Writing new commentary on the Talmud and publishing a completely new edition of the Talmud might seem to be extremely bold moves. Yet, new commentary on the Talmud is in fact extremely common, performed by thousands of people throughout the generations. Each yeshiva dean who gives a class on Gemara, each parent who teaches a child a tractate – they all engage in new commentary on the Talmud. The very nature of the Talmud renders it a book that is not complete nor easy to read; it is the outline of the Oral Law, a constant challenge. In that sense, the entire Talmud embodies the idea of "as for the rest - go and learn it.” (Rabbi Hillel, early 1st century BCE)
New commentaries also arose from oral teaching, and the Talmud is designed to serve as an oral explanation, which was written and printed later. Along with the commentary, a need for a remake of the body of Talmudic text arose – with punctuation, vocalization and other enriched auxiliary aids. Here too, the idea is not new, and in fact was done for every generation since the first printed edition of the Talmud.
The great commentator, Rashi, himself told his grandson, the Rashbam, that if he had the time he would have had to rewrite his commentary, "according to the literal meaning/biblical commentary that are renewed daily.” Texts are renewed in every age, styles change, new problems arise, and generations have become gradually less equipped to understand the Talmud, each time requiring additional commentary and explanations.
This being the case throughout history, our generation is all the more so in need of an elucidated version of the Talmud. Regretfully, our generation has undergone a great rebellion and alienation from its origins, wherein the people of Israel as a whole do not live imbibed within regular Talmudic studies. Their world is abyss of Talmud.
Whereas the Bible is studied and known (at least partially), the treasures of the Oral Law, the central pillar of Jewish existence, have become distant, alien, unattainable. This difficulty is not due to some part of the Talmud, but, rather because modern Western learning styles are different: thought processes, the conceptual structures, the principles, and even the basic terms are unknown to the masses.
Overcoming these difficulties requires removing hundreds of obstacles - as many as possible. For example: Elucidating Rashi’s commentary by adding in thousands of explanations extrapolating his succinct, simplified text, interpreting concepts and terms, and accentuating vague contexts so that almost any layperson can open the Talmud and understand it.
In contrast to such an attempt to facilitate, simplify and clarify, the process begs the question: Are we stealing away the challenge of search and examination, the toil in understanding and the joy of discovery in Talmud study? We do not think so, because the fundamental understanding of the words and context are but the preparation towards Talmud study and its comprehension. Talmud translation and commentary are merely the removal of external barriers, facilitating a more rapid approach to in-depth study.
The perennial challenge of any holy work is to be novel while retaining the tradition; to create new branches on a tree, while paying homage to, and maintaining continuation with its roots, without deviation. In addition, one must remain within the bounds of lucid comprehension without overcomplicating, all the while encompassing the entire text.
Like Rashi, the commentator must try, as much as possible, to conceal self and personality, letting the text speak for itself. Commentators walk the fine line of expanding neither too little nor too much on the text. Reaching perfection in this regard is beyond the scope of an ordinary individual, attainable only by the likes of world geniuses such as Rashi. Nevertheless, one must constantly strive, as the Midrash asks: "When will my deeds come to equal those of my forefathers?”
Have all the objectives of this work been achieved, and do these books bring their students the designated value? It is hard to tell. Yet, the Steinsaltz books are found in the thousands, in diverse places from the most extreme factions in "ultra-Orthodoxy” in Mea Shearim to decidedly secular kibbutzes of Hashomer Hatzair, from New York, to Finland. This proves that the objective has been attained as far as certain individuals are concerned – more students can open the Talmud, just like in ancient times, they can contemplate its contents, peruse it and be aided by work specifically targeted to renourish the spirit of the Jewish nation on the whole and of each of its individuals.