Isaac Leeser (1806-68) deserves great credit for producing the first English translation of the Bible specifically for Jewish use.

“Psa 23:5 Thou preparest before me a table in the presence of my assailants; thou anointest with oil my head: my cup overfloweth.” [1]

In 1845, he published a five-volume Hebrew/English “Pentateuch” with his own English translation, entitled “Torat ha-Elohim.” In 1853, he published his Hebrew/English, single-volume “The Twenty-four Books of the Holy Scriptures: Carefully Translated According to the Massoretic [sic] Text, On the Basis of the English Version, After the Best Jewish Authorities; and supplied with short explanatory notes,” “commonly called ‘The Leeser Bible’.” [2]

As seen above, Leeser followed the grammatical conventions of the “King James Version” (KJV; 17th century). Although already out-of-date by the 19th century, pronouns “thou/thee/thy,” were preferred as more formal, especially when addressing G-d. In Early Modern English (c. 1470-1700), “you” was the 2nd person plural pronoun; “thou/thee/thy” were the singular forms. Thus, the KJV, addressing G-d as “Thou,” etc., used the familiar form; “You” signified “politeness and respect.” [3] This archaic usage even continued into the 1917 JPS translation. Some siddurim, too, addressed G-d as “Thou,” etc., until recently, when “Modern English” is almost universally required.

“…when the first English translations of the Bible were being made, the informal thee and thou were used specifically in reference to God to indicate an approachable, familiar God, but as the language changed this…brought thee and thou to sound more formal to the [contemporary] English speaker.” [4]

The issue echoes in Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s daring address of G-d in Yiddish as “du,” especially in his famous song, “A Dudele.” Doing so conveyed G-d’s intimate nearness, as well as the Rebbe’s deep personal affection for G-d — so characteristic of nascent Hasidut. More recently, Martin Buber’s “Ich und Du” was translated “I and Thou.” A stricter translation would be “I and You” (“du,” in German as well as Yiddish, is an “affectionate diminutive” form). Ronald Smith’s 1937 translation uses “Thou” because it “…invokes the theological and reverential implications which Buber intended.” [5] In his 1970 translation, Walter Kaufmann preferred “You,” but used “Thou,” as it was already more familiar.

Harry Orlinski, who worked on the 1969 Modern English JPS version, wrote of the Leeser Bible:

“…[It] had considerable merit, and it is useful even to this day…the grammatical niceties of biblical Hebrew frequently came through successfully, and the scholarship in general was on a consistently adequate level. Leeser’s Bible would have retained much more of its deserved popularity well into the twentieth century…had it not been for the appearance…of the [1917 JPS version].” [6]

Why should there have been any need at all for the “Leeser Bible” and the later JPS versions?
 All translations of the Bible owe at least something to the Septuagint. The accepted “Hebrew” version is found in the “Masoretic” texts — those accepted by rabbinic authorities as original or authentic. Much of the validity of the Masoretic texts was confirmed by the discovery of the “Dead Sea Scrolls” and the “Cairo Geniza,” both of which contained at least fragments of biblical texts that predated the 9th century, and which could be compared favorably with the later samples available to us.

Certain differences have to do with the numbering of verses. For example, in some “Psalms,” if a title was counted as the first verse, the verse numbers would vary. In other cases, the actual psalm-number might vary (e.g. Psalm 23 in the Masoretic text is Psalm 22 in the Vulgate and Douay-Rheims versions). Again, the numbering of chapters/verses at all was an innovation of Archbishop Stephen Langton. A rabbi of the Talmud quoted a “pasuk” a verse or part of it; not the chapter/verse number.

Some translations favored a Christian interpretation. A prime example is [עלמה] in Isa. 7:14:

“The author of [Matthew 1:23] used the pre-Christian Jewish Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew word almah as the Greek parthenos (a word that usually implies virginity) in support of…the virgin birth of Jesus. Scholars agree that almah has nothing to do with virginity ‘per se’…” [7]

Finally, aside from the “New Testament” (NT) itself, the choice and order of “Old Testament” books varied. TaNaCh includes books in the Torah/Prophets/Writings sequence, ending with Divrei ha-Yam-im/Chronicles. Catholic and Protestant “OT” versions differ in which books are included, but both conclude with “Malachi,” to make a homiletic point:

TaNaCh ends with the Israelites returning to their land and rebuilding the Temple, thereby displaying the Divine forgiveness of sins promised in Torah and Prophets.

The Christian “OT” ends with Elijah announcing the Messiah’s (i.e. understood as Jesus’) coming [8], which, for Christians, displays (or “will display”) the promised forgiveness of sins.

Such differences clearly demonstrated need for a version of TaNaCh in the vernacular — whatever that might be (e.g. Sa’adiah Gaon’s Arabic translation). [9] While the “Leeser Bible” already existed by the end of the 19th century, a translation of greater quality was desired. One writer points out that the JPS 1917 bible is “…the first translation of the Tanakh into English by a committee of Jews.” [10] The mention of “committee” seems to imply “consensus,” rather than a translation reflecting the choices of a single scholar. It also points to the Jewish community being substantially larger than the one for whom Isaac Leeser wrote. That the 1917 translation grew out of an earlier attempt by the Central Conference of American Rabbis [11] further indicates that by the end of the 19th century, a more “authentic Jewish” version was needed for teaching and learning purposes.

The 1917 version was entitled “The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text: A New Translation with the Aid of Previous Versions and with Constant Consultation of Jewish Authorities.” It became the standard version, appearing alone and utilized in other Jewish publications (e.g. Rabbi J.H. Hertz’ “Pentateuch and Haftorahs” and the “Soncino Books of the Bible”). It remained so until the later “Modern English” JPS complete TaNaCh, which became available in 1985. [12]


[1] see:
for online version with Leeser’s notes see:
[8] Malachi 4:5 — the last verse in the book; therefore, the “end” of the “OT”
[9] “As the language of Saadia Gaon’s translation became archaic and remote from common speech, most Jewish communities of the Arab world evolved their own translations of the Torah into their local dialects of Judaeo-Arabic.” (

[11] ibid.
[12] ibid.