Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a towering scholar of the bedrock Jewish texts who spent four and a half decades writing a 45-volume translation of the Babylonian Talmud and made it accessible to hundreds of thousands of readers, died on Friday in Jerusalem. He was 83.
Shaarei Zedek Medical Center confirmed his death. A publicist for the Steinsaltz Center for Jewish Knowledge said he had had acute pneumonia.
For centuries, the study of Talmud — in 2,711 double-sided pages, the record of rabbinical debates on the laws and ethics of Judaism heard in the academies of Babylonia (modern-day Iraq) between A.D. 200 and 500 — was confined mostly to yeshivas. There, students, young and old, hunched over dog-eared volumes of Talmud, sometimes without teachers, would teach one another the meanings of what they were reading, largely in Aramaic, and argue the implications.
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s achievement was to take the Talmud out of this relatively exclusive sphere and, with a Hebrew translation, allow ordinary Jews, taking the Long Island Rail Road to work or gathering in a cafe in Tel Aviv, to study those texts on their own. The Hebrew edition has been translated by publishers into English, French, Russian and Spanish.
Rabbi Steinsaltz, a rumpled, bespectacled figure with an unruly white beard, completed the entire Talmud in 2010, often working 16 hours a day.
“He brought the Talmud into the 20th century,” said Samuel Heilman, distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College specializing in Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Steinsaltz embarked on his life’s great work in 1965, when he was 27. His translation encompassed the ancient commentaries along the margins in the Talmud, written by revered figures like the medieval scholar Rashi.
He also provided his own commentaries on the often labyrinthine text, added biographies of the various rabbinical commentators and offered explanations of Talmudic concepts. His work, he said, was intended to accommodate even beginners with “the lowest level of knowledge.”
“My idea was that I’m trying to substitute a book for a living teacher,” he said in a 2005 interview with The New York Times.
President Reuven Rivlin of Israel called Rabbi Steinsaltz a “modern-day Rashi” and a “man of great spiritual courage, deep knowledge and profound thought who brought the Talmud to Am Yisrael” — the Jewish people — “in clear and accessible Hebrew and English.”
Random House, its American publisher, translated and published 22 English volumes then stopped. Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd. has since 2009 been publishing the Steinsaltz English translations and completed the entire 45-volume set.
The Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud was not the first English translation. Soncino Press, a venerable British firm, completed a 30-volume translation in 1952, but it did not have the line-by-line commentary that can sustain self-study.
In 2005, Art Scroll/Mesorah Publications of Brooklyn brought out a 73-volume edition that has become the most popular version for many Orthodox Jews, and for tens of thousands of others who participate in Daf Yomi, the seven-and-a-half-year challenge to complete a study of the entire Talmud by analyzing a page a day.
Rabbi Steinsaltz was a disciple of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, and his Chabad-Lubavitch school of Judaism, which embraces nonobservant Jews and proselytizes among them. That sometimes put Rabbi Steinsaltz at odds with more hard-line Orthodox rabbis, including prominent ones, who treated him as a heretic and told their followers to spurn his works.
Rabbi Steinsaltz, a prolific and wide-ranging writer and a sharp observer of humanity, wrote more than 60 books on philosophy, mysticism, theology and even zoology. His study of kabbalah, “The Thirteen Petalled Rose,” is considered a classic and has been translated into eight languages.
He also translated the Jerusalem Talmud, the less comprehensive and less studied record of legal debates by rabbis in Jerusalem between A.D. 350 and 400 A.D.
Invited to impart some spiritual guidance to the staff of a magazine, The Jerusalem Report, in the early 1990s, Rabbi Steinsaltz gave lessons on “lashon hara,” the Jewish injunction against speaking evil. He taught that while most parts of the human body had their limits — arms could carry only so much weight, legs could run only so fast — the tongue could do infinite harm and therefore was set in a cagelike jaw as a reminder to guard it.
Surprisingly, he was raised in a secular household and was drawn to observant Judaism only as a teenager, when he studied with a Lubavitch rabbi.
“By nature I am a skeptical person,” he said in an interview with The Times a decade ago, “and people with a lot of skepticism start to question atheism.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz — who adopted the additional surname Even-Israel (Rock of Israel) at Rabbi Schneerson’s urging that he take a Hebrew name — was born on July 11, 1937, in Jerusalem in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His parents, Avraham and Leah (Krokovitz) Steinsaltz, were active in a socialist group, and his father went to Spain in 1936 to help defend the leftist Republican government against Nationalist rebels led by Gen. Francisco Franco.
He attended Hebrew University, where he studied chemistry, mathematics and physics, while also undergoing rabbinical studies at a yeshiva in the Israeli city of Lod. At age 24 he became a school principal; he went on to found several experimental schools.
He lived most of his life with his family in Jerusalem, although his travels took him in one instance to the Vatican, where he had a private audience with Pope Francis in 2016. He is survived by his wife, Sarah; his sons Menachem and Amechaye; a daughter, Esther Sheleg; and 18 grandchildren.
In 1965, Rabbi Steinsaltz founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications and began his monumental work of interpreting the Talmud for the masses. Since he was running schools at the time, he called the Talmud translation his “hobby,” but it became his crowning achievement. He told the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in 2009 that he hadn’t fully considered the immensity of the work that would be required.
“Sometimes when a person knows too much, it causes him to do nothing,” he said. “It seems it’s better sometimes for a man, as for humanity, not to know too much about the difficulties and believe more in the possibilities.”