When some 256 Jewish communities in 45 countries take part in a Global Day of Jewish Learning on Sunday, they will enact a modern miracle that brings together ancient wisdom and contemporary communications technology. The object of the day is to celebrate a historic event in the annals of Jewish studies: the completion of the Steinsaltz Talmud.
This monumental project began 45 years ago when Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was a mere 27. Today at 72, he has seen the fruits of work distributed throughout the Jewish world, not only in the main centres such as Israel, the USA ,the UK and the former Soviet Union, but also in far-flung places such as Havana, the Solomon Islands and Djerba, Tunisia.
Not since Rashi in the 11th century has one man performed the extraordinary task of redacting the more than 5,000 folio pages of the Babylonian Talmud - which is largely written in Aramaic - in a way that makes it accessible to modern readers. In addition to his Hebrew version, the text has also been, in part at least, translated into English, Russian and French.
What makes the Steinsaltz Talmud so special? The author's prime aim was to make this esoteric text user-friendly, and it does so in a number of radical ways. It changed the traditional layout, a creation of 16th-century Christian printers and typesetters.
In the Steinsaltz format, the pages have been exactly doubled to give ample space for his modern Hebrew commentary to flow around the outside of the central column of the original talmudic discussions, leaving the inner page for the commentaries of Rashi and Tosefot. In this way the traditional pagination of the earlier editions (such as the Vilna Shas) is retained but doubled.
The Talmud was never meant to be a closed book
The commentary itself is written in crystal-clear, modern Hebrew, the type you can hear on any street in Israel. Rabbi Steinsaltz himself was brought up in a non-traditional home with a Communist father. So he is very much an Israeli writing for fellow Israelis. Much of his time was spent going over his writing again and again so that it would be unambiguous. The result is a jargon-free, contemporary Hebrew that matches the often terse Aramaic or rabbinical Hebrew of the original.
Each page has footnotes which on one side include notes for further discussion - often miniature essays in their own right - encompassing opinions culled from commentators across the centuries, plus his own opinions where deemed necessary. On the other side are summaries of any halachic decisions that are discussed in the main text, taken mainly from the classical halachic works such as Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch.
The page, taken as a whole, thus offers all the tools a reader would need in order to learn the page of Talmud in front of him or her. It does not necessarily give you "the answer" to a particular problem. Rabbi Steinsaltz is too wise a pedagogue for such a strategy. His deep belief is that the Talmud is a book of questions and that each individual studying the text should be allowed to make up their own mind as to what the text means, and indeed to add his or her own questions. This ultimately may be the real genius of the project, showing how the Talmud was never meant to be a closed book but rather an invitation to an ongoing dialogue with the tradition.
The impact of the Steinsaltz Talmud has been felt worldwide by scholars and layman alike, but especially among secular Israelis thirsting for a taste of "the real thing".
Dr Ruth Calderon is a typical Steinsaltz Talmud groupie. "This book changed my life," she says unashamedly. The product of an enlightened, secular home, she yearned to study "as they do in yeshivah", which was an impossible task before these books appeared.
"His Talmud makes you independent," she says. "You have no need of an intermediary. It's all there on the page." So enthusiastic was she about the project that she took a doctorate in Talmud, and then established two centres, Alma and Ellul, in Israel for fellow seekers to study texts together, without necessarily becoming religious in practice.
"It is amazingly user-friendly," she says, "Fully punctuated, unlike the classic printed versions, it can be read without mistakes, by the Hebrew reader. Neither was it just me. Suddenly the entire secular community received permission to read the Talmud independently, without mediation.
"I recently spoke at the Sam Speigel School of Film in Jerusalem. I quoted from Steinsaltz, and it was completely acceptable. Twenty years ago, this would have been inconceivable. Now it's become part of the national dialogue. Many artists have taken up themes and quotes from the Talmud, incorporating them into their music, writing or visual art forms, something that would have been formerly unthinkable."
It can also be a bridge across religious divisions. "I was recently on an aeroplane sitting next to a Charedi Jew," she says. "He saw me studying my daf yomi [daily page of Talmud]. 'Your husband allows you?' he asked. When I assured him that there was no problem there, he said: 'Can I test you?' As we began to analyse the text together, the differences between us quickly disappeared. Steinsaltz had become a meeting place for us.
"Despite differences that may divide us on political or other issues, we had found a common language. Indeed, this Charedi man was closer to me than many secular Israelis who don't share this common heritage, and who run after non-Jewish values and culture that is often very superficial."
Steinsaltz would be gratified by such an encounter. As he once said, "I think I was the first to coin the phrase 'Let My People Know'."