When Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz began his monumental project of translating the Talmud into contemporary Hebrew, piercing the dense layers of wisdom and commentary contained in the ancient text, Levi Eshkol of the now-defunct Mapai party was Israel’s prime minister, the young country’s population stood at a mere 2.5 million, and when a Beatles concert there was canceled, it was assumed the country’s leaders thought the Fab Four would corrupt its youth.
It was 1965. And for the next 45 years, working at first out of a cramped office in Jerusalem, Rabbi Steinsaltz, an Israeli scholar and author, would churn out tractate after tractate, translating by his own estimate “millions” of words from Aramaic into modern Hebrew and then English.
Along the way he did nothing less than free the Talmud from the province of a small number of scholars and make it available to a new generation of learners.
One of those learners was Rabbi Andy Bachman. During his student days at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in the early 1990s, the future rabbi taught an adult education course at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, where he now serves as spiritual leader. The course included study of the Talmud’s Berachot tractate, and he had the choice of three texts: the standard Aramaic version popularly known as the Vilna Shas, an English translation published by Soncino Press two generations earlier, and a more recent translation by Rabbi Steinsaltz.
Rabbi Bachman chose the Steinsaltz Talmud.
“It seemed a good tool,” he said. It introduced basic Talmudic concepts to students who had scant background in Talmud. Unlike the other versions, the text in Steinsaltz’s was in contemporary Hebrew, with vowels and punctuation marks, and it made Talmud study easier, Rabbi Bachman said.
This weekend, the decades-long Talmud project that has come to define Rabbi Steinsaltz’s life, that “good tool” as Andy Bachman understatedly put it, will culminate with the publication of the final tractate in the series, Ta’anit. The day, Sunday, Nov. 7, will be marked by a “Global Day of Learning.” Dozens of communities across the world will take part in what is both a celebration of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s work and, in keeping with his vision, an opportunity for Jews everywhere to grapple with life’s “Big Questions,” as he puts it, ones the rabbis who compiled the Talmud wrestled with themselves.
In an interview with The Jewish Week from his office in Jerusalem, Rabbi Steinsaltz, now 73, looked back over his Talmud project, what observers term an “extraordinary” achievement, one that revolutionized and popularized Talmud study — and also led to serious criticism in some Orthodox circles.
“Jewish knowledge belongs to everyone,” the rabbi said. “Our goal is not so much to ‘spread’ knowledge, but to give it back to its owners.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz, who grew up in a secular Jerusalem family and has written some 60 books and established educational institutions in Israel and the former Soviet Union, said he embarked on the Talmud project because “the world needs it,” referring to a knowledge of the Talmud’s wisdom and insights.
“Jewish learning is not a pastime — it is one of the essential ways that connects us to our ancestors,” he said. His goal: make the Talmud “more accessible” and take away “the stigma” of the text as irrelevant to the contemporary reader. “Everything [that is not readily apparent] should be explained.”
Over the years, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s explanations have had a global reach, in Orthodox and non-Orthodox circles alike.
At Congregation Or Zarua, a Conservative synagogue on East 84th Street, Rabbi Harlan Wechsler said some members of his weekly Talmud class learn exclusively from the Steinsaltz Talmud, and he will often ask them about Rabbis Steinsaltz’s commentary on certain passages.
Herbert Shapiro, a member of the Or Zarua Talmud class for more than a decade, said he prefers the Steinsaltz Talmud. “For me” — someone without an extensive background in Talmud study — “it’s more comfortable.”
He and his wife donate a volume of the Steinsaltz Talmud to the congregation’s library every year.
In Silver Spring, Md., Zach Dyckman, a Modern Orthodox Jew who has been part of a small weekly Talmud class for more than 25 years, also said he favors the Steinsaltz Talmud, because of the Hebrew translations and the accompanying interpretations. “For me, it’s helpful.”
The Steinsaltz Talmud, according to Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “is used all over the place. I’ve seen it everywhere, from the offices of liberal rabbis to the offices of secular business leaders.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s approach of guiding learners, like an insightful grad school professor, through the thicket of legal and ethical teachings in the Talmud, has won praise.
“It’s like having a teacher explain [the text] to you,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate executive director of the National Jewish Outreach Program. He calls Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud project “a tremendous accomplishment. It’s extraordinarily impressive. It’s very creative.”
The Steinsaltz Talmud, Rabbi Rosenbaum continued, “is taking Talmud public,” so that it is no longer the exclusive domain of scholars. “The single greatest accomplishment is continuing to expand the popularity of Talmud study.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud, which includes his accompanying commentary and other related remarks from science or contemporary thought, marked a major departure from accepted tradition when it was first published nearly a half-century ago. Perhaps not surprisingly it often drew criticism from some Orthodox Jews because of its novel content and style. And there were those scholars who felt it was becoming too accessible to laymen.
The Talmud — both the larger, more-authoritative Babylonian Talmud, and the smaller Jerusalem Talmud — is a compilation of debates and discussions that took place in rabbinical academies after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. Fearing that the oral tradition would be lost, the generation’s religious leaders decided to record the teachings that can be traced, according to Jewish tradition, to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s decision to, in essence, offer a new text of the Babylonian Talmud (the 1,500-year-old basis of Oral Law that is the foundation of advanced Jewish study) instead of the accepted Vilna Shas (nearly 6,000 pages of vowel-less, punctuation-less Aramaic surrounded by commentary in Hebrew, and other reference notes), was seen by critics as a slap at Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Steinsaltz says he did not pay attention to the “ad hominem” attacks on his role in changing the character of Talmud study; if people could not find fault with the writing, they criticized the writer, he says.
While the Steinsaltz Talmud has sold some 3 million copies over the years, it hasn’t been without competition.
In the 1990s, around the time that Andy Bachman was teaching his adult education course, Mesorah Publications in Brooklyn introduced its ArtScroll Talmud, with the Aramaic text and an annotated English translation. Rabbi Bachman eventually began using that version for the subsequent Talmud courses he taught. He was not alone.
While ArtScroll, whose Talmud publication coincided with the increasingly popular Daf Yomi page-a-day Talmud study program, has largely become the Talmud of choice in Orthodox institutions, especially haredi ones, the Steinsaltz Talmud remains a book for intensive study for many other parts of the community, experts say.
Sunday’s Global Day of Learning will be both a standard siyum, the completion ceremony that takes place whenever a tractate of Talmud or another significant text is finished, and a vindication of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s vision.
“It’s more than my own personal celebration,” he says.
The event, coordinated by the Aleph Society (the 15-year-old organization that supports the rabbi’s educational activities), and organized by The Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the JCC Association of North America, will include, via the Internet, Jewish communities around the world from A (Albania and Azerbaijan) to Z (Zaparozhie and Zhitomir, in Ukraine).
Some 260 locations, including several in the Greater New York area, will participate in the event. Many have also initiated long-term educational programs in recent months.
“Even before the Global Day, you may also want to engage in some of the Big Questions that are part of our communal study, such as: “Does God hear prayer? What is my responsibility to Tzedakah? What is sex for? When we say ‘do unto others’ … who are the others,” Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote in an e-mail message.
“Each community … will decide what their day will look like — the Global Day team will provide each community with curricular materials, promotional materials and a handbook to assist with planning the day,” according to a statement from the JFNA.
The main ceremony, led by Rabbi Steinsaltz, will take place in Jerusalem’s City Hall.
The 45-year journey to complete the Talmud translation was “an enormous task,” the soft-spoken Rabbi Steinsaltz acknowledged. “The work wasn’t as easy as I had thought. I am not a fast writer by any means.”
With modern-day technology, he added, the project may have taken one-fifth as long.
When, back in 1965, the 28-year-old rabbi decided to do his own take on the Talmud, he estimated the project would take a decade or two. “At most,” he said, “20 years would be the maximum.”
Despite the drain on his time and energy, Rabbi Steinsaltz says he never thought of stopping. He kept going, he said, “in the merit of my ancestors,” the dedicated scholars who preceded him.
Now that the Steinsaltz Talmud is complete, is the rabbi ready to slow down?
“Never,” he said. “I have much more work to do, a whole list of books that I have to write.”
The rabbi said he has “two or three” major projects in mind. He offered no details.
“My plan is to live 170 years,” Rabbi Steinsaltz said. “The time is not allocated by me. The time is allocated by the Big Boss. I have lots of things to do.”
And so the next chapter — no, tractate — of his life has already begun.