In the 1960s, when a young Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz embarked on the mammoth task of translating the ancient Jewish texts of the Talmud into modern Hebrew and, even more daringly, providing his own commentary alongside those of the classical sages, the state of Israel was still in its teens, there were no home computers, and man had not yet landed on the moon.
The monumental work took 45 years. But this month in his hometown, Jerusalem, Rabbi Steinsaltz, now 73, marked the end of the endeavor, as the last of the 45 volumes of his edition of the Babylonian Talmud, originally completed 1,500 years ago, rolled off the press.
“When I began it I did not think it would be so difficult or so long,” the rabbi said in a meandering interview that went late into the night at his Steinsaltz Center for religious studies in the city’s historic Nahlaot neighborhood. “I thought it would take maybe half the time.”
First, he said, there was the arrogance of youth, then financial and political obstacles, several spells in the hospital and the disruptive effect of a few wars.
Rabbi Steinsaltz, frail after a recent illness, sealed his achievement on Nov. 7 with a modest closing ceremony at City Hall here and a live video linkup connecting 360 Jewish communities across 48 countries on a global day of Jewish learning in the spirit of the Talmud.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, sent greetings by video and, recalling his private Talmud sessions with the rabbi in the past, said they were among the most rewarding intellectual experiences of his life.