The Talmud! / The power of a casual remark…

New York
August 30th 2012 / 12th Elul 5772

Dear All,

Jewish tradition is scrupulous about citation. In that spirit, I want to share with you not exactly a citation, but a throwaway remark, three weeks ago, which has already changed my life, and is likely to do so for quite some time to come.

It was from David Rendsburg, a friend and colleague who is widely admired and respected for being, in a way, the very model of a contemporary ish hazon: a fourth-generation Jewish cyclist, son of a phenomenal Bible scholar, gabbai extraordinaire.  Both in his day-job and in his spare time, David is engaged quite explicitly in doing good for others. But this was simply a water-cooler comment: have you seen the new Steinsaltz

He was referring to the new Koren edition of the Babylonian Talmud, which he proceeded to show me. It marries a new English translation of Rav Steinsaltz’s Hebrew commentary (which he recently completed after 40 years of work) with a layout that I saw immediately was beautiful and accessible, and which subsequent use  (more on that in a moment) has shown to be both useful and neutral. (By neutral I mean that, insofar as possible, the translation is seeking straightforwardly to elucidate the text, and not to drive meaning or understanding in a particular or skewed direction. If you want to understand the extreme opposite of Rav Steinsaltz’s approach, compare the Hebrew text of  Shir HaShirim/Song of Songs with its Artscroll “translation.”

And then David added this casual remark, “I missed the start of the new Daf Yomi cycle, but I’ve decided I’m going to try to do it anyway – I reckon I’ll catch up by September…”

Like lots of people, I saw coverage in the media about the end of the most recent cycle of learning the Talmud. “Daf yomi” literally means “page-a-day” and if you learn a page a day, it takes about 7 ½ years (2,711 days, to be precise).  The coverage focused mostly on the haredi community, but I only recently discovered that two people I know, neither of them ultra-orthodox, completed this most recent cycle.

So when David showed me the new Koren/Steinsaltz Talmud, and added that he was starting the daf yomi cycle, on a whim I decided to do the same. I ordered it a few minutes later on amazon and it showed up two days later – this strange combination of the contemporary-fastest-of-the-fast, with the oldest-and-slowest-of-the-slow.

Learning it has already become a remarkable, fascinating, delightful, experience: indeed one of the reasons I’m writing this now is that I want to say, if you are minded to, go get yourself a copy of this edition and get started: better late than never…

It perhaps will not appeal to, or be accessible, to everyone. In some ways I’m the ideal user of this text. I can’t read Aramaic, the language in which much of the Talmud is written, and a traditional page of Talmud would take me… I can’t begin to imagine how long. But my contextual understanding is decent, and my sympathy is considerable.  (Contextual understanding: I have a sense of the world of the rabbis, the prayers and rhythms of Jewish tradition, the nature of the questions being asked, the historical context. Sympathy: I’m willing to take the text as it comes, with curiosity and respect, and without needing to fight with it if my own world-view is radically different, which not infrequently it is.)

I’m not attempting – as I know some people do – to wake up every morning and learn literally a page a day. I’m too ADD for that; I wouldn’t last five minutes. But I’m simply trying to learn it steadily, as and when I can, less or none at all on busy days, but more when I have time. I’ve nearly caught up:  today’s daf is page 29, and this morning I was learning 27A.

I knew when I began this email that I would struggle to explain what this is like – how incredible it is and how much I am loving it.  I’m learning each page with a pencil, annotating it as I go along – page after page littered with little ticks, exclamation marks, question marks, comments, circlings, and underlinings. I’ve covered only the tiniest amount of ground, thus far, yet already I can’t even begin to do justice to the richness and range of the text. A few random examples:

  • “someone imprisoned cannot free themselves from prison” (page 5B) – in context of a conversation about illness and wellness, a story and then a pithy line that teaches something deep and significant about the extent to which we all need help from outside ourselves;
  • An incredible story about 400 hundred barrels of Rav Huna’s wine turning to vinegar, thus causing him great financial loss. Another rabbi says to Rav Huna: there must be some wrongdoing on your part that has led to this happening. Rav Huna realizes that he has been mistreating his tenant farmers, and proceeds to change his behavior, whereupon his loss is reversed. (Also 5b.) It’s a story that’s good in many ways, not least that it’s a lovely indication of how there’s a seamless connection in the Talmud between what we would think of as ethical behavior, on the one hand, with divine reward and punishment, and matters of theology etc, on the other. If you misbehave, you’ll be punished, and if you do teshuva you’ll be rewarded. So this is good, and/but we would expect this, in a sense, from a religious text. But then here’s the line I love: “some say his vinegar turned back into wine, and some say that the price of vinegar rose and it was sold at the price of wine.” ☺ Think about that for a minute.  How does divine intervention work? Does G!d supersede the natural world, and change vinegar to wine? Or does G!d’s hand reveal itself invisibly, through the working of financial markets, to reverse Rav Huna’s loss? My own theology doesn’t extend to such a belief in either direction, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love that line, or the different understandings of the nature of G!d – and the world – that underpin it;
  • A whole slew of texts that are fascinating in their understanding of human behavior – so many I can hardly begin to list them. Rav Sheshet teaching that the purpose of a eulogy is to help mourners cry, (6b) or Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Yosei teaching that in dealing with someone who is very angry, one should wait until they calm down a little (7a);
  • And then things that we don’t hear so often today: “one is permitted to provoke the wicked in this world” (7b);
  • An amazing section on the architecture of shuls, explaining (and, in this edition, illustrating) why so many of  the shuls I’ve been in, including the two I grew up in, cause you to walk through two doors before being able to enter the main part of the shul – I never knew this; (8a, p48)
  • “be careful to respect an elder who has forgotten his knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control.” (8b) – a powerful line as we live in a world of Alzheimer’s, and ahead of my beloved father’s 80th birthday this Shabbat. My Dad has not forgotten his knowledge, but as he grows older, parts of his memory weaken a little. The Talmud’s reverence for age is palpable, consistent and admirable;
  • “one must always be vigilant with regard to the afternoon prayer” (6b) – which reminded me of hearing Morris Smith (the successor to Peter Lynch,  in managing the Magellan Fund, at Fidelity) talking years ago about how he’d davenned mincha (the afternoon prayer) in every corporate parking lot in America, and how at Fidelity he closed his office door to daven it, with instructions that he not be disturbed, and how the act of doing so was central to his own ability to remember what was most important, in the middle of incredibly intense business days;
  • A discussion about whether the day begins when one can distinguish between a wolf and a dog, or a donkey and a wild donkey, or by recognizing another person (9b) – which reminded me of how engaged with the natural world – and knowledgeable about it – were the rabbis of the Talmud;
  • All sorts of stuff that does not make it through into typical highlights-of-the-Talmud compilations, which are intended to inspire us; things about whether you say the sh’ma on the night of your wedding if you’re marrying a virgin (you don’t have to) or a widow (you do) and what that’s about (11a); or long back-and-forth conversations about the proper behavior in relation to a range of bodily functions – including the superb euphemism, “sneezing from below” ☺;
  • A beautiful section – page 16b – which includes the meditation at the end of the amidah that was, in a sense, canonized into our existing prayer books, alongside a slew of other different meditations that didn’t make it into the siddur. Each interesting, each inspiring, each challenging, each prompting one to think about why, and about the different configuration of words, what we say, why we choose to say them.

This email is already too long, and I will cease these bullets, though, truthfully, they’re chosen at random as I turn pages and look at my notes; there are another 40 bullets in this vein I could write, easily.

But I want to end by reflecting on the broader aspects of this. I started writing this email on the train to Isabella Freedman for the Hazon New York Ride this weekend. (We cycle into JTS on Monday afternoon – if you’re in the ‘hood [i.e. anywhere in the New York area] feel free to do your own ride and join us there at 3pm-ish – there’ll be food and goodies, and you can cheer in our riders…).  I was so engrossed in this email – in reflecting on the Talmud – that I didn’t realize we were already at Wassaic, the final stop. I grabbed my book and my laptop and my bag and dashed out the door – maybe 30 seconds before the train headed out of the station to go back to New York.

It was a small but telling indication of how quickly I’ve become fascinated by living in two worlds – the day-to-day world of my life, and the world of the Talmud. It might be like someone who already has a reasonable sense of Italy – she’s read some history, some novels, some of the great movies, maybe visited a few times; and then really moves to Florence or Sicily or Tuscany, and is simply enthralled, day after day, by the landscape, the sunshine, the shadows, the food, the architecture, the people, the language – all coming to life in a way that is not exactly surprising, but nevertheless more magical and more wonderful than she had ever imagined.

The analogy is a reasonable one because, too, countries, like books, and other relationships, are real things; honeymoons end and life resumes. I know enough about the Talmud to know that there will be long boring stretchs ahead, things I don’t understand, things I don’t like, and things I’m very bothered by. But there is something immensely wonderful about soaking into this long ancient Jewish conversation, and feeling from within how powerful it is, how high its aspirations, how rich its insights, how thought-provoking its challenges.

David did a wonderful mitzvah by showing me this new edition, and letting me know that he was starting to learn it with at least the intention of seeing it all the way to the end. The future is unknowable – I’ll update you periodically on my progress – but, for now, I didn’t want to let another day go by without sharing this with you; and, in particular the suggestion that, if it makes sense to you, you think about getting a copy of the new edition of Brachot, and slowly but surely set out into the world of the rabbinic imagination.

Shabbat shalom,


Nigel Savage
Executive Director, Hazon


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *