Author Archives: Robert Goldenberg

About Robert Goldenberg

Robert Goldenberg is a professor of history at the State University of New York at Stonybrook.

Studying Talmud

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Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, published by Simon & Schuster.

Beginners especially may find Talmud study a difficult task. The logic can be convoluted, while every page alludes to customs, political arrangements, and so on which were once everyday reality but are now terribly obscure. Worst of all, the whole effort must be made with translated texts, unless the student can master Hebrew and Aramaic even before starting. It must therefore be emphasized that the necessary background can be acquired. People have done so in every generation, and people can do so now. The texts are translated; introductions, explanations, and commentaries have been written; Hebrew has been revived as a spoken tongue. The would‑be beginner need only supply the will.

Jewish man studies TalmudIt may also help to bear in mind that Talmud study can be tremendous fun. Like any challenging task, the task of understanding an unfamiliar talmudic passage is intimidating only until it has once been accomplished. After that, the challenge can be relished, and the task enjoyed.

The fact is, after all, that the Talmud is interesting, The people represented in it were intelligent, articulate, and dedicated to the remarkable project of helping an ancient tradition survive mortal danger. The arguments stimulate, their language gives pleasure, the immensity of their achievement provokes awe.

There is wit in the Talmud, and humor too. There are wonderful stories, and logic whose disciplined sharpness is breathtaking. The Talmud has been compared to the sea; you never enjoy swimming anywhere until you’ve gotten used to the water. Getting wet can be uncomfortable at first, but after that “the water’s fine”: the pleasure keeps mounting.

But what does it mean to study the Talmud; how is it to be done? In our time, the Talmud exists primarily in print, as a book, and our culture tends to see reading as a private activity. Even the reader of this book probably is sitting alone somewhere, trying to concentrate on its pages. People not reading alone usually are found in large groups, either listening to a lecturer explain a text, or in a classroom, engaged in group discussion.

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Berakhot 2a: The First Page of the Talmud

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Although the Talmud’s sense of scope and sequence hardly accords with contemporary understandings of an ordered presentation, the very first page of Talmud sets the tone and agenda for the entire document. The Talmud begins with an attempt to connect the Torah she’b’al Peh (oral Torah or conversational Torah) with the written Torah (the Pentateuch). It continues by marshalling a variety of different opinions to explain the Mishnah, not with the intention of extracting from the mix the “correct” opinion, but rather to see how the different opinions inter-relate. These two goals, identifying or creating the connections between the Mishnah and the Torah, and understanding the relationship of the various Tannaitic traditions, can be seen as the Talmud’s major goals. Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources, edited by Barry Holtz.

Mishnah Berakhot 1:1:

“From what time [may people] recite the evening shema? From the hour that the priests come in to eat of their Heave-offering, until the end of the first watch; [these are] R. Eliezer’s words, but the Sages say, Until midnight. R. Gamaliel says, Until the first light of dawn….”

Gemara Berakhot 2:2:

“Where is the Tanna [scholar of the Mishnaic times, the first and second centuries] standing that he teaches ‘From when,’ and further why is it that he starts with the evening? Let him start with the morning! The Tanna ‘stands’ on Scripture, as it is written, ‘When you lie down and when you rise up’ (Deuteronomy 6.7), and he teaches thus: When is the time of the Shema-recitation of lying down? From the time that the priests come in to eat of their Heave-offering.

(The “I” in the next sentence can be understood as the editor adding his own observation to the ongoing discussion. Since all this material did in fact originate as oral give-and-take, such semiparenthetical remarks could very easily be inserted as extended treatments of any particular mishnah continued to develop. There is usually no way to determine who any given “I” is, or when any such insertion actually found its way into the text.)

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Why Do Jews Study Talmud?

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Whether they wanted to train to be rabbis or be intellectually challenged or encounter the divine, Jews have studied Talmud. Author Robert Goldenberg addresses some of the difficulties that modern scholarship on the Talmud has created for the traditional student, although he acknowledges that most contemporary students of the Talmud see the scholarly problems as irrelevant to the religiously powerful act of studying Talmud. Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, published by Simon & Schuster.

Jews have studied the Talmud for a great variety of reasons. Many of these can be labeled practical. Of these “practical” reasons, one has already been discussed at some length [in the book Back to the Sources]—the Talmud has been studied in order to extract functioning law from its pages. For most of Jewish history, Jews in various communities have constituted self-governing enclaves within the larger society, and from the time rabbis rose to prominence as leaders of Jewry their legal traditions provided the rules by which these enclaves lived.

Thus rabbinic marriage law became Jew­ish marriage law, rabbinic rules about the Sabbath became rules for all Jews, and so on. The Talmud itself does not always state with precision what these rules are to be, and in the nature of things it could not anticipate new situations in which these rules would have to be applied. Thus study of the Talmud for its law became a chief activity of those in the community who were charged with teaching and enforcing that law.

There were other practical reasons too, however. The Talmud, like the Mishnah before it, has always functioned as a training text for rabbis and their disciples. This “academic” function, as has been noted, may in fact be older than the applied-law function just mentioned. Now, not all rabbis actually served as legal authorities. Some were teachers, or admin­istrators, or political advisors; some, for that matter, were merchants. Anyone, however, who aspired to the title “rabbi,” anyone who wished to be part of an ancient chain of tradition, had to become immersed in the “sea of the Talmud.” The Talmud therefore served the additional practical function of training religious leaders. Not all so trained there­upon took up the authority now available to them. Some used the train­ing in other ways, and some did not use it at all.

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