December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

For more than a millennium, the Talmud has provided a treasured yet tortuous pathway to Jewish knowledge. Passed down from master to disciple, this complex text contains the opinions of generations of scholars on topics like marriage and divorce, heroes and villains, even devils and angels. Written in ancient Semitic languages, the Talmud is ranked with the Bible as one of the two great books of the Jewish faith. Yet the rambling, archaic prose and the absence of punctuation made the text accessible only to the most educated scholars.

All that has changed in the past decade. The Talmud is now a best-seller in Israel, thanks to a Jerusalem rabbi, Adin Steinsaltz, 52. Since 1964 he has devoted himself to interpreting and translating the 2.5 million words of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. With 22 of a projected 36 volumes now completed, his Hebrew edition has already sold 1 million copies.

This month, Steinsaltz brings the Talmud to the nearly 8 million Jews who don’t speak Hebrew, when the first two volumes of his English edition arrive in U.S. bookstores. Two more installments of The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition are planned each year until the series is completed. The dual translations are an astounding intellectual accomplishment. “Rabbi Steinsaltz has the kind of mind that comes around only once every couple of thousand years,” says professor Dan Segre of the University of Haifa.

Ironically, Steinsaltz read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital before the Bible. His father was a socialist who eked out a living in Jerusalem doing odd jobs; his dressmaker mother was not religious. Yet their only son decided to become a rabbi. By age 23, he was director of a religious school; at 27, he began his translations. “To do this,” he explains, “required a combination of hubris and self-effacement.”

Today, Steinsaltz supports a staff of 20 on the project’s revenues. He draws only a small salary and lives modestly in a tiny apartment with his psychologist wife, Sarah, and their three children, ages 7 to 18. “What I’m doing just had to be done,” he says. “I had the feeling that people are blind, while I see, and that it’s my duty to lend my sight to them.”

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