In March, 2011, with very little fanfare, a milestone in Jewish history was passed: forty-five years after he started the project, Rav Adin Steinsaltz completed the first ever translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew.
Now, six years down the line, the Sefaria Project has announced that R’ Steinsaltz’ translations of the entire Talmud—first in Hebrew, then in English—will be available, free of charge, online. The official announcement reads:
For the Jewish people, our texts are our collective inheritance. Sefaria wants them to be available to everyone, with free and open licenses. Through the generous support of The William Davidson Foundation, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s translations will be available with a Creative Commons Non-Commercial license, making them free for use and re-use—even beyond Sefaria.
The opening up of the Talmud to every Jew is of historic importance, though the true impact may become apparent only in the next century or two.
To give some background, the Talmud is an eight-hundred year-long conversation which took place in various educational institutions during the centuries when the Jewish nation was transitioning from sovereign state to a nation-in-exile. Out of this conversation arose the Oral Torah—the Jewish civil and religious law that we still use today: from income tax to the laws of damages, from the laws of charity to the intricacies of medical law and the etiquette of the marketplace.
Now the thing is, all these discussions were conducted in Aramaic, which was the English of its day. The “minutes” of the discussions were also written in Aramaic, and Aramaic “key words” were inserted to show the internal logic of a discussion—all so that the records would be accessible to anyone with the skill to read them. In other words, the Talmud was meant to be a guide to civil and moral life that, potentially, anyone could use.
Further, the laws derived from Talmudic discourse were meant to be self-enforcing; communities should be able to live by them without the (dubious) benefit of an executive authority. This was the culmination of an idea going back to the Written Torah: “You shall be a kingdom of priests,” a nation in which each individual is capable of understanding, teaching, and practicing the laws of the Torah.
With the dispersion of the Jewish nation, this decentralized system became not only an ideal, but a necessity: every node became a potential decision point. Each individual had to be able to figure out on his or her own how to live in ways that would preserve the connection with the past and the bonds to a community dispersed across distant lands. The system had to be radically democratic: “A law not followed by the people is not a law,” while at the same time carrying enough moral and religious authority to be compelling.
And it worked! At least up until very recent times, anyone—at least theoretically—could learn to look into the Talmud and understand the considerations that weighed into legal derivations. Laymen could understand enough for individual practice, and experts could use the discussions as a basis for answering more complicated legal questions. The Talmud provided Jews from far distant lands with common concepts and a common language—even a common mindset. The methodology of the Talmud helped sharpen mental skills, while teaching the essential lesson that human beings can never arrive at final answers.
But with the Enlightenment in Europe came a dilemma. Jews were allowed to become full-fledged citizens of the newly-constituted nation-states, but on condition that they give up their own nationality. What this meant in practice was an agreement to give up the Jewish civil code in favor of the laws of individual states. Jewish communities were allowed to retain only those laws that didn’t overlap with national laws. Thus, we were left with the laws governing ritual matters–which amount to a tiny percent of the total content of the Babylonian Talmud.
In many cases, this offer was accepted. Jews abandoned their language, their identity, and their communal laws en-masse and embraced the offer of full citizenship in Western European nations. But this came at a heavy price: even those who might want to keep some connection with their identity now lacked the language with which to do so. Jewish children no longer grew up learning to read Aramaic and Hebrew.
A century later, the Shoah put the final touch to all this. Not only were the assimilated communities wiped out, but those who had not chosen European citizenship were also destroyed. Thus, the last remnant of those communities where ordinary Jews could read and interpret Jewish law for themselves were gone.
Now along comes Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a former physics teacher and high school principal—and world-renowned Talmud prodigy—and turns the tables. Jewish law is meant to be democratic but only informed citizens can vote? Then, let’s make sure every citizen is an informed citizen! Or at least, let’s make it possible for any citizen who wants to become informed to do so. This is the basis for his decision to translate the Aramaic portions of the Talmud into ordinary Hebrew (the modern equivalent of Aramaic for most Jews).
And so the Babylonian Talmud comes full circle, becoming what it was meant to be: the heritage of every member of the House of Israel. The aspiration that the Jewish People become “A kingdom of priests” was never closer to fulfillment than it is today. In the words of A. J. Heschel: “Every one of us alive is a spark of an eternal candle and a smoldering ember snatched from the fire. Without his knowing it, every one of us is crowned with the holy. Let us learn to be aware of the majesty which hovers over our existence.” Thanks to Rabbi Steinsaltz, every one of us can take our place at the four dimensional table of the Talmud.