The dictionary definition of “Talmud” is the book that is the main collection of the Jewish Oral Law. This is a poor definition, since it does not give any idea either of the tremendous historical power of the Talmud, nor of its complex essence, so full of contradictions and paradoxes.
This huge work (more than five thousand pages, in the classical editions) is, in fact, the central pillar of normative Judaism. Jewish law, as well as the Jewish world-view, the ways of life and the forms of thinking in every aspect of Judaism, cannot be understood without it.
The indirect influence of the Talmud on the world, through many religious and secular channels in every area, is great. But its direct influence on the Jewish people goes far from law or religion. This difficult book is both a textbook which children began to learn at school age, and a book which the greatest scholars continued to study and develop throughout their lives. This collective work reflects about a thousand years of creativity (from approx. 500 BCE until 500 CE). It is, on the one hand, the reflection of the Jewish spirit, and on the other it is, perhaps, the most decisive formative force in Jewish culture and of the Jewish people, forming life-style and character traits.
Formally speaking, the Talmud is, first and foremost, a series of discussions about the Oral Law. These discussions which took place in the course of hundreds of years, were frozen, so to speak, in the midst of their flow – like a marble status of a flowing stream. On the one hand, it is an unorganized book, written like a modern stream-of-consciousness novel, with close and distant associations; on the other, it is a meticulously edited text, in which the order of sentences, the words within each sentence, and the use of synonyms, have very precise meaning. Although the book deals with the clarification of the innumerable aspects of Jewish law, it does not, in essence, try to reach binding legal conclusions, but rather seeks to find through insatiable intellectual curiosity answers to the questions of how, why, and what for, in each and every issue.
The Talmudic Sages were very well anchored in the reality of their times, and reacted immediately to temporal issues and to individual problems; but at the same time they gave equal attention to major issues a well as to hypothetical questions detached from reality. In the same spirit in which they discuss basic issues of morals and theology, they also conduct lengthy discussions of tiny details. The same people who engage in minute discussions on seemingly insignificant monetary issues are also mystics speculating on the Divine Chariot.
In fact, the very essence of this book is a paradox. There is no more intellectual a book than the Talmud, in which all questions are permitted and even desirable, a book which contains dozens of different terms for various kinds of questions. Any proof given must be almost mathematical, and the slightest flaw may lead to the rejection of a beautifully reasonable chain of thought. On the other hand, it is not just a sacred book in itself, but also this everlasting, rigorous mental work is considered a holy occupation, the very study of which is a form of worship. One definition of it is Sacred Intellectualism, communion by reason.
In the last hundred years, the Talmud has been translated – completely or partially – into a few modern languages: there is a French and a German translation, and at least two full English translations. Yet these translations, which vary in the level of their scientific precision, have not succeeded in overcoming the basic problem of translating Talmudic “language.”
The problem is not a simple linguistic difficulty; in fact, the Jewish-Aramaic jargon of the Sages is neither very rich nor very complicated. Although, like all ancient books, it contains a small number of words and expressions that are not fully understood, the ongoing exegetic tradition of many generations is very helpful for the skilled translator. A much greater difficulty is that of the basic literary style. It is very hard to transmit into any other language the flower of a living dialogue between people who know one another and who live the issues they discuss. Such a discussion creates, by its very nature, a professional jargon, with its own terminology. Any participant in such discussions is supposed to have prior knowledge of the pertinent subjects – all of which may be complete foreign to an outsider.
Yet the main difficulty that these translations have not overcome is the very essence of the matter – the thought-language of the Talmud. The Talmudic dialogue, which constitutes the major part of the book, is, in its essence, stenographic and fragmented. Complex and complicated ideas are expressed in few words, and whatever is said is but the visible tip of the iceberg, whereas the major part of every idea has to be understood from the content, from the general framework of Talmudic thinking and on the basis of a tremendous amount of prior knowledge which is taken for granted – knowledge that was transmitted orally from generation to generation in frontal teaching.
An additional problem, which is even more basic, is the thought-language of the Talmud. The Talmud has a way of thinking of its own. It cannot be compared either with the legal way of thinking – even though the Talmud deals extensively with legal issues – or with the mathematical way of thinking, although it has precise axiomatic foundations and a logical system with set rules. This book, which is totally based on abstract thinking, contains almost no abstract concepts. Its way of thinking is built upon real models and highly complex operations with these models.
The new translation of the Talmud is only partially a verbal one. Mainly, it attempts to translate the Talmudic universe of thinking and logic into a language which people brought up within Western culture can relate to and understand.
After the simple, literal translation comes the main work: filling in the gaps in the sentences and between them, explaining issues that are quoted from other sources, and tying the conversational framework in such a way that will be coherent for the student.
What significance is there to the study of Talmud – a book which is not as poetic as a book of verse, not as gripping as a detective novel, and which does not contain facts like an encyclopedia? It should be perceived as engaging in creating a complex system of thought and art, a super computer program that tries to depict the whole world, the engagement in which is never passive learning but rather active participation, in which every learner is, to an extent, an independent creator who continues the book in his own way.
The Talmud, our Sages say, has never been sealed; it continues to be written in every generation by every single person who learns it. To enter into it is to participate in a spiritual adventure in which the Jew travels through the collective soul of his people, and in which he discovers some of the inner plans of reality.