The first and only German translation of the whole Talmud was the work of just one man: Elieser Lazarus Goldschmidt (17 December 1871 – 18 April 1950) translated all the tractates (masechtot) of the Talmud. Obviously, an incredibly complex task — 5422 folios of the Talmud had to be translated and along the way, Goldschmidt also compiled readings from various manuscripts and translated the Mishnah of those parts without Gemara.
This is even more remarkable considering that he only learned German from the age of 18 and there was no one to finance his project. Nevertheless — he started.
Goldschmidt learned Talmud as a young lad in the yeshiva Knesset Yisrael in Slobodka, then came (“on foot,” as the contemporary journal “Die Zukunft” put it) to Germany and turned to an academic career here. He studied “oriental languages,” translated the Book of Enoch from Ethiopic (back?) into Hebrew, translated the Sefer Yetzirah and later the Quran from the Arabic original. His translation of the whole Tanakh remained nearly unknown since it never went into mass publishing.
With his background, he was not only capable of translating according to philological aspects, but had the necessary “background knowledge.”
Later, English translations appeared with the collaboration of several translators, who also noted in the preface to their editions that they greatly appreciated Lazarus Goldschmidt’s translation (as in the Soncino Talmud). This masterpiece was later surpassed only by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (z”l).
The editions of the last tractates were already published abroad (in 1935). This “treasure” of Jewish knowledge was on some shelves after the Shoah and was reprinted by the German Suhrkamp-Verlag. For this purpose, an older edition was reproduced photomechanically. So, no digital editions were published, when the book market shifted towards digital editions. Therefore, interested laymen had to rely on libraries, or they purchased an expensive complete edition.
The plan to make an accessible German translation available matured in the author of this blog post as early as 1997, when the internet became a real mass medium in Germany. In 1997, talmud.de was registered to publish Jewish texts in German translation. Before the Shoah, an incredible number of translations of Jewish texts appeared. At first, smaller fragments of these texts appeared online, then more and more full texts. Now the Torah, the entire Tanakh and translations of the Siddur are fully available in German translation.
When Igor Itkin, a student at the Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, joined, parts of the “Mishneh Torah” by Maimonides were added — “parts” means literally thousands of printed pages. The original translation was made by Leon Mandelstam, who made it or had to make it for the Tsarist government of Russia. Igor Itkin, procured editions that had been confiscated by the government right after publishing the volumes. Igor also translated passages himself, because passages fell victim to censorship. Since the edition was probably intended for schoolchildren — it is not clear whether it was ever actually used in a school — passages with references to sexuality or physicality are excluded. “Kings and Wars” was the volume that was banned in the first place. It is available online (now as well on Sefaria.org).
The Suhrkamp publishing house, of course, had no interest in making a digital version available before the copyright expired. So we then waited for the year 2021 — the year when Lazarus Goldschmidt’s translation would become public domain. Thanks to careful preparation, the first four tractates of the Talmud appeared in German on January 1, 2021. Fortunately, we were able to “convince” (the doors were wide open) the responsible persons of the Sefaria project so that we could reach our goal more quickly: The Talmud in German – easily available to all.
A team of dedicated people now structured, segmented and corrected texts within a very short time and thus a journey came to its “end” that had begun in 1997 or even 1897, the year the first volume of Goldschmidt’s translation was published.
The insights from this process are noteworthy for other parts of the Diaspora as well. The whole Sefaria project has become an important tool — not only for the English-speaking world, but for more countries in the Diaspora. Keep in mind that for some countries, print production of translations would not be worthwhile for commercial reasons. Digital available texts will allow tiny communities to curate and distribute source texts with a translation in their language. A publication for a single language that is no longer a world language, but is historically significant and a good example for other communities.