Book of Psalms in Plain English

Aaron Lichtenstein

Publisher: Urim Publications

In the Book of Psalms in Plain English, you will find the Book of Psalms itself, its ideas and emotions. The English rendition is in verse, just as the Hebrew original is in poetry – in the various poetic modes required by the varied moods and messages.

Read and be moved by the inspiring words of Psalms, translated into clear and readable English by a scholar of Judaism and professor of English.

About the Author:
Aaron Lichtenstein teaches at the City University of New York, and has taught at New York University, Yeshiva University, University of Denver, Jews’ College (London), and Yeshiva Hechal HaTorah. He is the author of The Seven Laws of Noah (Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press), was staff editor at the Encyclopedia Judaica, and authored a dozen of its articles on the Marranos of Portugal. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

O Lord, tell me the sum total of all my years,
The bottom-line value of all my life.
You measure out my days and nights by handbreadths,
Mankind is indeed meaningless alongside Your permanence.
But a person’s imagination proceeds with illusion,
Involved in acquiring what he may never consume.
So Lord, my only hope is faith in You,
Save me from sin and the shame of villainy.
With You in charge, I will have nothing more to say,
Cancel Your punishment, which is what I fear most,
For You do waste mankind with Your retribution,
And this is a reason why humanity is meaningless.
O Lord, hear my prayer and see my tears,
For I and my forebears are Your neighbors down here,
Permit me some respite before I vanish into oblivion.


Praise for The Book of Psalms in Plain English:

The new rendition of Psalms, “in plain English,” is in verse, just as the Hebrew original is in poetry – in the various poetic modes required by the varied moods and messages. Rabbi Lichtenstein writes that “our intention is to convey clear insights, accomplished by highlighting the interpretations instead of the words. Maimonides instructed his translator Shmuel ibn Tibbon to render the idea, not the word, and our contemporary readings of the Tehillim follow this advice.” Some of the well-known psalms [in English], such as Psalm 23, may sound strange to the ear, but overall the book is a useful tool in capturing the essential meaning of the biblical psalms.
-Dov Peretz Elkins
Jewish Media Review

Lichtenstein’s contemporary English verse translation of all 150 psalms tries to reach beyond the words to capture the mood, tone, and ideas of the psalmist. As he explains in a very brief preface, his intention is to ” convey insights. . . highlighting the interpretation instead of the words.” In Psalm 113, the phrase often rendered as “the needy of the dunghill” is translated as “the rag-picker from the city dump.” The author does not shy away from using vernacular slang, as for example in Psalm 36: “There ain’t no such thing as God fearing.” He often successfully uses vocabulary that captures a double meaning, as in Psalm 58′s “In your heart you whitewash clear wrongs,” conveying both the physical and emotional cleansing. In Psalm 83, one of the classical psalms asking for divine aid for Israel against her enemies, Lichtenstein replaces the more traditional translations of ancient Israel’s foes. It is jarring to read that “the axis of evil aimed at the Lord” refers to “Europeans, The Arabs, the Bedouins and Egypt/ The Jordanians, The Nazis, the Palestinians and Lebanese/ The Iranians with their arms of mass destruction.”

Lichenstein’s short book contains no introduction, no commentary, no guide to special readings, no Hebrew, and no verse numberings. Although his translations are interesting to read and compare to others, there are many other titles that might serve a broader range of needs for a library purchase.
-Irene K. Seff
AJL Newsletter

Therefore, the appearance of Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein’s translation of Psalms, The Book of Psalms in Plain English: A Contemporary Reading of Tehillim (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2006) is a most welcome addition to the attempt to present the poetry of Tehillim in poetic idiom. Following Maimonides’ advice to Samuel ibn Tibbon concerning the translation of his Guide to the Perplexed from Arabic to Hebrew, Dr. Lichtenstein seeks to translate the meaning and idea and not be a slave to the word. Furthermore, he is not afraid of departing from forms that preserve the majesty of monarchy, but unfortunately, a majesty that does not speak to the modern temperament. (Indeed, the constant reference to monarchy in prayer and the requirement of relating to God as King are problems to those for whom monarchy is an antiquated institution whose relevance is only for tourists. Educators who ignore this fact are not helping their students learn to pray.)

One has the sense, when reading Dr. Lichtenstein’s translation, that it is the work of someone for whom the Psalms are prayers with which he has identified so fully that he is not afraid to employ figures of speech that others may find jarring or trivial.

Thus, Psalms 39:5, which reads in the standard Jewish Publication Society (1917) as:
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how short-lived I am is rendered as:

O Lord, tell me the sum total of all my years,
The bottom-line value of all my life.

Or his translation of Psalms 126:1-2:
When the Lord restores Zion, it will be like a dream,
Our mouths will be full of laughter and tra-la-la. Rather than:
When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.

Yet, even should the reader disagree with issues of both interpretation and style (as this reviewer does in numerous instances), he will necessarily be moved to serious contemplation of how, as a result of these disagreements, the Hebrew speaks to him. In this respect, the lack of Hebrew-facing text is a major drawback both for study and for using the text as a Tehillim from which one might actually pray. But it is quite clear that Dr. Lichtenstein’s translation is reaching for the poetic, and that alone is most welcome.

I cannot imagine anyone seriously interested in prayer and in the constant use of Tehillim as a means to express our deepest yearnings who will not find this translation of great interest. Yeats said, “Out of the quarrel we have with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel we have with ourselves we make poetry.” For some, this translation will produce much rhetoric, but for others it will speak with the poetry of their selves. As such, it is worth serious consideration.
-Rabbi Dr. David Ebner
Jewish Action Magazine

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