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Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz; made the Talmud more accessible

NEW YORK — Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a towering scholar of the bedrock Jewish texts who spent 4½ decades writing a 45-volume translation of and commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and made it accessible to hundreds of thousands of readers, died Friday in Jerusalem. He was 83.

Shaarei Zedek Medical Center confirmed his death. A publicist for the Steinsaltz Center for Jewish Knowledge said he had acute pneumonia.

For centuries, the study of Talmud — the record in 2,711 double-sided pages of rabbinical debates on the laws and ethics of Judaism heard in the academies of Babylonia (modern-day Iraq) between A.D. 200 and 500 — was confined mostly to yeshivas.

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There students, young and old, hunched over dog-eared volumes of Talmud, sometimes without teachers, taught one another the meanings of what they were reading and argued the implications.

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s achievement, said Samuel Heilman, distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College specializing in Orthodox Judaism, was to take the Talmud out of this relatively exclusive sphere and allow ordinary Jews, taking the Long Island Rail Road in New York to work or gathering in a cafe in Tel Aviv to study those texts, written largely in Aramaic, on their own.

“He brought the Talmud into the 20th century,” Heilman said.

In 1965, when he was 27, Rabbi Steinsaltz embarked on his life’s great work, translating the Talmud and the ancient commentaries along the margins by revered figures like medieval scholar Rashi into modern Hebrew.

He also provided his own commentaries on the often labyrinthine text, biographies of the various rabbinical commentators and explanations of Talmudic concepts. His work, he said, was intended to accommodate even beginners with “the lowest level of knowledge.”

“My idea was that I’m trying to substitute a book for a living teacher,” he said in a 2005 interview with The New York Times.

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Rabbi Steinsaltz, a rumpled, bespectacled figure with an unruly white beard, completed the entire Talmud in 2010, often working 16 hours a day. The Hebrew edition has been translated by publishers into English, French, Russian and Spanish. Random House, its American publisher, translated and published 22 English volumes, not the entire 45-volume set.

President Reuven Rivlin of Israel called Rabbi Steinsaltz a “modern-day Rashi” and a “man of great spiritual courage, deep knowledge and profound thought who brought the Talmud to Am Yisrael” — the Jewish people — “in clear and accessible Hebrew and English.”

The Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud was not the first English translation. Soncino Press, a venerable British firm, completed a 30-volume translation in 1952, but it did not have the line-by-line commentary that can sustain self-study.

In 2005, Art Scroll/Mesorah Publications of Brooklyn brought out a 73-volume edition that has become the most popular version for many Orthodox Jews, and for tens of thousands of others who participate in Daf Yomi, the seven-and-a-half-year challenge to complete a study of the entire Talmud by analyzing a page a day.

Rabbi Steinsaltz was a devoted disciple of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, and his Chabad-Lubavitch school of Judaism, which embraces nonobservant Jews and proselytizes among them. That sometimes put him at odds with more hard-line Orthodox rabbis, including prominent ones who treated him as a heretic and told their followers to spurn his works.

Rabbi Steinsaltz was a prolific and wide-ranging writer and a sharp observer of humanity who wrote more than 60 books on philosophy, mysticism, theology, even zoology. His study of kabbalah, “The Thirteen Petalled Rose,” is considered a classic and has been translated into eight languages.

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He also translated the Jerusalem Talmud, the less comprehensive and less studied record of legal debates by rabbis in Jerusalem between 350 A.D. and 400 A.D.

Invited to impart some spiritual guidance to the staff of a magazine, The Jerusalem Report, in the early 1990s, he gave lessons on “lashon hara,” the Jewish injunction against speaking evil. He taught that while most parts of the human body had their limits — arms could carry only so much weight, legs could run only so fast — the tongue could do infinite harm and therefore was set in a cagelike jaw as a reminder to guard it.

Surprisingly, Rabbi Steinsaltz was raised in a secular household and was drawn to observant Judaism only as a teenager, when he studied with a Lubavitch rabbi.

“By nature I am a skeptical person,” he said in an interview with the Times a decade ago, “and people with a lot of skepticism start to question atheism.”

He was born on July 11, 1937, in Jerusalem, in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His parents, Avraham and Leah (Krokovitz) Steinsaltz, were active in a socialist group, and his father went to Spain in 1936 to help defend the leftist Republican government against Nationalist rebels led by Gen. Francisco Franco.

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He attended Hebrew University, where he studied chemistry, mathematics and physics, while also undergoing rabbinical studies at a yeshiva in the Israeli city of Lod. At age 24 he became a school principal; he went on to found several experimental schools.

He lived most of his life with his family in Jerusalem.