‘His works will last for generations’: Leaders mourn Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
'A man of spiritual courage, knowledge and profound thought'

‘His works will last for generations’: Leaders mourn Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Tributes pour in for Israel Prize laureate and scholar credited with revolutionizing Talmud studies; funeral, with family only, livestreamed from Jerusalem

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. (Steinsaltz Center/courtesy)
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. (Steinsaltz Center/courtesy)

Tributes poured in Friday by leaders and religious figures for Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael Steinsaltz, the groundbreaking Babylonian Talmud scholar whose 45-year project to translate the 1,500-year-old corpus of rabbinic Jewish law has been lauded for making it approachable, after he died Friday morning at the age of 83 from acute pneumonia.

Steinsaltz’s funeral was held in the afternoon at the Chabad section of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives cemetery.

The funeral was attended only by his family due to coronavirus restrictions, but the procession was livestreamed online.

“Our hearts mourn the passing of Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz, may his memory be blessed,” said President Reuven Rivlin. “He was a man of great spiritual courage, deep knowledge and profound thought who brought the Talmud to Am Yisrael [the People of Israel] in clear and accessible Hebrew and English.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “deeply saddened” by Steinsaltz’s death and that he had attended several of his lessons over the years.

“Rabbi Steinsaltz distinctly represented the character of the ‘persistent’ Jew,” he said. “He invested non-stop work on his interpretation projects, headed by the Talmud commentary which makes Gemara learning accessible to wide audiences in a clear and understandable language. His important works will last for generations as cornerstones of Jewish tradition, and as an everlasting tribute to his memory.”

Gemara guru Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) in his Jerusalem office (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in this undated photo in his Jerusalem office (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister, mourned Steinsaltz as “a great rabbi who was an expert in understanding and helping the human soul. He never differentiated between a religious and non-religious person, and he left us translations of the Gemara that will stay with the Jewish people for many generations. His ability to bring people together is a symbol to what we need more than anything at this time.”

Israel’s chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, described him as “a man of spirit who won the honor of making the Torah accessible to the entire public and educate thousands of student. With his unique way and path he is a beacon of light for many.”

The director-general of the World Bnei Akiva Jewish youth organization, Roi Abecassis, said that “Rabbi Steinsaltz transferred the Gemara from the exclusive study centers where scholars learned it into households. With his commentary, he made the Gemara and its beauty accessible to Jews around the world. The Jewish world has suffered a big loss.”

The Tzohar rabbinical organization eulogized Steinsaltz as “an exceptional leader of both Torah and love for the land. His life’s work opened countless doors for people to study and helped bridge the diverse communities within the Jewish world. He will be forever remembered as a teacher defined by passionate caring for his people and spreading the beauty of Judaism all across the globe.”

Pope Francis (left) meets Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz at the Vatican, December 5, 2016. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

A longtime educator, prolific author of over 60 books and Israel Prize laureate, Steinsaltz (who years ago switched to a Hebraicized version of his surname, Even-Israel, but never shook off the original), was also an educated physicist and chemist, a biting social critic and a beloved public figure in Israel — revered for his encyclopedic mind and admired for his down-to-earth and kindly bearing. (His first name means “gentle” in Hebrew, and by all accounts, he was).

But Steinsaltz’s crowning achievement was indisputably the 45-year project of democratizing the Talmud — a “once-in-a-millennium” intellectual undertaking, said Time magazine in 2001. It earned him comparisons to the 11th-century French sage Rashi, whose commentary on most of the Talmud and Bible was unmatched in terms of the scope of texts it covered for 1,000 years.

Steinsaltz’s formidable effort began in 1965, when he was just 27, three years after he became Israel’s youngest-ever school principal. He completed it in 2010 when he was 72-73 years old.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz holds a volume of the Talmud during an interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem, November 10, 2010. After 45 years of 16-hour workdays, Israeli scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has finally completed his life’s work, a translation of the entire Talmud, one of Judaism’s most important texts, to make it accessible to ordinary people. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

When he completed his 41-volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew with a running commentary (which has since been translated into English) in 2010, it was hailed as a revolutionary feat making the largely Aramaic, often obscure text accessible, furthering its reach and encouraging deeper study.

In 2016, the logophile who expertly dotted the 2.5 million unpunctuated Hebrew and Aramaic words in the 6,000 pages of the Babylonian Talmud lost his capacity to speak after suffering a stroke, his son told the Makor Rishon newspaper in 2018.

He continued to work, proofreading and marking up his previous work, while silently signaling to his son to convey his edits.

Steinsaltz is survived by his wife, three children and numerous grandchildren.

Marissa Newman and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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