Rosh Hashanah in English

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The high holiday prayers consist of powerful poetry that express profound theological truths in emotionally evocative ways. For those who cannot understand the original Hebrew, a learned and eloquent translation is the only gateway to the most important prayers of the year. For such readers, the recent publication of R. Jonathan Sacks’ translation and commentary in the Koren Machzor for Rosh Hashanah ushers in a new era of high holiday prayerbooks.

R. Jonathan Sacks broke new ground two years ago with his widely acclaimed translation of the siddur (link). His new machzor for Rosh Hashanah accomplishes the same for the high holiday prayers. His often small changes to the English make big changes in readability and inspiration. The prayers not only read like language we might actually use, they make more sense and instill greater spiritual awakenings. Below are some comparisons between R. Sacks’ and Artscroll’s translations. You will quickly see the improvements in style and meaning.

The following is from the repetition of the Shacharis Amidah (Atah hu Elokeinu):

ArtscrollSacks
Only You are our God, on heaven and on earth. Mighty and fearful. Bannered by myriads; He spoke and it came into being. He ordered and they were created; His memory is eternal. He lives in all worlds; He is pure of eyes. He dwells in concealment; His crown is salvation. His raiment is charity; His cloak is jealousy. He is garbed in vengeance; His concealment is uprightness; His advice is faith; His accomplishment is truth. He is righteous and fair; He is close to those who call Him sincerely. High and exalted, He dwells in the heavens. He hangs the earth on nothing.You are our LORD, in heaven and on earth. Mighty and revered, encircled with myriads. He spoke and it was, commanded and it came into being. His memory is forever, His life is everlasting. Pure of eye, He sits concealed. His crown is salvation, His garment is righteousness. His cloak is jealousy, His coat is vengeance. His counsel is candor, His wisdom is faith. His deeds are truth, He is righteous and upright. He is close to those who call upon Him in truth, He is sublime and lofty. He resides in the heavens, and hangs the earth over emptiness.

Here is Chamol al ma’asekha from Musaf:

Have compassion on Your handiwork and be glad with Your handiwork. May those who take refuge in You say — when You vindicate those born by You — “O Master, may You be sanctified upon all Your handiwork.”Have mercy on those You have made, take joy in those You made, and those who shelter in You will say, as You absolve the ones You bear, “Be sanctified, LORD, through all that You have made.”

I have long found particularly powerful the Geonic additions to the third blessing, beginning “U-ve-khein tein pachdekha“:

And so, too, O HASHEM, our God, instill Your terror upon all Your works and Your dread upon all that You have created. Let all works revere You and all creatures prostrate themselves before You. Let them all become a single society, to do Your will wholeheartedly. For as we know, HASHEM, our God, that the dominion is Yours, might is in Your hand and strength is in Your right hand, and Your Name inspires awe over all that you have created.And so place the fear of You, LORD our God, over all that You have made, and the terror of You over all You have created, and all who were made will stand in awe of You, and all of creation will worship You, and they will be bound all together as one to carry out Your will with an undivided heart; for we know, LORD our God, that all dominion is laid out before You, strength is in Your palm, and might in Your right hand, Your name spreading awe over all You have created.

Here is the beginning of the famous U-nesaneh tokef in Musaf:

Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals (and counts and calculates); who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself, and everyone’s signature on it.Let us voice the power of this day’s sanctity — it is awesome, terrible; on this day Your kingship is raised, Your throne is founded upon love, and You, with truth, sit upon it. In truth it is You: Judge and Accuser, Knowing One and Witness, writing and sealing, counting, numbering, remembering all forgotten things, You open the book of memories — it is read of itself, and every man’s name is signed there.

Rabbi Sacks’ translation consistently improves the authentic feel of the prayers, rendering them faithful to the original but true to the petitioners who can better understand the intent. His changes are both subtle and obvious, ranging from minor word selection to arrangement of sentence structure. The overall result is a transformed prayer experience where you understand both the words and the mood our Sages intended, lifting your prayers to heaven with the soaring shofar sounds.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

27 comments

  1. Ships in 1 to 2 months. Oy vey!

  2. Not to nitpick, but if R Sacks is so great with liturgical poetry, why aren’t the standard Yotzros and Krovos featured in the siddur?

  3. Presumably, because it is meant to be used by most congregations

  4. yosher is candor?

  5. Many, many congregations say them. I do not know if there is a majority one way or the other, but it seems common to say it if not prevalent. I do not know if its more common than the many liturgical additions like the prayer for the State that did make the cut. And I do know that siddurim have included it for hundreds of years.

  6. Isn’t the important thing how he did on what he did and not on what he didn’t do?

  7. A Little Sanity

    R. Sacks translation, IMHO, still suffers from a literal mindedness that is ill suited to the translation of what is, after all, poetry.

    Poetry cannot be effectively translated, it can only be recreated.

    E.g., in the case of chamol al ma’asekaha, something more like:

    Have mercy on your creation.
    Rejoice in their elation,
    As they sing in exultation,
    While you acquit in jubilation,
    “Our Master in sanctification”….

    My pathetic stab at versification is obviously not literal, but it attempts to capture the lyricism, and the main thrust of meaning (however inadequately), of the original. Obviously, one would have to be a real poet, as well as knowledgeable in the peirush hamilim, and in the myriad allusions in the piyutim to tanakh and rabbinic literature, to do the job properly.

  8. A Little Sanity: R. De Sola Pool did that and people hated it with a passion.

  9. A Little Sanity

    “people hated it with a passion.

    Lucky then that they didn’t understand the original Ivris. 😉

  10. One think I like about the siddur is that it translates gods name as LORD or GOD, in contrast to Artscroll’s Hashem. I am not sure if you can even be yotzeh with “Hashem”. I heard that Kahhas had copyrighted the phrase “Lord our God”, and once sued a competitor over it. So maybe thats why they did it. I still think they should have put in a note about it, since it looks like there is a halachik problem with their translation. I hope they don’t sue Rabbi Sacks.

  11. U-nesaneh tokef in Musaf –Sachs translation:
    Please correctly change the words “writing and stealing” to “writing and sealing”.

  12. I don’t think that the poetry should be included in the siddur being that it is not written in classic rabbinic Hebrew.

  13. r’ chardal,
    cute 🙂
    as a rebbi once told a talmid (no names to protect the guilty)- “you have to have a sense of such things”
    KT

  14. “I don’t think that the poetry should be included in the siddur being that it is not written in classic rabbinic Hebrew.”

    What poetry? There is no poetry in the Machzor. They are infinitely more than inspire poetry.

  15. “His counsel is candor, His wisdom is faith” = סתרו יושר עצתו אמונה??

    Not that the ArtScroll is great on the phrases, but this seems downright wrong.

    More like – “His concealment is uprightness, His counsel is trustworthy.”

  16. Regarding the attempts to translate an keep the poetry: please see the birnbaum machzor for Erev YK. The English notes have part of the translation/poetry where if I recall correctly, they tried to get the meter rhyme and alphabetical order as well as the translation for omnam kayn/salachti piyyut. The result is a technical achievement but definitely not inspiring.

  17. A Little Sanity

    “The result is a technical achievement but definitely not inspiring.”

    True, but I think that was because the translation question was done in the 19th century, and was in a very archaic English that was not uncommon in certain poetry of that period–i.e., replete with words such as thee, thou, tis, aye, canst, etc. Obviously, one would want to use contemporary language today.

    The ultimate point being, that if authors of these tefilot chose to write them in a poetic format, presumably to elicit the inspiration that prose cannot easily produce, a good translation should attempt to do no less.

    BTW, the Koren Machzor [all Hebrew] arranges the piyutim on its pages in such a way as to make unmistakeably clear their poetic nature.It also contains many stanzas no longer generally recited, which fill in certain gaps in many of the alphabetical acrostics.

  18. Joseph Kaplan

    “where if I recall correctly, they tried to get the meter rhyme and alphabetical order as well as the translation for omnam kayn/salachti piyyut. The result is a technical achievement but definitely not inspiring.”

    That translation was by Israel Zangwill. It may not be inspiring for some, but I can still recite by heart the first stanza (Ay ’tis thus,evil us,hath in bound/By thy grace, guilt efface, and respond . . . Forgiven.) Done with no machzor nearby. Promise. And I have a good friend who can do that with almost the whole poem. I don’t know if that’s inspiring, but I can’t think of anywhere else in the YN liturgy that I (or he) can do that.

  19. Points well taken. However I think perhaps the reason you can recite it(and that I remembered that it was there) is that it is different and thus memerable, but that does not make it inspiring. In the same vein the only English translation I remember of a simchat Torah piyyut begins: “the angels came a mustering a mustering a mustering the angels came a mustering around the (something) throne. Different? Memorable? Yes. Inspiring or meaningful? Probably not.

  20. >What poetry? There is no poetry in the Machzor. They are infinitely more than inspire poetry.

    sorry, not poetry, c”V, the piyutim in the machzor. See, I used the word piyut so it is no longer poetry. and since piyut was coined before the advent of modern Hebrew, it is kosher for frum use.

  21. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    Available now in Londontown, mate.

    Comparing Oxford trained R Sacks with R Arthur Scroll of Flatbush is simply unfair 🙂

  22. Rabbi Student– Doesn’t it seem that the Rabbi Sacks translation is simply less accurate? For example, look at the opening line of unesaneh tokef. Rabbi Sacks translates it as if the Hebrew text were: ונתנה תוקף קדושת היום. הוא נורא ואיום
    Of course that is not what the text says — it says כי הוא וכו׳. This makes a substantive difference. According to Rabbi Sacks’s version, the paytan is simply communicating that the day is awesome and terrible (commencing the task to relate the power of the day). In the actual piyyut, by contrast, the paytan communicates not just that the day is awesome and terrible, but that its awe and terror compel the paytan to write about its power and sanctity. The day’s dread and terror are so pervasive and palpable that the paytan simply must communicate it to others. This is completely lost in the Sacks translation. Why he thought to make this little change is very puzzling to me.

  23. Black, you are assuming that כי means ‘because’ in this context and not ‘that’, as in אמת כי אתה הוא יוצרם – It is true that you are their Creator (Artscroll).

    Rabbi Sacks is correct on this, since the next phrase is ובו תנשא מלכותך – AND on it your kingship etc. ArtScroll has it that this is the first stitch describing תוקף קדושת היום, and was forced to drop the “And”. They render it: On it your kingship etc. as if it says בו תנשא מלכותך.

    But I still have no idea how Rabbi Sacks got to his translation of סתרו יושר עצתו אמונה.

  24. Black:

    Birnbaum’s translation is less accurate as well, quite intentionally. His translation of Ashamnu is a travesty – 12 verbs instead of 24? For one of the central pieces of the mitzvah of teshuvah? Artscroll made a point of being literally accurate (pace phrasing questions) at the expense of clunky English.

    I really think these translators, at least those responsible for the poetic sections, should have a read through Douglas Hofstadter’s book on poetry translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot, in praise of the music of language, which uses a strictly metrical and rhymed French poem as the base for extended investigations into translation style.

    Sensitive souls may want to paste paper over the cover painting, which is, while a pun on the title, still, a cross. The book has nothing to do with religion, he’s just depicting a typical French (hence Catholic) grave.

  25. R Gil-The question remains whether anyone can merely translate Piyut with letting the Mispallel be aware of the sources that the Payetan was working from. I don’t find either ArtScroll or R Sacks’s versions per se providing me with the necessary preparation that the combination of the Noroaos HaRav, and the Machzor Mesoras HaRav provide me for the Yamim Noraim. I would suggest that the real test of any commentary is whether it provides the reader with a sense of hearing the Nusach NaTefilah in his or her ears as they go through the text, and helping the reader grasp the numerous themes, and especially those that in Malciyos, Zicronos and Shofaros that permeate the Kedushas HaYom of RH.

  26. >Comparing Oxford trained R Sacks with R Arthur Scroll of Flatbush is simply unfair 🙂

    Except that Rabbi Sacks went to Cambridge. 🙂

  27. There are actually two versions of the new Machzor – British and US. While both are by R Sacks, the UK one follows “Minhag Anglia”. See http://www.oztorah.com/2011/09/koren-sacks-machzor-book-review/

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