Talmud: An Explanation

Reprinted from Jewish Ideas Daily.

There is no getting away from the Babylonian Talmud. Love it, hate it, or both, this monumental work, so unlike anything we generally think of as a book, has been central to Jewish life for a millennium and more, managing time after time to find new readers and to summon new forms of reading.

In the English-speaking world, the Talmud is becoming better known thanks to initiatives like the Steinsaltz and ArtScroll translations. Less well-known are the scholars whose labor is shaping how the Talmud is likely to be read and understood for generations to come. Of these, one of the most significant is Shamma Friedman, whose collected talmudic essays, mainly in Hebrew, have recently been published. Friedman, a soft-spoken American who moved to Israel in 1973, has pioneered in the effort to get into the workshop of the Talmud’s many editors and offer a glimpse, painstakingly arrived at, of how the great compilation came to be. Born in Philadelphia in 1937, Friedman studied at the University of Pennsylvania before immersing himself in the Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary under the tutelage of Saul Lieberman and Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky. Both men were former students of Jacob Nahum Epstein, who, at the Hebrew University in the 1930s and ’40s, had delved into the foundational questions of how the talmudic texts came to be brought together over time and how the different parts relate to one another.


Image by Barbara Freedman,

The traditional “back story” of the Talmud is put forth in the 10th-century “Epistle” of the great Babylonian scholar Sherira Gaon. It is an invaluable source for reconstructing the generations of sages and students, and the chains of transmission, that yielded the Mishnah and Gemara, which in turn, and together, make up the Talmud. Yet many questions are left unanswered by Sherira. When and how were the Mishnah and Gemara, both of which were Oral Torah, written down? What exactly was the role of the post-talmudic Savoraim, the “explainers” who, Sherira says, “rendered interpretations akin to judgments”?

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Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.

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