Discovering the Talmud

Eric M. Chevlen

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 85 (August/September 1998): 40-44.

Consider the book we are talking about. It is written in two foreign languages, one of which is native to but one small country, and the other now spoken nowhere on earth. It is the product of a minority culture within a vast and now crumbled empire. The text itself is ancient, handicapped by scribal errors and emendations of hostile censors over the centuries. Its subject matter is often abstruse, ranging from such exalted topics as the contents of the phylacteries worn by a decidedly non-corporeal divinity, to such humble ones as the direction a person should face while defecating. Its logic is precise, indeed sharply exacting, but idiosyncratic. There is no obvious order to its discussion, it has neither index nor table of contents, not even punctuation, and it is riddled with unexplained abbreviations. Oh, yes, one other thing: there are no vowels.

The book, of course, is the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli in Hebrew). And despite all the difficulties described above, the Talmud has been the daily reading of thousands of people for fifteen hundred years. During two-thirds of that time, the book existed only in manuscript form. For centuries it was commonplace for scholars to scrimp on food in order to afford a tractate of the Talmud, and bequeathal of the book was often explicitly mentioned in their wills. Now, the ongoing publication of an important annotated new translation* provides an occasion to review not only this translation, but briefly to review the role of Talmud in Jewish life.

Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah (the Pentateuch) was revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. The tradition allows no room for human mediation in the content of this revelation. Not only was the revelation word for word, but, as Jeffrey Satinover emphasizes in Cracking the Bible Code, it was letter for letter. Consequently, every word, and even every letter, has the plenitude of meaning that only a divine author can endow.

The meaning of the text, continues the tradition, was also revealed to Moses, and was passed on orally from him to Joshua, and thence to the Elders, to the prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly, etc., down to the current time. The Oral Law is self-evidently necessary. When God commanded us to "take the fruit of goodly trees" (Leviticus 23:40), surely He would let us know which trees were the subject of that commandment. When He commanded us to do no work on the Sabbath, surely He would tell us what constitutes work. He instructed us to slaughter our animals "as I have commanded you" (Deuteronomy 12:21). Yet the Torah includes no written commandment concerning the method of slaughter to correspond to this reference. The ultimate Promise Keeper said He had (already) commanded us. Doubtless, He did. These details and more are the subject of the Oral Law.

Not surprisingly, the Talmud itself discusses the importance of the Oral Law. In Tractate Shabbos 31a, we read of an incident involving the great sage Hillel (first century b.c.e.) and a gentile who sought conversion to Judaism with the stipulation that he would be bound only by the tenets of the Written Law, and not the Oral Law. The gentile had already been rebuffed by a colleague of Hillel, since a convert must accept both aspects of Torah, or be rejected. But Hillel felt that the gentile’s rejection of the Oral Law was due to ignorance rather than conviction, and he agreed to instruct him with intent to conversion. The first day, Hillel taught the gentile the Hebrew alphabet, starting "aleph, beis, gimmel, dalet," etc. But when the gentile returned for his second lesson the next day, Hillel reversed the names of the letters. The would-be convert protested, "But yesterday you did not recite it to me this way!" To which Hillel replied, "So you see, then; are you not relying upon me to recognize the letters of the alphabet? Rely on me also, then, about the veracity of the Oral Law." Ultimately, even if it is only at the level of the pronunciation of the letters and the meaning of the words, there must be some oral tradition underlying our understanding of any written text.

An oral law fulfills needs that a written law cannot, just as whispered words of love convey a meaning greater than ink on paper. It is necessarily dialogical, since there can be no oral transmission without an aural reception. The oral tradition cannot be conveyed without a personal relationship between teacher and disciple, and inevitably the conduct of the master in fulfilling the law becomes part of the teaching too. One disciple described in the Talmud even hid under the bed of his master, the better to learn from the master how the Torah requires a man to treat his wife with tenderness. An oral tradition has a vivacity and vibrancy that a written text cannot achieve. Thus, from the time of its revelation until the second century c.e., despite widespread literacy among the Jews, the Oral Law remained just that. To reduce it to writing would indeed have been to reduce it. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, if there was no reason to write it down, there was a reason not to write it down.

But during the Roman occupation of Israel—an occupation arguably more hazardous to the Jewish people than the Nazi Holocaust, because it sought the spiritual, rather than merely the physical destruction of the Jewish people—there was a genuine threat that the mesorah, the chain of tradition, would be irrevocably broken. In response to this unprecedented threat, Rabbi Judah the Prince organized and wrote down a large part of the Oral Law. This text became known as the Mishnah (Hebrew for repetition, or instruction).

The Mishnah became the subject matter for academies of study in the occupied territories (which the Romans called Philistia—Palestine—after its former occupants, the Philistines, as an insult to the Jewish inhabitants) and in the Babylonian diaspora. Each academy produced its Gemara (Aramaic: completion), an elucidation and commentary on the Mishnah. Thus were created the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. The Babylonian version took a hundred years longer to complete, and is universally recognized as the more polished and scholarly of the two texts.

The Talmud is not merely an explication of the written Torah. It also includes philosophical speculation, discussion of etymology, recipes for medicinal remedies, anecdotes concerning biblical figures, astronomical observations, and even advice concerning one’s sex life.

Insults, too, may be found in the Talmud. It is telling that the object of the insult is usually the antagonist’s learning or his teacher, just as modern insults often target the antagonist’s appearance or his mother. In both cases, the chief pride and the closest interpersonal relationship are the tenderest targets for attack. One scholar quoted in the Talmud dismissed the reasoning of the other with a brusque, "Your teacher was a reed cutter in a swamp."

All this and more is the subject matter of the Talmud. After all, what can be excluded from the Talmud, if it is a reflection of the revelation of the One who created us and the universe we live in?

The most important function of the Talmud, however, the feature which makes its study a religious rite, is that it seeks to establish the halakhah, the details of the divinely revealed law that govern the life of a Jew. Thus, it is second only to the Bible itself in authority. This is the reason the Talmud has been the subject of intense study by every generation of Jews from before its ink was dry until the present day.

The Jew-hater, too, knew the importance of the Talmud to Jewish life. When they could not destroy the Jews themselves, the enemies of the Jews turned against the Talmud. Public burnings of the Talmud were ordered in 1242 (Paris), 1553 (Rome), 1559 (Cremona), and 1757 (Poland). After the fall of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, the Talmud is no longer the target of destruction by political authorities. Now the Gordian text itself is its own chief hurdle.

The world of the Talmud is one of razor-sharp analysis. The following example may suffice to give a flavor of it. The Talmud describes the thirty-nine categories of labor that are forbidden on the Sabbath. These are derived from the types of activity needed to build the portable Tabernacle used by the Hebrews in the desert after their miraculous escape from bondage in Egypt. One of the forbidden labors is harvesting, since dyes required for the curtains and skins were of herbal origin.

The Torah explicitly states that a purposeful violator of the Sabbath will be punished differently from one who violates the Sabbath inadvertently. The distinction between willful and accidental violations of the law is a concept enshrined in Western law, too, so this does not seem strange to us. But the subcategorization of inadvertence in Talmud is so refined that there literally is no vocabulary in English to correspond with the Talmudic analysis.

For example, one may violate the Sabbath inadvertently because he did not realize that the day was the Sabbath. Alternatively, he might have known that the day was the Sabbath, but had been unaware that harvesting was forbidden on that day. Yet again, it is possible that he knew it was the Sabbath and that harvesting was forbidden, but was unaware of the severe penalty that is meted to one who intentionally violates the Sabbath; this too is a type of inadvertence.

Perhaps he meant to lift up from the ground a plant that was not attached to the soil (this is clearly allowed) but by negligence his hand slipped and he plucked a different plant from the soil. Another variant of inadvertence: he intended to violate the Sabbath by harvesting a particular plant, but carelessly harvested one he did not want. This, too, is not exactly willful violation of the Sabbath.

Finally, the Talmud discusses the case of a Jew whose violation occurs because, although he knows of the existence of the Sabbath, he is unaware that work is forbidden on the Sabbath. The Talmud asks, in what sense, then, can we say that he knows that the Sabbath exists? The reader who wants to know the answer to that question has cravings that a mere essay cannot fill. I advise him the same way Hillel concluded his famous advice to the Roman who asked that he teach him the Torah while standing on one foot: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary." Then Hillel added, "Now go and learn."

The sense of man standing before his Creator suffuses the Talmud. It may go unstated for lengthy passages, but it underlies the whole work as surely as the atomic theory underlies all chemistry and physics. God has created man, and given him a blueprint upon which to base his relationship with his Maker and with his fellows. The rabbis of the Talmud were able to develop a completely integrated legal and philosophical system based on the Torah and the Oral Law, for they needed no instructions other than the original "user’s manual."

Adin Steinsaltz is an Israeli scholar who is also producing an English translation of the Talmud. Although I prefer the Schottenstein Edition, the Steinsaltz Talmud includes a marvelous introductory volume that is of value to English-speaking students using any translation. In an earlier work, The Essential Talmud, Steinsaltz described the Talmudic mindset underlying some of its laws that may strike us as strange:

It is interesting to note that the halakhah differentiates in a most unusual way between theft and robbery. The thief sometimes pays a fine, but the robber who takes openly and by force is merely obliged to restore the object or its equivalent in cash. The talmudic explanation is intriguing: the robber is preferable to the thief since he acts openly, and his attitude toward God, in transgressing against his commandments and committing a robbery, is equal to his attitude toward his fellow men, from whom he steals openly, without fear and shame. The thief, on the other hand, demonstrates that he fears men more than he fears God, since he hides himself from his fellow men but not from the Almighty; he therefore deserves to be fined.

"Talmudic logic" has often been used as a disparaging phrase, usually by people who have never even seen a tractate of Talmud, to say nothing of having labored over it. What they mean is needless argumentation and hair-splitting. What the critics of Talmud fail to perceive, however, is that the subject matter of Talmud, no less than that of science, is all of reality. No amount of analysis is wasted if it reveals a truth of the world or of the law given to us by God. It is no surprise, therefore, that the closest comparison to Talmudic logic is scientific analysis, in particular mathematics. In his small masterpiece, Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery, Hungarian mathematician Imre Lakatos shows that even a discipline supposedly as pure as mathematics may be the subject of argumentative attack and counterattack, with shifting definitions and concepts affecting the global analysis of the mathematical problem at hand. Readers who don’t want to tackle the Talmud may get a flavor, at least, of its logic by rummaging through Lakatos’ work of mathematical logic. (I am reminded of the joke about the Yeshiva dean who tried to comfort the mother of one of his students. She was unhappy because her son had left postgraduate studies in physics at Harvard to study the Talmud. "Don’t worry," said the dean, "if Talmud proves too difficult for him, he can always go back to nuclear physics.")

In science, the experimental data are the "given" to which the theory must conform. All goes well, albeit predictably, in science, until a datum is generated that contradicts the established theory. It is simplistic to think that this datum automatically creates a paradigm shift in the science. First the experiment must be repeated; maybe there was a technical error in the conduct of the first study. Other studies must be performed specifically designed to probe the point of conflict between the expected result and the new surprising one. Even if the old theory is forced to yield, it almost never does so completely. Most often, it is modified at the edges. For example, Einstein’s special theory of relativity did not completely overturn Newtonian mechanics, but it revealed it to be merely an excellent and useful approximation for describing the motion of objects traveling at substantially less than the speed of light.

In the Talmud, the "givens" are the nuggets of Oral Law recorded in the Mishnah and elsewhere. When they seem to be in conflict, the underlying accord must be discovered. On rare occasions, the Oral Law is discovered to have been transmitted incorrectly, analogous to a physicist finding that the measurement he thought was in centigrade was really in Fahrenheit, and he has discovered not a new law of physics, but simply the error in his experiment. Because the Oral Law of the Mishnah is recorded so tersely, the exact situation to which it refers is often unclear, and needs to be elaborated by analysis of how this law apparently conflicts with others. If the Talmud had as its subject matter modern medicine instead of Torah, it might read something like this:

Doctor Abel says that penicillin is good for a cough. Doctor Baker says that penicillin is bad for a cough. Both are reliable authorities. How can this disagreement be? Doctor Charles says that Doctor Abel is referring to a cough due to pneumonia, and that Doctor Baker is referring to a cough due to lung cancer. But Doctor Doe has seen cases of pneumonia that don’t improve with penicillin, and he has heard from Doctor Evan that Doctor Frank once saw a patient with pneumonia die shortly after receiving penicillin. Clearly, Doctor Charles must be referring to cases of pneumonia due to penicillin-sensitive bacteria, and Doctor Frank must be referring to a patient who was allergic to penicillin. Did Doctor George report a case of lung cancer whose cough improved with penicillin? Doubtless, that patient had pneumonia too. (And so on.)

Because the scientific discipline of medicine describes various perturbations in an exquisitely coordinated complex system, we expect that apparently divergent observations (such as "penicillin is good for a cough" and "penicillin is bad for a cough") have an underlying unity. We expect the conflict to be resolved by the revelation that in fact we are dealing with different situations. Similarly, in Talmud, because there is one creator of the universe and one revealer of the law, there must ultimately be an internal consistency between the world and the law, and among the laws themselves. The underlying unity of creation and revelation leads us to expect an internal consistency in halakhah. The job of the Talmud is to discover that unity.

In modern times, one who has never begun the study of the Talmud must surely find the prospect intimidating. Imagine sitting down to read—and not just read, but to learn—the Encyclopedia Britannica. Who can accomplish such a gargantuan task? Those who have done it have jokingly compared it to eating an elephant: no problem, really—just take one bite at a time.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin institutionalized the one-bite-a-day approach. In 1922 he proposed that every Jew learn at least one daf, one double-sided page, per day, and he laid out a schedule for the learning. In just seven and a half years, he said, you could learn the whole Talmud. (And the next day, of course, you could start the project again.) Thus was born the Daf Yomi (daf a day) project, in which tens of thousands of Jews all over the globe, coordinated but without a coordinator, learn the same page of the Talmud every day.

In September 1997 participants in the tenth cycle of the Daf Yomi celebrated the completion of their study, and on the next day the eleventh cycle began. The celebrants in New York overflowed Madison Square Garden. In America alone there were over seventy thousand participants, and there were tens of thousands more in other major cities throughout the world.

I joined the eleventh wave as it began last fall. In doing so, I faced several handicaps. I have never attended a Yeshiva, and in fact was raised in a home marked more by Jewishness than Judaism. My knowledge of Hebrew was feeble, that of Aramaic virtually nonexistent. Ideally, one should have a partner to learn with, but I could not expect any study partner to join me in learning at the only time available to me, late at night after I have put my young children to bed.

I was not completely unacquainted with Talmud, however. Years ago I attended a Talmud study class conducted by the late Rabbi A. H. Lapin (father of conservative—in the political, not the sectarian sense of that word—Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder of the religious/political lobby Toward Tradition). Rabbi Lapin père used to say that the only prerequisites to be a student of his were character and intelligence. Assuming I had those qualities, I’m afraid I offered him little more to work with. I was like one the Torah describes as not even knowing how to ask a question. With great hope and faith, he selected for my fellow bachelor study partner and me the tractate of Talmud that deals with betrothals and marriages. He opened it to the first page, pointed to the first word, and simply said, "Read."

"I don’t know how," I replied.

"Read," he repeated patiently.

"But I . . ."

"Read," he said again with a smile.

For some bizarre reason, at that very moment, I thought of the Koran, with which I was then more familiar. Islamic tradition describes how the angel Gabriel revealed the Koran to the illiterate Muhammad with the same one word command. I thought to tell Rabbi Lapin about the similarity of my experience with that of Muhammad. But in a rare exercise of prudence, I thought better of that idea, and instead I . . . read.

Clearly, the brief time I had spent learning with Rabbi Lapin was not adequate to prepare me for independent study of the text in the original language. On the other hand, a simple translation, no matter how faithful to the original, would be nearly as mystifying as the foreign language text. The extreme terseness of the text, as well as the assumptions it makes concerning the knowledge of the reader, precludes that approach. It is as if Rabbi Judah, and the later generations of scholars who created the Gemara, had begrudgingly committed the Oral Law to writing in minimal fashion, so that even the written form would require an oral tradition for its explication.

My need in this regard is not unique, and in recognition of the demand for such a book, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., has embarked on a truly landmark edition of the Babylonian Talmud. The Schottenstein Edition was so named originally as a memorial to the parents of one of the major donors underwriting the project. With the untimely passing of philanthropist Jerome Schottenstein, it is now dedicated to his memory too. It is described as "an annotated interpretive elucidation." While not a substitute for learning with a Talmudic scholar, it wonderfully succeeds in its goal of making the Talmud accessible to the English speaker who cannot learn independently from the original text. By no means is it the definitive commentary on the Talmud—as if such a thing could exist—but I believe that this is the definitive English translation.

An example will demonstrate the terseness of the original text and the value of the interpretive elucidation. The first tractate of the Talmud, Berachos, deals mainly with the details of blessings required in various circumstances. As in all the tractates, however, digressions are common. Several pages, for example, are devoted to the interpretation of dreams. One sage is quoted as saying that if a dream portends a future event, even though part of it may be fulfilled, not all of it will be fulfilled.

The Gemara then gives the source for the sage’s comment. In a literal translation of the Talmud the next few lines would have read, "From where do we know? From Joseph. For it is written: and behold the sun and the moon, etc. Yet at that moment his mother was not alive."

The Schottenstein edition, however, translates it as follows: "From where do we know this to be true? From the scriptural story of Joseph and his dreams. For concerning Joseph’s dream, it is written: and behold the sun and the moon, etc. [and eleven stars were bowing down to me]. Now in this dream, the "sun and the moon" were taken as a reference to Joseph’s parents, and the "eleven stars" were taken as a reference to his eleven brothers. The dream foretold, then, that Joseph’s father, mother, and eleven brothers would eventually bow down to him. Yet at that very moment that Joseph dreamed this, his mother was no longer alive; hence, the complete realization of the dream was an impossibility." Further insight into this passage is then given in the footnote, along with reference to the seemingly inevitable dissenting opinions.

The translators/elucidators take pains to distinguish between what is merely translation and what is elucidation. The classic Vilna edition of the original text is reproduced on one page, while opposite it appears the English version. A phrase in the original Hebrew or Aramaic is reproduced—with vowels, thank heaven!—on the English side, and immediately followed by the English text. Translation of the text appears in boldface, while elucidation is in ordinary font.

Since the English version is far wordier than the Hebrew/Aramaic, no page of the original can be translated on only one page opposite it. An unobtrusive vertical gray mark in the margin of the Hebrew/Aramaic side shows which portion of that particular page is translated on the opposite face.

Extensive footnotes appear on the bottom of each English page. These include, but by no means are limited to, the insights of the essential eleventh-century commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak, known universally in the Talmud world by the acronym Rashi. The footnotes come in two forms. Some explain or summarize the discussion to which they refer. Others, like the teacher in an advanced seminar, merely refer the reader to citations in other commentaries whose analysis supplements or contradicts that taken in this text.

Each volume is prefaced with a brief essay explaining the critical issues discussed within. Reference is always made to the biblical text whose interpretation is the subject of discussion, and often dispute. A glossary of terms is found at the end of each volume.

As of this writing, roughly half of the thirty-seven tractates have been published. The publishers promise to produce future ones in time for participants of the Daf Yomi. The whole project, then, should be completed by 2004.

As long as there are Jews there will be Talmud study, because the reverse of that statement is also true. The Schottenstein Edition of the Babylonian Talmud provides superb access to the text for those who have intelligence and character, even if they do not even know how to ask a question.

* Talmud Bavli: The Schottenstein Edition. Artscroll Series. Mesorah Publishing (Brooklyn, NY).

Eric M. Chevlen, M.D., is a physician in Youngstown, Ohio.