THE VERY REV. THE CHIEF RABBI
[page xiii] With the appearance of the volumes of the Order Kodashim the great enterprise of the Soncino English translation of the Babylonian Talmud is at last completed and fulfilled. On the shelves of reference libraries in this country and in other lands now stands a monumental work of many volumes attractively set up and printed. Students of basic Rabbinic literature can now gratefully welcome an apparatus which takes an honourable place among the aids which are indispensable for the understanding and appreciation of the actual text of the Talmud. Fifteen years ago the appearance of the first eight volumes of the unabridged English translation was hailed with satisfaction by professional scholars and reviewers. They remarked on the general accuracy of the translation, the brief and valuable notes added to the text, as well as the indices of Biblical references and subject matter at the end of each Tractate. The pattern of the early volumes has been retained throughout the years and that despite technical difficulties and the hazards, interruptions and uncertainties of the war period. The indefatigable Mr. Jacob Davidson, Governing Director of the Soncino Press must be congratulated for his tenacity and determination to see the work through to its successful end. The erudite Editor, Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein, now Principal of Jews' College, and his goodly company of collaborators responsible for the translation and notes have demonstrated a high standard in scholarship which adds prestige to Anglo-Jewry.
My predecessor Joseph Herman Hertz [H] had the pleasure of writing an admirable and comprehensive Foreword to the whole work which is printed in the volume Baba Kamma, which began the series of translations. It now falls to my lot to write this Epilogue to the last volumes. [page xiv]
The Foreword and the introductions to the Orders and Tractates deal adequately with the structure of the Talmud, its contents, its redaction, its study and its identification with the life and fate of the people of Israel. My contribution will confine itself to an appraisal of the work as a whole in the light of the contemporary Jewish situation. Accessibility to the discipline of Torah-study has from the earliest times been the right and prerogative of every Jew. It is a continuous study to be pursued throughout life. It is a study, the neglect of which, neither the distractions of poverty or the surfeit of riches can excuse, nor the very building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, justify. Bible, Mishnah and Talmud have formed the three main basic categories of the Torah discipline. Whereas, however, most students might cope with Bible and Mishnah, the Talmud was reserved for the few — 'one in a thousand' — prepared to spend earnest laborious days and nights in its study and investigation. That has been the experience of the generations. It remains true today and painfully so. The last decades have witnessed the disappearance of the great centres of Rabbinic learning in Eastern Europe. Renowned teachers, famed for their piety and vast erudition were delivered to the slaughter, they and their hundreds of innocent and devoted disciples. Thousands of scrolls of the Law and precious Rabbinic works were desecrated and given over to fire and destruction. The centres of Jewish Wissenschaft in Germany and Austria which had produced great giants of scientific scholarship, whose labours were devoted to historical, linguistic and archaeological problems of the Bible, Talmud and Jewish literature generally, have ceased. The population of European Jewry has been greatly reduced while Jewish learning in the traditional sense leads but a precarious existence. On the other hand, one must pay respect to the heroic efforts which, with some assistance from American and British Jewries, have enabled some Yeshivot to be opened and maintained in some of the surviving communities and Displaced Persons' camps. But to all intents and as far as one can interpret the trend of events, it is principally to the State of Israel and the Jewries in English-speaking countries that one has to turn to provide space for the roots of the 'Tree of Life' [page xv] to be strongly and firmly planted. In other words, it has been decreed that the continuity and maintenance of Jewish spiritual values as expressed in Literature and Life shall become the responsibility and concern mainly of Israel and the hegemony of the English-speaking communities of the Golah. In Israel providentially the Torah has found safe and — we trust — permanent lodgment.
But it is equally the historic task and opportunity of the 'remnant' outside the Holy Land to encourage and increase the study of the Torah for 'its own sake', and for its practical bearing on our lives. The Sacred Scriptures as well as Rabbinic literature in Talmud and Midrash embody a civilisation whose influence pervades and explains many of the phenomena of Jewish existence. The right understanding and interpretation of the fundamental sources must become the chief preoccupation of teachers and students everywhere. In this connection the English translation of the Talmud is particularly important. English is now the vernacular of more than half of the Jewish population of the world. Not everyone — not even one in a thousand — has access to the original — sometimes difficult and intractable — texts of our sources. Nor can a translation however perfect ever replace the original. Nevertheless the earnest Jewish cultured reader who is unfamiliar with the original can read and study a translation which introduces him to a world of thought, feeling and content which will repay the painstaking efforts and concentration demanded. On the other hand, the Talmud student who makes use of a reliable translation which has the crowning merit of general accuracy and important explanatory notes, will find much that will be helpful to him in his attempts to elucidate the texts. The Talmud, despite wilful misunderstanding and vilification of prejudiced detractors, belongs to the few great works of world culture — its encyclopaedic variety is now more broadly accessible to the non-Jewish scholar. — My last word to all those concerned with the Soncino Talmud is in the form of a blessing attributed to Moses when he beheld the completed tabernacle of the wilderness 'May it be the will of Heaven that the Divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands'.
Directory of Sedarim and Tractates