Opening the Book of Rabbinical Wisdom

Opening the Book of Rabbinical Wisdom

Washington Post

January 07, 1990

THE TALMUD The Steinsaltz Edition: Volume I Tractate Bava Metzia, Part I, Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Translated and edited by Israel V. Berman Random House. 252 pp. $ 40

THE TALMUD The Steinsaltz Edition A Reference Guide

By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Random House. 323 pp. $ 40


A HURTLING satellite peering down from Europe's night sky during the past millennium couldn't have missed the blazing emblems of Christendom's sustained disapproval of the Talmud: pyre after pyre of burning books, ordered by pope after pope, in town after town -- Paris, Toulouse, Perpignan, Rome, Bologna, Ferrara, Mantua, Florence, Venice, Cremona. In the last such auto-da-fe', held in 1757 in the Polish town of Kamenets-Podolski, nearly a thousand copies of the offensive book, having been dragged through the streets, were thrown into a pit and burned by the hangman.


Nor have modern attitudes, as reflected in our everyday language, been overly kind to the Talmud. When an argument is long and involved, and especially when it relies on hair-splitting distinctions, we discount it, not uncommonly, as "talmudic."


Why such hostility toward an ancient work so venerated, and so faithfully studied even now, by the Jewish people?


Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in the Talmud's inaccessibility. It is, without question, a hard work to understand. In 1307, one fair-minded pope, Clement V, wondering what the Talmud actually said, and finding no one who could tell him, proposed that chairs be founded in Paris, Salamanca, Bologna and Oxford in languages close to those of the Talmud so that those universities might someday produce a translation. The project, it seems, failed, and the burnings went on.


Some of those burnings, and surely some of our attitudes, might have been different had Steinsaltz's edition of the Talmud been available to the popes back then and to us in more recent times. The popes would have understood that the Talmud wasn't the grand threat to Christianity that they'd been told it was by Jewish converts eager to denounce their former religion. And those of us who have assumed that the arguments in the work are merely pointless escapades of logic would have appreciated the Talmud's efforts, by means of exquisite argument and debate, to build a solid foundation of law and learning that Jews could use to help them live with each other, with non-Jews, with their God, and with themselves in justice and in peace.


What, exactly, is the Talmud? In the sense in which it is usually used, the Talmud, which means "learning," consists of the Mishnah and Gemara.


The Mishnah is a body of teachings by rabbis, known as tannaim, who lived under Roman occupation in the Land of Israel -- that is, in Judea and the Galilee -- between about 300 B.C. and 200 A.D. These teachings, dedicated to the elucidation of the Torah -- the five Books of Moses -- and the derivation from it of the rules by which Jews could conduct their daily lives, were edited and compiled in about 200 A.D.


During the succeeding three centuries, other rabbis, known as amoraim, working in both the Land of Israel and Babylon, further developed the work of the tannaim by elaborating on the Mishnah. This work, consisting of teachings and debates in rabbinical academies on various portions of the Mishnah, was also ultimately edited and compiled, and is known as the Gemara.


The result was two divisions of the Talmud, each consisting of volumes, or tractates, containing parts of the Mishnah and the corresponding parts of the Gemara. One division, containing the Gemara of the amoraim who lived in the Land of Israel, is known, misleadingly, as the Jerusalem Talmud -- misleadingly because, at the time it was written, Jewish centers of life and learning had moved from Judea to the Galilee, the Romans having banished the Jews from Jerusalem. The other division, containing the Gemara of the amoraim of Babylon, is known as the Babylonian Talmud.


The Mishnah on which the Talmud as a whole is based consists of 63 tractates, or volumes, thematically divided into six orders that are devoted to the laws of agriculture, festivals, women, damages, the Temple service and ritual purity. Each division of the Talmud contains Gemara text that corresponds to many, but not all, of the Mishnah tractates. The Babylonian Talmud is four times the size of the Jerusalem Talmud, and contains 2.5 million words on 5,894 pages. In those places in which the Babylonian Talmud's commentary conflicts with that of the Jerusalem Talmud, it is the former's conclusions that are accepted as authoritative. The Mishnah is written in Hebrew; the Gemara of the Jerusalem Talmud in Western Aramaic, or Syriac, with an admixture of Greek words; and the Gemara of the Babylonian Talmud in Eastern Aramaic.


IN A VARIETY of ways, the acts of compilation that produced the Talmud were resisted: there was a reluctance, often, to finalize, in written form, what could be, in oral form, further debated, developed, clarified and perfected. Yet, at each stage, the act of editing produced not an ossifying finality but, rather, ever new commentary and debate. Even after the compilation of the Talmud, commentators in succeeding centuries continued the process of debate and clarification, as well as the codification of laws, which expanded the tradition of Talmudic scholarship that continues to this day.


But it's a daunting tradition to someone approaching it for the first time, even someone whose Hebrew is strong. And not only because of the Talmud's use of Aramaic. The form of the text, the nature of its argument, and the purpose of its debates, seem, at first, utterly bewildering. They seemed so to me when, at the age of 10, I was sat in front of a huge volume of the Talmud -- the same one the graybeards in the synagogue used -- and was told, simply, to learn it. The Aramaic, which I had never seen before, was hard enough; but the lack of vowelization and punctuation, the arcane nature of the subject matter, and the arguments whose points and purposes I couldn't fathom, left me reeling. It took years of listening to the teachers, and studying with classmates, and asking questions, before the bewilderment gave way, to the extent that it did, to an appreciation of what the tannaim said, what the amoraim were troubled by, why they pursued their arguments so elliptically, and why they sought clarification no less avidly than they sought conclusion.


It would have been immensely easier had I had, at that time, and in subsequent years, the English version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the tractate I was studying. In the center of the page, I would have been able to read the Mishnah and Gemara with vowels, and with the kind of punctuation used in modern English and Hebrew. I would have had, on the one side of the text, a literal English translation. I would have had on the other side of the text Steinsaltz's most important contribution, an English commentary and expanded translation that would have elucidated the strikingly concise form of the Talmudic language. I would have had Steinsaltz's notes, which quote the classical commentators in order to further clarify the argument. And I would have had other marginal notes providing background information about the subject of the text.


And it would have been easier still had I also had Steinsaltz's Reference Guide. Lacking all sense of the history of the period, I would have learned what the Talmud was, the political and religious circumstances from which it emerged, and just enough Aramaic grammar and vocabulary to make headway possible. I would have learned, further, who the tannaim and amoraim mentioned in the Talmud were and when they lived, the meanings of the special signs that stud the text, and the identities and habits of the numerous commentators whose writings, set in tiny letters, and replete with mysterious contractions, occupy the sides of the page and the back of the volume. And, most important of all, I would have learned about the basic assumptions underlying the debates in the Talmud and their purposes, as well as the fundamentals of Talmudic terminology and concepts; in fact, the alphabetical listings of terminological and conceptual points would have made my introduction to the Talmud, if not easy, then at least rational.


VOLUME I of the English version of the Steinsaltz Talmud covers the first chapter of the tractate in the Babylonian Talmud known as Bava Metzia, which deals with laws regarding rival claims to the ownership of a found object. This volume is a translation of a portion of one of the volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud that have appeared in Israel, in Hebrew, during the past two decades. So far, 21 of the Hebrew volumes have appeared there, with 19 more planned; one volume of the Jerusalem Talmud has also appeared in Hebrew. What percentage of these Hebrew volumes will ultimately be translated into English and published by Random House is, it seems, still unclear.


Steinsaltz's approach to the text and to the Talmud in general has provoked some criticism in Israel, especially among the ultra-Orthodox. Yet the Hebrew version of his Talmud has proved enormously popular, with reported sales of nearly a million volumes, and is used even by scholars who have been studying the Talmud for decades; those users apparently include some of Steinsaltz's most ardent critics, who are said to hide their copies of the Steinsaltz volumes in brown paper wrappers. Some American critics, themselves relatively innocent of serious and sustained Talmudic study but moved nonetheless to offer themselves as defenders of the Talmud's purity, have decried Steinsaltz's English edition as false, superficial and a mimicry of the real thing. To say that, however, is to misunderstand the value and purpose of his achievement. Whatever simplifications he introduces are more than balanced by the advantages they confer to the student who would otherwise find himself unable to even begin Talmud study.


I, too, have objections, especially to statements in the Reference Guide. Steinsaltz makes too much, I think, of the Talmud's consistency and perfection. Though no doubt exemplary, and often brilliant, figures, the Talmud's authors had to have made mistakes and, over the years, had to have reversed course or even forgotten their earlier positions; had they never done so they wouldn't have been human. Indeed, the text itself reveals, from time to time, elements of pique, as well as other human failings, that make the debaters, and therefore the debates, reassuringly familiar and accessible.


The Talmud is the astonishingly capacious vessel of Jewish civilization. The arguments that rage in the work, the laws that it develops, the flights of imagination into which it leaps, and the human predicaments it describes present the person who has entered its precincts with a richness of spirit and an exercise of mind that are simply unavailable in any other text I know. Steinsaltz, through the work he has begun, opens the door of that world to pilgrims of every background who would otherwise have no way to enter it. He deserves their honor, and their thanks.


Walter Reich, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center

for Scholars, is the author of "A Stranger in the House: Jews and Arabs

in the West Bank" and the forthcoming "Origins of Terrorism:

Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind."