New Translation of Jewish Mystical Text for a New Audience

By Holmes, Kristin E. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), October 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

New Translation of Jewish Mystical Text for a New Audience


Holmes, Kristin E., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


For the past six years, Joel Hecker, an associate professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Montgomery County, has pored over a set of medieval writings to help unlock one of the most important texts in Judaism.

Mr. Hecker, 56, of Bala Cynwyd, near Philadelphia, has dissected centuries-old manuscripts and translated hundreds of pages of Aramaic to contribute to a new English translation of the Zohar, a compendium of commentaries and essays that is the foundation of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah.

In its 20th year, the landmark project will produce the first unabridged translation, with commentary, that is based on the 13th-century text's original Aramaic, a Semitic language that emerged nearly 3,000 years ago and is now little spoken in the Middle East. Expected to be completed next spring, the 12-volume work of more than 6,000 pages will take an esoteric, complicated text out of the domain of scholars and Jewish mystics and make it accessible to a wide audience.

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, funded by a $2 million donation from one of the nation's wealthiest families, is what Mr.Hecker calls a definitive and comprehensive "field guide" to the Torah. Its purpose is to illuminate what the Torah says about the mysterious relationship between God and creation.

Unlike earlier English translations, the Pritzker Edition does not include paraphrases, abbreviations or deletions of text, Mr.Hecker said, nor has it been converted from a Hebrew translation.

"The whole project is extremely important because it's the first full rendering in competent English that incorporates the highest standards of scholarship in the field," said Elliot R. Wolfson, a leading expert in Jewish mysticism and a professor of Jewish studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Mr. Hecker, who trained as a rabbi and later studied for his doctorate under Mr. Wolfson, is part of the translation team led by Daniel C. Matt, a Kabbalah scholar and former professor at Graduate Theological Union seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

Mr. Matt began translating Volumes 1 through 9 in 1997. He selected Mr. Hecker and Nathan Wolski, of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization at Monash University, in Victoria, Australia, to join the project in 2010 and help complete it.

Mr. Hecker's Volume 11 contains commentaries on the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon) and the Books of Ruth and Lamentations. …

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