Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 28

The Passing of a Gadol

August 10, 2020

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this letter finds you doing well, in good health, and in good cheer.

In today’s writing, I want to share a reflection of a renowned Rabbi, Adin Steinsaltz, who impacted Jewish lives around the globe, and who, unfortunately, passed last week.

Allow me to share an excerpt of his obituary from the Times of Israel:

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose translation and groundbreaking commentary of the entire Babylonian Talmud and Bible has been lauded for making the ancient Jewish texts approachable, died Friday at the age of 83.

A longtime educator, prolific author of over 60 books and Israel Prize laureate, Steinsaltz was also a physicist and chemist, a biting social critic and a beloved public figure in Israel — revered for his encyclopedic mind, and admired for his down-to-earth and kindly bearing. His first name means “gentle” in Hebrew, and by all accounts, he was.

But Steinsaltz’s crowning achievement was indisputably the 45-year project of democratizing the 1,500-year-old corpus of rabbinic Jewish law — a feat that saw Time magazine in 2001 declare him a “once-in-a-millennium” scholar. It earned him comparisons to the 11th-century French sage Rashi, whose commentary on most of the Talmud and Bible was unmatched in terms of the scope of texts it covered for 1,000 years.

Steinsaltz’s formidable effort began in 1965, when he was just 27, three years after he became Israel’s youngest-ever school principal. He completed it in 2010, when he was 72-73 years old.

When he completed, in 2010, his 41-volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew with a running commentary (which has since been translated into English), it was hailed as a revolutionary feat making the largely Aramaic, often obscure text accessible, furthering its reach and encouraging deeper study.

The founder of a network of yeshivas in Israel and the former Soviet Union, Steinsaltz was also active in outreach to Jews beyond the Iron Curtain. In 1989, when he founded a yeshiva in Moscow, it became the first state-sanctioned institution of Jewish study in the city in 60 years, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

As I read the biography/eulogy, I was reminded of two qualities of this amazing man, which I would like to share with you:

  1. Rabbi Steinsaltz always felt, even in his later years, that he did not do enough. I read this and can only say, are you kidding me? He translated the Babylonian Talmud into modern Hebrew! While we may not be preeminent Talmudic scholars, the message of “doing more” is something that can serve as a lesson and encourage us to be proud of our accomplishments (personal, professional or spiritual ), but to continue to “do more.”
  2. I had the honor of sitting in on some of Rabbi Steinsaltz’ lectures. You might be surprised to know that he was not a dynamic speaker who got to his point quickly. Nonetheless, I knew that if I were patient, I would receive a word, sentence, or phrase of incredible value. With that in mind, I always tell students, “Please be patient.” Learning to be patient is actually a pearl of wisdom and of the Torah and it may change your life.

As we head into Shabbat, I pray that we can all honor the memory of Rabbi Steinsaltz by doing our best to study and learn from the wisdom of our tradition. Even though we may never be scholars, we can always be scholarly.

Let us continue to pray and learn together and combine our collective wisdom to make this world a better, kinder, and more generous society. In this fashion, we will honor Our Maker and the Giver of Torah, while paying tribute to a great rabbi.


Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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