According to tradition, the Bible – known in Hebrew as the Torah or the Written Law – was given on Mount Sinai in 1312 B.C.E. At that time a parallel corpus known as the Oral Law – the ways that the Written Law is to be applied for the practical fulfillment of the commandments – was conveyed by Moses to Joshua who in turn passed it on to the Judges.
The latter relayed it to the Prophets who then entrusted them to the Men of the Great Assembly[i].They transmitted the Oral Law further to the Tannaim (Reviewers) who transmitted it to the Amoraim (Interpreters).
The last of the Tannaim set down the Oral Law in a shorthand written form called the Mishnah. The Amoraim then further interpreted the Written and Oral law and codified them so that the latter would be available to all. This body of text is called the Talmud.
Codified, but Interpretable
With the death of the last Amorah in approximately 500 C.E., some 1900 years after the Giving of the Law on Sinai, no further interpretation of the Written Law would be allowed.
However, in subsequent generations great scholars would engage in offering commentary on the Talmud. The periods of Rishonim (Earlier Commentators) and Acharonim (Later Commentators) extended to approximately 200 years ago. Only the most outstanding scholars attained the stature and the status of Acharonim and their commentary was restricted to the interpretation of the words of the Tannaim and Amoraim, not to the Law itself. These great Talmudic scholars produced the Codes of Law and Responsa (from the Latin for “answers”: plural of Responsum), which is a compilation of rulings by scholars who have responded in writing to queries pertaining mainly to the practical fulfillment of the law.
The Talmud Today
Since the beginning of the Rishonim period 1150 years ago, commentators were encouraged to write down the teachings they learned from their teachers. Today, tens of thousands of books by Torah scholars of this and previous generations have been written. Many deal with practical law, while others are scholarly discussions about rulings and teachings of the previous generations.
These numerous writings tend to focus on disagreements in opinion about teachings and their interpretations. Students of different Torah masters may interpret the same text in a different way. This interweaving of written debate is the essence of the Oral Law and the teachings that surround it.
Talmudic Encyclopedia and Intertextuality
In 1942, Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan), envisioned compiling all of the Torah texts written and transmitted from the time of the Revelation at Sinai to the present day; he proposed this primarily out of fear of losing the Torah as a result of the liquidation of the Jews in the Holocaust.
Rabbi Berlin engaged Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin to determine the over 2,000 entries that would comprise what would be called the Talmudic Encyclopedia (TE). Rabbi Zevin was one of the greatest scholars of that generation and had the phenomenal ability to summarize and organize complicated material into an easily understood form. Rabbi Zevin decided on the writing style and breadth of these summaries and was joined by some of the most erudite scholars alive. The first volume of the TE was published in 1947.
The importance and popularity of the TE is in its accessibility not only to scholars, but to anyone who wants to understand certain concepts or phrases within the vast world of Torah knowledge but does not have the opportunity or ability to wade through thousands of tomes of recorded Jewish scholarship. This, combined with the reliability, accuracy and condensed style of the TE, is unparalleled in the Halachic literature.
The first volume of TE‘s first edition included 219 summaries. The same volume was reprinted three more times: in 1947, 1951, and 1955. After Rabbi Meir Berlin died in 1949, it was republished in a newly revised and expanded edition that has been acclaimed by the leading Torah scholars since that time. The administrator of the encyclopedia from its founding was Rabbi Yehoshua Hutner (1910–2009), who succeeded in securing stable financial backing so that the project would continue.
From its inception, more than one hundred rabbis and researchers have been involved in writing and editing the TE. The current editor-in-chief as of 2008 is Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg. Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg serves as the head of the Editorial Board.
Professor Meir Bar Ilan, grandson and namesake of the project’s visionary, notes in a paper he wrote for Bar Ilan University, “Despite the name ‘Talmudic,’ this encyclopedia is not limited to the Talmud, but deals with and examines all aspects of Jewish Law, from Written and Oral Law to modern legal Responsa.” It comprises “a data base of enormous importance to anyone interested in studying Jewish Law in depth…” (Quoted by Toby Klein Greenwald, The Making of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, San Diego Jewish World, October 27, 2014)
Development of the Encyclopedia
The original style of the TE, recommended by Rabbi Berlin and adopted by Rabbi Zevin was to abbreviate and summarize wherever possible, with the resulting entry compressed into an extremely brief format. After Rabbi Berlin’s death, the published entries and volumes became more encompassing to include not only the essence of the article but also many of its details and the topics branching out from it.
Rabbi Zevin listed the primary and secondary sources relevant to the main article. He edited the volumes that were published during his lifetime, and prepared other volumes for all entries that began from the letters “alef” (א) to “cheth” (ח) of the Hebrew alphabet.
According to this style, articles were internally organized in the following order: definition, sources, reasons and derivations, followed by various opinions concerning its content.
As a reference aid, two volumes of indexes were formulated. The first is an index of topics. The second cites the exact location of quotations within the Talmud.
Adapted for Our Time
Professor Steinberg, the current head of the Editorial Board, has propelled the TE forward by adapting technological innovations as writing aids and for quality control. He also limited the text to a reasonable amount. At the same time, innovative technologies have been used to accelerate publication.
The current goal set in 2014 is to complete this monumental work within ten years. Initially, one volume a year was published, and last year (2017) two volumes appeared. In the coming years the objective is to publish three to four volumes annually in order to complete the entire project by the year 2024. All of the volumes eventually will be accessible online. Ultimately, about 70 volumes are anticipated, which most people will access via the internet.
The challenge of compiling the TE relates to the necessity of concisely compiling a vast amount of material relevant to Jewish Law and learning. For example, an entry might take a five-page long Responsum formulated by Shlomo ben Aderet (1235-1310 Spain; known as the Rashba, he was a rabbinical authority whose fame was such that he was designated as El Rab d’España – “The Rabbi of Spain”) and distill it into one concise and accurate line that would encapsulate its full meaning.
Such concision requires great skill, and therefore the reservoir of TE researchers-editors is being built with great care. Although many scholars are very knowledgeable, few are capable of editing in such a unique way.
A special Beit Midrash (academy) has been established to train specialists to conform with the TE style. This institution aims to prepare no more than 30 scholar-editors.
Encyclopedia Talmudit (the TE‘s Hebrew title) is also published on a compact disc as part of the searchable Bar Ilan Responsa Project. An English translation of this master work is known as Encyclopedia Talmudica and was commenced in 1969.
The editorial staff sought to make the TE more easily interactive and accessible by placing it on the internet. An additional benefit to bringing this work online is that hopefully, when the project is finished, the compilers can go back and correct and add information, thereby updating the existing version.
The editors intend for the Talmudic Encyclopedia to have four levels of accessibility.
* Level I of the online version will include entries that have not yet been written. They will be prepared in a Wikipedia-like format to which anyone can freely contribute, though contributions will be moderated by the editors.
* Level II will be comprised of all the entries from “aleph” through the volume completed at the time of access and will be closed to editing by the public. Readers will not be able to alter the original material, but they will be able to add comments and citations. If their editors agree with what has been proposed, they will add it to the published version. This version will be available free or at low cost to the user.
* Level III will be the Talmudic Micropedia, which will consist of entries condensed from the original and rendered in a user-friendly style and format. It will be targeted to the general public.
The Micropedia (of which Professor Steinberg is the editor-in-chief) is being developed and written by a different set of scholar-researchers. The compilers take an entry, study it, decide what is less and more important, then cite sources that will accompany the entry.
This version will be available to all readers and will suffice for those who are seeking an introductory resource. It also will be updated to include information which was previously omitted for some reason.
* Level IV will be the translation of the Micropedia into different languages so it will be accessible to everyone, anywhere.
The Talmudic Encyclopedia is a monumental undertaking that encapsulates twenty-five hundred years of Talmudic discourses and Halachic decisions. This undertaking commenced about 75 years ago and is expected to be culminated in 2024, a work-in-project spanning three generations of scholar-editors, among the greatest of their era.
The work’s contribution to Talmudic study for scholars, beginners and those in between is unparalleled. The work’s concision and clarity in encompassing this vast amount of scholarship will serve the needs of twenty-first century students accustomed to receive information in a short and concise way.
[i] The Jewish judicial system includes one lone expert who may judge in the area of his expertise, a court of three judges who deals with all private matters besides capital punishment, a court of 23 judges who ruled in cases entailing capital punishment (also called the Small Sanhedrin), and the Great Sanhedrin of 71 scholars who ruled on topics of national importance. Between 410 B.C.E. and 310 B.C.E., directly after the destruction of the First Temple, the Return to Zion 70 years later and for a few decades into the Second Temple period, the Great Sanhedrin was expanded to 120 members and was called the Men of the Great Assembly. The Men of the Great Assembly took the reins of leadership in their hands with the special aim of strengthening Judaism. Initially gathered together by Ezra the Scribe, who led the Return to Zion from Babylonia and was the most prominent scholar of the Men of the Great Assembly, they defined Judaism during this tumultuous time when prophecy and kingship were gone from the Jewish people.
© Yosef Tucker, 2018. All rights reserved.