Sunday, February 10, 2008

Guest Book Review: Jastrow’s Dictionary

(Thanks to Hendrickson Publishers for a review copy)

By David M. Moffitt

Marcus Jastrow's monumental Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature is well known to anyone who has worked with the immense corpus of rabbinic literature in its original language. The fact that this reference, which was first published in full in 1903, continues to serve as a foundational resource for those wishing to access this body of literature testifies to its enduring quality. Hendrickson's recent republication (November 2005) of this massive lexicon (a whopping 1,736 pages) is a welcome addition to the various other reprints available. The primary advantage of this latest printing lies in its return to the larger format of the original two volumes published over a century ago. The eyes of anyone who has grown accustomed to working with the older, less expensive and more portable reprints from Judaica Press (copyright 1971) will likely be grateful for the Hendrickson volume. Moreover, the list price of $49.95 US dollars (and the actual retail price on of $29.97) continue to make this an affordable reference for those with limited budgets.

Having said that, this reviewer regrets—particularly in light of the delays in its production— that Hendrickson did nothing more than reprint this lexicon. It is perhaps understandable that they did not undertake the massive project of revising and updating Jastrow. Nevertheless, even a few changes and additions to the present text would, in my opinion, have made it worthwhile to pay a bit more for a modified edition of this resource.

First, while the reprint of the larger typeface aids in reading the entries, the less than desirable quality of the original printing remains a problem. Quite apart from the issues of deciphering partial imprints of the English glosses and Greek loan words, distinguishing between partial forms of Hebrew letters such as ב and כ, or ה, ח and ת, or י and ו, or מ and ס (to note only a few of the trickier ones) continues to hobble users for whom Hebrew and Aramaic are not mother tongues. I cannot pretend to know the ins and outs of the realities of the publishing world, but in this age of digital processing and printing, one wonders what prevented Hendrickson from resetting, or, at the very least, polishing the type of the original text.

Second, a few additions to the original lexicon's sole index of biblical references would have been a welcome improvement. One thinks immediately of the potential utility of an appended index of rabbinic citations. Further, given the organization of the original lexicon around roots, more novice students would certainly benefit from an index of Hebrew and Aramaic words. An index of loan words transliterated into Hebrew characters would also increase the research value of this resource. If such tools already exist, I am not aware of them.

In view of the continued usefulness of Jastrow's Dictionary, this new printing—in so far as its size and cost make it an affordable and accessible resource—truly is a positive addition to the library of anyone who intends to work with rabbinic texts in their original language. Regretfully, Hendrickson missed the opportunity to further improve the utility of this work. Perhaps they (or some other publisher) would consider producing a volume of additional appendices for Jastrow? This reviewer, at least, would be grateful.



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