With a combined printing of over 300,000, the Steinsaltz English edition has marked a historic new approach to the study of the 1,500-year-old multi-volume sacred storehouse of ancient Jewish oral tradition.
But despite the initial hype, the English Steinsaltz edition has yet to fulfill its promise of leading the way to a renaissance in Talmud study. Faced with stiff competition from other translations that followed his, Steinsaltz's Talmud appears to have settled in as second choice for a growing number of Orthodox and non-Orthodox students seeking to absorb the complex smorgasbord of oral Jewish law, philosophy, history, and legend.
That's not to say that Steinsaltz hasn't already made a monumental contribution to Talmud study throughout the world. In addition to his English translation, he has published 34 volumes of the Talmud translated into modern Hebrew, and an additional 11 volumes are planned over the next six years. He's launched Russian and French editions of the Talmud and plans one in Spanish, and he's even offered a pocket edition of the Talmud.
Steinsaltz's new publisher says he believes the upcoming English volume, called "Brochot" (Blessings), will help broaden the Steinsaltz English Talmud's popularity. Brochot, explains Aronson editor-in-chief Arthur Kurzweil, is more reader friendly than the complex legalistic discussion that dominates the Talmud's 70 tractates. Brochot emphasizes more Aggadah, or legendary stories and folklore, Kurzweil says, which makes it easier to digest. "I'm particularly excited about Brochot because, at least among the non-Orthodox community, it's probably among the most commonly studied tractates," Kurzweil explains.
The Talmud was written down by rabbis to preserve the oral tradition more than a century after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. There are two versions of the Talmud: the more popular Babylonian Talmud, a 2.5 million word opus compiled by rabbis from the Jewish community exiled in ancient Babylon in 586 B.C.E., and the less frequently used Jerusalem, or Palestinian, Talmud, about half the size of its Babylonian counterpart.
Making the Talmud, which is written in Aramaic, accessible to the average Jew has been Steinsaltz's life's work. Contending that "a Jewish society that ceases to study the Talmud has no real hope of survival," he began translating it into English and modern Hebrew 30 years ago. In the process, Steinsaltz updated the centuries-old page layout and added his own new commentary.
Nevertheless, Talmud teachers and students say his English version is not their first choice. They favor the Schottenstein Talmud Edition, put out by Orthodox publisher Mesorah Publications (widely known as ArtScroll), which began releasing its English edition of the Talmud in 1990. Curiously, Jews across the theological spectrum have embraced the ArtScroll Talmud; many other ArtScroll products--their siddurim (prayer books), their guides to Jewish observance, and so forth--have been criticized as overly simplistic and too conservative. ArtScroll's Talmud, however, seems to have escaped that judgment.
One reason the Schottenstein Talmud has taken off is that its publishing schedule is coordinated with the release of the popular worldwide Daf Yomi Talmud study program--an Orthodox-backed project that studies a page of Talmud a day.
Talmudic experts generally say the Steinsaltz English edition is more appropriate for novices, while the Schottenstein is better suited for students with some command of Hebrew.
They also cite stark differences in approach. Steinsaltz, critics say, treats the sacred text too academically. "Steinsaltz is willing to include material that's more scholarly in nature," notes Eliezer Diamond, a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Conservative seminary. "Steinsaltz is trying to do something different, to incorporate much more of the reality of the period, the geography, the culture of the time. His footnotes pay more attention to textual variance, and to the issues that pertain to contemporary scholarship."
Orthodox students are by and large uninterested in Steinsaltz's innovations. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox communities, says Steinsaltz's approach, especially his tinkering with the layout of the page, are not compatible with "a tradition in use for over 1,000 years. Unfortunately for Rabbi Steinsaltz, his translation is not used as much as ArtScroll is."
"It's a myth to say that Rabbi Steinsaltz is solely responsible for an increase in the amount of Talmud study lately," David Rosenn, a Conservative rabbi and executive director of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, said. "If people are studying more Talmud, that probably has to do more with the increasing momentum of the Daf Yomi movement, the general upswing in interest in text-based Jewish study and the invention of the world-wide-web, which has made long-distance hevrutas [study groups] a compelling way to learn."
Brochot may propel the Steinsaltz Talmud into more homes and libraries. But the Schottenstein Talmud has already propelled the Talmud into the hands of many, many Jews.