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A Jewish Bible „in the Spirit of the German Language”

The Torah Translated by Ludwig Philippsons
Pict: Matthias Zimmermann

Pict: Matthias Zimmermann

In 1839 the young Jewish scholar Ludwig Philippson took on a huge project. He decided to begin a new translation of the original Hebrew texts of the Torah into German and to publish an Israelite Bible for Jews. The project became a huge success because it was explicitly meant for use in everyday life. Until 1913 the Bible had been published a hundred-thousandfold in numerous editions and several printings. In the course of the 20th century, however, the text and its translator fell into oblivion. This might change again at the beginning of the 21st century. In fall 2014 Philippson's Torah (the Five Books of Moses) will be published again - newly edited and cautiously corrected, however, in the true spirit of the author. We talked to Prof. Rüdiger Liwak, co-editor, and Daniel Vorpahl, research assistant, who are involved in the careful editing of the text.

There are undoubtedly good versions of the Bible for Jews, says Prof. Rüdiger Liwak who is one of the three publishers of the new edition along with the rabbi Prof. Walter Homolka of the Abraham Geiger College and Prof. Hanna Liss of the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien Heidelberg. Nevertheless, Philippson's translation can still claim its place among the others. "His great achievement is that he adhered to the original Hebrew Bible text while also giving appropriate expression to the German language and its diversity," Liwak says.

Ludwig Philippson was just 28 years old when he started translating the Bible. He must have known that this enormous task of publishing a German version of the Bible explicitly for Jews would accompany him throughout his life. This might have pleased him more than discouraged him. The work of the polymath Philippson, who was born in Dessau in 1811, influenced Jewish life in Germany significantly. His father was a teacher and the founder of a Hebrew printing house. He might have passed on his thirst for knowledge and passion for texts to his son but died when his son was just four years old. Philippson already started school at the age of four and was an avid student of Hebrew. At the age of 15 Ludwig was the first Jew ever admitted to the well-known school of the Francke Foundations in Halle. He later studied classical philology in Halle and Berlin. Although he had already earned a doctorate at the age of 21, the gates of academia remained closed to him as a Jew. This did not dampen his journalistic enthusiasm, though. At the age of 16 he published his first work, a translation of a part of the Book of the Twelve, under the name of his brother. Just 26 years old, Philippson founded the newspaper "Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums" (AZJ) in 1837, which he built up completely on his own as an author, publisher and sales manager. Until his death in 1889, he also edited the newspaper alone. The title of the publication always reflected his mission. He wanted to publish a newspaper for all Jews everywhere, no matter whether they were liberal or orthodox. As an advocate for equal rights for all Jews, Philippson repeatedly engaged in political activities.

Philippson's rhetoric talent had already attracted attention. When he was 22, in 1833, he took over the tasks of a preacher of the Jewish congregation in Magdeburg, a year later also became a state- certified "spiritual teacher" and in 1839 was officially appointed a trained rabbi. In 1861 he left his position as a rabbi because of his deteriorating health but continued his journalistic work until his death. Among them is his life's work - the translation of the Bible.

"There are two main reasons for his motivation to translate the Bible for Jews again," Liwak explains. "On the one hand, there was no suitable Jewish Bible in German at that time. Most German-Jewish households used a Christian Luther Bible. Many texts of the Old Testament are translated in such a way that they allude to the New Testament," Liwak says. "Philippson said' 'We need our own translation of the Hebrew texts!'".

After all, Philippson thought that Luther's translation was linguistically not very well done. In his "AZJ" he criticized it as "one-sided, monotonous and prosaic, whereas the original was multilayered and profound, full of momentum, tenderness and grandeur, full of variety and flexibility." Driven by the desire to give artistic expression to this original "in the spirit of the German language", he decided to begin his own translation. From 1839 Philippson's Israelite Bible was first published in 96 installments. Only then did a complete edition follow: in three volumes, in two languages - Hebrew and German -, and annotated as well as with 500 wood and steel engravings. The quite unusual didactical form of translating the texts into readable German, explaining them with the help of commentaries and using illustrations to make them understandable showed Philippson's intention to make his Israelite Bible a "Bible for everybody". And he succeeded. The first complete edition was said to be published more than 100,000 times by 1866. Philippson's ambition to edit the Bible for everyday life in schools, synagogues and at home led to numerous editions in different designs up through the 20th century. Among them is also a non-annotated "popular edition" without pictures. In 1874 a "bibliophilic edition" was published with 154 illustrations by Gustave Doré.

Commentary, illustration, bilingualism - for Vorpahl, who is working on the new edition of the text as a research assistant, the success of Philippson's Bible lies in the translation itself. "He created a text that is very close to the Hebrew original while at the same time using the richness of the German language," Vorpahl says. "When doing a translation you often have to decide whether you want to stick to the content of the source text or prefer to correspond to the aesthetics of the target language. Philippson often created a perfect symbiosis."Daniel Vorpahl should know. Together with Susanne Gräbner, he is going through Philippson's translation, line by line. The new edition will include the haftarah, the readings from the Prophets, in addition to the To-rah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Vorpahl and Gräbner each have to go over 140 verses a week if they are going to finish the text on schedule by next spring. Their work will form the basis for the edition that should be adjusted to today's feel for language. At the same time they do want to retain the unique wording of the translator. Therefore: "As much Philippson as possible, as little revision as necessary," Vorpahl explains the principle of their work. Punctuation and orthography are adapted "as carefully as possible". For those terms that are entirely incomprehensible today, alternatives have to be found. "Sometimes we also find mistakes. Now and then Philippson forgot half a verse," Vorpahl says, "but this is very rare. Perhaps he was very tired when this happened." Their approach is definitely in line with Philippson's own understanding of his work. He reworked his own translation again in the 1860s.

Vorpahl and Gräbner then discuss the texts with the editors and decide how best to convey Philippson's text to a 21st-century audience. These decisions are often made after long discussions, as Liwak and Vorpahl confirm, but the process is worth the effort. While the new edition does not contain the commentaries and illustrations because they are too related to the time of their creation, the text is valuable precisely because it "ought not be radically modernized," as Liwak says. The text relates to the present Jewish faith through new introductions written by notable rabbis and biblical scholars. The expectations of the work are high, as Rüdiger Liwak admits. "There are voices who claim that the Philippson Bible could become THE Bible in German- Jewish circles." Daniel Vorpahl is convinced that the text will have many readers today. "It is difficult to say whether Philippson's translation is better than others. This is a matter of taste," he says and continues with a compliment that Ludwig Philippson would have liked. "We certainly find them more harmonic, more fluent and well more beautiful than all the others."


Philippson (1839/44)

1 1 Am Anfang schuf Gott den Himmel und die Erde. 2 Aber die Erde war wüst und wirre und Finsternis über der Flut und der Geist Gottes webend über den Wassern.  3 Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht. Da ward Licht. 4 Und Gott sah das Licht, dass es gut sei, und Gott schied zwischen dem Lichte und zwischen der Finsternis. 5 Und Gott nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis nannte er Nacht. Da ward Abend, da ward Morgen, ein Tag.

Luther (1545)

1 1 Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde. 2 Aber die Erde war wüst und leer und es war finster auf der Tiefe, und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser. 3 Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht. Und es ward Licht. 4 Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis. 5Und nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis Nacht. Da ward aus Abend und Morgen der erste Tag.


Prof. Rüdiger Liwak has the Benno-Jacob visiting professorship at the "School of Jewish Theology" of the University of Potsdam.

Universität Potsdam
School of Jewish Theology
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam


Daniel Vorpahl, M.A. studied Jewish and religious studies, general and comparative literary studies in Potsdam. Since 2013 he has been a research assistant at the "School of Jewish Theology" of the University of Potsdam.


Text: Matthias Zimmermann, Online-Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translation: Susanne Voigt