updated 11/8/2010 5:02:33 PM ET 2010-11-08T22:02:33

After 45 years of 16-hour work days, an Israeli scholar has finally completed his life's work — a translation of the entire Talmud, one of Judaism's most important texts, to make it accessible to ordinary people.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz began his translation and commentary on the Talmud in 1965. This week he is publishing the last book of his 46-volume series.

Steinsaltz has written some 60 books on subjects like zoology and theology, but his translation of the Talmud from Aramaic to Hebrew, adding his own comments, marks his crowning achievement.

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The monumental work gives modern Jews a glimpse into the often obscure texts of the detailed rabbinical commentaries on biblical laws that obligate observant Jews.

In a radio interview Monday, Steinsaltz said his motto is: "Let my people know."

"I did it because it is necessary," he told Israel's Army Radio. "The Talmud is the spine of our culture ... I wanted to restore to the Jewish people their heritage."

The Talmud is made up of two main parts: the Mishna, originally in the form of oral law, written down in the third century A.D. after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple; and the Gemara, a much lengthier work amplifying the Mishna and compiled in the centuries that followed.

The Gemara is a collection of rabbinical debates over the points raised in the Mishna. The debates range from whimsical to angry to humorous. Often a conclusion is reached about what the Mishna means, resulting in a declaration of Jewish law, but sometimes a "tie" is declared.

Jewish scholars say the thought processes and associations found in the debates are at least as important as the conclusions drawn.

Because of their complexity, the text and meaning remained beyond the scope of most Jews, even though the original voluminous and detailed rabbinical debates have been supplemented by commentaries from scholars of later eras on the pages of the Talmud.

Steinsaltz addressed that by translating the Talmud from Aramaic, the tongue of the rabbis of the Gemara, into Hebrew, the language of modern Jews.

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Even more critically, he added his own explanations of phrases, terms and concepts, as well as listing the rulings of Jewish law derived from the text — which now allows anyone with a command of Hebrew to study the holy text.

In addition to the full Hebrew translation, Steinsaltz has rendered parts of the Talmud into English, Spanish, French, and Russian.

His achievement was celebrated this week with the Global Day of Jewish Learning — described as the first worldwide, trans-denominational and non-denominational event devoted to Jewish study.

Over the years, there has been some opposition to Steinsaltz's project from ultra-Orthodox scholars who believe that Talmud study should be reserved for rabbinical experts.

Steinsaltz, 72, was born to secular parents and began his scholarly life studying physics and chemistry at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. At the age of 24, according to his website, he became the youngest school principal in Israel's history. Three years later, he began his seminal work on the Talmud.

He has worked extensively on the mystical world of Kabbalah, with his book on the subject translated into eight languages. Steinsaltz, who lives in Jerusalem, also established a network of schools and educational institutions in Israel and the former Soviet Union.


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