The Essential Talmud
Thirtieth Anniversary Edition
Thirty years after its initial release, The Essential Talmud continues to serve as the go-to book for those just beginning their journey into the world of the Talmud, as well as those already versed in the sacred Jewish text. The new Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (Basic Books, 2006) of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s classic work demonstrates the contemporary relevance of the proud legacy by which the Jewish people have lived, survived, and thrived throughout the ages.
The Essential Talmud is a masterful introduction to the beliefs, attitudes, and methods that have occupied students of the Talmud for centuries. It is a rare volume that captures the flavor and spirit of the Talmud as a human document and summarizes its main principles as an expression of divine law.
The expanded Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of The Essential Talmud features an updated preface by Rabbi Steinsaltz, as well as new chapters containing an historical overview of life in the times of the Talmud and an in-depth look at the content and appearance of the original Talmudic page.
A book of profound scholarship and yet also of concise, simple, and brilliant pedagogy, The Essential Talmud offers readers a refreshing perspective on one of history’s most unique and paradoxical holy works.
The Reporter calls The Essential Talmud “a first-class study guide for anyone who wants to know why this text has fascinated generations of Jewish scholars.”
Revisiting a Classic
By Rabbi R. Esserman, February 23, 2007
In recent years, the number of books written about the Talmud has increased dramatically, especially works aimed at readers who have had little or no previous experience with this great Jewish text. A short list includes Rabbi Judith Abrams’ series “The Talmud for Beginners,” “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Talmud” by Rabbi Aaron Parry, “Swimming in the Sea of Talmud” by Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, and several “Talmud With Training Wheels” books by Joel Lurie Grishaver. However, it’s unlikely that any of these will replace the classic work “The Essential Talmud” by Adin Steinsaltz (Basic Books), which has recently been released in a 30th anniversary edition that includes a new preface and two new chapters by the author.
While Steinsaltz’s work doesn’t capture the actual experience of studying talmudic text, it does give an excellent overview of what the Talmud contains, making it a first-class study guide for anyone who wants to know why this text has fascinated generations of Jewish scholars. Steinsaltz approaches the Talmud from three perspectives in order to present “a sense of [how] the multifaceted and often contradictory sides of this large very complex” text actually works. The first section discusses the history of the Talmud from ancient to modern times. The second looks at the Talmud’s structure and “the subjects it deals with; this includes the many different areas of Jewish law, as well as philosophy, biology, psychology, legends, proverbs, and wisdom.” The most difficult part of the Talmud to explain, “the methodology…its ways of thinking,” is explored in the last section of the book.
Readers need to understand that the history featured in the first section should be called Jewish history, that is, history as it is recorded in the Talmud itself. There are scholarly debates about how accurately the text portrays the ancient rabbis or the times they lived in. Some believe the document is as much propaganda as it is history, but for those seeking to understand the internal logic of the talmudic system, it’s necessary to understand the world view of the ancient rabbis even if the text is not historically accurate in the modern sense. This section also offers one of the new chapters, “Life in the Talmudic Period,” which looks at life in the Jewish world in the context of the political and social forces of the cultures that surround it.
The second section gives a detailed explanation of the rulings and discussions contained in the Talmud. It also includes the second new chapter, which tells of the placement of text on a printed page of Talmud and explains the different commentary that surrounds the talmudic text. While this is interesting, the book lacks an actual page of Talmud as reference so it will be confusing to those who have never seen a page of Talmud. Readers will have to refer to either “The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition, A Reference Guide” where this chapter first appeared or to another version of a traditional Talmud, one that contains all the traditional commentary. Where this section does succeed, though, is in describing the scope of the Talmud: “Habits, customs, occupational hints, medical advice, examinations of human nature, linguistic questions, ethical problems – all are Torah and as such are touched upon in the Talmud. And since all of life is permeated with Torah, the sages are not merely teachers, offeringex cathedra instructions; their very lives constitute Torah, and everything pertaining to them is worthy of perusal.”
One example given about the nature of the questions the rabbis asked can be seen in the discussion of the nature of the sukkah, the booth or tabernacle, that the Bible commands should be built during the holiday of Sukkot. Instead of assuming that everyone knows how a tabernacle should be built, the rabbis sought to determine the parameters for these buildings. This is not as easy a task as one might think. “The question of how to define a tabernacle is fundamental and contains within it dozens of other queries. What is the area of the tabernacle? How should it be constructed? What distinguishes it from a house? What materials should be used?” And this touches on only the beginning of the discussion.
The last part of “The Essential Talmud” discusses the logical system of the Talmud, which can only be understood in reference to itself: for example, proofs come not only from the logical assumptions of the person studying the text, but from being able to quote various parts of the Torah, even if the sections quoted don’t relate directly to the problem being spoken about. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it’s difficult to talk about how rabbinic logic works without giving specific examples. Even Steinsaltz is unable to satisfactorily explain this logical system because in order to do so, he would need to quote extensively from the talmudic text, analyzing how each element of a discussion worked. This lack of actual text study is perhaps the only real criticism one can offer of his work.
However, Steinsaltz assumes that his book is only the starting point for readers; he knows that in order to experience the Talmud, one must enter the flow of the study itself. He also notes that the study of Talmud is never ending, that even today “it produces new shoots that draw sustenance from the roots and continues to grow.” “The Essential Talmud” is an excellent work for anyone looking to learn more about this fascinating text.
Reprinted with permission from The Reporter.
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