At the end of last year, the Israeli president hosted a celebration in his home to mark the publication of the 48th volume of the Talmudic Encyclopedia—75 years after the first went to press. The most recent volume covers entries beginning with mem, which is the thirteenth of the Hebrew alphabet’s 22 letters. Nonetheless, Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, who became the work’s chief editor in 2006, hopes to complete the project in two years’ time. Alan Rosenbaum writes:
Initiated by Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (1880-1949), the Talmudic Encyclopedia was developed with the goal of summarizing the major halakhic subjects discussed in the Talmud and post-talmudic rabbinic literature from the geonic period [7th–10th centuries] to the present day. . . . Bar-Ilan was the son of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, who headed the Volozhin yeshiva from 1854 until its closure in 1892. Bar-Ilan studied at the University of Berlin and later became a leader in the Mizrachi [religious Zionist] movement. He came to the United States in 1913 and moved to Israel in 1923.
In 1942, when Bar-Ilan learned about the Holocaust, he was concerned not only for the well-being of the Jewish people but for the preservation of the Torah. “Since the center of Torah study was in Europe,” says Steinberg, “he was afraid that the Torah would become lost. He felt that the rabbis in Israel who were still safe should do something to preserve the Torah.” Bar-Ilan suggested the creation of a reference work that would contain an alphabetical listing of the main topics in Jewish law, with brief articles summarizing the background and sources of each entry.
“The language of the encyclopedia is Hebrew,” says Steinberg, “but it is not biblical Hebrew, nor is it mishnaic Hebrew, nor is it modern Hebrew. It is a type of Hebrew that encompasses all of these, but in a unique style.”