The recent marking of 80 years to Kristallnacht brings to mind a ground-breaking project that grew out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
In 1942 Rav Meir Bar Ilan, who lived in Israel, got word of what was happening to the Jews of Europe. In addition to the horror of their annihilation, there was a fear that not only would the Jews be destroyed, but so would their Torah, everything they had studied and preserved throughout the centuries. It was particularly very disturbing since the Torah centers were located in Europe.
He, therefore, decided to organize the vast Talmudic and post-Talmdic literature as an encyclopedia so the essence would remain. He asked Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin to join him and they came up with a plan. Clearly, it would have value beyond being a memorial, and eventually the connection with the Shoah would be not just intellectual, but historical. But at that moment it was urgent, and that is how it began.
Rabbi Zevin commenced the collection of information and concepts for 2,500 encyclopedic Talmudic entries, which are used by the editorial board to this day, and they edited them into summaries. The work included the entire written Torah and oral Torah (Mishna, Gemara, Rishonim, Acharonim, poskim throughout the ages, and included all the gedolei Yisrael, from Eastern Europe to North Africa.
Their feeling was that perhaps the Nazis could destroy the bodies of the Jews but not the Torah and the soul, and preserving this Torah and these values was their contribution to ensuring the continued existence of Am Yisrael.
Since 2006 the project is directed by Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg, who has his own connection to the Shoah. His parents were refugees who fled from Galicia to Siberia and from there to Uzbekistan. He shared his story with us.
“My parents were both in Siberia during the war, but they didn’t know each other then. Later they both ended up in Uzbekistan and there was a school for the Jewish refugee children. That’s where they met and married. They soon moved to a DP camp near Hof, in Bavaria, in what was then the zone of Germany under the American administration.
“My father became the rav of Hof and I personally was born in the city of Hof. He was there three years. Of course, there was no synagogue, so he built one, and created frameworks for shechita and kashrut. In 1949 we came to Israel, by boat, via Marseille.
“I had used the Encyclopedia Talmudit before I became personally involved in it, because I greatly appreciated it. I even spent a seder studying according to the entries in the Talmudic Encyclopedia, and when I wrote my works on halacha and medicine, I referred to it many times, as it’s an excellent and credible source.”
In addition to heading this project, Steinberg’s groundbreaking work is the 7-volume Encyclopedia Hilchatit Refuit (in Hebrew) for which he received the Israel Prize in 1999. Recently he published a new 6-volume set Ha’Refuah Ka’Halacha. He has served as an adviser on medical ethics issues to the Knesset and to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He has also been involved in halachic aspects of modern medical issues with the most prominent rabbinic authorities, such as with Rav S.Z. Auerbach, Rav Y.S. Eliashiv and Rav E.Y. Waldenberg, zichronom livracha.
Professor Steinberg continues: “When Rav Yehoshua Hutner, who was the first director of the Encyclopedia, and who maintained that position for many years, was elderly, they looked for someone who could continue the work. As I had written the encyclopedia on halacha and medicine, they thought I could help expedite the process that had been in the works for 60 years, and bring it to completion.
“It was a dilemma for me because I do many other things, but out of a sense of gratitude, and in order to move it toward completion, I agreed to take on the mission. I changed the work methods, received a significant donation, and hope that we will be able to complete this project.
“Just a few weeks ago we published volume 41, the last entry of which is “Motzi Shem Ra” [laws concerning giving someone a bad name] but we’ve also written many entries beyond that and we’re ready to do it as a ‘Wikiyeshiva,’ even if it’s not yet printed. This will enable us to publish the material at a faster pace.”
Professor Steinberg: “Our goal is to complete the entire work by 2024 – in five and a half years. We employ 35 rabbanim who write, edit and review, and there are five senior rabbanim who have been writing at the Talmudic Encyclopedia for 15 years and more. Under the supervision of each of them there are four to six younger rabbanim, each writing an entry. Rav Meir Shmuelevitz, son of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, the rosh yeshiva of Mir, is heading the editorial board. The current editor-in-chief is Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg.”
Every entry undergoes language editing and this is done, Professor Steinberg explained, by someone who is considered an outsider, an “average user,” “because someone who is deeply involved in the work may assume something is understood, whereas an ordinary person who isn’t familiar with the material can point out when a sentence is unclear and has to be rephrased.”
The Encyclopedia Talmudit is published by the Torah literature publishing group Yad HaRav Herzog, named after Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog zt”l, in Jerusalem. Professor Steinberg can be contacted at email@example.com.