This is part three in a series: An Introduction to the Talmud. For part 1 click here. For part 2 click here.
There is a famous story in the Talmud of a young and poor Hillel who wanted to learn Torah but was unable to pay the entrance fee to the beit midrash (Jewish academy).
Rather than allow this lack of funding to curb his ability to study Torah, the young Hillel, in the depth of a frigid winter night in Jerusalem, climbed onto the roof of the building, where he pressed his ear against the skylight hoping to hear the words of the great sages within.
After a long night of study and the subsequent sunrise, the rabbis noticed a large shadow stemming from an object in the middle of their roof. Going outside the beit midrash, the rabbis found Hillel unconscious and frozen on the skylight, his ear still pressed downwards. Helping him down and lighting a fire (on Shabbat) to help him recover - the rabbis subsequently decided that entrance to the study hall should no longer require a fee.
Now like most rabbinic tales, this is not meant to be historical. The rabbis weren’t interested in being historians, rather, narrative is at the center of rabbinic pedagogue with stories (often hyperbolic ones) teaching powerful life lessons, morals, and origin stories.
Many stories throughout our history reflect the immense sacrifice, whether on a personal or communal level, that Jews have undertaken to be able to study Torah. On hundreds of different occasions, spread throughout time and space, Jews have been forbidden to learn Torah by various secular authorities, religious theocracies, and hegemonic governments, and breaking this law would result in stern punishment. My own great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Levine, after whom I am named, continued teaching Torah in Russia after the government outlawed it, paying the price of being sent to Siberia for several years when he was caught.
Today Torah is more accessible than any other previous time in Jewish history. You don’t need to climb on a snowy roof, hide yourself from an anti-semitic regime, or even leave the confines of your own home. I implore anyone who has never read any of the Talmud to try it out. While entering into thousands of years of Jewish conversation is difficult, nothing truly worth doing is ever easy.
But how should one go about entering the sea of Talmud - a sea where there is no shallow end but rather a steep drop off immediately as one enters?
What I want to do is suggest a couple of different ways to familiarize yourself with the Talmud.
The first suggestion is to find yourself a study partner. Jewish texts are full of statements attesting to the importance of study partners (chavrutas) allowing the study of Talmud to feel more like a collaborative conversation based off of a text instead of simply reading something. Contrary to the image one conjures up about libraries and silence, when one steps into a traditional Yeshiva they will hear a loud buzz of chavrutas going back and forth trying to understand, debate, and challenge each other regarding the topic on hand.
Another suggestion, for people who may still yet feel intimidated by the world of the Talmud, is to start by studying a bit of Mishna
. As I explained in a previous article the Mishna is the first half of the Talmud, codified sometime in the third century. The Mishna is generally much more straightforward than its Gemera counterpart, and while still containing the same elements of rabbinic debate, Midrash, and innovation it is generally much shorter and more easily understood.
Furthermore, not all pages of Talmud are created equal. Some sections of Talmud, known as sugyot
, are notoriously difficult and enigmatic while others are much more basic. For convenience sake I will include links to several talmudic sugyot
at the end of this paragraph which I feel are perfect for a beginner (although, like all sections of Talmud, still difficult). Additionally, when it comes to Talmud study, the exact subject matter is often secondary to the process of learning itself. Don’t get too caught up in the details - whether it is talking about the precise details of a sacrifice, laws of kashrut (kosher laws) that you may not practice, or even concepts that seem archaic or outdated. Rather, appreciate the process, the innovations, the logical wittiness, and philosophical struggle evident throughout the pages. (Some great places to start are Here
, and Here
- And, if you really want to challenge yourself, try to see how many of these
you can learn).
The last suggestion is simply to implore you to jump in and enjoy the process. Wherever you start in your talmudic journey there will inevitably be references you don’t know, arguments you don’t understand, and passages that seemingly make zero sense. This happens to everyone who has ever studied Talmud. The best advice here is to not give up even if you understand nothing. Read it multiple times, google the verses or other texts that the Talmud is referencing, and feel free to reach out to me (email@example.com) or anyone else for help. All in all, the trick is to push past this initial hardship for, as the Talmud itself says, “all beginnings are difficult.”
The history of Jewish learning is one full of devotion, love, toil, and risk. In every generation for thousands of years Jews have been studying these same texts in the halls of Europe to Egypt to New York to Iran to Jerusalem. Now it is your turn, go out and learn!
**Note, most of the links send you to sefaria.org, a great reference that has the entire Talmud translated into English.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
I am frustrated with my son who is not motivated with learning Gemara. I try to be a good role model. He is a smart kid and does fine in his secular studies. I feel that he is starting to get turned off from Jewish studies. How far should I push?
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