Surprisingly, Rabbi Steinsaltz was raised in a secular household and was drawn to observant Judaism only as a teenager, when he studied with a Lubavitch rabbi.
“By nature I am a skeptical person,” he said in an interview with The Times a decade ago, “and people with a lot of skepticism start to question atheism.”
He was born on July 11, 1937, in Jerusalem, in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His parents, Avraham and Leah (Krokovitz) Steinsaltz, were active in a socialist group, and his father went to Spain in 1936 to help defend the leftist Republican government against Nationalist rebels led by Gen. Francisco Franco.
He attended Hebrew University, where he studied chemistry, mathematics and physics, while also undergoing rabbinical studies at a yeshiva in the Israeli city of Lod. At age 24 he became a school principal; he went on to found several experimental schools.
He lived most of his life with his family in Jerusalem. He is survived by his wife, Sarah, sons Menachem and Amechaye, a daughter, Esther Sheleg, and 18 grandchildren.
In 1965, Rabbi Steinsaltz founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications and began his monumental work of interpreting the Talmud for the masses. Since he was running schools at the time, he called the Talmud translation his “hobby,” but it became his crowning achievement. He told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth in 2009 that he hadn’t fully considered the immensity of the work that would be required.
“Sometimes when a person knows too much, it causes him to do nothing,” he said. “It seems it’s better sometimes for a man, as for humanity, not to know too much about the difficulties and believe more in the possibilities.”