No one knows whether King Abdullah of Jordan knows how to learn a page of Gemara, but now he can, even if he doesn't know Aramaic.
A group of some 90 Jordanian researchers has spent six long years translating the entire Talmud into Arabic – an echo of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who labored 45 years translating the Babylonian Talmud from Aramaic into Hebrew.
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The project is the brainchild of Jordan's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) an academic group that aims to make the Talmud accessible to the Arab population. Are Arabs taking advantage of that access? Certainly – the 20-volume set, which sells for $750, is in demand throughout the Arab world. According to the Ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Shabbat, the translated Talmud is being sold in markets and at book fairs.
The 20-volume set sells for $750 and is in demand. (Photo: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Amman, Jordan)
Israel's National Library has also acquired a copy. Dr. Raquel Ukeles, curator of the library's Arabic collection, says: "We learned about the project to translate the Talmud into Arabic by chance, through reports of the storm it was causing among religious leaders in Riyyad, probably because it makes available a text considered so central to Judaism."
Ukeles says that contact was made with the CMES after an Israeli Talmud researcher expressed interest in the translation. "This is the first time in history that the entire Talmud has been translated into Arabic," she notes.
A page from Tractate Brachot in Arabic (Photo: CMES)
According to Ukeles, the Center for Middle East Studies actually focuses on political science, and the group's decision to translate the Gemara was a surprising one. Ukeles explains that the project began with a small number of researchers, who apparently didn't know how long the Talmud was and how difficult it was to understand. After those aspects of the project became clear, the center decided to increase the number of translators to 90 – both Christians and Muslims, some of whom research the Aramaic language.
Ukeles also expressed surprise that it was Jordanian academics who tackled the mission. "I would have expected that a project like this would take place in a country like Egypt, which has a Jewish community and a more extensive tradition of translating books from Hebrew to Arabic. Between 2007 and 2009 Egyptian researchers translated the entire Mishneh Torah into Arabic, and the Kuzari has also been translated (into Arabic) in Egypt," she observes.
The curator, who only recently received a copy of the translated Talmud, notes that the introduction to the text provides an interesting explanation of the motive behind the project: "They say that in Israel, religion is taking a bigger place in the public dialogue, and the importance of Judaism in Israel is growing."
The translators also noted, she says, that they had tried to buy a copy of the Talmud to translate, but rabbis had refused to sell them one.
The Talmud translation has not maintained the classic look of the Gemara page, and commentary, such as Rashi, is missing. However, it features a glossary and discussion of terms that pose a translation quandary. The translators say they hope that the work will enable new research into Judaism, as well as allowing comparison between Jewish, Muslim, and Christian law.
Ukeles says that the desire to translate such a work and the interest in Judaism were indicative of internal developments in Arab nations and expressed hope that the new translation will "allow us to study how we are perceived."
In the future, Ukeles says, she hopes to found a research group that will examine how the Talmud's "problematic" texts were translated.