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The Talmudic Encyclopedia Turns 75

An event honoring the 75th anniversary of the Talmudic Encyclopedia took place on December 30 at the residence of the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog. It was especially moving because it marked three generations of involvement of the Herzog family in the project.

The event was also to honor Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the leading rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University, Halachic advisor for the Orthodox Union, advisor and mentor for the Rabbinical Council of America, and world renowned posek. The Talmudic Encyclopedia will dedicate a future volume to Rav Shachter.

The 48th volume was released just a few days before the event. It is hoped that the project will be completed by 2024.

The two chief rabbis of Israel, the chief rabbi of the IDF, and Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg, head of the editorial board of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, all of whom addressed an audience that included rabbinical judges and roshei yeshiva, were introduced by Sara Beck, a Torah-observant journalist, who mentioned that it was Rav Yitzhak Hacohen Kook who first raised the idea of such an encyclopedia.

Beck quoted from one of her two websites, “Zusha,” a site on Chassidic stories: “Once a renowned talmid chacham came before Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, and asked to be accepted as a chasid of his. The Rabbi asked him, ‘What have you learned?’ The man replied, ‘I already learned and completed the entire Shas—the Talmud Bavli.’ The Rabbi replied, ‘You didn’t understand my intention. I asked what did the Talmud teach you?’ The Talmudic Encyclopedia, to a great extent, answers that question: What did the Talmud teach you?”

The History

In 1942 Rav Meir Bar Ilan, who lived in Israel, got word of what was happening to the Jews of Europe. He decided to organize the vast Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature as an encyclopedia so the essence would remain. Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin joined him and commenced the collection of information and concepts for 2,500 encyclopedic Talmudic entries. The work included the entire written and oral Torah throughout the ages, and all the great scholars of the Jewish people—from eastern Europe to North Africa. Their feeling was that perhaps the Nazis could destroy the bodies of the Jews but not the Torah and the soul.

Rav Yehoshua Hutner was the first director of the Encyclopedia. The first volume appeared in 1947. Rav Steinberg accepted the position after him, in 2006.

Four Rabbis, a President and a Judge

President Herzog spoke first. “I am proud to host this important event not just as the President of Israe—and the Talmudic Encyclopedia has a place of honor among my books—but also as the grandson of Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, who in 1949, after the death of Rav Meir Bar Ilan, joined with others to continue the establishment of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, and as the son of the sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, who through the years also supported the Encyclopedia.

“From the wise men of the Talmud we learn how to carry on a debate and still demonstrate ‘These are all the words of the living God.’ From them we drew inspiration and with their help we succeeded in keeping the basic commandment of every mother and father in Israel, ‘And you shall teach it to your children.’”

The Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said that his father, Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l, was a close talmid of Rav Herzog and emulated him, and that he would go to him every Friday. They were a group of rabbanim who would learn together.

“This magnificent project gives students the breadth of the Torah…I read the entry ‘Hazaka.’ Anyone who learns in the world of the yeshiva knows this is a very difficult topic, but if one reads this entry in the Talmudic Encyclopedia, it is so clear, so organized, with all the intricate details, it’s astonishing. …I bless Rav Steinberg and everyone who is working on this project…May you continue to spread your wellsprings of Torah.”

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, son of Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, who is president of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, said that in the 18th century, there was an expression used for people who were writing encyclopedias, called “the encyclopedists” but that it took on a negative connotation because they wrote entries according to their personal viewpoints and distorted reality.

In contrast, he spoke warmly of the many great rabbis who worked on the Talmudic Encyclopedia through the decades, whose wisdom was to define things accurately, “According to ‘darkei avot,’ the ways of our forefathers. “The Talmudic Encyclopedia enables one to see a wide view of the entire Torah, and to define things in a precise way…It is a masterful work.”

Brigadier General Eyal Crim, Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, gave a fascinating talk on the Halachic status of the placenta. The connection to the IDF was a question he received that week, asking if placentas could be used in training dogs to locate body parts of soldiers who have fallen in battle (whereas until now they have been trained by identifying bits of pork), as it is so important to bring them to “kvurat Yisrael” (a Jewish burial). A midwife had also written to him once asking about what use could be made of placentas, for example for homeopathic remedies that would improve the medical condition of the newborn, any of these situations of course with the permission of the mother. He concluded, “May all those involved in this huge enterprise have the zchut to raise up the Torah and make her splendorous.”

Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg, a graduate of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law who had also studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion, spoke about the debate that has existed for many years between different judges regarding the value of having “Mishpat Ivri”—Jewish-Halachic jurisprudence—inform decisions in Israeli courts that operate by the Israeli law as enacted in the Knesset. He described it as an “argument of great men” and as a “clash of civilizations.”

“There is nothing that compares to Jewish-Halachic jurisprudence, which is refined in the theoretical dimension, and applied on the practical plane; the Talmudic Encyclopedia proves this.” He said that “Jewish-Halachic jurisprudence should be part of the intellectual effort in arriving at everyday decisions. The contribution of the Talmudic Encyclopedia in this connection is invaluable.”

Rav Professor Steinberg, head of the enterprise and recipient of the Israel Prize in 1999 for original rabbinic literature for his Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, gave a talk on the issue of IVF and noted that eggs that are fertilized while outside of the uterus do not have the Halachic status of being a human until after the fertilized egg is planted in the uterus, and then the first 40 days have a different status then they do later.

Rav Steinberg described how a couple who have a high percentage of risk of giving birth to a child with a serious genetic disease can have an egg extracted and fertilized, have one cell checked for the disease and return it to the womb if it is healthy, and are permitted to destroy it if it is not. “This is how we save thousands of families from the birth of sick children without going through any Halachic problem.

“The Talmudic Encyclopedia provides a base to all who wish to know the basic Halachic approach regarding almost every topic with halachic implications.”

At the end of the event, Rav Steinberg presented President Herzog the latest volume— #48—and emotionally presented the president with a photograph in which their grandparents appeared together after World War II in Brussels 75 years ago, connecting them across the generations and marking the 75th anniversary of the Talmudic Encyclopedia.

Rav Nehemiah Goldberg, zt”l was the chief editor of the Encyclopedia until he passed away a year ago.

Dr. Dov Friedberg, an outstanding and humble philanthropist, is the major contributor to the Talmudic Encyclopedia together with families Rohr and Ryzman and many devoted donors. Yedidut Toronto (Toronto Foundation), supported by the Friedberg Charitable Foundation, was represented by its director, Mr. Moshe Shapiro, who spoke eloquently on behalf of the organization.

Master pianist Paul Salter played a musical interlude during the event.

The Talmudic Encyclopedia is published by Yad HaRav Herzog, named after Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog zt”l, in Jerusalem. A fundraising campaign is currently in progress for the volume that will be honoring Rav Hershel Schachter. For more information: https://talmudicencyclopedia.ravpage.co.il/greetingbook


The author is an award-winning journalist, educational theater director and editor-in-chief of www.WholeFamily.com 

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