Jewish Bible Translations and Translators

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, American Jews became more centrally organized and more numerous. Among the institutions founded beyond any single denomination was the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), headquartered in Philadelphia. At a time when Jewish biblical scholarship and interpretation were not highly regarded in academic circles, avenues for publishing Jewish works were similarly constrained. To fill this gap, the JPS was organized. Its first major project was an English-language version of the Bible. As mentioned earlier, it was essentially a Judaized version of KJV, which retained as much of the classic’s style and cadence as possible. It was also formatted and printed to look very much like editions of KJV in appearance. It brought together the rabbinic and lay leadership of most American Jewry, including its editor-in-chief Max L. Margolis, and was very well received. It has functioned with this status for over fifty years.

See Also: Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics,
(Jewish Publication Society, 2020).

By Leonard J. Greenspoon
Creighton University
September 2020

In 1981[P1] , biblical scholar Jack P. Lewis claimed, with his book’s title, comprehensive coverage of The English Bible from KJV to NIV— yet he mentioned not one Jewish version. Some years later, three pretty well-informed authors (Bobrick 2001; McGrath 2001; Nicolson 2003) purported to provide full accounts of the King James Bible but failed to make any reference to the profound influence Jewish exegetes and exegesis had on this translation. Around the same time, renowned Bible translator Bruce M. Metzger devoted seven pages to modern “Jewish translations” in his wide-ranging study The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions (2001). But much more of this space is taken up with a presentation of God’s New Covenant: A New Testament Translation by the philosopher Heinz W. Cassirer, who was born Jewish but did not practice Judaism, and the Complete Jewish Bible by David H. Stern, who self-identifies more as a Messianic Jew than with undeniably mainstream Jewish versions produced by The Jewish Publication Society and others.

Jewish scholars Max L. Margolis (Margolis 1917) and Harry M. Orlinsky (Orlinsky and Bratcher 1991), also distinguished translators of the Hebrew Bible, did find a place for Jewish versions in their broadly conceived surveys. But I think I’m on safe ground in asserting that my upcoming study, Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress (Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press, November 2020), is the first book-length presentation of Jewish versions from the beginning until (more or less) today.

That is not to say that specific Jewish translations have escaped scholarly analysis, which is most decidedly the case with the Septuagint (or LXX). The Greek language rendering originated in Alexandria,  Egypt, beginning in the first or second quarter of the third century BCE and continuing on a book-by-book basis as late as the first century CE. There is no doubt that this version was produced by Jews primarily for other Jews whose knowledge of Hebrew was fast receding in the Hellenistic, Greek-speaking world they inhabited. Our earliest “witness” to LXX origins, the Letter of Aristeas (Shutt 1985), locates the impetus for the project: the monarch’s (Ptolemy II) desire to have a copy of Jewish law in his library. In opposition to this dependence on royal bureaucracy, many modern scholars have constructed an image of intra-Jewish origins for educational and/or liturgical usage. Although these and other scenarios are typically offered as either/or, I am more comfortable with both/and. In our individual and communal experience, we know that major projects, which the Septuagint was, typically have multiple sponsors. So, I think, there was a confluence, if you will, of interests here, Jewish and Ptolemaic.

Nonetheless, the Jewish origins and early transmission of the Septuagint often get lost in the telling, which might begin with the use of the LXX or some similar Greek text in the New Testament. Even here, careful attention to the context of the Gospels places the activity within a Jewish environment (Greenspoon 2007; 2011). Within the later Jewish tradition, the rabbinic, the Septuagint receives scant mention. Pride of place belongs to the Targums (or Targumim), Aramaic-language versions that went back to first-century Palestine and continued to be forthcoming for centuries thereafter, primarily in Babylonia.

Far too often, the Targums are described as paraphrases: very loose renderings of their source text (here, a consonantal version quite similar to what we now call the Masoretic Text). This is not correct. In fact, the Targums consist in large part of fairly literal—or formal—reflections of the Hebrew. The other, often thought of as the more intriguing section of the Targum, is made up of explanatory passages that were not the result of translation but rather owe their inclusion to the initiative of the Targumists themselves (Flesher and Chilton 2011). I often think they placed in the text itself what we might append as commentary. In the absence of any firm evidence, we don’t know why they did what they did.

Another feature draws our interest as well. Where the Hebrew text on occasion speaks of God as possessing human form (anthropomorphism) or human emotions (anthropopatheism), Targumists resolutely avoided any such language. Why did they feel the need to make such changes?   Presumably, they were concerned about their intended audience misunderstanding the material—something that did not weigh on the minds of the author(s) of the Hebrew text.

While we lack firsthand information about the development of the Targums and the Septuagint, we are much better informed about how subsequent Jewish translations, and there were many, came about. For example, we know a great deal about the individual responsible for the dominant Arabic version: Saadiah Gaon (“gaon” identifies him as head of a rabbinic academy in Babylonia), active in the late tenth to early eleventh centuries. In dealing with descriptions of God, Saadiah followed a policy very similar to that of the Targumists. In his case, we know the reason: he believed God was immutable, that the biblical text contained no contradictions, and that divine revelation (in both its written and oral formats) was consistent with reason (Halkin 1980).

These were among the reasons why Saadiah’s renderings often departed from the Hebraic structure and form, favoring Arabic terminology and some aspects of Islamic exegesis instead. Or, to put it another way, Saadiah’s was a functional rather than a formal equivalence version. Such a technique in Bible translation was unusual anywhere until the beginning of the twentieth century, but its authentic Jewishness here is not in doubt.

Saadiah’s work is called Tafsir, an Arabic term closer in meaning to commentary than translation. Based on his translation, we know that Saadiah constructed an elaborate commentary that far exceeded the version itself in length and scope. In successive Jewish Bibles, the commentary was not an add-on but the primary focus of attention. In this enormous opus, extant only in part, Saadiah made use of earlier Jewish tradition; in a similar fashion, his work consequently found its way into the commentaries of those who followed him.

In one way, though, Saadiah’s efforts were unusual within Jewish Bible translating, possibly unique. Elsewhere, the translation is intended to supplement, not supplant the Hebrew original. For example, it was a practice for many centuries in synagogues for someone to speak the Targum (in Aramaic) even as a reader chanted the Torah (in Hebrew). Saadiah apparently thought he was producing the Bible for Arabic-speaking Jews, and in no small measure, he was successful.

Judeo-German and German translators provide the longest linguistic and cultural context for Jewish Bible versions. Judeo-German, generally spoken of these days as Yiddish, combined Hebrew with Anglo-Saxon tongues, particularly German. From as early as perhaps the tenth century until well into the twentieth, Yiddish versions of the Bible appeared. Interestingly enough and for the most part, their intended audience consisted of women and children in homes and schools for whom access to the Hebrew would have been rare indeed. Surely there were also plenty of adult males who lacked proficiency in, perhaps knowledge of, biblical Hebrew.

It was not until the latter decades of the eighteenth century that a German Bible for Jews appeared. This was one of the momentous contributions of Moses Mendelssohn, a leader of the Jewish Enlightenment (Sorkin 1996). Producing this German version, along with copious commentary I might add, served two purposes for Mendelssohn. For one, he wanted his fellow Jews to come into direct contact with Jewish exegetical traditions, something that had not been a consistent feature of Yiddish translations and certainly not of those produced under Christian auspices.

This goal is one we can recognize from Saadiah, among others. But Mendelssohn had something else in mind as well. He based the language and style of his German on the classic Bible Luther had constructed. Why? As part of the Jewish and the general Enlightenments, Jews were at long last offered political and social openings into the dominant German-speaking Christian society of their day. Mendelssohn judged Yiddish to be jargon, incompatible with the salon society and academic institutions to which Jews sought admission.

Mendelssohn’s promotion of High German met with opposition from some rabbis who feared that younger Jews would use their newly acquired linguistic proficiency to read German philosophical treatises, which could lead them away from Judaism. Alas, this turned out to be true not for Mendelssohn, who remained a traditional Jew throughout his life, but for his children and grandchildren, including the composer Felix Mendelssohn—all of whom identified with Christianity.

Allow me to jump ahead and observe that the editors of the first English language translation of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia had similar ends in mind when they fashioned their translation in accordance with the vocabulary and cadence of the King James Version in 1917 (Holy Scriptures).

From just after the Second Temple Period until the beginning of the nineteenth century, almost all Jews and Jewish communities were rabbinic, which we might call traditional or Orthodox. One singular exception existed: the Karaites, who did not follow the exegesis and practices established by the rabbis. Saadiah’s insistence on the inclusion of rabbinic exegesis in his text and commentary was a direct response to the challenge to his authority the Karaites presented.

The nineteenth century, beginning in German-speaking lands, saw the development of branches or denominations of Judaism that challenged traditional or Orthodox beliefs and praxis (Plaut 1992). The primary manifestation of this activity became known as Reform Judaism, which, along with Conservative Judaism, is firmly fixed among non-traditional communities throughout the United States today. New editions of the Jewish Bible were framed with this constituency in mind. Based on what we have seen so far, it is probably not surprising that such renderings distinguished themselves from traditional versions not so much in the translated text itself—functional as well as formal equivalence was practiced among adherents of both traditional and non-traditional Judaism—but in the contents of what we call paratextual elements: the notes, commentaries, and introductions.

Editions aimed at Reform Jews featured non-Jewish as well as Jewish interpreters. Critical approaches, such as the Documentary Hypothesis, were given a respectful hearing. While Orthodox or better neo-Orthodox translators studiously avoided such material, it was perceived by Reform leaders as enhancing, not diminishing the experience Jews had when interacting with their Bible. Paralleling divisions within the broader Jewish community itself, this was the first time a competitive market appeared for Jewish Bible versions. It later became, and continues to be, a feature of English-language editions as well.

There are also two fascinating (Judeo) German projects of the twentieth century. In the first, an acclaimed Jewish poet and stylist produced what turned out to be the last Yiddish version of the Bible (Orlinsky 1941). Jehoash, as he is generally known, worked for more than a decade on his rendering. At one point, unable to finance the publication of one or more volumes, he serialized his translation in a Yiddish newspaper published in the United States, thereby earning some money and attracting sponsors who later enabled his work to appear in sophisticated multi-volume editions. Alas, by the mid-30s, when Jehoash’s entire work, which met with critical and popular acclaim, finally appeared in print, the Nazis and their allies had already begun the destruction of European Jewry and[P2]  millions of Yiddish speakers.

In the other two, acclaimed Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig collaborated to fashion a unique rendering that sought to make features of the original Hebrew, such as wordplay and repetition,   accessible to German speakers—something they would otherwise not encounter. They stretched the German language to, and perhaps on occasion, beyond its breaking point. The subsequent version was definitely not an easy read, but as Buber elaborated, this was one of their goals (Buber and Rosenzweig 1994). After all, a product of ancient biblical culture, shaped as it was by millennia and multitudes of linguistic, historical, and social differences from twentieth-century Europe, should sound “foreign” in the contemporary world. Everett Fox, an American scholar, has produced a parallel English-language version in his Schocken Bibles (Fox 1995; 2014).

In my upcoming book, a chapter focuses on each of the languages we’ve discussed thus far: Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, and (Judeo) German. A later chapter, the book’s longest, presents English-language translations. We will soon turn to these.

However, before that, I want to mention five other languages into which Jews translated the Bible. They are grouped together in one chapter of the book: Spanish, French, Italian, Hungarian, and Russian. Except for the Jewish contributions in Spanish, the versions surveyed were produced in the nineteenth century.

One feature I want to highlight here is that almost all these translators shared Moses Mendelssohn’s affinity for and identification with the Jewish Enlightenment. Especially notable is the observation that Hungarian and Russian translators, somewhat like Mendelssohn himself, anchored their work in the belief that Jewish involvement in Magyarization and Russification respectively was essential to the vitality and continued existence of their communities. With that in mind, they sought to assimilate (in the positive sense of the term) Jews into the larger Christian societies they inhabited through Bible versions that would educate their readers linguistically and theologically. Unlike Mendelssohn, who had access to Luther’s version, and the JPS editors of 1917, who had access to the King James Version, the Hungarian and Russian translators were not able to base their translations on any existing classic Bible version in their language. With varying levels of success, they did try to expose their readers to at least reasonably competent renderings that non-Jews and Jews could consult.

For readers of this article, English-language translations are naturally the most accessible. Although there is quite a history of such versions, it is not nearly as long chronologically as editions in (Judeo-) German. We look first at Anglo-Jewish renderings, the product of numerical and institutional growth among British Jewry. From the mid-seventeenth century, when Jews were officially welcomed again into Great Britain centuries after their expulsion, British Jews made do with the King James Version (KJV) until the last two decades of the eighteenth century whenever recourse was made to the Bible in English. This was due primarily to the near-monopoly KJV enjoyed in public as well as religious life. Moreover, as we saw earlier, many of the Protestant translators responsible for the Old Testament portion of KJV were Christian Hebraists, well versed in biblical Hebrew and Jewish exegetical traditions.

Most of the Anglo-Jewish versions through the nineteenth century were explicitly based on KJV, which individuals “corrected” (that is, removed Christological elements) as they saw fit. This was a distinctive feature of English-language Bibles for Jews until after World War II in the United States, Canada, and Britain (Greenspoon 2013).

Another interesting dimension of Anglo-Jewish versions is that their earliest authors (that is, until the mid-decades of the nineteenth century) were mostly relative outsiders, vis-à-vis the Jewish establishment. Several of them were what we might call anti-establishment figures. Later, translators[P3]  were closely affiliated with the wielders of authority, such as the chief rabbi and members of the Rothschild family., Apparently, there was growing recognition on their part ofwho recognized the valid and valuable role English-language versions of the Bible could play within the Jewish community.

A particular offshoot of these developments is the direct involvement of the chief rabbi in at least three nineteenth-century versions. Each claimed to have been “authorised” [P4] by the chief rabbi, similar to the royal stamp of approval offered by King James to “his” version, often referred to as the “authorised version.”   However, there is a significant difference that speaks not only to the distinction between royal and ecclesiastical authority but also to the role envisioned for these respective editions. Combining his status as the head of the Church as well as of the realm, the king “authorised” KJV for use within the Church. Translation has long been a significant factor in Christianity since its inception. After all, Jesus’ words were translated from Aramaic to Greek before they were transmitted.

As I mentioned earlier, within the Jewish world, translations served primarily to supplement the Hebrew text rather than supplant it. Today every Jewish congregation I know of, from the most traditional to the least, expects its bar and bat mitzvah youth to read the Torah from a hand-copied Hebrew scroll. Thus, the chief rabbi’s authorization specifically centered on use within the home and schools. Earlier, in connection with Yiddish versions, the specification of home and schools was connected with the “fiction” that only women and children needed to resort to the Bible in a language other than Hebrew. This may have been something of a factor here as well.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Jewish presence in the United States began to surpass that of British Jews in numbers as well as influence. Throughout the nineteenth century, the American Jewish community produced only one English-language version of the Bible, the work of a single individual, Isaac Leeser, a prodigiously active leader of American Jews (Leeser 1853). He claimed that he translated directly from the Hebrew without making use of any other English-language text. But it is clear that he was regularly guided by the practices of the KJV translators and his intimate knowledge of contemporary Jewish versions in German.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, American Jews became more centrally organized and more numerous. Among the institutions founded beyond any single denomination was the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), headquartered in Philadelphia. At a time when Jewish biblical scholarship and interpretation were not highly regarded in academic circles, avenues for publishing Jewish works were similarly constrained. To fill this gap, the JPS was organized. Its first major project was an English-language version of the Bible. As mentioned earlier, it was essentially a Judaized version of KJV, which retained as much of the classic’s style and cadence as possible. It was also formatted and printed to look very much like editions of KJV in appearance. It brought together the rabbinic and lay leadership of most American Jewry, including its editor-in-chief Max L. Margolis, and was very well received. It has functioned with this status for over fifty years.

When JPS personnel determined they required something new to meet the needs of post-World War II English-speaking Jews, some advised updating the earlier JPS wording—something that was popular among some Protestant Christians. However, under the leadership of Harry M. Orlinsky, who had studied briefly with Margolis at the end of the latter’s life in the 30s, the new JPS took a very different turn. Orlinsky, along with Protestant colleagues of his associated with the American Bible Society, began to promote a less literal style of rendering than had been the practice in Judaism and Christianity until that time. (You may remember that Saadiah Gaon’s Tafsir was an exception and an exceptional one at that). Ultimately, this freer style of translation became known as functional equivalence. In essence, translators following this approach sought to determine how the original biblical Hebrew functioned for its initial audience and how we would say that today. This was in distinction from the more literal or formal equivalence technique, whose practitioners tried to retain as much of the original form as possible, believing this was the best way to convey the original authors’ intent.

The new JPS version, in its entirety, first appeared in the mid-1980s (Tanakh 1985). It remains the version of choice, if you will, in non-traditional (that is, non-Orthodox) religious contexts and community-wide activities. This new JPS is the basis for a number of widely used commentaries and study Bibles within a wide array of educational contexts.

We might think that Orthodox Jews would be reluctant to sponsor or make use of a Bible in a language other than the original Hebrew, but this is not entirely correct. Already the nineteenth century saw the publication of foreign-language (here, German) versions with text and especially commentary following the beliefs and practices of rabbinic Judaism. Among Orthodox Jews in America, there are primarily two choices. One consists of volumes from the Masorah Publishing Company. This Brooklyn-based enterprise is responsible for a large number of Bible versions and commentaries, as well as Talmudic and liturgical material (Tanach 1996). Masorah translators rely heavily on the exegesis of Rashi, the preeminent authority on Jewish biblical interpretation since the twelfth century. It is often Rashi’s exegesis rather than the Hebrew reading that these translators incorporate into their text.

Another option favored by the Orthodox community is the Living Torah, which was prepared (text and commentary) by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Kaplan 1981). He died relatively young; as a result, some of his followers took it upon themselves to complete a translation of the Hebrew Bible using his approach. Among Kaplan’s distinctive stances is the inclusion of mystical interpretations within his text.

Along with Everett Fox, whom we referred to earlier, successful individual efforts have also resulted from the work of two other prominent Jewish academicians: Richard Elliott Friedman (Friedman 2001) and Robert Alter (Alter 2018). Unlike the efforts of earlier individuals and committees, Friedman, Alter, and Fox seek an audience well beyond the Jewish community. Simultaneously, their texts and copious commentaries reflect deep and broad knowledge and acknowledgment of traditional Jewish exegesis.

It is not clear whether JPS or some other similar entity is prepared to expend the time and energy it would take to prepare another widely based English-language version for Jewish and general usage. I don’t think it’s likely.

In this article, I have tried to present a brief but meaningful introduction to almost 2,500 years of Jewish translations and translators. I go into a great deal more detail, with hundreds of specific examples, in the book itself,

I think of myself, not without reason I hope, as a fairly good scholar who produces fairly good scholarship. I am not, nor do I claim to be, a disinterested or neutral observer or consumer of the Jewish Bible versions about which I have written. Consideration of this material should move from the periphery far closer to the center of Jewish life and learning. Moreover, no future history of Bible translations could be considered comprehensive without the consideration of these versions and those who produced them. Thus, in the real sense of the word, I am an advocate as well as a scholar. And for that, I do not apologize.



Alter, Robert. 2018. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: Norton.

Bobrick, Benson. 2001. Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Buber, Martin, and Franz Rosenzweig. 1994. Scripture and Translation. Translated by Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Flesher, Paul V. M., and Bruce Chilton. 2011. The Targums: A Critical Introduction. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Fox, Everett. 2014. The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Vol. 2 of The Schocken Bible. New York: Schocken.

———. 1995. The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. Vol. 1 of The Schocken Bible. New York: Schocken.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. 2001. Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation. New York: HarperOne.

Greenspoon, Leonard J. 2007. “Greek: Septuagint.” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., 3:595–598.

———. 2013. “The KJV and Anglo-Jewish Translations of the Bible: A Unique and Uniquely Fruitful Connection.” Pages 273-95 in The King James Version at 400: Assessing Its Genius as Bible Translation and Its Literary Influence. Edited by David G. Burke, John F. Kutsko, and Philip H. Towner. SBL Biblical Scholarship in North America 26. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

———. 2011. “The Septuagint.” Pages 562-65 in Jewish Annotated New Testament. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler. New York: Oxford University Press.

Halkin, A. S. 1980. “Saadiah’s Exegesis and Polemics.” Pages 117-41 in Rab Saadia Gaon: Studies in His Honor. Edited by Louis Finkelstein. New York: Arno Press.

The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text. 1917. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

Kaplan, Aryeh. 1981. The Living Torah: The Five Books of Moses. 2nd ed. New York: Maznaim Publishing.

Leeser, Isaac. 1853. The Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures: Carefully Translated According to the Massoretic Text, on the Basis of the English Version, After the Best Jewish Authorities and Supplied with Short Explanatory Notes. Philadelphia: Sherman for the Rev. Abraham DeSola.

Margolis, Max L. 1917. The Story of Bible Translations. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

McGrath, Alister. 2001. In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. New York: Doubleday.

Nicolson, Adam. 2003. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. New York: HarperCollins.

Orlinsky, Harry M. 1941. “Yehoash’s Yiddish Translation of the Bible.” Journal of Biblical Literature 60: 173–77.

———, and Roger G. Bratcher. 1991. A History of Bible Translation and the North American Contribution. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.

Plaut, W. Gunter. 1992. German-Jewish Bible Translations: Linguistic Theology as a Political Phenomenon. The Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture 36. New York: Leo Baeck Institute.

Shutt, R. J. H. 1985. “Letter of Aristeas: A New Translation and Introduction.” Pages 7-34 in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Sorkin, David. 1996. Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tanach. 1996. The ArtScroll Series Stone Edition. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications.

Tanakh. 1985. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.




Article Comments

Submitted by Kenneth Greifer on Wed, 09/02/2020 - 20:39


I like the JPS 1917 translation a lot. I don't like their later translation. I would have preferred a modern version of the 1917 translation with all of the thee, thy, and thous changed to you and your and some other minor changes to modern English. It wouldn't be hard for them to do that, but I don't think they will since it is public domain already. Also, I like their older two-volume Hebrew-English Bible much more than how they wrote their later Hebrew-English version.
I never looked at Fox's Five Books of Moses before. I looked at it on Amazon, and it looks like a nice translation. Your article was very interesting.

Submitted by Kenneth Greifer on Thu, 09/03/2020 - 16:22


Dr. Greenspoon,
I don't want to bother you a lot because I am sure you are busy, but I would like to ask you if you know of any Jewish Bible translators who wrote books that discuss only translations of difficult Hebrew Bible verses and not the whole Bible? Or would that just be in commentaries or books about textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible? I won't bother you with more questions this is just something I have tried to look up for a long time and I don't know how to find the answer.

Kenneth, Thank you for your interest. One place to start is Harry M. Orlinsky, Notes on the New Translation of the Torah. Philadelphia: The Jewish
Publication Society of America, 1969.

It deals with only one English-language version, the New JPS translation, but does cover the Torah. It constitutes an illuminating introduction to how at least some Jewish translators dealt with some difficulties in translation. After you have looked it over, please feel free to let me know if it's been helpful.

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