An event honoring the 75th anniversary of the Talmudic Encyclopedia took place on December 30 at the residence of the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog. It was especially moving because it also marked three generations of involvement of the Herzog family in the project.
The event was also to honor Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the leading rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University, halachic advisor for the Orthodox Union, advisor and mentor for the Rabbinical Council of America, and world-renowned posek. The Talmudic Encyclopedia will dedicate a future volume to Rav Shachter.
The 48th volume was released just a few days before the event. It is hoped that the project will be completed by 2024.
One doesn’t usually give special mention to the MC of an event like this, but in this case it was significant, as the person introducing the chief rabbis of Israel, the chief rabbi of the IDF, and Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg, head of the editorial board of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, all of whom addressed an audience that included rabbinical judges and roshei yeshiva, was a woman.
Sara Beck, a Torah-observant journalist, mentioned that it was Rav Yitzhak Hacohen Kook who first raised the idea of such an encyclopedia, though he wanted such a project to include agadah as well. According to various sources, he talked about this in 5681 (1920 or 1921) in a lecture he gave about the importance of creating a number of Torah initiatives. The lecture was called “Toward a life of Creation” and was delivered in memory of the yahrzheit of the Rambam, before “The chachamim [wise men] of Mercaz Harav [Yeshiva].”
Beck quoted from one of her two websites, “Zusha,” a site on Chassidic stories: “Once a renowned talmid chacham came before Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, and asked to be accepted as a chassid of his. The rabbi asked him, ‘What have you learned?’ The man replied, ‘I already learned and completed the entire Shas – the Talmud Bavli.’ The Rabbi replied, ‘You didn’t understand my intention. I asked what did the Talmud teach you?’ The Talmudic Encyclopedia, to a great extent, answers that question: What did the Talmud teach you?”
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.
Therefore, he decided to organize the vast Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature as an encyclopedia so the essence would remain. He asked Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin to join him. Rabbi Zevin commenced the collection of information and concepts for 2,500 encyclopedic Talmudic entries. The work included the entire written Torah and the oral Torah – Mishna, Gemara, Rishonim, Acharonim, and shutim (halachic questions and answers) throughout the ages, and including all the gedolei Yisrael – the great scholars of the Jewish people – from eastern Europe through to North Africa. Their feeling was that perhaps the Nazis could destroy the bodies of the Jews but not the Torah and the soul.
Rav Yehoshua Hutner was the first director of the Encyclopedia. The first volume appeared in 1947. Rav Steinberg accepted the position after him, in 2006. He has his own connection to the Shoah. His parents were refugees who fled from Galicia to Siberia and from there to Uzbekistan. He was born in a DP camp in Germany after the war.
Four Rabbis, a President and a Judge
At the event, President Herzog spoke first.
“I am proud to host this important event not just as the president of Israel – and this is the place to say that the Talmudic Encyclopedia has a place of honor among my books – but also as the grandson of my grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, who in 1949, after the death of Rav Meir Bar Ilan, joined with others to continue the establishment of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, and as the son of my father – the sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog – who through the years also supported and encouraged others to support the Encyclopedia. And it is no wonder, as this is an enterprise of an entire cultural life of the Jewish people.
“From the wise men of the Talmud we learn how to carry on a debate and still demonstrate ‘These are all the words of the living God.’ From them we drew inspiration and with their help we succeeded in keeping the basic commandment of every mother and father, every grandmother and grandfather in Israel, ‘And you shall teach it to your children,’ the passing on of the Jewish tradition from one generation to another.” He also quoted from the warm praise that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had given to the project, upon receiving the seventh volume.
The Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said that his father, Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, was a close talmid of Rav Herzog and that he would go to him for a number of years every Friday. They were a group of rabbanim who would learn together; his father emulated Rav Herzog.
“This magnificent project, the Talmudic Encyclopedia, gives students the breadth of the Torah…I read the entry on ‘chazaka.’ Anyone who learns in the world of the yeshiva knows this is a very difficult topic, there is a lot of lamdanut in it. But if one reads this entry in the Talmudic Encyclopedia, it is so clear, it is so organized, all the intricate details, it’s astonishing. One who learns with the Talmudic Encyclopedia, he sees what our Torah is, and his mind becomes clear…I bless Rav Steinberg and everyone who is working on this project…Continue with it, I think we should strengthen it, and fortify Rabbi Avraham Steinberg – may you continue to spread your wellsprings of Torah.”
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, son of Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, who is president of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, addressed the president by his full name, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, after his grandfather, for whom he was named. He said that in the 18th century, there was an expression used for people who were writing encyclopedias called “the encyclopedists,” but that it took on a negative connotation because they wrote entries according to their personal viewpoints. He said they distorted reality.
In contrast, he spoke warmly of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, of the many great rabbis who worked on it through the decades, whose wisdom was to define things accurately, “Not as things appeared to them personally, but according to darkei avot, the ways of our forefathers. They would define things according to the truth…
“We are nearing Tu B’Shvat, and we know about the tree, that the deeper its roots are, the stronger it will be.” Referencing Sara Beck’s story of the rabbi of Kotzk, asking what the Torah has taught us, he asked, “What has it done to one’s character? Has it taught you compassion? The Talmudic Encyclopedia enables one to see a wide view of the entire Torah, and to understand what, and where, and how, and to define things in a precise way. It is a masterful work for every rav and researcher.”
Brigadier General Eyal Crim, chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, by way of demonstrating the complexities of modern day halacha, gave a fascinating short talk on the halachic status of the placenta. The connection to the IDF was a question he received that week, asking if placentas could be used in training dogs to locate body parts of soldiers who have fallen in battle (whereas until now they have been trained by identifying bits of pork), as it is so important to bring them to a Jewish burial.
A midwife had also written to him once asking about what use, if any, could be made of placentas after birth, for example for homeopathic remedies that would improve the medical condition of the newborn, any of these situations of course with the permission of the mother. He also addressed the issue of the burial of placentas, whether or not it was required, and other related issues, concluding with a blessing that, “May all those involved in this enormous enterprise, all those who sit before me, have the zechut to raise up the Torah and make her splendorous.”
Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg, a graduate of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law who had also studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, spoke about the machloket that has existed for many years between different judges regarding the value of having “Mishpat Ivri” – Jewish-halachic Jurisprudence – inform decisions in Israeli courts who operate by the Israeli law as enacted in the Knesset. He described it as an “argument of great men,” and also as a “clash of civilizations.”
“There is nothing that compares to Jewish-halachic jurisprudence, which is refined in the theoretical dimension, and applied on the practical plane; the Talmudic Encyclopedia proves this.” He said that “Jewish-halachic jurisprudence should be part of the intellectual effort in arriving at everyday decisions. The contribution of the Talmudic Encyclopedia in this connection is invaluable. I claim that arriving at a legal decision after a deep reading of Mishpat Ivri can greatly enrich the Israeli judicial conversation, and Mishpat Ivri will also be challenged by the innovations of progress and will benefit.”
Rav Professor Steinberg, head of the enterprise and recipient of the Israel Prize in 1999 for original rabbinic literature for his Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, spoke last, and like Rav Crim, he gave a scholarly but short talk on current halachic topics. He spoke about the issue of IVF and noted that these eggs that are fertilized while outside of the uterus do not have the halachic status of being a human, until after the fertilized egg is planted in the uterus and then, also, the first 40 days have a different status then they do later.
Rav Steinberg described how a couple who have a high percentage of risk of giving birth to a child with a serious genetic disease can have an egg extracted and fertilized, have one cell checked for the disease, which would have the same problematic gene as every other cell in the egg, and return it to the womb if it is healthy and destroy it if it is not. “This is how we save thousands of families from the birth of sick children without going through any halachic problem.”
He also addressed the possibility of using such eggs for stem cell research and the curing of certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s.
“The Talmudic Encyclopedia provides a base to all who wish to know the basic halachic approach regarding almost every topic and issue with halachic implications,” said Rav Steinberg. He added, in a TV interview, that they are working to digitalize the encyclopedia. He said that every entry is written by a team, not an individual, talmidei chachamim who also know how to write in an appropriate style, to ensure clarity, consistency and accuracy.
At the end of the event Rav Steinberg presented President Herzog the latest volume, #48, and emotionally presented the president with a photograph in which their grandparents appeared together after WWR II in Brussels 75 years ago, connecting them across the generations and marking the 75th anniversary of the Talmudic Encyclopedia.
Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, zt”l, was the chief editor of the Encyclopedia till he passed away, a year ago.
Dr. Dov Friedberg, an outstanding and humble philanthropist, is the major contributor to the Talmudic Encyclopedia together with families Rohr and Ryzman and many devoted donors. Yedidut Toronto (Toronto Foundation), supported by the Friedberg Charitable Foundation, was represented by its director, Mr. Moshe Shapiro, who spoke eloquently on behalf of the organization.
Master pianist Paul Salter played a musical interlude during the event.
The Talmudic Encyclopedia is published by Yad HaRav Herzog, named after Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, zt”l, in Jerusalem. A fund-raising campaign is currently in progress for the volume that will be honoring Rav Hershel Schachter. For more information: https://talmudicencyclopedia.ravpage.co.il/greetingbook.