Isaac Leeser Jewish Bible

Isaac Leeser’s Jewish Bible, 1853

Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) played a formative role in American Judaism. Leeser wanted to strengthen the Jewish community in its traditions so it would not be assimilated by Protestant America. Many Jews of that day did not read Hebrew and were reading the King James Bible. Leeser believed Jews should have their own translation of the Scriptures, free from Christian interpretation. He spent fifteen years, in the midst of many other projects, preparing his Bible translation “after the best Jewish authorities.” Bertram Korn summarized Leeser’s accomplishments for American Judaism: “Practically every form of Jewish activity which supports American Jewish life today was either established or envisaged by this one man. Almost every kind of publication which is essential to Jewish survival was written, translated, or fostered by him.”


IN presenting this work to the public, the translator would merely remark, that it is not a new notion by which he has seized of late years which impelled him to the task, but a desire entertained for more than a quarter of a century, since the day he quitted school in his native land to come to this country, to present to his fellow-Israelites an English version, made by one of themselves, of the Holy Word of God. From early infancy he was made conscious how much persons differing from us in religious ideas make use of Scripture to assail Israel’s hope and faith, by what he deems, in accordance with the well-settled opinions of sound critics, both Israelites and others, a perverted and hence erroneous rendering of the words of the original Bible. Therefore he always entertained the hope to be one day permitted to do for his fellow Hebrews who use the English as their vernacular, what had been done for the Germans by some of the most eminent minds whom the Almighty has endowed with the power of reanimating in us the almost expiring desire for critical inquiry into the sacred text. So much had been done by these, that the translator’s labours were rendered comparatively easy; since he had before him the best results of studies of modern German Israelites, carried on for the space of eighty years, commencing with Moses Mendelssohn, Herz Wesel, or, as he was called, Hartog Wessely, and Solomon of Dubno, down to Dr. L. Zunz,[1] of Berlin, whose work appeared in 1839, Dr. Solomon Herxheimer, Rabbi of Anhalt-Bernburg, whose work was completed five years ago, and of Dr. Lewis Philippson,[2] Rabbi of Magdeburg in Prussian Saxony, whose work is not yet quite completed[3] while writing this. In addition to these entire Bible translations, the translator has had access to partial versions of separate books, by Ottensosser, Heinemann, Obernik, Hochstatter, Wolfson, Lowenthal, and some anonymous writers, referred to occasionally in the notes appended to this work; besides which he has had the advantage of the copious notes of Dr. Philippson’s and Dr. Herxheimer’s Bibles, in which these learned men have collected the views of the investigators, both Israelites and others, in the path of biblical criticism. The ancient versions, also, of Onkelos, Jonathan, and the Jerusalem Targumist have been carefully consulted; and wherever accessible, the comments of the great expounders Rashi, (Rabbi Shelemoh Yizchaki,) Redak, (Rabbi David Kimchi,) Aben Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ben Ezra,) Rashbam, (Rabbi Shelemoh ben Meir, the grandson of Rashi,) Ralbag, (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom,) and Rabbenu Sa’adyah (Saadias) Gaon, as also the Michlol Yophi, and the modern Biurim, have been sedulously compared, so as to insure the utmost accuracy of which the translator is capable. His library is not very extensive; but he trusts that the foregoing catalogue of auxiliary works will prove that he has had at hand as good materials as can be obtained anywhere to do justice to his undertaking. It must be left to those acquainted with the subject, to decide whether he has taken due advantage of the materials in his hand; but he trusts that the judgment will be in his favour, at least so far, that he has been honest and faithful.

The translator is an Israelite in faith, in the full sense of the word: he believes in the Scriptures as they have been handed down to us; in the truth and authenticity of prophecies and their ultimate literal fulfillment. He has always studied the Scriptures to find a confirmation for his faith and hope; nevertheless, he asserts fearlessly, that in his going through this work, he has thrown aside all bias, discarded every preconceived opinion, and translated the text before him without regard to the result thence arising for his creed. But no perversion or forced rendering of any text was needed to bear out his opinions or those of Israelites in general; and he for one would place but little confidence in them, if he were compelled to change the evident meaning of the Bible to find a support for them. He trusts, therefore, that to those who agree with him in their religious persuasion, he has rendered an acceptable service; as they will now have an opportunity to study a version of the Bible which has not been made by the authority of churches in which they can have no confidence; and that to those also who are of a different persuasion, his labours will not be unacceptable, as exhibiting, so far as he could do it, the progress of biblical criticism among ancient and modern Israelites — a task utterly beyond the power of any but a Jew by birth and conviction.

As regards the style, it has been endeavoured to adhere closely to that of the ordinary English version, which for simplicity cannot be surpassed; though, upon a critical examination, it will readily be perceived that the various translators differed materially in their method, and frequently rendered the same word in different ways. In the present version, great care has been taken to avoid this fault; but the translator does not mean to assert that he has succeeded to as great an extant as he could have desired. He will not enumerate what he has done; but let any one who is desirous to investigate this point compare the two translations, and he will readily convince himself that this may be called a newversion, especially of the Prophets, Psalms, and Job; and he confidently hopes that the meaning has been rendered more clear by the version itself, and, where this was not altogether practicable, by the notes appended at the foot of the page.

He found great difficulty about coming to a satisfactory resolution with regard to the spelling of the proper nouns. Any one the least acquainted with the manner they are presented in the common versions and the languages of Western Europe, must know that they are very much corrupted; but they have in this shape become so much interwoven with the language of history and of daily conversation, that it would have produced endless confusion to spell them after the original manner. Hence the ordinary method had to be retained for words in constant use; but where this was not the case, a spelling more in accord with the Hebrew; and ia as ya. A should be sounded as long ah; e as long a; i as long ee; and u as oo.Chi stands for the Hebrew ח ; where עoccurs in the Hebrew, an apostrophe ´ has been used for the most part; but there are no English letters to represent these sounds exactly. For instance, “Zechariah,” pronounce Zecharyah; “Jehu,” asYay-hoo, &c.

The translator will not ask that his errors and misconceptions shall be excused; but he trusts that any fault which may be discovered will be kindly pointed out to him, so that he may be able to make use of all such remarks to correct his work in a future edition; and he for his own part will not be satisfied with what he has done, but endeavour to improve by future experience.

Whenever words have been supplied which are not in the text, but requisite to make the sense clear, they have been placed in parentheses; for instance, 1 Chron. iii.9, “(These were) all the sons of David,” where there is no equivalent in Hebrew for “these were,” though no sense could be made of the phrase without supplying these two words. The parenthesis is also used occasionally, but very seldom, to denote a construction, where an actual parenthesis of a whole sentence, or of one or more verses, occurs.

The whole work has been undertaken at the sole responsibility, both mercantile and literary, of the translator. No individual has been questioned respecting the meaning of a single sentence; and not an English book has been consulted, except Bagster’s Bible, a few notes of which have been incorporated with this. The peculiarity of the style will readily indicate them. The author’s name would have been appended, had it been known to the translator.

Although about the sixth part of the contents of this volume are notes, still he did not mean to write a commentary on the Bible, nor must the notes be regarded as any thing else than a mere slight aid for the explanation of grammatical and other difficulties. For this they are probably ample enough; otherwise they must appear very defective in quantity and manner.

With these few remarks the translator surrenders a labour in which he has been engaged, occasionally, for more than fifteen yeas, to the kindness of the public, trusting that, by the blessing of the Father of all, it may be made instrumental in diffusing a taste for Scripture reading among the community of Israelites, and be the means of better appreciation of the great treasures of revelation to many who never have had the opportunity of knowing what the Hebrews have done for mankind, not alone in preserving the sacred books, but by labouring to make them intelligible to the world at large.

Philadelphia, { Elul 17th, 5613, Sept. 20th, 1853


According to Dr. Zunz, the creation of the world dates 3988 before the common era. The flood in 1656 after the creation. Abram born at Ur, 1948. Jacob goes to Egypt, 2238. Moses born, 2413. Exodus, and giving of the Decalogue, 2493. Entrance into Palestine, 2533. Deborah and Barak’s victory, 2653. Death of ´Eli, 2877. Saul made king, 2900. His death, 2930. David acknowledged king by all Israel, 2937. Temple commenced, 2973, in the year 480 after the Exodus. Division of the kingdom between Rehobo’am and Jerobo’am, 3010. Elijah, about 3068, when Achab became king. Elisha’ becomes Elijah’s successor, 3090. Hoshea’, the last king of Israel, 3259-3268, when Shalmeneser conquers Samaria, and carries the people into exile, while the kingdom of Judah yet continues under Hezekiah (3262) to Zedekiah (3402) in which year Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem, and carries the people mostly to Babylon, while a few fly to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. Babylon conquered, 3450, and two years later Cyrus permits the Jews to return to Palestine under Zerubbabel and Jeshua’. The new temple is completed, 3472, that is, 516 before the common era. History of Haman, 3514. ´Ezra comes to Palestine, 3530, and Nehemiah, 3544; returns to Persia, 3556, and arrives again in Palestine, 3564. Jaddua’ high-priest, 3656, and under him, two years later, Palestine is conquered by Alexander of Macedon. These few dates, it is hoped, will elucidate, with the Bible text, the history of the Scriptures…

The books of the Holy Scriptures are divided into the following classes: the Law, Pentateuch or Torah, Nebiim Rishonim, the Earlier Prophets, Nebiim Acharonim, the Later Prophets, and Ktubin, Hagiographa, or Holy Writings.

The order of the books of the Holy Scriptures according to the usual Hebrew text is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, comprising the Pentateuch. — Joshua, Judges, the First Book of Samuel, the Second Book of Samuel, the First Book of the Kings, and the Second Book of Samuel, the First Book of the Kings, and the Second Book of the Kings, comprising the Earlier Prophets. ¬ Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets, (to wit, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Michah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi,) comprising the Later Prophets. — Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the five rolls (to wit, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther,) Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, the First and Second Books of Chronicles, comprising the Hagiographa, or Holy Writings.

The Jews also divide the Law in fifty-four sections, which are called after the first distinctive word in each section. For instance: the first of these sections is called Bereshith, from the first word of the Bible, signifying “in the beginning.” The name of the first section in each book of the Pentateuch is also applied to the book; thus Genesis is called Bereshith; Exodus, Shemoth; Leviticus, Vayikra; Numbers, Bemidbar; Deuteronomy, Debarim. Leviticus is also called Torath Cohanim, and Deuteronomy, Mishneh Torah. The whole law is read once every year in the Synagogue and families, together with a corresponding section (Haphtorah) of the prophetic books — that is, excluding the Hagiographa, the third division of this work. Occasionally two weekly sections are read together, when mostly the Haphtorah of the second to the exclusion of the first is recited. So also are the especial Haphtoroth for Sabbath New-Moon, or when new moon is on the first day of the week, first and second Sabbath Chanuckah, Parshath Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and Hachodesh, as also Shim’u for Mattoth, likewise ´Aniyah So’arah for Reay and Soss Assiss for Nizabim and Vayelech, read instead of the usual ones indicated for the respective occasions. The name of each weekly section is placed at its commencement, as also at the head of the pages embracing the same, and the Haphtorah is indicated at the end of each. The weekly sections are divided off in seven subdivisions called Parashiyoth, or Parassahs, which are marked off in this work with a *; so also the few verses read for the Maphtere, or the one who reads the Haphtorah, as well appear from inspection.

In addition to the above, the first division of next week’s section is read every Sabbath afternoon and Monday and Thursday morning, unless on these days some other portion should be read, because of there being a fast, or half or entire holiday.

[1] Dr. Zunz, whose work is often quoted in these notes, only translated the two books of Chronicles; but he was aided by Rabbai Chayim Arngeim, of Glogau, with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, the Books of Kings, Ezekiel, Hosea, Obadiah, Jonah, Micha, Nahum, Zechariah, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Nehemiah; by Michael Sachs, then of Prague, but now of Berlin, with Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, the Books of Samuel, Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Havakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi, Psalms, the Song of Solomon, and Lamentations, (Jeremiah was translated by both conjointly;) and by Dr. Julius Furst, of Leipzig, with Daniel and Ezra. Occasionally in the notes, “Zunz” is named at other times; the special translators.

[2] The merit of the later translators consists therein that they have adhered to the letter of the text, and not rendered it freely, to avoid the difficulties and to improve the style, as was done by Mendelssohn and his immediate followers. A close, literal rendering will be found to characterize this version also.

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