven Laws of Noah (Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press), was staff editor
at the Encyclopedia Judaica, and authored a dozen of its articles on
the Marranos of Portugal. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
O Lord, tell me the sum total of all my years,
The bottom-line value of all my life.
You measure out my days and nights by handbreadths,
Mankind is indeed meaningless alongside Your permanence.
But a person’s imagination proceeds with illusion,
Involved in acquiring what he may never consume.
So Lord, my only hope is faith in You,
Save me from sin and the shame of villainy.
With You in charge, I will have nothing more to say,
Cancel Your punishment, which is what I fear most,
For You do waste mankind with Your retribution,
And this is a reason why humanity is meaningless.
O Lord, hear my prayer and see my tears,
For I and my forebears are Your neighbors down here,
Permit me some respite before I vanish into oblivion.
–from PSALM THIRTY-NINE
Praise for The Book of Psalms in Plain English:
The new rendition of Psalms, "in plain English," is in verse, just as the Hebrew original is in poetry - in the various poetic modes required by the varied moods and messages. Rabbi Lichtenstein writes that "our intention is to convey clear insights, accomplished by highlighting the interpretations instead of the words. Maimonides instructed his translator Shmuel ibn Tibbon to render the idea, not the word, and our contemporary readings of the Tehillim follow this advice." Some of the well-known psalms [in English], such as Psalm 23, may sound strange to the ear, but overall the book is a useful tool in capturing the essential meaning of the biblical psalms.
-Dov Peretz Elkins
Jewish Media Review
Lichtenstein's contemporary English verse translation of all 150 psalms tries to reach beyond the words to capture the mood, tone, and ideas of the psalmist. As he explains in a very brief preface, his intention is to " convey insights. . . highlighting the interpretation instead of the words." In Psalm 113, the phrase often rendered as "the needy of the dunghill" is translated as "the rag-picker from the city dump." The author does not shy away from using vernacular slang, as for example in Psalm 36: "There ain't no such thing as God fearing." He often successfully uses vocabulary that captures a double meaning, as in Psalm 58's "In your heart you whitewash clear wrongs," conveying both the physical and emotional cleansing. In Psalm 83, one of the classical psalms asking for divine aid for Israel against her enemies, Lichtenstein replaces the more traditional translations of ancient Israel's foes. It is jarring to read that "the axis of evil aimed at the Lord" refers to "Europeans, The Arabs, the Bedouins and Egypt/ The Jordanians, The Nazis, the Palestinians and Lebanese/ The Iranians with their arms of mass destruction."
Lichenstein's short book contains no introduction, no commentary, no guide to special readings, no Hebrew, and no verse numberings. Although his translations are interesting to read and compare to others, there are many other titles that might serve a broader range of needs for a library purchase.
-Irene K. Seff
Therefore, the appearance of Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein’s translation of Psalms, The Book of Psalms in Plain English: A Contemporary Reading of Tehillim (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2006) is a most welcome addition to the attempt to present the poetry of Tehillim in poetic idiom. Following Maimonides’ advice to Samuel ibn Tibbon concerning the translation of his Guide to the Perplexed from Arabic to Hebrew, Dr. Lichtenstein seeks to translate the meaning and idea and not be a slave to the word. Furthermore, he is not afraid of departing from forms that preserve the majesty of monarchy, but unfortunately, a majesty that does not speak to the modern temperament. (Indeed, the constant reference to monarchy in prayer and the requirement of relating to God as King are problems to those for whom monarchy is an antiquated institution whose relevance is only for tourists. Educators who ignore this fact are not helping their students learn to pray.)
One has the sense, when reading Dr. Lichtenstein’s translation, that it is the work of someone for whom the Psalms are prayers with which he has identified so fully that he is not afraid to employ figures of speech that others may find jarring or trivial.
Thus, Psalms 39:5, which reads in the standard Jewish Publication Society (1917) as:
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how short-lived I am is rendered as:
O Lord, tell me the sum total of all my years,
The bottom-line value of all my life.
Or his translation of Psalms 126:1-2:
When the Lord restores Zion, it will be like a dream,
Our mouths will be full of laughter and tra-la-la. Rather than:
When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.
Yet, even should the reader disagree with issues of both interpretation and style (as this reviewer does in numerous instances), he will necessarily be moved to serious contemplation of how, as a result of these disagreements, the Hebrew speaks to him. In this respect, the lack of Hebrew-facing text is a major drawback both for study and for using the text as a Tehillim from which one might actually pray. But it is quite clear that Dr. Lichtenstein’s translation is reaching for the poetic, and that alone is most welcome.
I cannot imagine anyone seriously interested in prayer and in the constant use of Tehillim as a means to express our deepest yearnings who will not find this translation of great interest. Yeats said, “Out of the quarrel we have with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel we have with ourselves we make poetry.” For some, this translation will produce much rhetoric, but for others it will speak with the poetry of their selves. As such, it is worth serious consideration.
-Rabbi Dr. David Ebner
Jewish Action Magazine
The biblical book of Psalms is a reservoir of solace, encouragement and comfort for Jews and Christians facing crisis and despair. It is the core of their liturgy. It is a masterpiece of poetry, but like all poetry it is not always easy to understand, especially since it was composed more than two thousand years ago by many writers with different styles, and some illusions, metaphors and other beautiful figures of speech are no longer part of modern thought.
This problem is intensified for non-Hebrew speakers and even those who know only Modern Hebrew, because the psalms are written in ancient Hebrew and some words are now obscure and others have a different, sometimes contrary meaning in Modern Hebrew. Thus, people who want to understand the psalms need either a competent commentary or a translation that takes these problems into account.
Three outstanding and very successful recent versions of Psalms have done this. One is The Bible Psalms with the Jerusalem Commentary in three volumes, published by Mossad Harav Kook in Jerusalem in 2003. It contains a very extensive and instructive commentary; hence the need for three large volumes, and its Modern English translation of the Hebrew is very readable.
The second is The Book of Psalms by the noted scholar Robert Alter, published by W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. in 2007. Alter, a literature expert, produced a freer and more colloquial translation and set the English in nice poetic phrases, each thought on a separate line. He includes many notes on the psalms that explain them.
The third is the volume by Aaron Lichtenstein, a teacher at the City University of New York, the author of The Seven Laws of Noah and a staff editor of the prestigious Encyclopedia Judaica. His goal is to capture the meaning of the psalms in everyday English.
Lichtenstein notes that the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who wrote his famous twelfth century Guide of the Perplexed in Arabic, told his Hebrew translator Samuel ibn Tibbon that he should not be over scrupulous and render his book literally. He should focus on the idea, the interpretation, not the word. Lichtenstein follows this rule and offers his readers a “contemporary reading” of the psalms and, like Alter, does so in poetic verses. He offers no commentary or notes.
His accomplishment can be seen by comparing some of his versions with others, especially the famous, now outdated King James Bible, which fails to follow the Maimonidean rule. It conscientiously translates the Tetragrammaton as “Lord” and Elohim as God. Lichtenstein, more interested in the ideas rather than a literal rendering, usually, but not always, uses “God” for both. However, in psalm 46, for example, he places “The Lord” for Elohim.
King James’ psalm 1 reads:
Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stood in the way of sinners,
Nor sat in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is the law of the Lord;
And in His law doth he meditate day and night.
This is beautiful, but Lichtenstein is clearer:
Fortunate is the man who never went the way of the wicked,
Nor consorted with sinners,
Nor sat around with the cynics,
Who instead yearns for God’s teachings,
And studies God’s Torah day and night.
Another example is psalm 41, where King James has:
Happy is he that considereth the poor;
The Lord will deliver him in the day of evil.
The Lord preserve him, and keep him alive, let him be called happy in the land;
And deliver not Thou him unto the greed of his enemies.
Lichtenstein’s contemporary reading is:
Fortunate is he who can understand the poor,
For God will protect him on his day of evil.
God will guard, energize, and establish him,
Not letting his enemies fulfill their wishes.
A final example is psalm 46. King James has:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change,
And though the mountains be moved into the heart of the seas;
Though the waters thereof roar and foam,
Though the mountains shake at the swelling thereof. Selah
Robert Alter lines up his verses more poetically. He does not capitalize “selah” or follow it with a period. (Selah is an obscure term and may be a musical instruction.)
God is a shelter and strength for us,
a help in straits, readily found.
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.
Its waters roar and roil,
mountains heave in its surge. selah
The translator of the Bible Psalms is concerned, among other thing, to have the translation conform to the sentence structure of the Hebrew. Thus, even though line three ends with a comma, line four begins with a capital letter since it introduces a new sentence.
God is our refuge and strength. We find great help in trouble.
Therefore we do not fear when the earth is upturned,
and when the mountains collapse into the heart of the sea,
If its waters roar and foam, if the mountains quake with its swelling. Selah.
Lichtenstein has a much shorter and sharper version, and deletes “Selah”:
The Lord is always there to protect us from danger,
Therefore we need not fear during earthquakes,
Even as whole mountains topple into the sea,
With mighty waters churning over crashing heights.
These few examples show that Aaron Lichtenstein has succeeded in producing a very fine readable version of Psalms.
-Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin
The Jewish Eye