A Tale of Two Talmuds

Although Talmud is largely about law, it should not be confused with either codes of law or with a commentary on the Torah . Due to its spare style, the Talmud is studied, not read. The difficulty of the intergenerational text has necessitated the development of yeshivot throughout the world. In this class, we will explore how the Talmud came to be written, and the impact its compilation has had on Jewish life to this day.

  1. What was the historic event that led to the writing of the Talmud?
    • Exodus from Egypt
    • Destruction of the Second Temple
    • Expulsion from Spain
    • Holocaust
  2. Who was the Rabbi that compiled the Mishna?
    • Yehuda Hanasi
    • Rashi
    • Rambam
    • Ari
  3. What’s the name of the Talmud written in what is today modern Israel?
    • Israeli Talmud
    • Jerusalem Talmud
    • Palestinian Talmud
    • Judean Talmud
  4. Other than Hebrew, what is the dominant language of the Talmud?
    • French
    • Aramaic
    • Arabic
    • Ladino
    • Yiddish
  5.  To where did the centre of Jewish life shift after the Roman occupation of Jerusalem?
    • Rome
    • Babylon
    • America
    • Spain
  6. In which Asian country is there a great interest in learning Talmud today?
    • Vietnam
    • China
    • Bhutan
    • Thailand
    • South Korea
  1. Why do Jews need the Talmud? What information does it have that is not found in the Torah?
  2.  Why do you think the Talmud records lively conversations about Jewish laws and ethics, rather than just listing the halakha one needs to follow? What’s the purpose of preserving opinions that no one is expected to follow today?
  3. The codifying of the majority of the oral law Moshe received at Sinai in the Babylonian Talmud interestingly coincided with the fall of the Roman empire, the very entity that necessitated its creation in 476 CE. What do you think we can learn from the fact that these two historic events happened at the same time?
  4. Should we teach ethically troubling rabbinic texts to students whose commitment to Jewish tradition is limited or shaky? If yes, how should we teach them, especially when those texts plausibly represent the mainstream of our tradition? What do you think of the answers Aryeh Klapper provides to these question?
  5. Why do you think many traditional religious schools and yeshivot spend more time teaching their students the Talmud than the Tanakh to this day?
  6.  In 1236 a Jewish apostate, Nicholas Donin, submitted a memorandum to Pope Gregory IX listing 35 charges against the Talmud. These included allegations that it contained blasphemies of Jesus and Mary, attacks on the Church, pronouncements hostile to non-Jews, and foolish and revolting tales. Pope Gregory thereupon ordered a preliminary investigation after which he ordered the Talmud be burned at the stake. Similar instructions were conveyed to the kings of France, England, Spain and Portugal. Although the orders of the popes were not effectively upheld by the secular authorities, copying of the Talmud and its study could not be carried out openly and proceeded with difficulty. To this day, out of context quotations from Talmud proliferate throughout antisemitic websites across the internet. How do you feel about the way Judeophobes cherry-pick statements from one of our most important texts to justify their hatred against the Jewish people?
  7. In the Babylonian Talmud (M’nachot 29b) there is a wonderful midrash in which Moshe is depicted as watching God sitting and writing crowns (embellishments that look a bit like crowns) on some of the letters in the Torah. Moshe asked God why the Holy One was doing this. God responded “There is a man who will appear at the end of several generations and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. And he will need these crowns, because from each and every mark he will derive scores and scores of laws.” (In a sense, Akiva will create midrash to explain the presence of these marks, and anything else unusual in the text of Torah.)

Moshe retorted, “Ruler of the Universe, show this man to me.” The Holy One said, “Turn around!”

Moshe found himself sitting in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash (classroom) and he did not understand a word that was being said. He felt faint and frustrated. When the class reacted a certain point in the discussion, a student asked Rabbi Akiva, “Rabbi, what is the source for this ruling?” He said, “It is a law given unto Moshe at Sinai.”

One reading of why this time tunnel story was written suggested that it is in the Talmud to teach us that “Torah study is not the automatic emulation of what previous generations have thought; instead, each of us has the opportunity to offer a new explanation of the crowns adorning the letters in the Torah’s text. In other words, an internal, original spring flows from the Torah, and this fact fully legitimizes Akiva’s introduction of new laws that were not transmitted to Moshe at Mount Sinai.” Do you agree?

  1. Use our ready made lesson plan about the Talmud.
  2. Chavruta (Aramaic: חַבְרוּתָא, lit. “friendship” or “companionship”), is a traditional rabbinic approach to Talmudic study in which a small group of students (usually 2-5) analyze, discuss and debate a shared text. It is a primary learning method in yeshivot where students often engage with regular study partners of similar knowledge and ability, and is also practiced by those outside the yeshiva setting, in work, home and vacation settings.
    Your Task
    – Learn this Talmudic text in Chavruta and discuss the questions below. “These are the things for which you now enjoy the benefit (in this world), and the principle remains for you (in the world to come), namely: honoring parents, doing acts of lovingkindness, going to pray night and day, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, celebrating with a bride, burying the dead, studying prayer, peacemaking between people including husband and wife; and the study of Torah is “k’neged kulam” (equal to all of them).”Some interpret the phrase “k’neged kulam” to mean that the study of Torah is equal to all of the righteous deeds listed such as welcoming guests, burying the dead and making peace between people combined. So, in this case, we have Torah study as “being equal to” the other nine items listed. Yet how can honoring parents, burying the dead, visiting the sick, et al together be equal to studying Torah. Especially since there are many people who feel that only Torah study is what is important, since it is (minimally) ‘equal’ to all of the others.Alternatively, others argue that “k’neged kulam” means that the study of Torah should lead to each of these good deeds and always be in mind when performing them. How do you interpret “k’neged kulam”? Is the study of Torah equal to all of these good deeds combined or do they go hand in hand?
  3. Defending the Talmud – On July 4, 2015, a British neo-Nazi called on people to come to Golders Green in London “where copies of the Talmud books will be burnt in recognition of its racist anti-white teachings.”In response, a coalition of groups came together led by the anti-racist organization Hope Not Hate, the London Jewish Forum and the Board of Deputies and enlisted the support of local Christians and Muslims. With the support of thosuands they were able to prevent the neo-Nazi rally from taking place, with its organizer later arrested and jailed for inciting racial hatred.After the incident, there was much debate in the community about antisemitism and the coalitions required to defeat it. An issue that was less discussed was in regard to the place of the Talmud in the consciousness of non-religious Jews in the UK. How is it that tens of thousands of Jews who have little knowledge of the Talmud are willing to drop everything to fight its burning, yet so few of these same people devote time in their daily lives to study the teachings of the Talmud on a daily basis?Outside of the religious communities, Jews often seem far more keen to defend the Talmud and Torah than they are to invest the time it takes to study these sacred texts with depth and meaning. So too with Israel, where many are much keener to defend the Jewish State against its detractors, than to take the time to learn Hebrew as an expression of Zionism. With this in mind your task is as follows:Create a poster campaign that you think will encourage all the people who came to protest the burning of the Talmud, to join a regular Daf Yomi (learning a page of Talmud each day) class. Your poster campaign should include three arguments about the benefits of studying Talmud, creative artwork and a hashtag.
  4. Give your students our Kahoot on the Talmud!
  1. Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the founder of Daf Yomi, once said: “If you look at a page of the Talmud you see words of the greatest Jewish minds covering the entire spectrum of Jewish life and history. There were Jews from the land of Babylon, from France (e.g. Rashi) and Germany (the Ba’alei Tosafot); and in the back of the Talmud, there was Rabbeinu Asher — “the Rosh,” from Spain, the Maharsham from Poland and the Maharam from Lithuania. The Talmud is the most universal and unifying document in Jewish history because all the great people from every place in the world are all gathered in a single place.” Reflecting on this quote, how does it make you feel towards the Talmud?
  2. What’s your favourite quote or expression from the Talmud? How does this idea give meaning to your life today?
  3. If you could sit in the Academies of Sura and Pumbedita as the arguments that comprised the Talmud were happening in real time, what question would you ask of the Rabbis in the Beit Midrash (Jewish study hall)?

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