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The Steinsaltz Talmud
Mon, 11/01/2010 - 20:00

We pride ourselves on being “the people of the book,” though literacy in our sacred texts increasingly eludes too many of us. Perhaps no holy book in the Jewish canon has been more impenetrable than the Talmud, with its encyclopedic scope, elliptical layout, jazz-like literary free form, esoteric legalities and a musical but muddled dead language — Aramaic — at its core, let alone the lack of punctuation.

And yet, the study of the Talmud has become expected of everyone from children in elementary school to older folks trying to jump on the Daf Yomi (“Page-A-Day”) express.

To master the Talmud is so monumental that its obstacles, like Marine boot camp, have become points of honor if survived. Such pride is placed on the reader’s survival, that the yeshiva “band of brothers” have decided that the obstacles — some hardly holy in and of themselves — should remain as an obstacle for every generation, as if one must cross the spectacularly beautiful Rocky Mountains in a Conestoga wagon or not ever see them at all.

Students who’ve been saved by Soncino’s English translation, or those who delight in the more recent ArtScroll translations, know true gratitude. And this Sunday, Nov. 7, declared “A Global Day Of Learning,” our communal appreciation extends to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who concludes what may be the centerpiece of a magnificent life’s work: a 45-year translation of the Talmud that not only brings sight to the Talmudically blind, but his own unique touch and sense of reinvention, even rethinking what the Talmud page should look like.

Most of all, Rabbi Steinsaltz, through his Talmud, has become that perfect friend that the Talmud student craves. Through his work, parched students are being irrigated with a master’s clarity. His is a celestial achievement that brings holiness to him and the Talmud to us.

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Pity the poor American yeshiva student; his education was so talmud-centric that they forget to teach him sufficient Hebrew to benefit from this translation of the Talmud. Instead, you find him sitting with an Artscroll English translation with its stilted language and its inability to overcome the difference between a flowing Aramaic-Hebrew-Aramaic back-and-forth with the need to accomplish word-for-word translation to English.
I would be more enthusiastic if the good Rabbi's English translations of the Talmud were still in print, or, when in print, affordable. Furthermore, there is a undercurrent of opinion that he withdrew further reprints, and had no interest in issuing a CD version, owing to Charedi objections to what I understand to have been his honest rendering of and thoughtful commentaries on the Talmud. Yes, perhaps he just saw it more important to produce the Hebrew translation of the Aramaic. As for his support organization, Aleph, I imagine it supports his good works, but, on being on its e-mailing list, it seemed only to be holding events affordable to those Jews who have $1000 (or other high values) to put out for a ticket. His business handlers might well think more of the average Jew who seeks the benefit of the Rabbi's wisdom.