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The Book of Psalms: Poetry in poetry, by Jeffrey M. Cohen

06 September 2019

Charles Middleburgh reviews a new English version by a rabbi

JEWS have a very close relationship with the Book of Psalms, indeed many of us carry a small Hebrew psalter with us each day. This love affair has generated many scholarly studies, as well as versions with commentaries for broader audiences.

Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen’s latest book, The Book of Psalms: Poetry in poetry, is a new take on the ancient Psalms. In his introduction, he explains the challenge of translating the Psalms, dealing with Hebrew words whose meaning is uncertain, and the titles and superscriptions of the Psalms, some of which are impossible to translate. He eulogises the power and beauty of the poetry of the original Hebrew, and explains why this motivated him to try and reproduce it through using a rhyming English translation.

The core challenge in this worthy endeavour is creating rhymes that stay as true as possible to the meaning of the Hebrew, and Cohen’s modus operandi where there is no obvious rhyme is to add a rhyming word or phrase, in italics, to show that they are not a part of the original.

Most readers will go to the Psalms they love best and see how Rabbi Cohen has rendered them. Psalm 23, a likely first port of call, begins in Cohen’s version:

The Lord is my shepherd
No need does He deny;
In lush pastures He sets me
By tranquil streams I lie.

By its very nature, poetry, a genre both loved or loathed, has a very subjective ethic: for those who feel that one of the standard English prose versions of the Psalms most beautifully expresses the essence of the Hebrew, Cohen’s work will not persuade. For those who approve of the endeavour, and like its execution, this will be a creative triumph.

Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College.


The Book of Psalms: Poetry in poetry
Jeffrey M. Cohen
Wipf & Stock £24
Church Times Bookshop £21.60

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