The Sea of Talmud

Introduction

After hours of careful thought, the Yeshiva administration posted a hand-lettered sign outside the cafeteria door. The problem had been continuing for some time, and they reasoned that a clear, forthright statement of the change in Yeshiva policy was in order. 

THE YESHIVA PROVIDES FOOD 

FOR ONE PORTION ONLY

NO STUDENT IS PERMITTED 

TO STAND IN LINE 

FOR SECOND PORTION

Reading it, I sighed. The sign was a local expression of a geopolitical crisis: with the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Yeshiva was inundated with a welcome surge of students, recent immigrants who crowded into our Jerusalem study hall. 

Perhaps traumatized by the sudden dissolution of the once-mighty empire, many of these new Israelis were careful to secure a second meal for themselves, taking it up to their rooms just in case the cafeteria failed to open the following day.  The cost to the Yeshiva must have been significant, not to mention the fact that the dirty dishes left in the hallways attracted some formidable middle eastern insects.

I ate my own lunch, probably baked chicken, couscous cubed vegetables, without incident. Returning to the Beit Midrash for the afternoon study, I happened to glance back at the sign, which someone had altered in a subtle, Talmudic manner:

THE YESHIVA PROVIDES FOOD 

FOR ONE PORTION ONLY?

NO! STUDENT IS PERMITTED 

TO STAND IN LINE 

FOR SECOND PORTION.

With three tiny, playful alterations–a question mark, an exclamation point, and an underscore–the meaning of the text was completely transformed. The anonymous student who defaced the sign exhibited skills typical of Talmudic study: a profound command of the ambiguity of language, an ability to see past first impressions and perceive the underlying philosophical structure of a statement, and an understanding of the multivalent implications of any idea committed to expression in text. The administration relented, and the sign was permanently removed before supper.

The year was 1993. Like my peers at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach, I was new to Orthodox Judaism, and the experience of spending ten hours a day poring over the arcane Aramaic text of the Talmud was both exhausting and exhilarating. Back then there were precious few English-language resources to help us, chief among them Aryeh Carmell’s unfortunately titled all-caps AIDS TO TALMUD STUDY (now available as Aiding Talmud Study). 

This book presents a brief of biography of the Talmud, addressing some basic questions in a manner that will be useful for the intelligent layperson. This work is also a personal introduction, with small autobiographical currents running throughout the more dispassionate, third-person material. My approach is based on the fact that the Talmud is an unusually organic document that cannot be adequately described without some level of personal engagement. On a simple level, understanding the historical and personal context of the lives of the hundreds of contributing scholars is often essential to the comprehension of the Talmud. On a more profound level, the Talmud is an expression of the Oral Torah, which by its very nature requires an interlocutor. With this in mind, I humbly include the story of my own introduction to Talmud. The basic introductory material on the Talmud will alternate with the more personal material. 

The Talmud is often referred to as “the sea,” an allusion to its vast size and diverse content. The metaphor is quite appropriate. I hope that this small compilation will encourage its readers to dive deeper into the waters and sample its submerged delights.

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