2020 Annual Assessment

In August 2020, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Even-Yisrael) passed away at the age of 83. R. Steinsaltz, an Israel Prize laureate, was most noted for his innovative “Steinsaltz Talmud,” a Modern Hebrew translation of the entire Babylonian Talmud. In addition to his work on Talmud, Steinsaltz also authored books on Kabbalah, Hasidism and Hasidic stories, as well as commentaries on Tanach and Mishnah.

Steinsaltz, above all, was concerned with the Jewish literacy of the general Israeli public. His groundbreaking translation of the entire Babylonian Talmud (with commentary) made the Talmud accessible to a wider public. In addition to a running modern Hebrew translation, the Steinsaltz Talmud also includes other features designed to illuminate the Talmudic discourse, such as annotations explaining the various historical figures, objects, plants and animals that appear in the Talmudic text.

The Steinsaltz Talmud has played a significant role in widening the circle of those studying the Talmud in religious and traditional communities, which in recent decades have shown remarkable vitality. The 13th Siyyum HaShas (completion of the Talmud) by the participants in the Daf Yomi (daily page) project was celebrated on January 4, 2020 with mass participation in both Israel and the Diaspora. The Daf Yomi project was proposed by R. Meir Schapiro and R. Moshe Menahem Mendel Spivak of Poland in 1923. It consists of studying one folio leaf (both sides of the page) of the Talmud each day according to the order of the tractates. All participants in the project study the same page each day and after seven and a half years, they complete all 2,711 folio pages of the Talmud.

Recent years have witnessed growing participation in the project in terms of both numbers and geographic distribution. It seems that almost every community has a Daf Yomi study group today (in Israel, the United States, Europe, Latin America, Australia, and South Africa). Undoubtedly, publishing and technology innovations have greatly contributed to this growth. The Talmud is now accessible to larger populations than ever before. The ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud with its user-friendly running commentary (it is basically an expansion and paraphrase of R. Shlomo Itzchaki’s [Rashi, 1040-1105, France] classical commentary, and illuminating footnotes is widely available in English and Hebrew. In addition, there is a plethora of Daf Yomi internet classes and podcasts in almost every language and on every level of Talmudic expertise in addition to the classes scheduled in almost every community, either early in the morning or at night.

Thus, what had been a rather esoteric phenomenon has turned into a mass participation event. Ninety-two thousand people participated in the Siyyum Hashas sponsored by World Agudath Israel in the Met Life Stadium in New Jersey and mass participation events were held in the Jerusalem Conference Center and other locales in Israel.

Ever since the rabbis of late antiquity (Chazal), Jewish culture has pressed forward the ideal of equal access to the realm of the holy, especially that of sacred texts and knowledge. It has not restricted Torah knowledge to a hereditary caste such as the priests, but on the contrary has regarded it as the “inheritance of the house of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4), Almost every technological and cultural innovation has been pressed into the service of this ideal. Today, this ideal is not only advanced, as we have seen by technological and publishing innovations, but intersects with other contemporary social and cultural trends.

In the Haredi sector, the increasing prominence of Daf Yom signifies the transition of the Haredim from a small elite society to a mass society. In previous decades, when the Haredim constituted a small elite society, studying the Daf Yomi was looked down upon in the elite Yeshivot of Hebron, Ponevezh, Mir, and Brisk. The scholarly and cultural ideal was that of rarified, highly abstract and original analysis of abstruse Talmudic and Halachic issues mainly in regard to Torts (נזיקין) and laws of sacrifice (קודשים). The Daf Yomi, which consists of reading and understanding pages of text, was for lay people (בעלי בתים), not for Talmidei Chachamim (advanced Yeshiva students) and no one would have thought of publicly celebrating it.

As Haredi society grew numerically, however, it needed a cultural ideal appropriate for a mass population. After all, only very few are fit for exclusive devotion to highly abstract and involved discussions of esoteric Talmudic topics. Thus, the Haredi world gradually adopted Daf Yomi as a cultural ideal for its ever-burgeoning population. In tandem, it began celebrating this project, upon the completion of the Talmud every seven and a half years, characteristically using it to showcase its increasing social and political power.

In the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox sectors, Daf Yomi represents the opposite trend to that of the Haredim. If it represents something of a decline of Torah achievement in the Haredi world, in the Religious Zionist world it represents the contrary. The Religious Zionist world and especially its youth has great difficulty with Talmud study. Despite the long hours devoted to it in primary and especially secondary schools, as many religious Zionist educators testify, Religious Zionist youth do not like to study Talmud nor are they proficient at it. Such youth is heavily exposed to Western culture and involved discussions of topics that are remote from their experience is not something that they relate to easily. In this context, some of the Daf Yomi classes, videos and podcasts which aim to give over much information in an efficient and user-friendly way as possible, provide a “second chance” to study Talmud and appreciate it.

The new approachability of the Talmud text has been especially meaningful for women. Long excluded from Talmud study, in recent decades the ideal of equal access to sacred knowledge has crossed the gender divide. The new approachability of the text means that women who had never studied Talmud before can follow classes, whether live or on-line, and study page after page until they finish the entire work. As many observers have claimed, such new empowerment can have unforeseen ramifications, not only for women but for Talmud itself. Women bring to Talmud study totally new experiences, perspectives and knowledge. Talmud study may never be the same again.

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