A New Coffee-Table Humash is a Gateway to Academic Biblical Scholarship

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Yosef Lindell


Somehow, Pharaoh has wormed his way onto the cover of the Book of Books. You will find him front and center on the dust jacket of Exodus, the Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel’s debut volume, represented by the thirteenth-century-BCE gold face mask of King Tutankhamun. With piercing obsidian eyes, a lapis-lazuli beard, and a forehead sprouting a cobra and vulture, King Tut looks straight at the reader and proclaims: here is a different kind of Humash.

Within, the reader will find not just the Masoretic text and a new English translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l; they will also find an ambitious attempt to place the divine word in its historical and archaeological context. There are color photographs of a wide array of artifacts, art, and other discoveries, and the commentary is broken down into categories which include such nontraditional subjects as Near East, Egyptology, and language (see sample pages here). Periodically, the volume includes full-page introductions to ancient Near Eastern concepts that play a central role in unlocking the context of the biblical account. The contributors, whose initials follow their comments and whose biographies appear in the back of the volume, include Dr. Jeremiah Unterman and Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the volume’s academic advisor and rabbinic advisor, respectively. Many other contributors, such as Drs. Racheli Shalomi-Hen, Ilan Peled, and Shawn Zelig Aster, are subject matter experts who hold academic positions. The volume closes with a bibliography citing many academic articles, not all of which adopt Orthodox positions on the authorship of Tanakh.

Moreover, unlike other recent Humashim that were designed for synagogue use, such as the Koren Steinsaltz Humash, this volume is essentially a coffee-table book. It is folio sized and printed on glossy paper; with all the images and resources it contains, the Humash is a little too big and perhaps too colorful to comfortably bring to shul (its cover alone might raise some eyebrows). It is meant to be perused on Shabbat afternoons from the comfort of one’s living room.

Yet despite its novelties, the Humash also wants to brand itself as part of a long and respected Orthodox tradition. Take off the dust jacket cover, and underneath is the plain blue cover that graces nearly every other Koren Tanakh, complete with the publisher’s unique but familiar artistic Hebrew flourish declaring that “the Torah comes forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem.” This Humash, then, straddles tradition and modernity.


The volume debuts R. Sacks’s translation and is unfortunately the only volume that was released with his translation during his lifetime. R. Sacks’ translation will, however, also feature in several other new and forthcoming works, such as his highly anticipated one-volume synagogue Humash still in production at Koren. The translation marries close fidelity to the Hebrew with concise, readable, elegant sentences. Unlike ArtScroll, for example, R. Sacks does not zealously preserve the Hebrew syntax, or word order, a choice which makes for better English phrasing. R. Sacks’s contemporary English also avoids certain holdovers from the King James Bible, such as translating each and every vav as “and”; he sprinkles in “but,” “instead,” and “then,” or he just omits the conjunction entirely if warranted.[1] On the other hand, some King James translations were apparently too iconic to discard: when the Israelites wistfully reminisce about the sir ha-basar in Egypt, R. Sacks still translates the term as “fleshpots” (Exodus 16:3). And overall, R. Sacks is a literal translator. His work is quite different, for instance, from that of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, whose Living Torah Humash is far more colloquial.[2]


In medieval times, illustrated Humashim were not uncommon. Sephardic scribes fit the masorah—the marginal notes about spelling, vocalization, and word usage statistics—into complex micrographic designs around the edges of the pages.[3] Unlike the aniconic designs of their Sephardic counterparts, Ashkenazic scribes sometimes drew the masorah micrography in the shape of griffins, dragons, and other fantastical or grotesque beasts.[4] On occasion, and again only in Ashkenaz, Humashim included color illustrations of biblical stories: the De Castro Pentateuch from 1344 features a nude Adam and Eve about to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.[5] These medieval Humashim used illustration for aesthetic purposes: to beautify the Torah.

More recently, however, such as in the twentieth century and beyond, Humashim have used diagrams and illustrations more for educational purposes than aesthetic ones. And most modern Humashim are relatively plain overall. Other than the 1958 Illustrated Jerusalem Bible, most fully illustrated bibles are abridged versions for children.[6] Many contemporary synagogue Humashim, such as the ArtScroll Stone Edition, incorporate images of the Tabernacle’s vessels, but they go no further.

The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel sticks to using pictures educationally for the most part, but it has far more images than any other recent Humash, which contributes to its strong coffee-table-book vibe. Like its predecessor, the Koren Steinsaltz Humash, it contains photographs of mock-up Tabernacle vessels and priestly garments as well as photos of plants and animals.[7] But there is also so much more: photographs from museum collections worldwide portray clay tablets, steles, gods and goddesses, ancient relief drawings, and famous Renaissance portraits. Even Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses—horns and all—makes an appearance (103). By contrast, the biblical characters drawn on the Torah Cards for children produced in the 1990s were not even given faces, lest they be seen as too relatable, or even too human.

This may be the first time that the complete Hebrew text of a book of the Torah has been printed alongside such a range of images and iconography. Yet it is also fitting: Koren is no stranger to re-envisioning what the Torah looks like. In 1962, the publisher Eliyahu Koren created a new typeface for Koren’s first Tanakh. It merged the look of an early medieval Masoretic manuscript belonging to Cairo’s Karaite community―which was considered to preserve authentic Hebrew writing―with design principles derived from an ophthalmologist’s research suggesting that each Hebrew letter needed to be recognizable from the top one-third alone in order to be fully legible and distinguishable from other similar letters. Now Koren has gone further and turned the Torah into a coffee-table book with images galore.


The vivid illustrations pair well with the succinct scholarly comments highlighting some of the most salient aspects of the Torah’s ancient Near Eastern context.

For example, the commentary notes that circumcision was common in much of the region but that the Torah infused the rite with new meaning (28). It explains that the Ten Plagues, which disturbed several natural phenomena, were particularly disruptive to the Egyptians, who understood Pharaoh to be the guarantor of Maat, or cosmic order (36-37). Much is made of the similarity between the form of the covenant at Sinai and Hittite suzerainty treaties (104-05), and the Torah’s laws are compared and contrasted with those in law collections like the Code of Hammurabi (112-13). We learn that the Mishkan’s design—with its outer and inner sanctuaries—paralleled the layout of many ancient Near Eastern city-temples of that time, with the Ark taking the place usually reserved for a statue of the deity (142-43). The commentary also solves the problem of the repetitiveness of the Torah’s account of the Mishkan’s construction by explaining that repetition was a common ancient literary technique used to demonstrate that a god’s directives were fulfilled (192).

So how revolutionary is this kind of commentary? Not as revolutionary as it might appear at first glance. To be sure, the focus on the Torah’s ancient context is a far cry from ArtScroll’s approach. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, in his 1976 introduction to ArtScroll’s first work, Megillat Esther, wrote, “No non-Jewish sources have even been consulted, much less quoted. I consider it offensive that the Torah should need authentication from the secular or so-called ‘scientific’ sources.”[8] On the other hand, there is ample precedent for what the new Tanakh series is trying to accomplish. As the publisher’s preface explains, none other than Maimonides relied on idolatrous Sabian texts in his quest to divine the purpose of the mitzvot (ix-x). Moreover, since 1936, we have had the Hertz Pentateuch. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of England, proudly quoted the truth from wherever it came (a la Maimonides),[9] and he filled his Humash with contemporary scholarship. In long-form essays at the end of each book of the Torah, Hertz explored parallel flood stories, attempted to determine the date of the Exodus based on archaeology and other records, made comparisons between the Torah and Hammurabi’s code, and much more.[10]

And yet, Koren’s new Humash is also quite different from the Hertz Pentateuch. In his introduction, R. Hertz, ever the polemicist, called out Julius Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis as a “perversion of history and a desecration of religion.”[11] Concerned by the rising tide of biblical criticism, Hertz wanted to show that there was ample evidence amassed even by non-Jews and academic scholars which could be harnessed to demonstrate the Torah’s historicity and Mosaic authorship. For example, when arguing that the Exodus actually occurred, he quotes a non-Jewish Egyptologist, T. Eric Peet, instead of a more traditional source. (Peet wrote: “That Israel was in Egypt under one form or another no historian could possibly doubt.”[12])

In the series introduction, Koren’s editors of course affirm consistency “with the beliefs and traditions of Orthodox Judaism,” accepting “Divine authorship of the Torah” and rejecting “theories of multiple authorship which disregard its fundamental unity” (xvi). But on the other hand, they acknowledge that in discussing “the text’s relationship to its time and milieu,” there will inevitably be some tension, and “when there is a clear conflict between current knowledge and some element in the text, the series notes the conflict and leaves the question open” (xv-xvi).

The best example of this issue concerns the dating of the Exodus. The volume’s introduction to the Book of Exodus notes that the Book of Kings, which puts the construction of Solomon’s Temple 480 years after the Exodus, cannot be taken literally. The Temple was built around 960 BCE, and 480 years before, during the mid-fifteenth century, the land of Canaan was under Egyptian control (xxiii). This observation is already interesting, as it suggests that a number or date mentioned in Tanakh might be typological rather than historical—a point to which the commentary returns a few times.[13] The introduction then suggests a thirteenth-century date for the Exodus instead, which fits with the Israelites having built the city of Rameses for the Pharaoh of that name (ibid.; see Exodus 1:11). But later, the commentary seems to question the thirteenth-century date on the same grounds as it rejected the fifteenth-century one. Egyptologist Dr. Racheli Shalomi-Hen explains that although “it seems logical to assume that Rameses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus,” Egypt still ruled Canaan during Rameses’s reign, and had the Exodus taken place then, “the Israelites would have fled Egypt only to discover that Canaan was under the rule of the Egyptians.” Therefore, “there is no way to know the exact time period of the Israelites’ slavery and redemption” (69).

In sum, any date for the Exodus has its difficulties. The reader is assured that the Exodus took place (in part based on an argument by R. Hertz) (xxi) but is left with unanswerable questions about when it happened. To my knowledge, there is nothing comparable in the Hertz Humash. Hertz felt that conflicts of this kind needed to be solved and could be solved. As he explained (albeit writing nearly 100 years earlier with less evidence at his disposal), there is “no cogent reason for dissenting from the current view that the Pharaoh of the Oppression was Rameses II, with his son Merneptah as the Pharaoh of the Exodus.”[14] Not so here―Koren is willing to raise problems with no simple solutions.

The volume’s acknowledgement of the concept of a type-story is another example of its readiness to raise difficult questions. The commentary notes that Moses’ birth parallels the much earlier tale of the birth of Sargon, king of Akkad. Both figures were placed in river baskets and raised by foster parents before later becoming leaders (11). The commentary emphasizes that Moses’ story, unlike Sargon’s, highlights his moral character, distinguishing the Torah’s approach from the rest of the ancient Near Eastern canon. Nonetheless, the simple acknowledgment that Moses’ origin story shares elements with Sargon’s earlier one raises thorny questions. If the Torah borrowed from common legends circulating at the time, could it be, as suggested by Professor James Kugel, that the Torah’s account of many things is not fully historical?[15] Introducing the concept of the type-story lends itself to questions which have no easy resolution from an Orthodox perspective.

Further Reflection

Why might The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel be more willing to dive into the world of modern scholarship than its predecessors?

It could have to do with the topic: in many ways, Egyptology and archaeology are safer from an Orthodox perspective than the documentary hypothesis. Much of the contemporary scholarship cited by the Humash simply explains how the Torah’s initial readers might have understood the text and does not conflict with a traditional outlook. And while the Humash acknowledges troubling questions about the dating of the Exodus, it is largely cautious in its reliance on academic approaches.

In this regard, another comparison to the Hertz Pentateuch is instructive. The tenor of R. Hertz’s polemics reflect a scholarly community that was far more hostile to Judaism, particularly when it came to archaeological discoveries and the culture and literature of the ancient Near East. In 1902, Friedrich Delitzsch, one of the founders of Assyriology, delivered a series of lectures entitled “Babel and Bible,” which endeavored to show that new archaeological finds from the ancient Near East—unearthed with increasing frequency in the early twentieth century—demonstrated that Israelite religion and literature were derivative of ancient Near Eastern culture. Delitzsch’s lectures ignited the Babel-Bible controversy of 1902 to 1905, a fight with anti-Semitic overtones and echoes of Christian supersessionism. The controversy led Solomon Schechter, newly installed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, to pronounce Delitzsch’s work not “higher criticism” but “Higher Anti-Semitism,” where “every discovery of recent years is called to bear witness against us and to accuse us of spiritual larceny.” So of course, Hertz, a product of Schechter’s seminary, was quick to push back against ideas that suggested that Judaism was dependent upon the surrounding pagan culture or that the historical record was unclear.

R. Hertz’s discussion of Egyptian culture is a case in point. He writes, “Egypt never discarded the low animism and savage fetishism of its prehistoric days, and remained always ‘zoomorphic’ in its conception of God.”[16] He approvingly notes the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s attempts to impose monotheistic worship of a sun god, but he writes that after Akhenaten, “[W]e go back to the old spells and mumbo-jumbo again.”[17] He contrasts Judaism’s approach, asserting that the “whole story of Israel is one of long protest against idolatry and inhumanity.”[18] While the Israelites, he argues, affirmed life, the Egyptians, with their mausoleums and cultic practices, were obsessed with death. He surmises that the Torah declines to speak of the World to Come to ensure that no credence be given to Egyptian beliefs.[19]

Dr. Shalomi-Hen’s introduction to ancient Egypt in the Koren volume could not be more different. It lacks any overt agenda, mapping the geography of Egypt, the history of the New Kingdom, and the society’s religious and cultural tenets in a fair and balanced manner (2-3). To be sure, the volume acknowledges “again and again . . . stark contrasts within the Torah against the accepted norms of the prevailing culture of the period and place” and that “Tanakh’s narratives and laws are massively distinct from the surrounding cultures” (xx). At the same time, R. Hertz’s polemical tone is absent from the writing. Hertz candidly discussed history, archaeology, and the academic insights of his time. But King Tut, more famous for his tomb than for his life, could never have been on the cover of his Humash.

The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel is the product of a new age. Much of biblical criticism does not have quite the same edge anymore; Delitzsch’s theories carry far less weight today. Critical scholarship may have its problems and biases, but its practitioners are no longer actively trying to foment anti-Semitism. Many contemporary biblical scholars are Jewish, and some are religiously observant. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, the willingness of this new volume to explore Egypt on its own terms.

Further, the Humash’s willingness to raise difficult questions suggests that there may be larger communal trends at work here as well. Drs. Marc Shapiro and Adam Ferziger have suggested that in recent decades, Modern Orthodox Jews have grown more willing to openly address the conflicts between academic biblical studies and Orthodox beliefs. Ferziger and Shapiro focus in large part on the Dati Leumi community in Israel, exploring how some of its Torah personalities (men and women) have begun to address biblical criticism head-on and lend cautious support to some of its theories. It could be, then, that under Koren’s auspices, the Dati Leumi approach is slowly migrating to America.

Significantly, in addition to this new Humash, Koren recently released two other volumes under its Maggid Press imprint. To This Very Day, an English translation of a work by Rabbi Amnon Bazak, comprehensively addresses a number of issues raised by biblical criticism from an Orthodox perspective. Bazak’s analysis, while quite thorough and informative, is not ground-breaking: he hews to Rabbi Mordechai Breuer’s shitat ha-behinot approach, positing that God wrote the Torah in multiple voices and from multiple perspectives, an idea has been around in English-speaking Orthodox circles for some time—it was explored in an Orthodox Forum volume from the mid-1990s, for example. On the other hand, the other new Maggid book, Dr. Joshua Berman’s Ani Maamin, is more original and arguably more radical. For example, to resolve contradictions between laws presented differently in various parts of the Torah, such as in Exodus and Deuteronomy, Berman suggests that the Torah was not initially intended to be a legal code; its contradictory laws are non-exclusive examples of how God’s will might be performed depending on the circumstances. (Incidentally, Berman also lends anecdotal support to the idea that there is a surge of interest in biblical criticism in the Orthodox community; in a recent article, he noted that even some Haredim have shown interest in his book.) And just a few months ago, 18Forty, a new online Orthodox resource aimed at helping readers find meaning through exploring Jewish texts and ideas, spotlighted academic biblical scholarship by interviewing Berman and several others.

While it is true that—a popular online repository of critical biblical scholarship aimed at traditional Jews—has been around for nearly ten years, it is common knowledge that it does not present an Orthodox viewpoint. Many of the articles on the website reject Mosaic authorship of the Torah and adhere to a range of nontraditional positions. Koren, on the other hand, is trying to position itself squarely within the Modern Orthodox mainstream. And from that vantage point, The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel may be the boldest of Koren’s new offerings which highlight academic scholarship. Unlike the works of R. Bazak and Dr. Berman, it is not a companion book or a stand-alone commentary, but a Humash. In it, God’s words share space with a broad exploration of an idolatrous culture foreign to many readers. And unlike the Hertz Humash, it does not shy away from difficult issues and contradictions, but lets problems sit and percolate. When one closes this coffee-table book, King Tut’s penetrating stare remains. The reader departs enlightened, but is also left with questions.

[1] The meaning of vav has long been a point of debate among biblical translators. Dr. Philip Birnbaum, in his largely forgotten 1983 translation, criticized what he saw as the ungrammatical tendency to use “and” obsessively, noting that some vavs change a word from future to past tense or vice versa (vav ha-hipukh) and should not be translated at all. Philip Birnbaum, The Torah and the Haftarot (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1983), ix. Dr. Robert Alter, on the other hand, feels that the incessant “ands” are part of what makes the Bible feel biblical.

[2] Among many other examples, R. Kaplan translates yom ha-shevii as “Saturday” and often omits words like “said,” using quotation marks to indicate dialogue instead.

[3] David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 94-96.

[4] Ibid., 112. Not everyone was thrilled by such creative artwork. R. Judah he-Hasid wrote in Sefer Hasidim that “one who hires a scribe to write the Masorah . . . should make a condition with the scribe that he should not make the Masorah into drawings of birds or beasts or a tree, or into any other illustration . . . for how will he be able to see?” Ibid., 114. Stern suggests that the inclusion of such unusual images in the Torah may have been an act of scribal rebellion; the scribe intended to show the world that he was an artist, not a mere copyist. Ibid., 115-16.

[5] Ibid., 107-08.

[6] Stern also points to a 1908 black-and-white illustrated bible by the cultural Zionist artist E.M. Lilien that featured rather erotic images. Ibid., 196.

[7] These photos were taken from the Koren Humash Yisrael by R. Menachem Makover, where they were contributed by Makhon ha-Mikdash and Professor Zohar Amar (xxiv-xxv). All in-text citations are to the book under review.

[8] Meir Zlotowitz, trans. & ed., The Megillah: the Book of Esther (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1976), x.

[9] J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs 2nd ed. (London: Soncino Press, 1960), vii.

[10] There are also some parallels to Mossad ha-Rav Kook’s Hebrew Da’at Mikra series, but the new Humash’s exploration of ancient Near Eastern ideas is far more broad. The Jewish Publication Society’s scholarly commentary also provides much ancient Near Eastern context, but it does not take Mosaic authorship of the Torah as a given and dabbles (albeit conservatively) in source criticism, which Koren does not touch.

[11] Hertz, vii.

[12] Ibid., 396.

[13] The series introduction states that “questions of biblical chronology . . . cannot be resolved,” and moreover, that “[c]ertain idiomatic elements of biblical language, such as numbers, cannot be read literally” (xvi). This position not only explains the commentary’s willingness to disregard the historicity of Tanakh’s given date between the Exodus and Solomon’s Temple, but it also explains its comment that the number seventy (such as the seventy descendants of Jacob who went to Egypt) and other common numbers found in the Bible do not represent “an exact historical quantity” but instead have “allegorical and typological meaning” (4). The same could probably also be said of the 600,000 Israelite males in the desert, although the commentary does not address the issue, perhaps due to space limitations; maybe the matter will be addressed in a subsequent volume, such as Numbers. For a discussion of the question from an Orthodox perspective, see Joshua Berman, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2020), 45-52.

[14] Hertz, 395.

[15] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 208-09.

[16] Hertz, 396.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 397.

[19] Ibid.