Tackling the Talmud: One Daf at a Time

by | in Education

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With the historic Siyum HaShas a few weeks behind us, Jewish Action surveys some of the resources and aids—both print and electronic—available to the Daf Yomi learner.

One manifestation of the growth of Orthodox Judaism in the last fifty years is the tremendous resurgence in Torah study not only on an institutional level but also on an individual and group level. Much of the group study that takes place does so in the framework of Daf Yomi groups. In fact, there has been a veritable explosion of Daf Yomi groups in the US, Israel and througout the world.

While many areas of Torah are complex, the most difficult is the Talmud. Not only is the language difficult, the structure and organization of the Gemara are complex and quite different from anything the Western-trained Jew has been exposed to in the course of his secular education.

Often, even those who have attended Orthodox schools—on the high school and post-high school levels—admit to having difficulties understanding a page of Gemara. Add to that the various commentaries like Rashi and Tosafot and the study of the Talmud can be daunting for the average American Jew.

Until recently, there were few serious aids aimed at helping the motivated Talmud student. Of course mention must be made of the classic commentators, such as Rashi, who explicate the text. However, Rashi often adds an additional layer of complexity.

In the nineteenth century, several attempts were made to translate the Talmud into the vernacular. Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant (the founder of the Musar Movement) wanted to translate the Talmud into German in order to familiarize German Jewry with this central text of Judaism (Encyclopaedia Judaica, First Ed., vol. 11 [Jerusalem, 1971] 280). Thus, several tractates were translated into German and other languages. Seemingly, these aborted translations had little influence over the state of Talmud study in Central and Eastern Europe.

In the early twentieth century, the first attempt at an English translation of the Talmud was undertaken by Michael L. Rodkinson, a former Chabad Chassid and a publisher. Rodkinson’s translation had little impact and is today chiefly of interest to book collectors and historians (Encyclopaedia Judaica, First Ed., vol. 14 [Jerusalem, 1971] 218, s.v. “Rodkinson”).

The first serious translation of the Talmud into English was undertaken in England in the mid-twentieth century by a collective team of Anglo-Jewish schol ars headed by the Principal of Jews’ College Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein. This translation, published by Soncino Press, is available in an Aramaic-English edition and an English-only edition. While the translation is precise, the “shakla vetarya” (give-and-take) of the Gemara is not readily apparent. Notes attempt to make up for this deficiency. However, while the edition is useful in understanding the language of the text, it has limited value in helping one understand the “sugya” (progression of ideas at large).

During my yeshivah days, the Soncino translation was the chief aid available to students. Despite the work’s limitations, it was not commonly used in yeshivot as it was deemed a “crutch” that would hinder students from developing basic Talmudic skills. Today its chief value is its English-language index to the Talmud.

By the mid-1960s, the Modern-Hebrew translation of the Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of Israel reached the United States. It was clearly a much more comprehensive work than the Soncino translation and not only explicated the flow of the Talmudic arguments, but also translated difficult words and concepts and sought to define realia in the Talmud. Drawings and illustrations added to its charm. Unfortunately, only those American Jews who were fluent in Modern Hebrew could make use of it.

The major breakthrough in Talmudic translations came about with the publication of the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud beginning in the late 80s. For the first time, the serious Talmudic student had an in-depth, lucid English translation that explained the flow of Talmudic argument.

Presently the complete Shas, consisting of seventy-three volumes, has been translated by an impressive team of erudite scholars (and in the case of several tractates, revised editions have appeared). Obviously this has caused a significant change in the manner in which the Talmud is presently studied among English-speakers. The Schottenstein edition is used by both beginners first starting to delve into Gemara study and by accomplished yeshivah students. In many sectors of American Jewry, the Schottenstein Talmud has become the text of Daf Yomi study. Bolstered by its detailed notes, this edition has become the gold standard in understanding the Talmud.

While an earlier attempt by Rabbi Steinsaltz to translate his Hebrew work into English was unsuccessful, recently Koren Press announced a new initiative to translate the complete Steinsaltz Shas into English. So far only the Tractate Berachot has been published. Koren’s exquisite design and layout are clearly evident in this edition. While it is too early to tell how it will compare to the Schottenstein, it promises to be a good alternative.

Aside from full-text translations, a number of other Talmudic aids may be useful to the Talmudic student.

For many years the primary Talmudic aid (aside from the Soncino Talmud) was the so-called “Jastrow Dictionary.” Compiled by Dr. Marcus Jastrow, this comprehensive work provides translations of thousands of individual words as well as their etymology. Although useful, this work suffers from a number of drawbacks. Firstly, it is a bit difficult to use, as it was written in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition, many Orthodox institutions are hesitant to use it since Dr. Jastrow was a non-Orthodox rabbi who lived in Warsaw and later Philadelphia. Even so, it remains an important tool (although made less significant by the publication of the Schottenstein Talmud).

A number of Talmudic aids seek to explain the structure and organization of the Talmud. Among them:

Aiding Talmud Study (Jerusalem, 1986) by Aryeh Carmell—a small book that includes a dictionary of key Talmudic words and phrases as well as other useful data.

Understanding the Talmud (Jerusalem, 1988) by Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum—a study tool that not only translates key phrases and terms in the Talmud, but also shows how they are used and their significance in understanding the Talmudic argumentation.

The Students’ Guide through the Talmud (Brooklyn, 2009) by Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Chajes—an English translation of the classic introduction to the world of the Talmud by the nineteenth-century Polish gaon known as the Maharitz Chajes. In addition to being a Talmudic authority, Rabbi Chajes was also among the first Eastern European rabbis to acquire a formal secular education. This volume provides an excellent and informed discussion of the world of the Talmud, its concepts, terms, categories, the Aggadah, its chronology and its relationship to the Torah Shebichtav. Although not an aid in the actual study of the page of Talmud, this work provides important background information, making understanding the Talmudic process easier.

The Essential Talmud (Jerusalem, 2010) by Rabbi Steinsaltz—covers much background information for the Talmudic student. Additionally, The Talmud: A Reference Guide (part of the earlier aborted English edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud, published by Random House [New York, 1996]) is an excellent guide to Talmudic terms, concepts and other reference material.

Two other important tools in the study of the Talmud tend to be overlooked. Rabbi Nachman Kahana (brother of Rabbi Meir Kahana) and Rabbi Dovid Oksenberg have each independently undertaken to explain the Tosafot commentary. Rabbi Kahana’s books are known as Mei Menuchot and several volumes are available in English, though they are published primarily in Hebrew. Rabbi Oksenberg’s series, Shaare Tosafot, provides important scholarship in understanding Tosafot but is not available in English. Both series have yet to see their completion.

Finally, reference must be made to electronic versions of the Talmud. The original text of the Talmud is available on many sites, among them the Bar-Ilan Database. The English Soncino translation is also available online. [See sidebar on p. 81 for a fuller discussion of electronic resources for the Daf Yomi learner.]

English-speaking Jews in the twenty-first century have any number of valuable resources available to assist them in the study of the Talmud. Yet all these works cannot replace the classic tool of Talmud study—a good teacher. An effective Talmud teacher enables his talmid to imbibe not only knowledge but also a derech hachaim, a way of life, and ameilut baTorah, the act of toiling in Torah study. No tool can replace the time and mental energy needed to make sense of the Talmud. As a great scholar once noted, “Prayer is the way we speak to Hashem and the Torah is the vehicle by which Hashem speaks to us.”

Zalman Alpert is reference librarian at the Mendel Gottesman Library of Judaica at Yeshiva University.

To hear an interview with Zalman Alpert, visit www.ou.org/life/series/savitsky-talks/.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2012.

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