Reviewed by Elchanan Adler
Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein’s Journeys in Talmud addresses a void which has not been filled—despite the explosion of Anglo-Jewish publications of the past decade directed largely, if not exclusively, at a traditionally observant Jewish readership.
Many monumental works—the entire Talmud along with Torah Shebichtav and many of its classic commentaries, halachic works such as the Mishnah Berurah—have been made accessible via excellent translations to an eager English-dominant population who would otherwise find it difficult to access this material in its original Aramaic or Hebrew. Yet, with the exception of a small number of specialized publications,1 little attention has been given to familiarizing the broad segment of Anglo-Jewish readers with the conceptual logic which underlies the Talmud and its commentaries.
To be sure, this is the stuff upon which classic shiurim throughout time have been built and which continues to reverberate in the batei midrash of our great yeshivot. Yet, little of this skeletal analysis of the “hows” and “whys” of the halachic process is elucidated in the contemporary literature. This is precisely the gap that Rabbi Bernstein’s Journeys in Talmud fills.
The author, a noted teacher and lecturer in Jerusalem, accomplishes this with great clarity in a variety of ways: through his carefully chosen words which flow easily, his expert use of captions which cue the reader to what is about to follow and his clever word play with more than a hint of humor, as if to say, “join in, this is going to be fun.”
The book contains four major headings: Brachos, Shabbos, Moadim and Principles and Concepts in Talmud. These are subdivided into twenty-two subcategories which include such diverse topics as: The Foundation of Making Brachos on Food (“Thought For Food”), Tying Knots on Shabbos, and Throughout Torah (“Strictly Kosher”), The Mitzva of Mishloach Manos (“Halachic Give and Take”) and The Principle of Following the Majority (“Ask the Rov”).
The topics were apparently selected with great care since they often involve commonplace situations with which the reader can readily identify, given the likelihood that he has encountered them in his own life experiences. Consider the question posed in the first chapter entitled “Thought for Food.” In the midst of sipping a cup of coffee, the author suddenly becomes uncertain as to whether he had made a berachah before drinking. How should he proceed? Is making a new berachah necessary, or should it be avoided inasmuch as it is potentially a berachah levatala, a blessing uttered in vain? May he continue drinking the coffee, given the possibility that he did not recite a berachah at the outset, in which case he would be drinking without a berachah?
Rabbi Bernstein goes on to expand this matter in great detail, exploring the nature of the prohibition of not making a berachah levatala, citing opinions of various Acharonim (Pnei Yehoshua, Tzlach, the Steipler Gaon), which then leads into a novel classification of mitzvot—those which impose a direct obligation (chiyuv) and those whose sole purpose is to serve as a matir (making something permissible). A thorough review of Rabbi Bernstein’s analysis is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that each position is accorded its due and found to rest on its own self-sufficient basis.
It is this type of analytical approach which is applied to each of the issues posed throughout the book. The impeccable logic inherent in both sides of a debate by gedolei Torah leaves the reader with an appreciation of the notion of “eilu ve’eilu divrei Elokim Chayim,” that there is a justifiable basis for diversity within the halachic process. Each halachic debate, whether in the Gemara or in its myriad commentaries, Rishonim and Acharonim, is endowed with a unique internal logic which must be plumbed and deciphered by the learner. This is the message that Journeys in Talmud conveys and admirably demonstrates.
While, as noted, the book is written with clarity and gusto, it is by no means a “simple” book. It relies heavily on Talmudic terminology and despite its glossary, those without reasonable familiarity with Talmudic discourse are likely to be left behind or struggle with its content. The note of humor and user-friendly style give the book a deceptively “easy-looking” façade which belies its sophistication. For most readers, this is not a book which can be digested in one or two sittings. To fully grasp its essence, it will be necessary for the reader to pause and reflect on the conceptual logic as it unfolds. Indeed, the essays are crafted in such a way as to encourage the reader at specific junctures to step back and reflect on the points just made. As the author notes in his introduction, the material in the book is an extension of a weekly Talmud shiur presented to a study group. One can well imagine that this was a lively, highly interactive process with considerable “give and take” on the part of the group. A similar “give and take” with a study partner or group of partners would likely contribute to a better grasp and retention of the material. The effort would well be worthwhile—both for those who attend the shiurim and for the seasoned Talmudists who deliver them.
Rabbi Elchanan Adler, a rosh yeshivah at RIETS, Yeshiva University, is the author of the sefer Mitzvas HaShabbos (on the evolution of the mitzvah of Shabbos) and the recently published Kuntrus Yerach Tov (on Birkas HaChodesh).
1. Included are Contemporary Halakhic Problems by Rabbi J. David Bleich (1977-2012); Iyun B’Lomdus by Rabbi Yitzchak Adler; The Festivals in Halacha (Artscroll’s English rendition of Ha’Moadim Be’Halachah by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin) (Brooklyn, 1981); and the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society.