In a trailblazing effort, ArtScroll set out to make Talmud Yerushalmi accessible to every Jew
Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab
IN December 2019, as the Siyum HaShas approached, we sat down in ArtScroll’s Brooklyn offices with three chief editors of its Talmud Bavli edition for a wide-ranging discussion on how that monumental project came to be. Now, three years later, with ArtScroll comfortably ensconced in spacious new corporate headquarters in Rahway, New Jersey, there’s a new milestone to speak of — its just-completed edition of Talmud Yerushalmi.
Spanning 15 years and 51 volumes, this trailblazing effort to create an English-language translation and elucidation of the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael has opened wide the doors of this seemingly impenetrable work to Jews around the globe, seasoned scholars and laymen alike. The ArtScroll edition of Yerushalmi was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz a”h, ArtScroll/Mesorah’s unforgettable founder and president, and he often remarked that he considered it to be the crowning achievement of his career in Torah publishing.
To mark the release of the final volume of the Yerushalmi, we once again joined three of the project’s top editors — Rabbis Eli Herzka, Zev Meisels and Yosef Asher Weiss — to talk about their experiences working on this one-of-a-kind endeavor and the ways in which it has enriched the world of Torah learning.
What were some of the unique challenges ArtScroll’s staff of writers and editors faced in their work on the Yerushalmi? What strategies and techniques did they use to address them?
Rabbi Zev Meisels: One of the great challenges was the terseness of the text. There were so many blank spaces with nothing filled in. It’s something like Mishnayos, where one statement follows the next with no in-depth discussion or elaboration, except that at least the Mishnayos are more clearly understandable at surface level. To make Yerushalmi comprehensible and accessible we needed to fill in those blanks to turn it into a cohesive, flowing text that people can understand and enjoy learning.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: People are used to learning the Bavli, where there’s a shakla v’tarya through which things unfold in the sugya — there’s a kashya and a teirutz and another kashya and teirutz. So when people come to the Yerushalmi they want to learn it in the way they’re accustomed to learning, yet due to these gaps, it doesn’t naturally unfold in the same way. One of the accomplishments of this project was making people feel comfortable learning Yerushalmi by filling in those gaps.
Rabbi Yosef Asher Weiss: The truth is that daf yomi regulars have already been exposed to the Yerushalmi, because every seven years they learn Maseches Shekalim, which is Yerushalmi. And I think if you would poll them as to whether they’d want to spend all seven years learning a masechta like Shekalim, they’d probably say that would be very daunting.
When we got feedback such as, “I felt like I was learning Bavli, with a flowing shakla v’tarya,” it felt like the ultimate compliment. That’s exactly the experience we were trying to give people.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: A related challenge is that unlike the Bavli, which has Rashi, there is no comprehensive, authoritative peirush in Yerushalmi. And in any given line of any sugya, one mefareish might explain it as a kashya, another might see it as a teirutz, and yet a third will render it as the beginning of a new discussion completely unrelated to what came before. So we had to find some way to bring a sense of conformity and consistency to a text where no one mefareish is automatically preeminent.
Rabbi Yosef Asher Weiss: But that also raises the problem posed by the fact that over time, the Yerushalmi was published in six or seven different editions, each of them with a different text, so that sugyos end in different places. The various commentators we have on Yerushalmi based their peirushim on these divergent texts, making it untenable to use one mefareish to explain a certain passage but another one to explain the following lines. That’s why we had to make a decision at the outset of each masechta about which commentary would be our go-to mefareish.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: In Berachos, the first masechta in Seder Zera’im, we didn’t have this problem since we felt very secure in basing our explanation on the commentary of the Charedim. He was a very early Acharon, from the generation of the Beis Yosef, so it was almost like having a Rishon to rely on, and his commentary is long and very thorough, something like the Ran on Nedarim.
Seder Zera’im as a whole was a bit easier, since the Rash Sirilio, another early Acharon, has a commentary covering most of the tractates in Zera’im, although there are gaps in his peirush. There is also extensive commentary in Zera’im by the Gra, and of course, the sefer of the Chazon Ish, which brings everything down to the level of the practical halachah.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: Even though Zera’im involves concepts that are less familiar to most people learning Yerushalmi, the availability of these various mefarshim that we’ve named made our work easier in that Seder than in the others, where we had only commentaries like the Pnei Moshe and Korban Ha’edah to work with. But there was a group of mefarshim that we used at various points in the different masechtos to decipher the pshat, such as Naom Yerushalmi, Sefer Nir, the Ridvaz and Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s shiurim on Yerushalmi. In Seder Zera’im, his sefer Derech Emunah was particularly valuable.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: Another major challenge we faced was that the commentaries on Yerushalmi often cite varying girsa’os, textual variants, which can change very significantly the meaning of what is being studied. We dealt with this issue in the following way: In our primary explanation of the sugya we used the girsa appearing in the standard printed edition of the Yerushalmi. But where there was another important girsa in the sugya, meaning there was a problem in the sugya that a major mefareish, such as the Gra, had solved by using a different girsa, we created a box on the page featuring the variant girsa and how the explanation of the sugya changes based upon it. So, the two factors determining whether to cite another girsa were the extent of its impact on the pshat of the sugya and which mefareish had cited it.
Rabbi Yosef Asher Weiss: Another salient difference between the two Talmuds is that Bavli will generally close out its discussion of a topic in some recognizable way. Even an inconclusive ending will at least be noted by the phrase “teiku.” In Yerushalmi, however, most often a discussion just ends abruptly. You’ll be learning a sugya and waiting for some indication of how things conclude, and all of a sudden, you’re in the next sugya. To address that issue, we tried where possible to make it easier for the learner by using a mefareish who explained the sugya in a way that it did have a definite conclusion.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: Especially when we first began, we had difficulty with the language of the Yerushalmi, with simply understanding many of the words it uses. It’s written in a dialect of Aramaic that was the spoken language in Eretz Yisrael during the period when the Yerushalmi was composed.
Rabbi Yosef Asher Weiss: There are also various linguistic quirks that distinguish the Yerushalmi from the Bavli. For example, the names of the Amoraim appearing in Yerushalmi are generally truncated from the form in which those same names appear in the Bavli — Rabi Abba in Bavli becomes Rabi Ba in Yerushalmi, and Rabi Elazar becomes Rabi Luzer.
Additionally, in the original editions of the Yerushalmi, pesukim are never quoted accurately, with at least one word being misspelled. At first, we thought these were inadvertent printer’s errors and we’d fix them. But after some time, when we saw this phenomenon was pervasive, we realized this was intentional — perhaps due to a concern that those reading the pesukim as they learn would be violating the prohibition on reciting Torah shebichsav by heart — and instead of fixing these errors we would just note them.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: Such errors in pesukim occur in our editions of Bavli too, but not nearly as frequently as in Yerushalmi. There’s a famous story involving Rav Elazar Menachem Shach, who married Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer’s niece. When they got married, they lived for a time in Rav Isser Zalman’s apartment, and the two couples would eat together on Shabbos.
At one seudah, Rav Shach quoted a pasuk, and Rebbetzin Meltzer, who had great proficiency in Tanach, said the pasuk didn’t read as her nephew had quoted it. Each insisted they were right, until finally, she pulled out a Tanach to prove she was correct — and Rav Shach pulled out a Gemara to do the same….
Talmud Yerushalmi, comprised of the hallowed words of the Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael, is of course a treasured, integral part of Torah shebe’al peh. But on a practical level, how can its study enhance the experience of limud haTorah for someone who has never before ventured into the heretofore daunting pages of Yerushalmi?
Rabbi Yosef Asher Weiss: One of the great rewards of learning Yerushalmi is that oftentimes the Bavli will initially suggest an explanation of the mishnah, in other words, a hava amina, but then reject it and move forward based on a different explantion, the maskanah. A person learning the sugya in Bavli assumes that that initial approach has been disproved with finality.
But then he opens a Yerushalmi to find that in the parallel sugya there, the Bavli’s hava amina has been embraced as the actual pshat in the mishnah. And all the svaros you didn’t get into when learning Bavli can now be considered when learning the sugya in Yerushalmi. It’s like, l’havdil, discovering a long-lost chapter of a favorite book.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: This is one of the things I say to people when they ask why they should learn Yerushalmi. I tell them that learning the parallel sugyos in Bavli and Yerushalmi can simultaneously open up the head and enrich one’s experience of learning the sugya in Bavli.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: There’s an assumption people make that Bavli developed the shakla v’tarya further than the Yerushalmi, and that the latter is merely an abridged version of the former’s complete one. But it’s erroneous.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: And in the notes, we always pointed out the ways in which parallel sugyos in Yerushalmi and Bavli were the same or different. We’d write, for example, “Bavli leaves this as a kashya; Yerushalmi continues…” And, of course, we noted those places in which the Yerushalmi argues on the Bavli. In this way we gave people a valuable mental road map based on the Bavli, with which they’re already familiar.
As with the ArtScroll edition of Bavli, the process of producing the Yerushalmi involved a team of scholars working on three levels: The first was the writers, who produced the initial written material, i.e., the translation and the explanatory notes providing commentary and sources. Next came the editors, who reviewed the writers’ work and enhanced it with their feedback; adding, deleting, rephrasing, or otherwise refining the initial copy.
Lastly, there was a small group of Readers, with a capital R, who reviewed the material once more in even greater depth, pointing out errors and ways in which its clarity and accuracy could be improved. And since Yerushalmi was uncharted territory even for advanced talmidei chachamim, the editors also sought out the guidance of scholars possessing specialized proficiency in this unfamiliar Torah terrain.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: Two talmidei chachamim in Eretz Yisrael who helped us greatly at the outset of this project were Rav Elchonon Cohen, a great baki in Yerushalmi who helped shape the contours of our work going forward, and Rav Chaim Green, an American, who authored a work on Yerushalmi titled Lev Yerushalayim.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: The two main Readers were Rav Yisroel Simcha Schorr and Rav Chaim Zev Malinowitz ztz”l, along with Rav Mordechai Marcus, all of whom were Readers for the Bavli as well. They were joined for the Yerushalmi by Rav Avrohom Forman, an American who moved to Eretz Yisrael at a young age. We turned to these individuals because, in addition to being major talmidei chachamim, they all possessed a keen understanding of the needs of those who will be learning the Yerushalmi.
Throughout the project, and especially in the early stages, Rabbi Nosson Scherman was heavily involved in many of the issues that arose in deciding how to approach and properly present this important, groundbreaking work. And generally speaking, he is our visionary and touchstone for every delicate question that we encounter in how best to give over the words of Chazal.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: An incredible feature of the ArtScroll editions of both Bavli and Yerushalmi is that the elucidatory notes ask the questions that are bothering the average person learning the sugya. It takes tremendous training and talent to grasp what those questions are and to address them.
A critical skill for our editors and Readers alike is to accurately sense the capacity of the learners to absorb the material being presented, providing them with sufficient background and explanation, but not overloading them with too much or too intricate material, which would cause them to tune out and become discouraged. And in Yerushalmi, it can be very easy to cross that line, because there are so many moving parts, different approaches of the mefarshim and varying girsa’os, which we might think we need to present to the learner.
As the distinctive olive-green-toned, gold-lettered volumes of Yerushalmi have started to join the burgundy-toned volumes of the ArtScroll Shas Bavli on the bookshelves of homes, schools, and shuls of Jewish communities worldwide, this project has taken its place as one of the great endeavors of harbatzas Torah of modern times. The editors share their thoughts about the individuals who provided the foresight and leadership that made it a reality.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: Rabbi Yechezkel Danziger — who wasn’t able to join us for this conversation, but played a central role in the Yerushalmi project, as he did with the Bavli — told me that before the Schottenstein family agreed to sponsor the Bavli, there was another very wealthy, highly respected family who sought to sponsor it. There were negotiations, but in the end, it didn’t work out.
When that happened, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz quoted his rebbi, Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, who said, “Every project will get done, it’s just a matter of who will have the zechus to sponsor it,” and Reb Meir added, “They don’t have the zechus.” Well, now, for the second time, the Schottensteins have had the indescribable zechus of sponsoring an entire Talmud, besides all the other ArtScroll projects they’ve supported.
Rabbi Eli Herzka: It’s interesting that when the Ramban project was starting, there was a certain potential sponsor I knew, and I went on Reb Meir’s behalf to offer him the sponsorship of the project, which he could have undertaken with no problem at all. But at our meeting, his advisor on charitable giving belittled the idea. I was very disappointed, but when I reported this back to Reb Meir, he wasn’t concerned at all. He said the fellow didn’t have the zechus, and that the Ribbono shel Olam saved us from someone who didn’t have the zechus to fund it.
He said that over the years, he had seen how people could potentially have sponsored things, but it didn’t work out, and in the end, it was much better that we weren’t associated with those people. Others ended up doing it and it was their zechus.
Rabbi Zev Meisels: Not only was it Reb Meir’s idea to do the Yerushalmi, but he also had the courage to jump in, and rather than say, “Let’s first finish this and then we’ll start that,” he’d say, “No, we’re starting this other project now.” So he decided we should start on the Hebrew Bavli when the English Bavli still wasn’t complete. Similarly, the English Yerushalmi began while the Hebrew Bavli was still under way, and the Hebrew Yerushalmi started while the English Yerushalmi was still in progress. These were big undertakings, which meant a big staff and a lot of fundraising, and it wasn’t easy.
Who can possibly measure his zechusim for all of this? And people recognize that. When I was in Eretz Yisrael recently, I went to Reb Meir’s kever in the beis hakevaros in Beit Shemesh, and I was astonished to see a large sheaf of papers filled with names of people and bakashos on the matzeivah. These were people beseeching Hashem for yeshuos and refuos in the merit of what Reb Meir accomplished during his time in This World.
Smuggled to Safety
Reflecting on the impact the Yerushalmi has already had on the world of Jewish learning, Rabbi Yosef Asher Weiss says, “If Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz were sitting here today, he might well say, ‘Do you have any idea just how many Jews will be learning Yerushalmi decades from now? Bavli has a head start, but Yerushalmi can catch up…’ I have an uncle who was an engineer and as he traveled to work on the train, he would read novels. But when the ArtScroll Shas appeared, he said to himself, Why read novels when I can learn Gemara? By now he’s been through Shas three times.
“Now he learns Yerushalmi, and he says he wouldn’t have learned one word of it if not for our edition. His son has been waiting for the last volume to appear so he can make a siyum on all of Yerushalmi. And for every one such story, there are 50 more we don’t know about.”
Here’s one: In an email to Rabbi Gedaliah Zlotowitz, Dovid Feiger shared the odyssey that led him to his recent completion of all of Yerushalmi. It began 13 years ago, when his third son was born and he and his wife had decided to name him after her maternal grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi (Harry) Bronstein. But Dovid’s mother-in-law told them that with several grandchildren already named for Rabbi Bronstein, she felt they should give the name Yisrael Yaakov, which would be the first name given for Dovid’s own grandfather, and the Feigers agreed, naming their son Yisrael Yaakov.
Touched by his mother-in-law’s graciousness, Dovid sought to express his hakaras hatov to her with a gift he knew she would find very meaningful. He would learn Talmud Yerushalmi and complete it in time for Yisrael Yaakov’s bar mitzvah. Her father, Reb Tzvi Bronstein, had been a renowned mohel who showed great personal bravery in making numerous trips to the Soviet Union during the 1950s and ’60s to perform clandestine circumcisions of Russian Jews.
On one such trip, Reb Tzvi met a great talmid chacham, Rav Yitzchok Isaac Krasilschikov, known as the Poltova Illui, who had written a 20-volume commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi. On his deathbed, the Poltova Rav made Reb Tzvi promise he would smuggle the hidden volumes out of the Soviet Union and work to publish them. By the time of his passing in 1994, after investing much time, effort and money, Reb Tzvi had succeeded in publishing numerous volumes of this commentary, which is cited in the notes of the ArtScroll Yerushalmi.
“At my son Ari’s bar mitzvah 11 years ago,” Dovid wrote to Reb Gedaliah, “I made a siyum on Yerushalmi Seder Zera’im. When my son Moishe became a bar mitzvah four years ago, I was mesayem Yerushalmi Moed and Nashim. And now, 13 years after Yisrael Yaakov’s birth, I’m about to make a siyum on all of Yerushalmi, just as ArtScroll finishes its Yerushalmi project.
“I tell people I get excited when I see green — and I don’t mean money. I’m referring to the green volumes of the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud Yerushalmi. It has made a major difference in my life as well as the lives of my whole family.”
Surprisingly, the Talmud Yerushalmi was not composed in Yerushalayim, but rather in the city of Teveria in northern Eretz Yisrael, the hometown of its primary composer, Rabi Yochanan, who was one of the greatest of the Amoraim.
Rabi Yochanan, an orphan from birth who was raised by his grandfather, studied in his youth in the mesivta of Rabi Yehudah Hanasi. His primary teachers were Rabi Oshaya in Caesarea, Rabi Yannai in Achbaria, and Rabi Chanina ben Chama, who succeeded Rabi Yehudah Hanassi in Tzippori. Later, Rabi Yochanan moved to Teveria where he founded his own mesivta. It became the most prominent of all of Eretz Yisrael’s yeshivos, attracting thousands of outstanding students from both Eretz Yisrael and Bavel, and its head, Rabi Yochanan, in turn became the undisputed Torah leader of the generation following the passing of Rav and Shmuel in Bavel.
Living to be over one hundred years old and leading his mesivta for 60 years, Rabi Yochanan served as a bridge spanning the last generation of Tannaim all the way to the fourth generation of Amoraim. Rabi Yochanan’s name appears some 1,700 times in Talmud Bavli and is cited by no less than 170 other Amoraim.
Rabi Yochanan was the preeminent Amora of the 150-year period that saw five generations of Amoraim flourish in Eretz Yisrael’s northern Galil region, and it was during this century and a half that the Talmud Yerushalmi was produced. Rabi Yochanan formulated its framework and was its primary author, with his students and their disciples adding to it until it was finalized some 70 years after his passing.
Bavli and Yerushalmi each include the three full Sedorim of Moed, Nashim and Nezikin (and Maseches Niddah in Seder Taharos), with each Talmud covering one additional Seder. In the case of Bavli, that is Seder Kodshim (and Berachos in Zera’im), while for Yerushalmi it is Zera’im.
As the persecution of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael by the Roman occupiers became ever more brutal, and the harassment of Torah-loyal Jews by heretical sects intensified, many of Eretz Yisrael’s yeshivos were forced to close and most of the Amoraim left for a more secure existence in Bavel. This brought all further work on Talmud Yerushalmi to a halt.
The work of creating Talmud Bavli, in contrast, continued on, with its final redaction taking place some 150 years after that of the Yerushalmi. The fact that the Talmud Yerushalmi did not undergo the same lengthy, intensive process of redaction and refinement as did the Bavli may have contributed to the Yerushalmi remaining largely inaccessible to most talmidei chachamim over the centuries. Various features unique to the Yerushalmi, such as the brevity of the text and the way that sugyos often end abruptly and lack a concluding halachic ruling, are likely attributable to the absence of this process of redaction.
Rabbi Menachem Silber, a lead editor of the Hebrew-language Schottenstein Edition of Yerushalmi, notes that the Rambam writes of having undertaken the composition of a work on Yerushalmi distilling the final halachah from each sugya, even where the text doesn’t clearly state such a conclusion, similar to what the Rif did with the Bavli. And indeed, two pages of such a larger work were discovered in the Cairo Genizah in 1909 and were subsequently identified as having been handwritten by the Rambam himself.
Lost and Found
The only complete handwritten copy of the Jerusalem Talmud still extant today is known as the Leiden Jerusalem Talmud, receiving its name from the University of Leiden in Leiden, The Netherlands, where it has been kept for nearly two centuries. It was hand copied from another manuscript of the Yerushalmi in the year 1289 by Rav Yechiel ben Rav Yekusiel ben Rav Binyamin HaRofeh. A resident of Rome, he was well-known as a talmid chacham, paytan and author of such seforim as Maalos Hamiddos, a work of mussar, and Tanya Rabasi, a work based on the Shibolei Haleket.
Nearly two and a quarter centuries later, the Leiden manuscript of Yerushalmi was one of four that served as the basis for the first-ever printing of the Talmud Yerushalmi in the printing press of Daniel Bomberg in Venice, Italy, in 1523. Reb Yaakov ben Chaim ibn Adoniah, who edited the Bomberg edition of the Yerushalmi, actually considered the Leiden manuscript to be the least accurate manuscript of the four he used.
The other three manuscripts have been lost to history, and indeed, for some 300 years following the publication of the Bomberg edition, the Leiden manuscript disappeared as well. It was only in the mid-19th century that its existence was rediscovered in the library of the city of Leiden to which it had been entrusted by a non-Jewish professor at the University of Leiden. It was subsequently transferred to the university’s library, where it remains till this day.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 905)
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