If the Bible is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is the central pillar, soaring up from the foundations and supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice. In many ways, the Talmud is the most important book in Jewish culture, the backbone of creativity and of national life. No other work has had a comparable influence on the theory and practice of Jewish life, shaping spiritual content and serving as a guide to conduct.
Formally, the Talmud is a 2,711-page summary of oral law organized in 37 Tractates, or massekhtot. But in fact, the Talmud is much more than that: it is the repository of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom. It is an amalgam of law, legend, and philosophy, a blend of unique logic and shrewd pragmatism, of history and science, anecdotes and humor. The Talmud considers no subject to be too strange, too remote, or too bizarre to be studied.
The key to this work is in its name, “Talmud,” which means study, learning, fulfilling the commandment of Talmud Torah (Torah study) – study that is its own end and reward. Yet the sages are not merely students and teachers – their very lives constitute Torah.
The entire Talmud is framed by questions and answers. It is, perhaps, the only sacred book in all of world culture that not only permits, but even encourages the student to question it. At the same time, the Talmud, like no other work, demands tremendous quantitative erudition on the part of those who study it.
According to Jewish tradition, the Oral Torah was given at Sinai together with the Written Law. For generations, the Oral Law was indeed studied and transmitted orally. The Mishna is the first written summary of the Oral Law and was codified by Rav Yehuda Hanasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) in the 2nd century CE.
Over the course of the next 300 years, scholars pored over the Mishna and expounded upon it. The Gemara (also called Talmud in the more restricted sense of the term) is a compilation of their debates and commentaries on the Mishna.
The discussions of the sages from Palestine are contained in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was edited by the disciples of Rabbi Yohanan in Tiberias in the 4th century CE. Its Diaspora counterpart, the Babylonian Talmud, was compiled by Rav Ashi and Ravina in the 5th century CE and is considered to be more extensive and authoritative.
The Mishna and Gemara together comprise the Talmud.
The view of Torah as all-embracing also accounts for the Talmud’s constant transitioning from issue to issue and sphere to sphere without specifying the differences between them. In the world of the Talmud, all facets of knowledge interact with one another.
The editing of the Talmud is profoundly different from our modern concept of editing. Rather than being linear and well-organized, the Talmud as we have it today is more like the minutes of a symposium held over a few centuries, with the participation of scores of great sages. This style reflects the interactive modus operandi of the great Babylonian study halls where the discussions recorded in the Talmud were originally held. While the Talmud is highly associative and evolving, it is at the same time extremely precise. In a way, the Talmud can be likened to a sculpture of a flowing river.
The Talmud is unique not only in its subject matter, but also, or perhaps even more markedly, in its special patterns of analysis and unique exegetic rules, which do not always correspond to other logical systems. For instance, the Talmud deliberately avoids abstract thinking based on abstract concepts. Although it frequently deals with highly conceptual issues, it employs models as a way to think about them.
Another interesting aspect of Talmudic discussion is that a subject under discussion is not “law” in the socio-legal meaning of the term, but rather is the clarification of facts and actual situations of intrinsic importance. The objective is to arrive at the truth, which cannot be classified into components by order of importance. Hence, what looks like lack of differentiation between important and minor issues, between the useful and the irrelevant, is in actuality the recording of many truths which are impossible to prioritize.
The power of the Talmud derives from two elements. Not only does Talmud constitute the backbone of diverse Jewish knowledge, but its study also cannot be confined to mere mechanical memorization. Rather, engagement with the Talmud entails constant renewal and innovation, requiring the active participation and emotional and intellectual involvement of its students. It is impossible to study Talmud in an externalized and alienated fashion.
Talmudic scholarship may be termed “sacred intellectualism.” This unique blend of profound faith and questioning skepticism, an incessant self-criticism, together with the constant awareness that beyond it lies a reality to which one must adhere, has characterized the Jewish people throughout the ages.
The Talmud is also a powerful stabilizing factor, the voice of sanity in a discordant and disjointed world. It has saved the Jewish people and the Jewish individual from twofold dangers – materialism on the one hand, and alienated mysticism on the other – not because the Talmud is the unhappy medium between the two, but because, to a certain extent, it is their synthesis, combining both elements in a truly unique fashion.
The final edition of the Talmud may be compared to the stages of maturity of a living organism. Like a tree, it has reached a certain form that is not likely to change substantially, yet it continues to live, grow, and proliferate. It is incumbent on every scholar to add to the corpus of the Talmud, thus making their contribution to the ongoing Talmudic conversation.
The Talmud is not a schematic textbook, but a “slice of life.” Therefore, when beginning to study Talmud, one always finds oneself in the middle of things, regardless of where one starts. The ability to understand is gained only through study, and the more one studies, the better one understands what one has already studied. Talmud study can be viewed as an ever-rising spiral. As our sages said: “Everything has its boundaries, even Heaven and earth have their boundaries. Only Torah has no bounds.”
Background on Talmud
Understandably, since the Mishna deals mainly with matters of Halakha (Jewish law), many of the issues and problems that arise in the study of the Mishna are Halakhic ones. Nevertheless, the solution of Halakhic problems, and in particular the finding of definitive Halakhic rulings, is not the main purpose of the Talmud. The ultimate purpose of the Talmud is not in any sense utilitarian – its sole aim is to seek out the truth.
Accordingly, it is immaterial whether the subject under investigation is practical or theoretical, whether the conclusions reached in the investigation ever yield material benefit or forever remain no more than an abstract, conceptual achievement.
In this way we can explain the extraordinary fact that the Talmud attaches equal weight to the study of both practical and theoretical issues, and, similarly, to the study of opinions that are Halakhically binding and those that are not binding and were in fact rejected generations earlier.
The Talmud accepts the contents of the Mishna as incontrovertible facts. The Talmud can find interrelationships and connections among the subjects, it can draw attention to problems, it can reconcile apparent contradictions – but it cannot disagree with the Mishna. The Talmud looks to the Mishna as the source for the certainty of its findings. The Mishna serves as the ultimate arbiter of every problem and provides final proof for every assertion or theory.
This special authority and importance is not accorded solely to the Mishna, but also to the other collections of the statements of the Tannaim – the Tosefta, Baraitot, Sifra, Sifrei, and other Halakhic Midrashim. Analyzing the views of the Tannaim and determining how they are interrelated is one of the most fundamental concerns of the Talmud. Furthermore, just as the Talmud recognizes the statements of the Tannaim as incontrovertible facts, it also attaches great value to the statements of the early Amoraim (post-Tannaitic Sages). The statements of a scholar of an earlier period are the subject of study, explanation and investigation. Only very rarely, and then only on the basis of other sources, is it permissible to disagree with the statements of earlier scholars.
Divine revelation is a supreme objective value, for the word of God is the expression of absolute truth. Thus, all study and scrutiny of problems must be guided by this revelation – the certain source of absolute knowledge.
Each generation received knowledge of divine revelation and passed it on to the next. The sum of one generation’s knowledge of revelation is known as the Torah of that generation, and its transmission to the following generation is the “chain of tradition.” Earlier generations, closer in time to the initial revelation, obviously possessed more intimate and fuller knowledge of it. That is why their opinions are given greater weight.
The Talmud is built layer upon layer, the result of the combined labors of many generations. Each generation transmitted the basic understanding of Judaism it had received, adding to it according to its own conception and ability, and in accordance with the manner in which the scholars could express the tradition they had received. The creative work of one generation serves as the basis for the creative work of the next. This is the uninterrupted continuity of Torah.
The first principle of Talmudic inquiry is the acceptance of the Mishna and the teachings of the early Amoraim as incontrovertible and unchallengeable facts. This esteem is not attached to the mere opinions of scholars, but rather to facts that were attested and established by divine revelations.
The second principle is the premise that every word of the Mishna, of the Tannaim and of the Amoraim, was precisely weighed and measured, as was their every action, and hence even the most far-reaching conclusions may be drawn from them. A true scholar, in the Talmudic sense, is a person embodying general perfection and not just intellectual excellence. Such a scholar expresses and embodies God’s word as revealed in the Torah. Therefore his conduct, including his every statement, is marked by absolute precision and divine guidance, and serves as an authoritative source for binding Halakhic decisions.
The third principle is that there is a common, shared basis to all the opinions expressed in the Mishna, and that in seeking to understand the words of the Mishna or of the Amoraim one should always seek elements that reconcile the parties to the dispute and not those that divide them. Many of the most searching and significant questions and discussions in the Talmud derive from the desire to resolve differences. First, in differentiating between the sources, the Talmud seeks to restrict the points at issue between the disputants as narrowly as possible. Second, the Talmud seeks to explain that the words of the Mishna or of the Amoraim do not represent the specific viewpoint of a single scholar, but rather that they are consistent with all the opinions. Only in special cases does the Talmud classify opinions according to preexisting, differing viewpoints.
The fourth principle is that everything found in the sources has significant meaning. Points already made are not repeated without reason; nothing is stated which could simply and logically be deduced from known facts; nor are well-known things recorded unless they contain some new or unusual feature. The Talmud explains and defines the cases and the special circumstances requiring just that repetition, or it shows that, were it not for the special emphasis in the phraseology, we would have arrived at different, and erroneous, conclusions.
These basic principles, which form a set of axioms of Talmudic inquiry, may be summarized as follows:
- The Mishnayot and other Tannaitic statements are the source material in the Talmud’s search for the truth.
- The sources are precise and accurate in every detail.
- One must find what differing views have in common and what unites them.
- All statements in the sources have independent and significant meaning.
The structure of the Talmud is associative. The material of the Talmud was memorized and transmitted orally for centuries. Its ideas are joined to each other by inner links, and the order often reflects the needs of memorization, Talmudic discourse shifts from one subject to a related subject, or to a second that brings the first to mind in an associative way.
There are, of course, a number of features characteristic of the way the Talmud is organized. First, it is very rare for the Talmudic discussion of any given subject to begin with a detailed definition of the subject.
A second feature of Talmudic organization is that subjects are arranged so as to stimulate interest. Tractates usually open with a somewhat puzzling introduction, taken from the very depths of the subject, and only afterwards does the discussion return to its original starting point.
In general the Talmud starts from the Mishna (whose structure is based on similar principles), and, after explaining it, the Talmud continues to develop themes connected with it. The sources bearing on these themes are quoted and discussed in detail. Sometimes, however, when a source connected to the central theme is quoted, a detailed discussion of that source ensues.
Sometimes, too, the Talmud passes from one subject to another in an associative way. After the statement of a certain scholar is cited, a whole series of his statements may be presented and the Talmud may drift away from the first, central topic. Sometimes the focus of attention may shift from subject to subject until we find ourselves far from the original starting point. However, not only does the Talmud ultimately return to the original subject, it is also guided by an inner connection – sometimes very subtle, but often very strong – between all the subjects discussed. This connection is never merely superficial, and the seemingly wayward digressions in fact add substance and interest to the central theme.
Guidelines for Talmudic Study
For many generations the Talmud provided both the form and the substance of Jewish study. Children and adults, pupils in school, and students in yeshiva devoted their time to the study of the Talmud, and the greatest Rabbinical scholars invested most of their spiritual energy in deepening their knowledge of it. There is obviously no comparison between the level of a beginner in Talmudic study and that of a scholar already well versed in the subject. What is surprising, however, is the ability of students of the most varied levels of understanding and knowledge to study the Talmud endlessly, and with ever-increasing enthusiasm.
There is no single method for studying the Talmud. Throughout the centuries, wherever Jews lived, they developed many systems of study and various styles of commentary. Thoroughness of study also varied widely. In principle it is possible to study the Talmud again and again, constantly finding new insights, but one must distinguish between primary study of the material, necessary for mastering the subject, and all other levels of study, whose purpose is to gain deeper insight and understanding.
In our day the situation has changed almost everywhere. Talmud study today cannot be compared to that of earlier periods either in the amount of time devoted to the subject or in the pressure and concentration of effort involved, nor is the amount of material studied comparable. Different methods must, therefore, be employed now in order to achieve results approaching those achieved in the past – the ability to understand the plain meaning of the Talmudic text.
Although the Talmud is written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the Aramaic will not constitute an insuperable barrier for a student with a basic knowledge of Hebrew if he takes the trouble to learn a relatively small number of key words. The student will find his path far smoother if he learns these Aramaic terms, most of which are not familiar to a person with some knowledge of Hebrew.
When approaching a particular sentence in the Talmud the student should ask himself – both as a factual question and as a learning technique – what is the origin of the sentence? Is it part of the Talmudic debate among the Amoraim or is it a quotation from an earlier source? What is its function? Is it a question, a statement in support of a previously expressed opinion, a proof, or the beginning of a new subject? Knowledge of some fundamental principles and basic ideas of the Talmudic dialectic will generally be sufficient to provide at least an approximate answer to this question. Once the student has arrived at such an answer, he should check whether it is consistent with what follows in the text. If it is a question, where is the answer? If it is an answer, what question does it answer? At first it is enough for the student to try to follow the steps of the Talmudic argument, even if he does not yet have a clear picture of the whole discussion.
The student must take as much advantage as possible of the commentaries found on the page of the Talmud. He should turn to the commentaries after reading each sentence. The commentator has often anticipated the question that the student wanted to ask, either by explaining a difficult word or by translating an expression, or by explaining the significance and role of a particular expression.
Easy Talmudic texts are usually those where the argumentation is short, to the point and without digressions. However, only a few tractates or even chapters are constructed in this helpful way. The student must, therefore, expect frequent minor digressions from the subject, regarding them as if they were bracketed off from the main text. If the Talmud goes into an analysis of an expression or subject tangentially introduced into the discussion, or if it pauses to solve a problem that has arisen only incidentally, the student would be well advised initially to omit this additional passage (conceptually at least) and to concentrate on the basic problem.
Since the Talmud is itself a “language,” with a style of its own, there is no better way of understanding it than by extensive reading and study. Even if one does not understand everything, it is of great benefit to persevere and read large amounts of material. By reading, one becomes accustomed to the style of Talmudic thought and expression and gradually learns many new concepts. In Talmudic study quantity rapidly becomes quality.
After the student has made his way through a particular section and understood it, he should see how well he understands it on a second reading. This repetition not only helps the student to retain what he has mastered, but is also of inestimable value in subsequent study of new material.
The Aleph Society has learned two cycles of Talmud, and a new cycle begins under the auspices of the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem.
The Koren Talmud Bavli is designed to enable students at every level to actively participate in the dynamic process of Talmud study. It was launched at the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the day the Torah was given to the entire Jewish people, in advance of the Daf Yomi cycle that began in 2012. At the start of each cycle, thousands of people around the world will begin the process of studying one page of the Talmud each day for the next seven-and-a-half years. According to Matthew Miller, CEO of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, the Koren Talmud Bavli achieves a balance between tradition and innovation that no other English edition of the Talmud achieves. “The Koren Talmud Bavli preserves the traditional Vilna page, and enables people to engage deeply in the traditional process of Talmud study at the same time that it embraces contemporary scholarship and technology.” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says, “The Talmud expresses the deepest Jewish spirit. My hope is that the Koren Talmud Bavli will render the Talmud accessible to millions of Jews, allowing them to study it, approach it, and perhaps even become one with it.”
Individual volumes of the Koren Talmud Bavli are available online and at bookstores everywhere in Standard (color) and Daf Yomi (black and white) editions. Subscriptions to the print editions and the digital PDF edition are available exclusively via www.korenpub.com. The complete set will comprise 42 volumes.
Koren Publishers Jerusalem publishes Jewish texts renowned for their textual precision and pioneering design. In 1962, it published the Koren Tanakh, the most accurate edition of the Jewish Bible. In 2009, it entered the US market with the bestselling Koren Sacks Siddur. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is today’s leading Talmud scholar. He has been on a life-long mission to make the Talmud accessible to all. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s landmark editions of the Talmud in Hebrew, French, and Russian have sold more than a million copies.
The Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem provides <daily Talmud essays, created to enrich Daf Yomi studies, with insights based on the chiddushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, and supplemental materials from the Koren Talmud Bavli. Read more about the history of Daf Yomi study, here.