Studying Talmud

Some perspective for beginners

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This mode of study, called in Aramaic havruta ("fellowship"), turns text study into dialogue and makes books into tools for overcoming, not strengthening, isolation. It makes the tradition of rabbinic learning a powerful source of community cohesion, a source of speech rather than silence. This activity was usually called not "study" but "learning," and in every Jewish community an invitation to fellowship could take the form of the proposal "Let's learn together." The life of the mind and the life of society were thus made one.

In the past, it was also taken for granted that one needed a teacher to study Talmud properly. Those pairs of students in the yeshiva always know whose disciples they are, and regularly gather to hear "the rabbi" lecture, or to be examined by him one by one. In an extreme statement, ancient rabbis are quoted as having said that even one who has memorized the whole Bible, and the Mishnah too, is still only an ignoramus, heretic, or even worse, unless he has also "served the Sages," that is, has carried out a proper apprenticeship with a master (Sotah 22a).

The advice still has force, especially for the beginner. The world of Talmud is an exceedingly complex one; a first entry into it through books is like looking up a word in a foreign‑language dictionary. Every choice the dictionary offers is in some sense a translation of the word in question, but only one really captures the correct meaning in context; others may amount to grotesque errors.

So too the Talmud's habit of assuming whenever it talks of one thing that the student already understands ten others makes it useful to have access to a teacher who can put everything into a helpful framework, who can say when some term or idea is mentioned in place X  that it's really explained in place Y. Such living sources of guidance have saved countless novice talmudists from despair.

They are not, however, indispensable…[M]odern students of the Talmud differ from their predecessors in their way of study just as they differ in their purpose in their prior training. Those who can find a teacher or a class which match them in aim and in atmosphere are fortunate to be sure, but… [there are bibliographies] designed for the modern reader who wishes to sample the Talmud in the way most modern books are read‑‑alone, with ready access to printed study aids, but without the constant presence of a colleague or a guide. Pirke Avot 1.6 advises "Acquire a companion," but not everyone is so lucky.

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