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Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz 1937-2020

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz changed his family name to Even-Israel at the suggestion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, but kept the name Steinsaltz for all his publications.

Rabbi Steinsaltz was a teacher, philosopher, social critic, and prolific writer. He published over 300 titles. His lifelong work in Jewish education earned him the Israel Prize, the country's highest honor.

Rabbi Steinsaltz was internationally regarded as one of the greatest rabbis of the last two centuries. He was the first person since the medieval sage Rashi to have completed a full translation of and commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, and of the Bible (Tanakh). In 1965, at the age of 27, he began this monumental translation of the Talmud; its completion was commemorated in 2010 by the inaugural Global Day of Jewish Learning, which has since become an annual international event in over 40 countries. The landmark commentary on the entire Bible, from the Five Books of Moses through the Prophets and the Writings, was published in a new English-Hebrew edition in 2018.

I met Rabbi Steinsaltz for the first time in Hong Kong, where I was living as an expat for Motorola Israel. He was invited every year by the Hong Kong Jewish Community as a Scholar-in-Residence in order to support his work. This was the only way the wealthy community could make contributions to people they wanted to support, since according to their own by-laws they were not allowed to spend money outside of Hong Kong. Rabbi Steinsaltz always came accompanied by his right-hand man, Thomas Nisell, a student of mine when I was a youth leader in the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva in Scandinavia. I wrote about how Steinsaltz' Commentary on Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, was envisaged and became available only in Chinese, in the ESRA magazine December 2016 issue (Pirkei Avot and the Chinese Connection),

The Rabbi, Thomas and I also met socially each time they visited Hong Kong. I was always impressed by how Rabbi Steinsaltz had such vast knowledge about many different subjects unrelated to Talmud: philosophy, history, other religions, physics, chemistry, and even politics. As befits a Chabad follower, he never said no to a lechaim or a schnapps. He was always strict about being independent and was never afraid to speak his mind even against those who supported him if there was a disagreement. I remember one particular speech where he told the local Jewish community in Hong Kong at the Ohel Leah Synagogue that they shouldn't be dazzled by their abundance of money but come on Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. The community leaders accepted this scolding and still invited him back in the following years. When the local Chabad rabbi invited him to speak on a Shabbat afternoon at the downtown Chabad synagogue located at the 5-star Furama hotel and thanked him for making the special effort, he replied: "If you would had thanked me for making the effort of going up the hill, I would have understood, but coming downhill was no effort at all!"

Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to secular parents, Rabbi Steinsaltz studied physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University. He established several experimental schools and, at the age of 24, became Israel's youngest school principal.

Continuing his work as a teacher and spiritual mentor, Rabbi Steinsaltz established a network of schools and educational institutions in Israel and the former Soviet Union. He served as scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. His honorary degrees include doctorates from Yeshiva University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Bar Ilan University, Brandeis University, and Florida International University.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, at a dinner celebrating his 80th birthday, said of the Rav: "He was trained as a scientist but has the soul of a poet. He was brought up by very secular parents. Adin told me that his parents insisted that he learn gemara because they wanted him to be an apicorus (heretic), not an amaretz (ignoramus)…With his creative genius he has taken the most complex texts and turned them into the most simple messages." He quoted the pasuk in Isaiah, "Vekol baneich limudi Hashem" —"And all your children shall learn of God"— and noted how there have been attempts in the world to create egalitarianism in wealth and in power, and they have failed, but that Rav Steinsaltz has "dedicated his life to creating something egalitarian by opening the doors of study to everyone."

One of the examples of Rabbi Steinsaltz' talent for poetry is the poem he recited at a hesped (obituary) in 2001 for a 29-year old woman named Adi Dermer {neé Blumberg}. She was married to Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington and an artist. Rabbi Steinsaltz delivered the hesped and based on its poetic text, Hanan Yuval, the famous singer, wrote the lyrics and composed the song which now has become very popular, Hayafe veHakadosh (The Beauty and the Holy). This little-known fact is not found on any website that I know of, but I heard it from Hanan Yuval himself during one of his performances in Raanana. In Adi's memory, her family established the Keren Adi (The Adi Foundation) for promoting the arts.

Rabbi Steinsaltz passed away in August 2020. He is survived by his wife Sara and their three children and is mourned by many. Numerous students of the Talmud and the Bible owe their knowledge to him. He will forever be remembered as a giant in the Jewish world. May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


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