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 Joy of Study

Tonight a group of us observed a very old Jewish custom. A dear friend and student of mine is moving away, and I invited him to put together a list of people he’d like to study with one more time.  We gathered around the table with some good food and our books. Some had never studied Gemara before, and some of us were a bit rusty, but it didn’t matter.

We read a famous passage, Shabbat 31a from the Babylonian Talmud. (Click the link if you’d like to read it in English.) It’s a group of stories about Hillel and Shammai and three men who wanted to become Jewish.

What I loved most about this evening was that even though I have read that passage more times than I can count, our group found something new in it, several new ideas. (They were new to us, anyway.) That’s the beauty of studying together with others: while I might wonder about something, in the process of wondering together, we become more than the sum of our parts. We were at best an average bunch of Jews, but our study was extraordinary, because we studied together.

Some of us went back twenty years. Some of us met for the first time over this table. We are all old friends now, regardless. We’ve studied Torah together, and in the process uncovered bits of ourselves.

Here’s the recipe for an evening like this:

  1. Invite 2-10 people who enjoy learning.
  2. Have a few nice snacks, preferably finger food. Also coffee and tea.
  3. Agree ahead of time on the text you will study. Keep it smallish: remember you are going to read and ponder together. (Our guest of honor chose the text.)
  4. Have copies of the text so that every person has one. Unless all of you are fluent in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, use a translation, at least as an aid.
  5. Many Jewish texts are available online; if you meet somewhere that wifi is available, it can be done from laptops, tablets, or even smartphones.
  6. Once you are gathered, say the blessing for study.
  7. Read a bit at a time, out loud. Take turns reading. Pause wherever feels logical, or when someone wants to talk.
  8. Talk about what you see in the text. Be open to the possibility that not everyone will see the same thing (how boring would that be?)
  9. Then go back to reading, bit by bit, broken up by discussion, until either you reach the end or it’s time to stop.

Let me know how it goes.

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.

The Mark of Remembrance



English: Philtrum highlighted by light
Photo credit: Wikipedia


Tractate Niddah (30b) of the Talmud records a folktale that I find comforting and infuriating: while we are in utero, an angel comes and teaches us the whole of the Torah. Then as soon as we are born, the angel slaps us on the mouth so that we will forget it all. The mark that is left is the philtrum, the vertical dent between the mouth and nose.

Thus when we study Torah, we are not learning for the first time; we are instead striving to remember the Torah that we already know.  As a teacher, my task is to help my students remember. 

I find that when I remember that, I am a much better teacher.



It’s Adar! Be Happy!

English: Har Adar, tulip patch
Har Adar, near Jerusalem, tulip patch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simchah” B.Ta’anit 29a

“When Adar enters, joy increases.”

Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, of good luck, of silly games and pranks. We are commanded to “increase joy” although we are not given any direction about how to go about it.

I have quoted the line above from Ta’anit many times, but I realized I’d never studied it and had no idea about the context. Today I went to take a look:

“Ta’anit” means “fasts.”  This masechet [book] of the Babylonian Talmud is a compilation of discussions about fast days (with, of course, digressions on those discussions.) Fast days are somber occasions: Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement] and the Ninth of Av [the memorial of the destruction of the Temple] are the best-known fast days. They are not happy occasions. How did this line about Adar wind up in there?

Sure enough, when I looked it up, the rabbis are in the midst of a sobering discussion about the “curtailment of rejoicings” in the month of Av. There’s a heartbreaking story about the young priests going to the roof of the Temple as it was burning, reaching their arms up to throw the Temple keys into the hands of the angels.  Then the young priests, their duty done, fall into the fire. There is a sad quotation from Isaiah about people dying, and God weeping.

Then a new bit of Mishnah is quoted: “WITH THE BEGINNING OF AV REJOICINGS ARE CURTAILED.”

And the Gamara expounds upon it:

Rab Judah the son of R.Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab:

Just as with the beginning of Ab rejoicings are curtailed, so with the beginning of Adar rejoicings are increased. 

R. Papa said: Therefore a Jew who has any litigation with Gentiles should avoid him in Ab because his luck is bad and should make himself available in Adar when his luck is good. 

To give you a future and a hope: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: By this is meant [an abundance of] palm trees and flaxen garments. 

And he said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: As the smell of an apple orchard.

… and then the text returns to the grave discussion of the “curtailment of rejoicings” of the month of Av.

There are many possible ways to read this, but what I take from it is that the sadnesses of life are simply facts. There is tzuris [trouble] in every life. But just as this discussion of Adar bursts in upon the discussion of tzuris for a moment, so does the month of Adar burst in upon us in the wettest, most bedraggled bit of winter.  Good surprises burst in upon tired routine: sometimes instead of bad luck, we have good luck. Sometimes a new baby is born, and he smells wonderful. The message: if we are truly devout, we will remain open to the possibilities of those moments.

Adar comes with a command to “increase joy.” To do that, we must stay attuned to the possibility of the sacred moment when laughter breaks through tears, sun through clouds, beauty through the gray winter. If we are paying attention, we will be awake for joy. Adar is the month to cultivate that sacred skill in ourselves. For indeed:

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.

Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. 

And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:

How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!  [Gates of Prayer]

Happy Adar!  May your joy increase, and may you be awake to it!

May it give you “a future and a hope.”  Amen.