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Talmudic, Tenacious, Tough-Minded: An Interview With Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is quite the accomplished personality. The author of over 60 books, Rabbi Steinsaltz has also translated the entire Talmud into Hebrew, a project he started in 1965 at the age of 28 and took 45 years to complete. To date, over two million copies of the Steinsaltz Talmud – in Hebrew, English, French, and Russian – have been sold. No wonder Time magazine once dubbed him a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.”

Last month, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s career hit another high as Koren Publishers Jerusalem released the first volume of its English translation of the Steinsaltz Talmud. From 1989-1999, Random House published four masechtot of the Steinsaltz Talmud in English, but then stopped. Koren Publishers has now stepped into the breach.

The new English edition features color illustrations, vowelized and punctuated Gemara pages, and Koren’s signature aesthetic touch. According to Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the project’s editor-in-chief, the entire set of 41 volumes is scheduled to be published within the next four years. A Steinsaltz Talmud iPad app will also be available soon.

The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Steinsaltz about the new translation, his background, and various controversies that have surrounded him and his work.

The Jewish Press: Why should someone buy the Steinsaltz Talmud over ArtScroll’s immensely popular Shas?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: Look, it’s not the same. I would put it in the following way: When you learn from my Gemara, I hope that you get a kick to learn further, and that you don’t feel that you know everything and that all the problems are answered.

Does the ArtScroll Shas not do that as well?

I think ArtScroll gives too much in a way. Everything is in there. I’m trying to have it in a way that you study and want more.

Basically I want, not just that you will look at the Gemara, but that you will get involved in it. You cannot learn Gemara completely passively. You have to be a participant.

There are two parts to what Hillel HaZaken said about kol haTorah kulah. One part is always quoted – “What you don’t want done to you, don’t do to others.” But the other part – “And all the rest go and learn” – is no less important.

I hope to have people who will learn and say, “We want to know more, we have more questions.”

You started translating Shas into Hebrew at the age of 28. What led you to embark on this enormous project and what gave you the confidence that you’d be able to do it?

For the first part of the question, I will just tell you it’s what makes people want to climb Mount Everest – the mountain is there, the challenge is there, and the need is there. So you do it.

[In terms of being able to translate Shas], I thought at the time, and other people thought as well, that I was able to do it. Hopefully I didn’t disappoint.

Were you scared of embarking on such a major project at such a young age?

Well, I’m not a scared person – not of bullets and not of ideas.

But why assume such a major undertaking?

Because the Talmud is the central pillar of Judaism, and if the central pillar is not at hand for most people, they miss something very important. The Talmud was, in so many ways, a closed book for many people – so I tried to open it.

In the original editions of the Steinsaltz Talmud, you changed the traditional look – the tzuras hadaf – of the pages, for which you were heavily criticized. For the new edition of the Hebrew and English Steinsaltz Talmud, however, you restored the old look. Why did you originally change it and why did you restore it?

Look, in the beginning, it just couldn’t be done. All the additional material couldn’t be put on the old pages. I tried twenty-odd formats, and found out that if I used the traditional page, it would be at least two and a half times as big, which wouldn’t be usable. So the question is: What do you do – duplicate the page as ArtScroll did or cut it?

What I originally did in my Hebrew Gemaras was cut it. About 150 years ago in Poland, an edition with exactly the same kind of half pages was published. They made notes about why this was needed and [said] there was nothing holy about the other format. The traditional page is after all just a page. Even sifrei Torah can be written in different ways; surely Gemaras can be done differently too.

Why, then, did you restore the traditional page and move your commentary to the back of the book in the new editions of your Gemara?

For some people it has sentimental value. There are all kinds of people who are sentimental, and sometimes you give the people who are sentimental their sentiments.

The new Gemaras have the name “Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz” on the front cover. Most people know you as “Rabbi Steinsaltz.” Where did “Even-Israel” come from?

It’s a long story, but it’s connected with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He wanted me to change my name for some time. He didn’t give me any explanation.

And he picked the name “Even-Israel”?

[We picked it] together in a way.

How many years ago was this?

Twenty-odd years.

Some people are unsure whether you are a Lubavitcher chassid or not. Are you?

Israeli President Shimon Peres presents Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz with the Presidential Award of Distinction in a ceremony on Monday.

I am quite connected. The question is: How much? And that is something you have to ask Lubavitcher chassidim. Some of them will tell you that I am the pillar of Lubavitch, and some will tell you that they don’t talk to me. So you have to ask them.

You don’t, then, necessarily define yourself as a 100 percent Lubavitcher chassid.

I don’t know how you [measure] this. Some people know the trick. If you tell me how it’s done, I will tell you if I am or not.

You were born in 1937 in Palestine to secular parents. How did you become frum?

The story is too simple. I was a thinking boy.

Also, my ancestors on both sides were Rebbes – the Slonimer Rebbe and the Worka Rebbe – and the yichus goes on farther to the Maharsha. So [the frumkeit] was in there, and it worked itself out when the time came.

But what specifically inspired you to become frum? Was it someone you met, something you read?

I read lots of things. I am a great reader.

But it wasn’t any kind of dramatic or traumatic thing. It was, I would say, the very old way – something like Avraham Avinu’s way.

And your parents were okay with your decision?

My late father asked me one thing: “Are you serious about it?” And when I said yes, he supported me all the way.

Just like that?

As I told you, my father [descended from yichus], and it showed. You could see it in his behavior and his understanding of what is essential and what is not essential, and what is important and what is not important.

Fast forward 40 years: In 1989, many leading haredi rabbis in Israel banned your books, partially because they objected to your portrayal of biblical figures in some of your writings as human beings with human feelings and frailties rather than saints…

…I don’t want to go into the details. Some of it was not nice, but not on my side.

On my side, I tried to do one thing, and that was to keep quiet. I could have said lots of things, but I tried to keep quiet because I didn’t want to besmirch anybody and it wouldn’t have done any good.

Basically, people don’t really have any questions, except that they may not like my face. Otherwise, when it comes to any real point, there’s nothing in it.

What about the argument that you portrayed the avos and imahos as human beings with human faults?

Look, take Rashi or the Ibn Ezra or the Ramban or any of the commentators – all of them do the same thing. It’s just pure nonsense what you are saying. I depicted the avos and imahos as they are found in every Jewish source. I just put them together, and all the rest is just a combination of am ha’aratzos and some dislike.

Getting back to contemporary times: In 2004, a group of Israeli rabbanim attempted to revive the ancient semicha ritual and reestablish the Sanhedrin. At the time, you accepted the position of nasi of the Sanhedrin. You resigned, however, in 2008. Why did you join and why did you resign?

I thought it could be a good beginning for something, but it didn’t work out.

What do you mean by “work out”?

Working out means more and more people get involved. If it doesn’t get more people – and more important people – involved, it means it didn’t somehow cut through the right place. And whatever you do, if it doesn’t work, so it doesn’t work.

So you would suggest that the rabbis still involved in this project let it die?

I never make a denouncement because I see good people with good intentions involved. But somehow it hasn’t taken off.

A recent article in the Forward states that in addition to your several dozen published non-fiction works, you’ve also written detective novels. Is that true?

I didn’t publish any.

Why not?

There are all kinds of things I’ve written that I didn’t publish. I didn’t feel the need or I didn’t feel they are good enough or useful.

Will you publish them one day?

I don’t know, I’ll see. Possibly when I read them again I’ll have a better opinion.

What projects are you currently working on?

We are going to publish a new edition of Mishnayos. We are also working on an edition of the Rambam with a commentary by me and others that makes a better connection between the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch. And I’m also doing a project about the commentary on the Bible, and other things as well.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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3 Responses to “Talmudic, Tenacious, Tough-Minded: An Interview With Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz”

  1. Jonathan Weber says:

    I bought the new Koren Publishers Berachot. I can say as a secular teacher, it is the ultimate teaching tool. Everything is so crystal clear. You don't need to study with a Rabbi to learn from it. Kol HaKavod… Yesher Koach!

  2. Atraf Creez says:

    BS"D
    As a "religious" Jew,I understand what you say Jonathan,but as is universally known & Rav Shteinszaltz says ,he made his version for people that won't think they understand the whole page they learned.& as our Sages say,whoever thinks he has learned the whole Gemorrah missed the point,he hasn't even learned the first page.
    (The Gemorrah starts on page 2).
    If I understand what you meant to say, that this edition is so well done,you could learn on your own and gain much insight.But think how much more with a teacher.

  3. Atraf Creez says:

    Many Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim if asked are they connected to the Rebbe will answer the same.We TRY to be (sometimes, often, not enough).Try telling an agnostic Jew "O, so you aren't really Jewish".He would blow up."How can you say that of me?"Ask an honest religious Jew if he is religious."How often a day do you mean?" "Are you asking me how many hours I serve HaShem during the day & how many I serve myself?". A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Same with a Chasid.But you can't ask a Chasid to grade himself/herself.We just hope that our actions bear fruit.

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