Prayerful Poetry: A Translators’ Battle that Spanned the Atlantic

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Yosef Lindell


Between Selihot, the tefillot of the Yamim Noraim, and prayers on Sukkot, synagogue goers find themselves reciting thousands of lines of dense Hebrew poetry during Elul and Tishrei.[1] Soon it will be Hoshana Rabbah, when in addition to whacking a flurry of aravah branches on the ground, shul participants will mumble a dozen poems about rainwater and salvation called Hoshanot at breakneck speed, some of them said while circumnavigating the bimah.

At all of these poetry-intense services, many of us would be lost without an English translation, and thankfully these are plentiful and diverse.

But how should Hebrew poetry, also known as piyyut, be translated? Should it be word-for-word, trying to match the Hebrew as precisely as possible, perhaps at the expense of the poetry? Or should the poetry come across in the translation, even if it means dispensing to a degree with the literal meaning?

Perhaps this question is perennial, but for Ashkenazi Jews, it became a specific point of contention in the middle of the last century surrounding the 1960 publication of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book. On one side was the Siddur’s translator, Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool of Shearith Israel in New York, who had incorporated the translations of some of British Jewry’s most gifted poets, including Nina Salaman and Israel Zangwill. On the other side was Philip Birnbaum, one of the titans of translation on American shores. The dispute, in addition to making for an engaging story, raises issues about the purpose of translation, its intended audience, and how best to show respect for the original Hebrew.

English translations of the Siddur appeared as early as the eighteenth century in England. But our story begins with a remarkable 6-volume translation of the Ashkenazi Mahzor for the Yamim Noraim and Shalosh Regalim published in London between 1904 and 1909. The project, often called the Routledge after its publisher, was the brainchild of Arthur Davis (1846-1906), an engineer from Derby who despite having no formal Jewish education, spent all his free time on Jewish learning and scholarship.[2] According to Herbert M. Adler, a lawyer who took over the Mahzor project after Davis’s death, Davis translated the Mahzor because he realized “the inadequacy of existing English renderings to express the form and beauty of the compositions that make up the Jewish liturgy,” and wanted a translation “more worthy of the original.”[3]

In addition to teaching himself about Judaism, Davis also taught his daughters Nina (Salaman) (1877-1925) and Elsie from a very young age. Arthur Davis translated the Mahzor’s prose, but it was his daughters who translated many of the piyyutim (as one can see from the index in the back of each volume).

Salaman in particular was a fascinating figure—a female Jewish scholar in an age where such a thing was a rarity. In addition to translating portions of the Mahzor and composing her own poetry, she authored a book of translations of Yehuda Halevi’s poems, wrote prose and poetry for the Jewish Quarterly Review, and in 1919, became the first woman in England to give the sermon in an Orthodox synagogue after Shabbat services. (Some criticized her for doing so, but she was defended by the Chief Rabbi at the time, Rabbi Joseph Hertz.[4])

Other piyyutim in the Mahzor were translated by Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), a novelist, playwright, controversial Zionist, and perhaps the best-known English-speaking writer in the Jewish world at the time. Among other things, Zangwill popularized the term “melting pot” in his 1909 play of that name, and after the plan to settle Jews in Uganda was voted down by the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, he established the Jewish Territorialist Organization to create a safe haven for Jews wherever one could be found, even outside of the land of Israel.[5]

Zangwill was not traditionally religious; he married a non-Jew and declined to circumcise his eldest son.[6] He espoused a somewhat universalistic approach to religion and even suggested in one essay that Judaism might profitably add the New Testament to its scriptural canon.[7] Nevertheless, Zangwill devoted himself to Jewish causes his entire life. It seems likely that he got involved in the Mahzor project because both he and Davis were members of the Kilburn Wanderers, an intellectual circle that formed around Solomon Schechter, a Cambridge scholar famed for his work on the Cairo Genizah who later became the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.[8] Zangwill and Salaman were also lifelong friends. (Upon Salaman’s untimely death from cancer Zangwill called her “the spiritual queen of Anglo-Jewry.”[9])

The Routledge translation is flowery and poetic throughout, channeling Davis’ desire to compose a beautiful translation. The translations of the piyyutim by Salaman, Zangwill, and others are particularly flowery, and they also tend to rhyme in English to match Hebrew rhyme schemes (perhaps the most readily noticeable feature of the Routledge). Salaman’s translation of Ana Ezon Hin Te’eivei Yishakh, one of the Hoshanot, is a good example of her deft work:

I beseech Thee, give ear to their cry that implore Thee to save
That seek to give joy unto Thee with the willows that wave—O save!

I beseech Thee to look to the covenant sealed at our birth
When Thou castest men down to the darkness under the earth, And save.[10]

Here, Salaman followed the same rhyme scheme as the Hebrew. She also used some memorable phrases, like “willows that wave.” At the same time, she was not strictly literal at every turn. For example, the same Hebrew refrain ve-hoshiah na becomes “O save!” or “I will save” or “And save” depending on the verse.

Along similar lines is Zangwill’s Omnam Kein, one of the piyyutim from Maariv on Yom Kippur night, and one of the most memorable translations in the Routledge.

The Hebrew reads:

אָמְנָם כֵּן. יֵצֶר סוֹכֵן בָּֽנוּ. בָּךְ לְהַצְדֵּק. רַב צֶדֶק. וַעֲנֵנוּ. סָלַֽחְתִּי

שֶֽׁמֶץ טַהֵר. כְּעָב מַהֵר. כְּנֶאֱמַר. תִּמְחֶה פֶֽשַׁע. לְעַם נוֹשַׁע. וְתֹאמַר. סָלַֽחְתִּי

Zangwill rendered:

Ay ‘tis thus / Evil us / hath in bond;
By Thy grace / guilt efface / and respond, ‘Forgiven!’

Yea off-rolled— / as foretold— / clouds impure,
Zion’s folk, / free of yoke, / O assure “Forgiven!”[11]

One must admit to Zangwill’s cleverness here. He maintained the Hebrew rhyme scheme and meter to a tee and created an English acrostic to match the Hebrew. One can sing the poem to the same tune in Hebrew and English and it works flawlessly.[12] But it comes at the expense of the Hebrew’s literal meaning. Le-am nosha does not really mean “Zion’s folk.” And “free of yoke” for timheh pasha is more than a bit of a stretch.

The Routledge became the Mahzor of British Jewry. No doubt it helped that Herbert Adler, who completed the project, was the nephew of the Chief Rabbi at the time, Hermann Adler. (It’s also sometimes known as the Adler Mahzor.) But although the volumes for the Yamim Noraim were reprinted in America by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1959, it was Dr. Philip (or Paltiel) Birnbaum’s translations that took center stage there.

Birnbaum (c. 1904-1988), who emigrated from Poland at the age of 19, received a doctorate in Karaite Studies from Dropsie College in Philadelphia, and was a Hebrew school teacher for 40 years in three different cities. His 1949 translation of the Daily Prayer Book for the Hebrew Publishing Company was a stunning success, selling upwards of 300,000 copies by the time of his death in 1988 and becoming a fixture in Orthodox synagogues across America.[13]

Birnbaum took Hebrew very seriously. He was on the board of the Histradrut Ivrit of America, a Hebrew literary society, and contributed to the Histadrut’s weekly magazine Hadoar for decades. Birnbaum had a thoroughly different approach to translation from Arthur Davis and his collaborators: plain, simple, and literal. In his introduction to the Siddur, he wrote, “A good translation ought to be authentic and free from deceptions. One must not read into the original what is not there. No new poetry should be introduced into the Siddur presumably as the translation of the Hebrew text.”[14] Birnbaum in fact declined to translate the Hoshanot, which, he claimed “if translated, are likely to create a wrong impression and confuse the reader. . . . It may well be said that the editions that have included the available English translation of the Hoshanoth have not been enhanced by it. The Hoshanoth can be appreciated only in the Hebrew.”[15]

In his 1951 High Holiday Mahzor, which is still in use in many Orthodox synagogues today, Birnbaum criticized the Routledge explicitly, taking Zangwill’s translation of Omnam Kein to task. Although Birnbaum included relatively sparse commentary in the Mahzor, he reproduced three stanzas of Zangwill’s rhyming translation, calling it “an attempt to preserve the meter, rhyme and alphabetical acrostic of the original Hebrew, at the expense of interpretive clarity and readability.”[16] Birnbaum’s own more modest translation of the first stanza read instead: “Yes, it is true, an evil impulse controls us; / Thou canst clear us, Merciful One, so answer us / I forgive.”[17] Unlike Zangwill’s version, Birnbaum’s does not preserve the Hebrew rhyme scheme and contains no acrostic, but it attempts to render each Hebrew word with greater precision.

Birnbaum’s sharpest criticisms, however, were reserved for the 1960 RCA Siddur, translated by Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool (1885-1970). De Sola Pool was the rabbi of Shearith Israel, New York’s oldest congregation and one of its most prominent. He had an affinity for poetic translations, noting in his introduction, “The English rendition often essays to suggest poetic forms of the Hebrew text and catch the vivid nuances flashing from the original many-faceted Biblical allusions.”[18] De Sola Pool was also from London, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he incorporated several of the translations from the Routledge by Elsie Davis, Salaman, and Zangwill, particularly for the Hoshanot.

Birnbaum published a blistering review of the RCA Siddur in the Hebrew Hadoar. His criticisms were wide-ranging, but in one memorable passage, he zeroed in on Zangwill’s translation of the prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret, writing, “Could it be that the rabbis [of the RCA] approved the translations of Israel Zangwill that are not translations, but free imitations infused with expressions from another world, the world of Christianity?”[19] Birnbaum’s complaint was that Zangwill referred to Abraham as “thy blessed son” and Moses as “thy shepherd son,” which to him sounded uncomfortably like a reference to Jesus, particularly since the word for “son” does not appear in the Hebrew. In addition to noting that Zangwill’s translations have the “odor of the Christian liturgy wafting from them,” he accused Zangwill of sometimes “resorting to a free translation because he did not know the meaning of the words.”[20] (One wonders if Birnbaum was also uncomfortable with Zangwill’s irreligiosity and essay embracing the New Testament.)

Rabbi Charles Chavel (1906-1982), the Chair of the RCA’s Siddur Committee and a medieval scholar known for his translation of Ramban’s Torah commentary, responded to Birnbaum in the same issue of Hadoar. In formulating his response, he worked closely with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was the halakhic advisor to the RCA.[21] Chavel explained that de Sola Pool’s translation was meant for “the American Jew, who speaks English and for whom the structure of the Hebrew language is strange, so that he can understand the loftiness and beauty hidden in the Jewish prayers . . . Our organization never intended, God forbid, for the translation to replace the Hebrew original.”[22] As for Zangwill, Chavel said that “we are under no obligation to defend him,” but he surely knew Hebrew and he used “free translations” according to the needs of the poetic verse. This was no issue according to Chavel because piyyut does not have the same status as other more significant prayers.[23]

Chavel and Birnbaum’s bitingly acerbic debate continued in several subsequent issues of Hadoar. Their remarks went far beyond Zangwill, but all concerned questions of translation. One of Birnbaum’s replies to Chavel is particularly telling. Birnbaum lamented that many American Jews do not know Hebrew, and “when they come to the synagogue, they sit like mutes and do not participate in prayer unless they are given some paragraphs in English translation.”[24] Birnbaum seems to have suggested that de Sola Pool’s translation, with its soaring phrasing, was for such people. If Birnbaum had a crusade, it was to increase the level of Jewish knowledge among the masses, not to cater to their ignorance.[25] To Birnbaum, the Routledge and its kind were enabling Jews to pray in English. He wanted a translation to teach them how to pray in Hebrew.

And the controversy didn’t end there. Others wrote in to Hadoar and other publications; some supported Birnbaum, some Chavel. One ultra-Orthodox reviewer claimed that the RCA Siddur was full of foolishness, heresy, and even foul language![26] The controversy was also mentioned on the popular Yiddish Saturday night radio show of Rabbi Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey.[27]

In the end, the RCA made some adjustments to the Siddur’s translation. At Soloveitchik’s behest, his name was removed from the flyleaf of the new edition, perhaps because he did not want to make it seem like he had approved every aspect of either the original or revised translation.[28]

Given his stake in the prayer book market, Birnbaum was certainly no disinterested observer, and this might explain the fierceness of his attack. It’s also interesting to consider the optics. Birnbaum, to be sure, was a popular writer, but he was a Hebrew-school teacher without rabbinic ordination and without strong denominational affiliations.[29] And yet here he was going toe-to-toe with some of the leading lights of Modern Orthodoxy. Even if some of his criticisms were over the top, no doubt the incident embarrassed the RCA.

In some sense, Birnbaum won the debate. His Siddur and Mahzor were far more popular than the RCA’s, although the reasons had little to do with the translation and more to do with the timing of the Siddurim (Birnbaum was first) and the RCA’s blunders in marketing its product. The RCA’s credibility was tested, for example, when it continued making announcements about a new Siddur’s imminent arrival for over a decade without any Siddur appearing until 1960.[30]

Yet Birnbaum’s approach did not last either. American Orthodoxy was changing. With the growth of the day school movement mid-century, knowledge of Hebrew increased. Many in the burgeoning communities of Yeshiva graduates still wanted an English translation, but one that was more subservient to the Hebrew. For this constituency, Birnbaum, an academic scholar with many non-Orthodox affiliations, did not go far enough. Enter the ArtScroll Siddur, published in 1984, which still holds the dominant market share in American synagogues that stock translated Siddurim. ArtScroll’s translations are often more literal than Birnbaum’s. For example, ArtScroll’s translation of the first stanza of Omnam Kein from its 1986 Mahzor runs, “It is indeed true that passion rules us; / so it is for You to justify (le-hatzdek), O abundantly just (rav tzedek), / and to answer us, ‘I have forgiven!’”[31] Unlike Birnbaum, ArtScroll translates the repeated root tz.d.k as “justify” and “just,” which is consistent.

ArtScroll’s translations are also known for maintaining the syntax—or the order of the words—if at all possible. I’ve noted elsewhere that ArtScroll translates “retzon yereav yaaseh ve-et shavatam yishmah ve-yoshe’em” in Ashrei as, “The will of those who fear Him He will do; and their cry He will hear, and save them.”[32] This tracks the Hebrew precisely, but is rather stilted.

Yet as Rabbi Nosson Scherman explained in the daily Siddur’s introduction, “The Men of the Great Assembly,” who composed the Siddur, “had the ability to combine letters, verses, and ideas in ways that unlock the gates of heaven. Their composition of the tefillah is tantamount to an act of creation, which is why it is so important not to deviate from their language and formulation.”[33] Rabbi Elli Fischer has written that in ArtScroll’s conception, literary issues of English style and idiom are rendered irrelevant by the metaphysical qualities of the Hebrew. The point of translation is simply to aid the reader in understanding the original. If it fulfilled that function, it didn’t have to be beautiful.

From the Routledge to ArtScroll, we’ve come full circle. Davis and his collaborators wanted to inspire worshippers with felicitous English phrases befitting prayer’s exalted nature. One can perhaps imagine congregants with hymnals standing decorously in their pews reciting Salaman’s arresting poetry. (The British “high church” approach is exemplified in a recent memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II held at London’s St. John’s Wood Synagogue—which featured traditional hazzanim, two choirs, special prayers recited out loud in Hebrew and English, and closed with “God Save the King.” It’s well worth watching some of it if you have time!)

It’s also important to understand that British Jewry has always been more inclusive than American Orthodoxy; the United Synagogue is a big tent for many who might belong to other denominations in the United States. Having a Siddur with literary appeal was therefore of increased importance. Birnbaum, operating on American shores, instead composed translations that illuminated the Hebrew and would not distract the reader. ArtScroll went further in ensuring that the English departed as little as possible from the Hebrew.

Finally, there’s no question that what constitutes good English writing has changed. Simple, direct language is now in vogue. Even in England, the Routledge is being replaced by the Mahzorim of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Sacks’ translations are concise and elegant, and like his American counterparts, he tried not to stray too far from the Hebrew. But he was also more attuned to English style and poetry than Birnbaum or ArtScroll. For example, the penultimate lines of Sacks’ translation of Adon Olam run, “He is my God; my redeemer lives. / He is the Rock on whom I rely – / My banner and my safe retreat, / my cup, my portion when I cry (menas kosi be-yom ekra).”[34] This rhyming translation is simple and poignant. (Compare that last stich to the far less literal de Sola Pool translation, “my guide to whom my prayer is prayed,” which is trying to rhyme with the word “aid,” and the more literal, but less moving ArtScroll version, “the portion in my cup on the day I call.”[35])

Despite these understandable shifts in translation over time, Salaman and Zangwill have fortunately not been entirely forgotten. Their verse lives on in the RCA’s 2018 Siddur Avodat Halev, which resurrects and slightly updates their poetry, particularly their translations of the Hoshanot. Whether the dazzling virtuosity of their work will draw worshippers closer to God or distract from the Hebrew’s majesty remains an open question, but it’s one worth contemplating this season.

[1] I would like to thank Nathan Kasimer and Michael Zatman for reviewing drafts of this article, and Zev Eleff for helping me track down some of the sources.

[2] A short biographical note on Davis is included in the Mahzor’s final volume. Mahzor Avodat Ohel Moed: Avodat Hag ha-Shavuot, arranged and trans. Arthur Davis & Herbert Adler (Routledge, 1909), 208-09.

[3] Ibid., 208.

[4] On Salaman, see Todd M. Endelman, “Nina Ruth Davis Salaman,” Jewish Women’s Archive (last updated June 23, 2021); Todd M. Endelman, “Surreptitious Rebel – Nina Davis Salaman,” in Report of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, ed. Jeremy Schonfield (2014), 57-73; Shira Koren, “Nina Salaman: ‘The Fusion of the Old Judaism with the Modern Western World’,” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 9:1 (2012).

[5] On Zangwill, see Meri-Jane Rochelson, A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill (Wayne State University Press, 2008).

[6] Ibid., 15-16.

[7] See Israel Zangwill, “My Religion,” in the collection My Religion (London, 1926), 60.

[8] See Endelman, “Salaman.”

[9] Koren, 9.

[10] Mahzor Avodat Ohel Moed: Avodat Hag ha-Sukkot, arranged and trans. Arthur Davis & Herbert Adler (Routledge: 1908), 177.

[11] Mahzor Avodat Ohel Moed: Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim, part 1, arranged and trans. Arthur Davis & Herbert Adler (Routledge: 1904), 38.

[12] This is indeed exactly what the translators intended. The volume’s prefatory note states, “The original metre and structure of the verse has been frequently adhered to, so that the worshipper might follow in the English version the traditional melodies in which the Hebrew is set.” Ibid., vii.

[13] On Birnbaum, see David Olivestone, “A Most Obscure Best-Selling Author: Dr. Philip Birnbaum,” Jewish Action 79:2 (Winter 2018): 78-82; and my article in JTA from 2021.

[14] Philip Birnbaum, ed., trans., Daily Prayer Book (Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949), xvii.

[15] Ibid., xvii-xviii.

[16] Philip Birnbaum, ed., trans., High Holy Day Prayer Book (Hebrew Publishing Company, 1951), 536.

[17] Ibid.

[18] David de Sola Pool, ed., trans., The Traditional Prayer Book for Sabbath and Festivals (Behrman House, 1960), ix.

[19] Paltiel Birnbaum, “Siddur Hadash Ba le-Medinah,” Hadoar 40:6 (Dec. 9, 1960): 85.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Aton Holzer and Arie Folger, “Letters to the Editor,” Hakirah: The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought 29 (Winter 2021): 14-15. But see Louis Bernstein, “Rabbi Soloveitchik Remembered,” in Memories of a Giant: Eulogies in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, ed. Michael Bierman (Jerusalem: Urim, 2003), 110, who claims that Rabbi Soloveitchik actually wrote Chavel’s response.

[22] Chaim Dov (Charles) Chavel, “Teshuvat Histadrut ha-Rabbanim da-Amerikah,” Hadoar 40:6 (Dec. 9, 1960): 88.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Paltiel Birnbaum, “Lema’an Emet,” Hadoar 40:9 (Dec. 30, 1960): 141.

[25] For example, in his introduction to A Book of Jewish Concepts, one of his most popular works, Birnbaum wrote, “At the present time when we are confronted with widespread indifference, we have great need of a spirituality based upon genuine knowledge of our heritage.” Philip Birnbaum, A Book of Jewish Concepts (Hebrew Publishing Company, 1964), vii.

[26] Simcha Elberg, “Ha-Siddur Ha-Hadash Ha-Musmakh Mi-Ta’am Histadrut Ha-Rabbanim,” Ha-Pardes 35 (February 1961): 5.

[27] Editors’ Introduction, “Gemar ha-Vikuah al ha-Siddur shel ‘Histadrut ha-Rabbanim da-Amerikah’,” Hadoar 40:12 (Jan. 20, 1961): 192.

[28] See Jonathan Krasner, “American Jews in Text and Context: Jacob Behrman and the Rise of a Publishing Dynasty,” Images 7 (2015): 77; Louis Bernstein, Challenge and Mission: The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate (New York: Shengold, 1982), 264.

[29] See Zev Amiti, “Local Scholar Publishes New Book,” The Jewish Voice (Jewish Federation of Delaware, Oct. 7, 1983),:3.

[30] Bernstein, Challenge and Mission, 261-62.

[31] Nosson Scherman, ed., trans., The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Yom Kippur (Mesorah Publications, 1986), 117.

[32] Nosson Scherman, ed., trans., The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Mesorah Publications, 1984), 69.

[33] Ibid., xvi.

[34] Jonathan Sacks, trans., The Koren Sacks Siddur (Koren, 2009), 22.

[35] De Sola Pool, 94; ArtScroll Siddur, 13.

Yosef Lindell is one of the editors of the Lehrhaus and is a lawyer, writer, and lecturer living in Silver Spring, MD. He has an MA in Jewish history from Yeshiva University and a JD from NYU Law, where he was a Tikvah Scholar in 2011. His writing spans several genres, from science fiction to Jewish scholarship, and he’s been published in venues such as the Atlantic, the Forward, Modern Judaism, and Jewish Action. Check out more of his writing at