What is the Talmud?

“Talmud” is one of those words that mystifies many non-Jews. Anyone with knowledge of Western Civilization has a frame of reference for “the Bible,” even though our Bible is slightly different from the Christian Bible, but “Talmud” – what is that?

Here’s the simplest answer I can give you: Talmud is a record of discussions that took place over roughly 500 years. The subject of those discussions was “How To Live a Life of Torah.” It includes not only majority opinions but minority opinions and lengthy digressions. 

These lengthy discussions were necessary because the Torah itself comes to us without operating instructions. For instance: the Torah says “Keep the Sabbath” and “Remember the Sabbath.” How do we keep the Sabbath? What does it mean to remember it? Something that seems straightforward (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) turns out to be complex: “What about the case of the one-eyed offender who puts out one eye of a person who has two good eyes?” The rabbis argued about these things, and the discussions come down to us in the collections known as the Talmud.

Torah includes both Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (the discussions that flesh out the sometimes enigmatic commandments in the Written Torah.)

To put it algebraically:

Torah = Written Torah + Oral Torah

The first batch of discussions took place between about 100 BCE and 200 CE. Initially these were oral discussions, and special memorizers learned every word of them and recited them on demand in the rabbinic academies in Israel. In 200 CE, Rabbi Judah the Prince produced a written, edited version of the discussions and called it the Mishnah, [“Repetition.”] Here is a photo of my copy of the Mishnah which includes the Mishnah itself, an English translation, and commentary:

Blackmun Mishnah (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)
Mishnah, Blackmun ed. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

As you can see, it isn’t very long, just six volumes. Each volume is a large general topic: Seeds, Festivals, Women, Damages, Holy Things, and Purity. If that seems an odd way to divide things up, welcome to the study of Talmud. While sometimes the rabbis say things that seem amazingly modern, they lived in a very different time, under different circumstances, and their world was organized differently than ours.

However, after the Mishnah was redacted (written down and edited) the discussions continued, now with questions about the Mishnah. They continued at rabbinic academies in Israel and in Mesopotamia (Babylon.) The continued discussion, the “new” stuff, would later grow into the Gemara [from the Aramaic gamar, “study.”]  The Gemara discussions were not redacted until centuries later. The Gemara by the academies in Israel were redacted about 500 CE.  The Gemara of the academies in Babylon were redacted about 600 CE.

I’ve never seen a volume of just Gemara. It’s always published with the verses of Mishnah related to it. A page will give you a “lead in” of lines from the Mishnah, then the Gemara associated with those lines, the discussion on the discussion. An oversimplified version of it would look like this:

Mishnah: When is the earliest we say the evening Shema?

Gemara: Voice 1: Why does this rabbi start with this question? Why not the morning Shema? Voice 2: He starts with this because of the commandment, “You will say them [the words of the Shema] when you lie down and when you rise up.” The time begins when the priests enter to eat their terumah [their slice of the Temple offerings]… and so on. They talk about terumah, and the priests, and what time the priests ate, and the grammar, and word meanings, and many other things.  

Here’s another equation for you:

Talmud = Mishnah + Gemara

Some of the Gemara becomes a very central item of the tradition, and some of it doesn’t. There are recipes for beer, and cures for snakebite, and interesting (!) ideas about anatomy. Some parts of it are clearly out of date (the anatomy, for instance) and some very sophisticated (insights about grief.) All of it comes in a context, and without that context it is meaningless. Rabbis study Talmud with a volume of Talmud containing multiple commentaries, one or two good dictionaries, a book of abbreviations, a Bible, and other references as well. If someone gives you a quote and says “It’s from the Talmud” be skeptical!

What is the Talmud? It’s a record of discussions that took place between 100 BCE and 600 CE in the Land of Israel and in Babylon. While the general thrust of it is “How is one to live a life of Torah?” it include a wealth of other material.

How can I study Talmud? To answer that, I will give you a quote from Pirkei Avot, which is in Volume “Damages” of the Mishnah:

“Find yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend.” – Pirkei Avot 1:6

  1. First, learn some Torah. The better you know your way around a Jewish Bible, the easier time you will have of it.
  2. Find a teacher. If there are no local classes available, use an online resource like 10 Minutes of Talmud.
  3. Acquire a friend. While a teacher can help you find your way, there’s no substitute for studying with and talking with a fellow student.
  4. Finally, don’t think you are going to master all of it. There is a program called Daf Yomi, where people learn a page a day of Talmud. When they get to the end, they begin again. They do this because as with every other aspect of Torah, there is no limit to the learning there.

OK, so this wasn’t a very simple answer. Talmud isn’t simple. However, it’s part of our rich heritage of Torah, and it belongs to every Jew.

The Frustrating Language of Prayer

Many of my students find the language of Jewish prayer frustrating. I’m not talking about Hebrew; I’m referring to the language that seems addressed to the archetypal Old Man in the Sky. That language doesn’t match up with their own experience of the sky, of human beings, or of God.

Take for example the wording of the blessing for creation in the evening service:

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe,
who by His word brings on evenings,
by His wisdom opens the gates of heaven,
with understanding makes time change
and the seasons rotate, and by His will
orders the stars in their constellations in the sky.
– from The Koren Siddur, 2009

I chose this translation because it is a very literal translation of the Hebrew from a leading Orthodox scholar. Some translations in liberal siddurim have been softened a bit with inclusive language, but for my purposes here I want the full impact of the traditional language.

What is a modern, scientifically minded Jew to do with this? There are many options employed by such Jews in dealing with the language of the prayer.

TRADITION I – “This is the ancient prayer. It was good enough for my grandparents. I say these words because my ancestors said them, and I have been saying these prayers all my life. I find the images of God in these prayers suitable and comforting. These prayers are great poetry; please don’t take them away from me!”

TRADITION II – “This is the ancient prayer. I may find it archaic, but my people have been praying in these exact words for many centuries. I don’t take the images literally; I say the words because my ancestors said them. There is holiness and beauty in the continuity of saying them and teaching them to another generation. We can update a few things that are theologically problematic, perhaps, but in the main, I don’t want big changes.”

TIME FOR REVISION – “This may be the ancient prayer, but my Judaism is alive and living things grow and change. I want a siddur that reflects my own experience of God.” This person might want to seek out a congregation that uses the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefilah or the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah. Neither is perfect, but both are striking attempts to use inclusive language and to offer interpretive versions of prayers that are more appropriate in an age of science.

Mishkan Tefilah offers several alternative readings for the Ma’ariv prayer above. I am partial to a reading in one of the footnotes:

To be “religious” might mean to have an intuitive feeling of the unity of the cosmos…. Oneness is grounded in scientific reality: we are made of the same stuff as all of creation. The deepest marvel is the unity in diversity. – Daniel Matt (Mishkan Tefilah, p 7)

BEYOND METAPHOR – Sometimes the problem isn’t gendered language, it’s all of the metaphor-laden language about a God who has “hands” and “opens gates” and is a person not all that different from any human being. One of the most famous and successful attempts to write a siddur that gets beyond personalized language is Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, which is truly a new vision of Jewish prayer. I am not aware of any congregation that uses it regularly, but if you find traditional Jewish prayer language terminally off-putting, you may want to check it out.

STUDY AND REVISE – Sometimes no version of the prayer I can find works for me. Then I study the prayer, and I struggle with it. I try to understand the original intent of the prayer and my specific issue with it. Then I work on a new interpretation of the prayer. Asher Yatzar is one example of a prayer I’ve reworked. Obviously, this is a labor-intensive approach, and if you choose it, you will need access to a commentary on the prayer to study it. Talk to your rabbi and explain that a particular prayer is troubling you, and that you’d like to study it with them.

Jewish prayers are not easy. None of us are born knowing how to pray Jewishly, and whenever we begin learning, we are never “finished.” What seems fine at one stage of life may bug the daylights out of us at another stage. However, where there is a will, there is a way to pray.

Have you ever felt that you simply could not say a particular prayer? Which prayer, and why? How did you resolve the issue?

Why the Horror Stories in Torah?

Once an Intro student asked me, “Rabbi, some of the stories in the Torah are awful! Can’t we just scissor some of them out?”

After I recovered from the mental image of someone taking scissors to the Torah, I agreed that some of the stories there are truly horrible. Parashat Vayera has some real doozies:

  • Lot offers his virgin daughters to a mob bent upon rape. (Genesis 19)
  • The destruction by fire of two entire cities. (Genesis 19)
  • Abraham tells the King of Egypt that his wife Sarah is his sister, thereby saying, “If you want her, fine by me!” (Genesis 20)
  • Jealous of the servant Hagar’s son by Abraham, Sarah demands that Abraham toss mother and son out to die in the desert. (Genesis 21)
  • Abraham believes that God has told him to go make a human sacrifice of Sarah’s only son. He takes Isaac up to Mt. Moriah and is stopped at the last minute before the kill by another vision.  (Genesis 21)

These stories are ghastly, no doubt about it. It is tempting to turn away from them, or to do what some traditional and modern commentators have done, and try to explain why they are really OK.

There’s another way to engage with these narratives, though: that is to tackle them as the dreadful stories that they are. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has done exactly that in her groundbreaking book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativeAs the title suggests, she doesn’t try to sugarcoat the horror stories in the Bible; instead, she demands of them “What can we learn here?”

Every generation of Jews encounters these stories anew, and sees new things in them. If you find them off-putting, join the club. While I learned them at a young age and initially simply accepted them, I now think about these cruelties in a different light. Maybe Sodom deserved destruction, but Lot’s daughters? Isaac? Ishmael? Hagar? Sarah? These are brutal stories, and they should raise serious questions within our souls.

The stories aren’t there to say, “Offer your daughters to rape mobs!” They are there to get us to ask, “Why did Lot do such a horrible thing? Did he have other alternatives?” “Should people who hear voices always just go do what the voices tell them, or should they talk with someone – their wife, their rabbi?” They may serve to remind us that Ishmael’s descendants are our cousins, and that my 21st century family is not the first to be dysfunctional.

Those questions are Torah at work upon us. Torah is not merely the words in the scroll; it is also those words at work on our hearts.

Happy studying!

My Daily Reminder: Pick a Mitzvah

One of my favorite moments in the daily service comes near the beginning of the morning blessings:

These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:

To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!

I love this because it is a checklist of those things which are a good use of my time and energy, but which might slip by me otherwise.

To honor father and mother – The word we usually translate as “honor” is Ka-BAYD – literally, to give weight. It doesn’t mean “obey” – rather, it means to make sure that one’s parents do not suffer from deprivation and humiliation.

To perform acts of love and kindness – Covers a lot of territory, doesn’t it? Notice that those acts are not limited to one’s family, or friends, or worthy people, or other Jews. Even when we must say “no” to someone, we must do so kindly.

To attend the house of study – Most of us do not have the luxury of full time Torah study. Even if we cannot study “morning and evening” we can carve out a moment every day for a bit of learning. There are many online resources that offer such opportunities, like 10 Minutes of Talmud and My Jewish Learning.

To receive guests – This can be done in the abstract, by supporting organizations, but it can also be done on a personal level: invite people over! Our Jewish homes are sacred space. We can share that holiness by welcoming others into them for a cup of tea or a meal.

To visit the sick – “Visiting” can take many forms. A quick visit in person can be very comforting to a sick person. But we can also “visit” via a phone call, an email, or a get-well card.

To rejoice with the bride – The rabbis tell us that even if a bride is homely, the white lie to tell her that she looks great is part of our obligation to rejoice at weddings. As a modern liberal Jew, I expand this obligation to every wedding couple: on this day, they are beautiful and I am happy for them.

To accompany the dead – Most translations say “to comfort the mourner” but that is actually a separate obligation. This one has to do with making sure that the body of the dead person makes it safely into the earth – attending funerals, and giving tzedakah so that indigent people can be buried with dignity. It also reminds us to comfort mourners, by showing up for funerals, attending shiva, and by speaking to them in ways that are actually comforting.

To pray with intention – For me, this means praying a short form of the daily service. For others it might mean a Jewish meditation practice, or the Bedtime Shema, or saying blessings regularly. For others, it might mean attending daily minyan at a local synagogue. But for all of us it means cultivating an awareness of the Holy, however we understand it.

To bring peace between a person and his fellow – It’s so easy to say, and so hard to do. It means paying attention, watching for opportunities to make peace and seizing those opportunities when they appear. It also means supporting peacemakers on the larger stage: voting for politicians who value peace over power and who know how to make a viable compromise.

The study of Torah is the greatest of them all, because it leads to them all – Learning Torah and thinking about it in personal terms will change us. We will recognize opportunities for peace, we will feel comfortable at a funeral, we will see the openings for acts of love and kindness. Studying Torah will provide us with role models: Abraham, our model for hospitality and Isaac, a model for prayer and Rebekah, who was kind to people and even to animals.

There’s a line in the Reform prayer book:

Those who study Torah are the guardians of civilization.

Honestly, the first time I read this in the service, it made me smile. I thought about my Torah study group, munching their bagels and arguing about each line in the parashah. It was pretty funny to think of them as “guardians of civilization.” Then I thought about the individuals. One guy was so passionate about feeding the hungry that he founded a Thanksgiving food drive that gathers thousands of pounds of food every year for the food bank. Another woman was always ready with homemade soup in her freezer for someone sick. Another woman was in politics, sincerely interested in making our city better. A retired mathematician in the group has become an expert on taharah, ritual washing of the dead, co-authoring a book that teaches about that mitzvah. Two of us left to become rabbis. And so on. That one Torah study group had gone on for over 25 years, and many of the people in it have been transformed by Torah, choosing work or volunteer activities that do indeed make our city a more civilized place in which to live.

I wish I could say that I live up to every item on this list. The truth is, no one does all of these things every day. Still it reminds me of the possibilities for holiness that lurk in my schedule, and it challenges me to fill my days with goodness. The rewards are both in this life and in the way I will someday be remembered: a world made better.

Not a small thing.

Seven Tips for Torah Study Success

If you are a beginner at Torah study, mazal tov! If you are worried about “doing well,” here are seven tips to help you learn and enjoy:

  1. STUDY WITH OTHERS.  Reading Torah by yourself is good, of course, but Jews typically study with partners or groups.  We do this for a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to the obvious: two heads are better than one, and ten heads offer lots of resources for looking into a text.
  2. READ ALOUD. Read a verse, or a section aloud, then discuss. Hearing the text is different than reading it, and will spur different ideas. Even if you have read the text a hundred times before, read it aloud.
  3. LOOK AT THE TEXT. While someone is reading the text, keep your eyes on it. Look at each word as it is read. Even if your reading skills are poor, follow along. Hearing and seeing the text will help unlock it for you.
  4. NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWERS. When Jews study, we are not looking for the “right answer.” Usually there are many right answers.
  5. BE SELF-AWARE. Our reading of stories in Jewish texts will be colored by our own experiences. It’s not bad to have those reactions, but it’s good to be aware of them, and to remember that others may have had other experiences. For instance, some students feel very identified with Joseph and angry with his brothers. Others have the opposite response: they find the young Joseph insufferable! There’s room at the table for all of us.
  6. LISTEN AND SPEAK.  Hillel said, “The shy person will not learn” – if we don’t ask questions and speak up, we don’t learn much.  However, the converse is also true: the person who is always talking will not learn much either. Listen to what your study partners have to say, and think it over. Don’t just react.
  7. BE REGULAR IN STUDY. Don’t drop into a group occasionally: become a regular. Regular attendance with your Torah study group will help you form relationships with both the text and with the others in the group.

Happy Learning!

Halloween and the Jews

Here comes Halloween! For some Americans, this is THE holiday, more than July 4, more than Thanksgiving, more than even Christmas. People plan their costumes months in advance, lay in supplies of candy for trick-or-treaters, and decorate their front yards.

The origins of the holiday go far back in European history. Some say it originated in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was then re-cast into the Western Christian calendar of All Hallows’ Eve, a prelude to All Saints Day on November 1. (Notice the influence of the Jewish calendar here, with an Eve/erev the night before a festival day!)

Can you see where I’m going with this? Halloween isn’t a Jewish festival, and its origins are pagan and Christian. What’s a Jew to do about Halloween?

My own practice is to have some candy ready, should little children stop by. It isn’t a Jewish holiday, but hospitality is a Jewish value, and I’ll be darned if I am going to turn children away from my door in disappointment. I don’t decorate, I don’t make a big deal of it, but if someone rings my doorbell in search of a goody, they’ll get a goody. This isn’t my holiday, but I can practice Jewish hospitality in the midst of it.

Here’s why I don’t dress up or decorate for Halloween:

  • “Trick or Treat” does not match up with Jewish values. Sure, the treats can be hospitality, but the threat of mischief – even jokingly – smacks of extortion.
  • Judaism already has a costume holiday for jokes and mayhem. Come Purim, I’ll dress up and get crazy and do it within the tradition.
  • I grew up Catholic, observing All Saints Day. For me, Halloween’s Christian origins are real and apparent.
  • I’m busy! I have Shabbat every week, I am still recovering from the High Holy Days and Sukkot, and before long it’ll be Chanukah. Really celebrating the Jewish year gives me plenty of holidays already.

I can hear some readers saying, “Oh, rabbi, don’t be such a spoilsport! It’s a secular holiday!” or even “Rabbi, it’s easy to say all this, you don’t have young children.”  I hear that. It’s hard to stand back from colorful, fun celebrations. But just as I can enjoy my neighbor’s Christmas lights, I can enjoy her Halloween decorations without needing some of my own.

There are many holidays I don’t celebrate because they aren’t mine: BeltaneChinese New Year, Eid al Fitr, or any of the many Hindu festivals, and Easter. I live in the wildly diverse Bay Area, and I have friends who are Wiccan, Chinese-American, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. I might be invited over for a holiday, and that’s cool. I’ll return invitations come Passover.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you and your family. But let me suggest a question you might ask: if you make time for Halloween, do you make time for Shabbat? Are you going to make just as big a deal of Purim? What are your plans for Chanukah? For Passover?

We have our own round of holidays and festivals, and they can keep a Jew pretty busy.