May 19, 2024
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Remembering Rabbi Steinsaltz, zt”l

The passing of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz zt”l leaves a massive void in Jewish scholarship and intellect that will be difficult to fill. His works span almost the entire corpus of Jewish texts and learning and have touched the lives of countless people around the world. There are those who today are at the forefront of their fields, who would never have been able to engage with the texts of their ancestors but for the clarity, insight and warmth with which Rabbi Steinsaltz crafted each of his many hundreds of books, articles and classes.

Rabbi Steinsaltz spent his life spreading Torah and a love of learning throughout the world. His philosophy was simple: To give everyone the tools they need to truly understand what they are learning. Succinctly put as the motto of the Steinsaltz Center: “Let my people know.” His aim was not to simply translate Jewish texts but to unlock each person’s understanding of them. That will be his legacy.

At the start of the groundbreaking Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli project, editor-in-chief Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb illustrated this with the famous adage: If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for the rest of his life. The Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli, with translation, notes and commentary by Rabbi Steinsaltz, has done just that. It has enabled thousands of people to open a Gemara, and—many for the first time—really learn and acquire skills that enhance their learning. To acquire the Torah they are learning.

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s mastery of Torah is unquestioned and he is deservedly described as one of, if not the, foremost Jewish scholar of our generation. However, those who knew him best, and those who met him only briefly would first and foremost mention his humility. The fact that such an intellectual giant, a man of such brilliance and virtuosity in Torah was also so humble, kind, sensitive and warm is something that only served to enhance his greatness and make his loss so much more painful for all of Am Yisrael.

The simple clarity with which he wrote, to expertly explain and elucidate for the most learned or novice alike, is what makes his writing so attractive. But there is something that has made his commentaries, particularly those of the Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli and the Weisfeld Edition Steinsaltz Humash, stand out. The incorporation of color maps, charts, diagrams and photos has opened up a new understanding of these core texts. The story was once shared that in an editorial meeting for the Talmud, someone asked Rabbi Steinsaltz why he felt it necessary to share a photo of horses when the Gemara was discussing some technical halacha regarding the animal. The rabbi replied that there may be someone out there, unlikely though it might be, unfamiliar with what a horse is. But more than that, sometimes it’s nice to see a picture of horses as a little respite when struggling through the back and forth of the Talmud. This attitude is what endeared Rabbi Steinsaltz to so many. His concern for all Jews to understand what they are learning, and his simple, innocent sense of humor. Even he, a giant of learning, sometimes appreciated a break to look at the majesty of some horses.

At an event in Jerusalem in 2018 to celebrate the rabbi’s 80th birthday, and also an opportunity to introduce the publication of the new English translation and commentary of Chumash, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks described Rabbi Steinsaltz as “one of the most creative thinkers I know. He was trained as a scientist but has the soul of a poet.” In a piece published by Time magazine in 2001 in which Rabbi Steinsaltz was recognized as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar,” Rabbi Steinsaltz described his journey from secular, Marxist beginnings to Jewish Orthodoxy, as a “commuter between heaven and earth.” Rabbi Steinsaltz was uniquely placed to take the most technical of passages of the Talmud and show their simple beauty. To take the most poetic passages of Tanach and show their deep connection to our religious experience and their fundamental necessity to our faith. With the ability to engage with the most secular and the most spiritual, the most devout and the most skeptical, Rabbi Steinsaltz did more to connect the Jewish people to their heritage than perhaps anyone else since the giving of the Torah itself.

In his own words, Rabbi Steinsaltz saw himself only as a conduit, a sound system playing a 3,000 year old tune. When writing his commentary on the Tanach, his aim was to sit in silence, listen, and ask, “What does Abraham have to say? What does Rachel want to tell us?” His aim was not to give us his interpretation of Tanach, but to help us understand the simple beauty of the Tanach, and through that, understand its complexity and the awesome magnitude of how God speaks to us in the 21st century.

We are privileged to have been partners with Rabbi Steinsaltz in bringing his unparalleled wisdom to light. His passing represents a huge loss for the entire Jewish world and beyond, but in partnership with his dear children and family, we will strive to continue his legacy. May his memory be for a blessing.


Matthew Miller is publisher of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

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