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.

Meet Rabbi Tarfon

Rabbi Tarfon's Grave (credit: www.pnay.co.il)
Rabbi Tarfon’s Grave (credit: http://www.pnay.co.il)

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

Rabbi Tarfon is one of my favorites among the ancient sages. He was a rabbi of the generation between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 CE), a time of great upheaval for the Jewish People. Both of his parents were from priestly families, and he himself served in the Temple as a young man. More than one story about him mentions that his family was rich and that he enjoyed the “perks” that came from being a kohen.

However, Tarfon seems to have been a modest, empathetic man who had genuine concern for the poor. Whenever he received pidyon haben, ritual ransom money paid the priests to “redeem” first born sons, he returned it to the new parents. When he saw a bridal procession of very poor people, he asked his mother and sister to take their perfumes and cosmetics and offer them to the bride. He was creative: during a time of famine, he negotiated betrothals with 300 women so that he could legally share his tithes of priestly food with them!

Tarfon often disputed with Akiva, and he usually lost the argument.

One time they were sitting with other rabbis in an upper room in Lod, and they were asked: “Which is greater, study or action?” Tarfon answered, saying: “Action is greater.” Akiva answered, saying: “Study is greater.” All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.” –Kiddushin 40b

However, he was good spirited about such things, valuing learning over ego.

Another time, Rabbi Akiva, who was poor, asked him for money, saying he had a good investment for Tarfon. Tarfon gave him the money. Later on, he found out that Akiva had given it all away to needy people. Akiva quoted Psalms, reminding him that such gifts are an “everlasting possession.” Tarfon hugged and kissed Akiva, saying, “My teacher and leader! My teacher in wisdom and my leader in conduct.”

On another occasion, when he lost an argument with Akiva, he said, “Happy may be Abraham our father, having such a son as Akiba; Tarfon saw and forgot, but Akiba understood of his own accord. Whosoever parts with you, Akiba, parts with life itself!”

The Talmud tells us that he was very loving to his wife and his children, and fond of his mother. One source tells us that he was murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah.

His most famous quotation is the one at the top of this page. He understood that it can be very stressful to live a life of Torah, that the expectations are high. At the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that effort and persistence are good in and of themselves.

I like to imagine Rabbi Tarfon teaching a student who is perhaps not as quick as the others. “Don’t worry, I see that you are making the effort!” he might say. Rabbi Tarfon understood what it was not to be the smartest guy in the room. He understood that a person’s worth lay in their character – as did his.



Let’s Study Talmud!

I love this video by Rabbi Josh Strom of Temple Shaaray Tefila in NYC.

When I first began learning Torah, I was in awe of anyone who studied Talmud. Then I joined a Talmud study group because I heard it was a great way to train a Jewish mind. One thing led to another and I went to rabbinical school!

Talmud study is best with a good teacher, but it is possible for most Jews to access at least a taste of it. In our time, translations are available for those who do not read Hebrew or Aramaic, although some of the “good stuff” is only available if you have some of the language.

What is Talmud? It’s the combination of Mishnah and Gemara:

Mishnah + Gemara = Talmud

The Mishnah is an ordered collection of the rabbinic interpretations of Torah, including the disagreements. In the chaotic Jewish world of the first two centuries of the Common Era, the head of the rabbis in the land of Israel decided it was important to write down these interpretations, so that they would not be lost. That happened in the year 200 CE

The Gemara is the continuation and expansion of those discussions, which were only well begun in 200. The Gemara is the continuation of those discussions and further expansions. Gemara was assembled in two collections, one in Israel (the Jerushalmi, or Jerusalem Talmud) and one in Babylon (the Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud.) The Bavli was completed in about 600 CE.

Talmud is a set of discussions that seem to go everywhere and nowhere. Often people expect a law book, and are surprised to find that while it includes something like law (halakhah) it also has stories, recipes, and digressions (aggadah.) It is used by students to learn the tradition, to explore our heritage, and also to train minds.

Don’t be afraid to give Talmud a try! It will expand your Jewish mind in directions that will surprise you.

Misogyny? Or Something Else?

Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna. — Pirkei Avot 1.5

This verse from Mishnah begins with sentiments that are challenging but easy to affirm:  let your house be wide open!  Let the poor be members of your household!  Then it serves up what looks to be the worst sort of misogyny.

When I see something troubling in a text, the first thing I do is back up and look at the Hebrew.  What EXACTLY does it say?  Here’s a very literal translation:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.  But do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman.  In speaking to his wife, so much the more so his friend’s wife.  Therefore the sages say, excessive conversation with the woman causes evil to himself and neglect of Torah and he will eventually inherit Gehinnom.

At first reading, that’s not much better.

Short of shrieking and throwing the verse away, I see only one possible way out with this text. That’s the phrase תרבה שיחה, which I translated as “excessive conversation.” We might also read it as “too long a conversation.”

Excessive how?  Too long for what? Let’s look at context. The verse begins with two statements about the household:  “let your house be wide open” and “let the poor be members of your household.” In the patriarchal society of the sages, the household was women’s domain, specifically, the wife’s domain.

Given this context, is it not possible that this is a warning to the men to back off and not interfere in the domain of their wives? That also makes sense of the phrase, “so much more so his friend’s wife”: Don’t tell your wife how to run her house, and definitely don’t tell your friend’s wife how to do so!

There is also a detail in the text that most translations gloss over that supports this interpretation. The phrase “the woman,” repeated twice in this verse, includes the definite article:  it is not “all women” but a particular woman about whom Yosi ben Yochanan is speaking. HaIshah, the woman, can also be translated “the wife.”

So let me try for a paraphrase:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. But do not micro-manage your spouse about it, much less the spouses of your colleagues. Nothing good will come of it; it will lead to neglect of Torah and a bad end.

I believe this text may be read not as a misogynist rant, but as a reminder to the men that they are not the bosses, or the experts, of everything.  They should not meddle in the domain of their wives, and meddling in how other people’s homes are run is even worse.

What can this teach us today? Stay humble.  Remember that everyone has his or her area of expertise. The large principles are good — don’t neglect those first two items! — but I should respect the expertise of others, no matter how much Torah I think I know.

Related articles