Friday, April 07, 2006

What is the Talmud? (1)

What I realize is that I am sure many of you reading this blog know little about the Talmud, so I am going to start a series of entries providing some background and resources to begin to offer a glimpse at the "sea of the Talmud" -- this is a tradition expression of the size and depth of the Talmud.

Below is some text from the introductory lecture of an online class on learning to study the Talmud. The class itself is offered by the Virtual Beit Midrash. This is a wonderful site that provides an enormous amount of in-depth, traditional classes on all topics of Judaism.

The specific text comes from a Introduction to the Study of the Talmud class. All classes are downloadable. I think it provides a helpful place to begin to learn more about the Talmud

Talmud consists of two distinct primary texts, the Mishna and the Gemara. Surrounding these two, there exists a huge literature, spanning 1800 years and thousands of books, of commentaries, summations, and extended discussions, which continues to this day.

When we study Talmud, we are in fact addressing that entire literature, though obviously much of it must wait for advanced levels of learning. But even on the beginning level of this course we are not studying a BOOK, but rather a literature, which in fact precedes the actual Talmud, and of course extends beyond it. From a literary point of view, the Talmud is the basis and core text, most importantly because it is authoritative, and hence is the starting-point for any subsequent discussion.

The Mishna is printed as a distinct work, and often studied separately. In editions of the Talmud, the Mishna is printed together with the Gemara as a unit, and that is the way we shall be studying.

The Mishna is a halakhic code. It presents a set of rulings on all halakhic matters, in all areas of life. True to the nature of the Oral Law, it is not generally written in a monolithic manner, but rather preserves controversies and disagreements, hundreds of them, from the authorities of the Mishnaic period, roughly the first century and a half of the Common Era. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the head of Palestinian Jewry, compiled the present form of the Mishna and thereby summarized and codified the halakhic rulings of the previous centuries. This was the first code of Jewish law.

The Gemara is the record of two centuries of discussion, argument, elucidation, and controversy surrounding the text of the Mishna, first in the land of Israel, and subsequently in the great Torah centers of Babylonia.

Unlike the Mishna, the Gemara is not a code. It is more like the protocol of a debate, spanning several hundred years and more, where the basic literary form is question and answer, and the most common conveyor of meaning is disagreement.

It is impossible to READ Gemara; you have to join the discussion in order to grasp the meaning of what is going on. In order to understand an answer, you have to understand the question, and that understanding is far more important than summarizing the conclusion. It would be quite accurate to say that Gemara is more about halakhic reasoning than about halakha itself, though obviously the goal is halakha.

In fact, in most cases, the halakhic conclusion is not explicit in the Talmudic text itself, but will be found only in later rabbinic works. It is quite common to find an extensive rabbinic discussion of the "hava amina," the opening and ultimately rejected understanding, for the fact that this position did not survive the scrutiny of the Talmudic discussion does not make it unimportant. It is often correct to state that only by understanding the "hava amina" can we understand the conclusion, the "maskana."

If there are any questions about this text or anything else on this blog, please ask it in a comment.

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