Smoothing the Path to the World of Torah

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The Practical Talmud Dictionary
By Yitzchak Frank
United Ariel Institutes
Distributed by Feldheim Publishers Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991
303 pages

Grammar for Gemara: An Introduction to Babylonian Aramaic
By Yitzchak Frank
United Ariel Institutions
Distributed by Feldheim Publishers Ltd., Jerusalem
Expanded and revised edition, 1995
143 pages

Reviewed by Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis

When we were growing up, there was “the Jastrow.”  If a Talmudic phrase or term was unfamiliar, one would go (somewhat furtively) to the bottom shelf, pull out one of the two large green volumes of Marcus Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary, and do his best to locate and decipher the term in question.

From a historical perspective, it is fascinating to note a sentiment that Dr. Jastrow expressed toward the end of his lengthy introduction.  After describing the extensive scholarship necessary to a proper understanding of Talmudic language, he wrote, “The difficulties besetting the study of Talmud and Midrash will be overcome to the degree in which modern scholars will take it up for philological and archaeological purposes as adjuncts of those who are too much engrossed in its practical and doctrinal side to allow themselves time for what seems to them unessential.”

This was written in 1903.  Little could Jastrow — or anyone else, for that matter — have predicted that a time would come when thousands of American young men and adults with advanced academic credentials, will pursue Talmud study as beginners, precisely for its “practical and doctrinal” qualities!  And in order to do so, they will require a sophisticated treatment of the linguistic challenges which confront the novice student.

The Aramaic text of the Gemara can be difficult even to a seasoned “mainstream” yeshivah student, who has had a basic familiarity with Hebrew since childhood.  For a baal teshuvah, who most likely is first gaining a measure of Hebrew comprehension, the additional adjustment to Aramaic can be intimidating at best, and sometimes totally overwhelming.  Classes in yeshivos for baalei teshuvah therefore devote much more attention to textual skills than conventional yeshivos find necessary.

Two excellent works have appeared in recent years, written by Rabbi Yitzchak Frank, an American scholar with many years of teaching experience in Jerusalem, which address this formidable challenge.  The Practical Talmudic Dictionary is a lexicon of words and terms which appear with frequency in the Talmud, and Grammar for Gemara is, as its subtitle states, an introduction to Babylonian Aramaic.  Despite their — let’s admit it — somewhat unexciting subject matter, both have earned a prominent place in the batei midrash where Gemara is introduced.

What Rabbi Frank has done differently is implied in the word “Practical” in the title of the Dictionary.  This is a hands-on work, designed not only to provide translations, but to guide a student through the understanding of a passage.  So besides the literal translation of a word or phrase, an explanation of how a particular term fits into the flow of the Gemara’s discussion is given.  For example, the phrase “Ella ee itmar, hochi itmar” first is  translated:  “Rather if (something) was stated, thus it was stated.”  Then an explanation is given: “After a  statement of an amora has been refuted, the Talmud sometimes uses this formula to introduce a different version of this same statement that is not subject to this refutation.”  After this, two passages from the Talmud in which this phrase appears are quoted, with an English translation.  So one comes away with more than just a word or two, but with a real feel for the Gemara’s usage of the term.  In a sense, Rabbi Frank has not produced a reference work; he has become the “Gemara rebbe” of its users.

Another very helpful feature of the dictionary is the listing of various forms of the same word, as opposed to a single listing of the root form.  This is one of the common difficulties with Jastrow’s work.  A student who is unschooled in the details of grammar will search for a word as it appears in the Talmud, without being able to differentiate between the actual root of the word and its various permutations.  For instance, the common term “minkera” which means “visible” or “recognizable,” does not appear as such in the Jastrow.  Rather, one must realize that this is a form of the root nun-kaf-resh, and then figure out the meaning of this particular form.  This, of course, is almost impossible for the fledgling student. (If he could do that, he wouldn’t need the dictionary in the first place!)

The limitation of Rabbi Frank’s work is that it is only a partial source, being limited to the more common words and expressions which a student will confront.  Narrative or aggadic passages will frequently use many new and unfamiliar words, and it still will be necessary to refer to “the Jastrow.”

The companion volume, Grammar for Gemara, is for the truly tough among us.  In all seriousness though, this reviewer’s own experience in teaching introductory Gemara has demonstrated time and time again how valuable a structured grasp of grammar is to a proper understanding of the Talmud.  So much of the flow of a Gemara depends on precision in thinking, that a slight error in tense, person, or gender sometimes can change the meaning of an entire passage. (Even more:  Rabbi Noson Kamenetsky, in his enthusiastic letter of approbation for the book, relates that his father, HaGaon Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, regarded the study of grammar as part of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, since actual errors in halachah could — and sometimes did! — result from ignorance of grammatical principles.)

Rabbi Frank has again done a tremendous service in making this area of study more accessible to the beginning or intermediate student.  He anticipates the pitfalls which await the English­speaking student in comprehending both Hebrew and Aramaic (such as the sequence of subject and predicate in a sentence), and guides the reader carefully to the proper understanding.  The main part of the work presents paradigms of common verbs as they appear in the Gemara, and carries them through their entire conjugations.  So a lot of guesswork in translation will be eliminated, as the precise meaning of a particular form will be known.

The only obstacle to students’ benefitting from this work is a rather common phenomenon, which this reviewer has discovered over the years:  it is impossible to introduce grammatical rules for Hebrew or Aramaic to a student who is not familiar with grammar in general!  Those students who in their previous education developed a feel for language, perhaps through studying a foreign language, or at least have an appreciation for the structure of English grammar, can make the transition into Talmudic grammar quite smoothly, when provided with the right tools.  But this language sense is not always a given, and terms like “subject” and “object,” “plural possessive” and “past participle,” are enough to produce either intense anxiety or extreme boredom in some of today’s students.

Having said that, there is no doubt that both of these texts are of tremendous help in smoothing the path into the world of learning.  For many students, their ultimate success in achieving quality Talmudic study will largely be due to the fact that Rabbi Frank — through his works — was indeed their first Gemara rebbe.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis is the mashgiach ruchani of Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Monsey, N.Y., and also serves as Rav of Khal Bnai Torah in Monsey.

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