Mishnah: How to study :-)

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The Mishnah is the primary work of Judaism’s oral law, the way that Jews read our Bible. Our oral law is what rescues Judaism from Biblical fundamentalism, and what distinguishes Judaism from other religions.

One literally can’t understand the Bible, let alone live by it, without understanding the historical context in which it was written.  Joseph Telushkin writes

Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law … For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” … Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy?
Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness-lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.
Without an oral tradition, some of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In the Shema’s first paragraph, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.”
“Bind them for a sign upon your hand,” the last verse instructs. Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say.
“And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah — always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) — and is as obscure as is the English.
Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind upon his hand and between his eyes are tefillin (phylacteries).
Finally, an Oral Law was needed to mitigate certain categorical Torah laws that would have caused grave problems if carried out literally. The Written Law, for example, demands an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24). Did this imply that if one person accidentally blinded another, he should be blinded in return? … But the Oral Law explains that the verse must be understood as requiring monetary compensation: the value of an eye is what must be paid.
– Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History.

Don’t just jump into reading the Mishnah – you need a guide, a teacher, something that provides context and examples. Many readers start with:

“The Essential Talmud”, Adin Steinsaltz. It is perhaps the most useful introductory work on the Mishna and Talmud

“Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts”, Barry W. Holtz.

“Introduction to Rabbinic Literature” Jacob Neusner. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library/ Doubleday, 719 pages. A summary of Neusner’s 40 years of work. For each of the works presented, he discusses the text’s origin, available English translations, the purpose of the work, a summary, and a discussion of its form and methodology. Offers generous samples of translations, including the Mishnah, Tosefta, and two Talmuds.

Mishnah translations & commentaries

*  Pinhas Kehati. Kehati Mishnah Commentary series. World Zionist Organization, Torah Education Department, Maor Wallach Press (Israel)
Mishnah Kehati series

* Yad Avraham Mishnah Series, Schottenstein Edition. Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll)

Yad Avraham Mishnah Series Seder Kodashim

The Rabin Mishnah Study Group is a world-wide project devoted to the study of the Mishnah in the religious climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. This complete, free, online translation and commentary is from the beloved Rabbi Simchah Roth,זצ״ל. Rabbi Roth makes the Mishnah come alive by offering the student all the necessary historical background and context necessary to follow the flow of logic.



* Dr. Joshua Kulp, Shiurim Online Beit Midrash of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem
Shiurim: Online Beit Midrash: the entire Mishnah translated with commentary by Dr. Joshua Kulp

Shiurim Conservative Yeshiva

* The Mishnah: A New Translation, Jacob Neusner
“The first form-analytical translation of the Mishnah. This pathbreaking edition provides as close to a literal translation as possible, following the syntax of Mishnaic Hebrew in its highly formalized and syntactically patterned language. Demonstrating that the Mishnah is a work of careful and formal poetry and prose, Neusner not only analyzes the repeated constructions but also divides the thoughts on the printed page so that the patterned language and the poetry comprised in those patterns emerge visually.”

Mishnah Neusner
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image from Edinburgh Books (UK)

Moving from Mishnah study to Talmud study

Beginners are advised not to jump straight into Talmud study. The Talmud assumes that the reader already has a working knowledge of many Biblical books, Judaism’s concept of the oral law, and that the student understands how the argument style of the Mishnah works. One doesn’t need to be an expert on all these topics before entering Talmud study, but one should have some background and confidence.

When you feel ready to dive into the Talmud itself, one of the best works is “Reference Guide to the Talmud: The Indispensable Talmud Study Aid” , Adin Steinsaltz. I used the first edition back in 1995 when Random House published the first English version of the Steinsaltz Talmud.  Now Koren Publishers has a new edition, updated by Joshua Schreier.

“An indispensable resource for students of all levels, this fully revised, English-language edition of the Reference Guide clearly and concisely explains the Talmud’s fundamental structure, concepts, terminology, assumptions, and inner logic; provides essential historical and biographical information; and includes appendixes, a key to abbreviations, and a comprehensive index. For improved usability, this completely updated volume has a number of new features: topical organization instead of by Hebrew alphabet, re-edited and revised text to coordinate with the language used in the Koren Talmud Bavli, an index of Hebrew terms to enable one seeking a Hebrew term to locate the relevant entry.”


English translations of the Talmud

The Soncino Hebrew-English Talmud.

Each English page faces the Hebrew page. A few additional phrases are added to help the reader understand the reasoning. Notes provide additional background material. This is the most affordable edition. Also available on a searchable CD-ROM from Davka Software. http://www.davka.com

Soncino Talmud CD-ROM from Davka

The Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud (Artscroll Talmud)

Each English page faces the Hebrew page of the classic Vilna edition. The question and answer sequence is elucidated, and the translation is clearly explained so the reader understands the reasoning and flow. Notes on each page provide additional background material. Much easier to follow than the Soncino edition. Does not use the results of critical textual study. There is now an Android and iPhone app that lets you buy volumes of this for your smartphone.
Artscroll Talmud Schottenstein Edition

Koren Talmud Bavli Noé: The Steinsaltz Talmud.

Presents the Hebrew/Aramaic text next to an English translation and commentary. There are sections on terminology, history, geography and biographical backgrounds. Includes the results of historical critical textual study to give the most accurate version of the text. There are English & Hebrew editions, as well as Hebrew only editions. You can also get PDF versions of the Talmud which you can study on any computer or tablet.


Koren Talmud Bavli Noé Adin Steinsaltz

In my opinion the Koren Talmud is the easiest to learn from. Here is a sample page from the Koren Talmud Bavli Noé edition:
Koren Talmud Bavli Noé From When Does One Recite Shema In The Morning

Why study Mishnah and Talmud?

In The Times of Israel there is a wonderful interview with Rabbi Steinsaltz, by Raphael Ahern (Aug 9, 2012)

The new Koren edition of the Gemara is of course not the first time the Talmud has been translated into English. So why is another version needed For one thing, the publishers say, the Soncino and ArtScroll editions of the Gemara — which both consist of a translation and commentary — omit certain censored passages. During the Middle Ages, the Church removed from the printed versions of the Gemara any section they believed had to do with Jesus or their religion. In one instance, the Talmud speaks of the evangolion, which Koren loosely translates as “core elements of the New Testament.” Students of the classic Talmud editions have never seen this passage.

“A yeshiva boy, or any Talmud student for that matter, will stumble upon sections he has never seen before, and probably wasn’t even aware existed,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, a former director at the Orthodox Union and the Koren edition’s editor-in-chief.

“It’s a very non-apologetic book,” agrees Steinsaltz, who a few years ago Hebraized his name to Even-Israel but is still widely known by his Old World moniker. “My writing is not apologetic, about anything. If the text speaks about demons, I don’t make any efforts to make them appear more human. If it speaks about sex, I don’t try to make it more acceptable to people. If it speaks about Jews and non-Jews, or whatever it may be, I don’t try to be apologetic. This is the book. You either become close to it and begin to identify with it, or not. But I won’t try to whitewash anything.”

For Steinsaltz, learning Gemara is more than merely studying. As he writes in the preface to the new Koren edition, his work aims to allow Jews to study the Talmud, “approach it, and perhaps even become one with it.”

What does that mean, becoming one with the Talmud? “It’s a matter of identification,” Steinsaltz responds, puffing on the pipe again. Sometimes people see or read things but remain estranged from them, even if they fully comprehend the content. For some Talmud students a superficial knowledge of the material might be enough, but his goal is to allow readers to be able to “get involved” with the text, he says.

….the Talmud, Steinsaltz argues, is eternally relevant.

“If you learn Gemara you don’t really know what to do as a Jew today,” he admits, since it mostly recounts discussions whose conclusions — if there are any — are not necessarily binding in contemporary religious law. “But, as in mathematics, some of these things are the basics and you build on them later.” In other words, the Talmud’s dialectic discussions teach the student the know-how he needs to approach any question that may arise.

Once a student understands that learning Gemara is not necessarily about the actual subject the rabbis are discussing but understanding axioms, he can tackle any other problem, says the rabbi.

Uninitiated people, glancing at a page of Talmud, might scoff at the apparent obsolescence of the matters discussed, many of which originate from a pre-modern, mostly agrarian society. Why would anybody care today who is responsible for the damage to an earthen vessel caused by oxen on the loose?

“Some of the questions are about oxen and some are about the breaking of shards. But these are only examples,” Steinsaltz says. Every old book suffers from outdated examples, and even at the time of writing the Talmud was “not always up-to date,” he allows. But the deeper imperatives remain: When the Gemara deals with the laws of damages, it uses oxen and shards, but the same principles it uses can today be used for cars and iPods or anything else. It’s about primary damages and secondary damages; intentional damages and unintentional damages, those that could have been avoided and those that were bound to happen, and so on.

“If you don’t get it beyond the shards and the cow, then you didn’t really learn Gemara,” Steinsaltz says. “Everybody who thinks that an ox is an ox is himself an ox.”  😉


Why and how do Jews study Talmud?

Robert Goldenberg: Why do Jews study the Talmud?

Talmud study in Eastern Europe


Traditional Talmud study

Professer Eli Segal’s page on the Talmud

The Brisker method of Talmud study

The Brisker method is a newer variation of Talmud study, used exclusively within the Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish community. It caused some level of controversy within the Ashkenazi Orthodox community, who derided it as “chemistry” (breaking the text apart into small units, as chemistry can break molecules apart into atoms)

Rabbi Josh Yuter summarizes the problems with the Brisker method in this story:

I can tell you one story I heard from Rabbi Glickman who currently teaches some smikha shiurim at YU. R. Glickman studied with both R. Halivni and R. Soloveitchik. One day R. Soloveitchik gave a full shiur on why a mishna used an idiom in the first part and a different one in the second. When R. Glickman brought this up to R. Halivni, R. Halivni chuckled, pulled out the manuscripts and showed how one girsa had them both one way, the other had them both with the second.  😉
The difference is more of attitude and approach to the text. Brisk seems to be more about creating the conceptual categories – whether or not they fit (kind of like structuralism). Academic Talmud done correctly is more about finding the most rational and empirical answers to the questions. Girsaot is part of the equation because you can’t honestly do a textual analysis on a faulty text – if you’re asking “why does he say X”, the answer could simply be “he doesn’t.”
As I said, this warrants a much longer post for what I have time at the moment. Maybe one weekend I’ll put something together, but it’s a great question.

Rabbi Joshua Yuter was ordained in 2003 from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

The Modern/Historical approach of Talmud study

“Finding A Home for Critical Talmud Study”, David Bigman, The Edah Journal 2:1

Our method for learning Talmud can be summarized in the following question: “What is it saying and what is it saying?” In order to make this question intelligible, we have to define what we mean by three crucial terms, “it”, “saying”, and “saying”. The first two have been well developed by the academic world. However, since that consensus is not widespread in the yeshivah world, I will summarize them here. It is the third where we have something to contribute to the discourses both of the yeshivah and of the academy. Through defining these terms, we will see that the method consists of
1) identifying the different layers of the Talmudic sugya,
2) reading each layer in its own context,
and 3) evaluating what values are reflected by each particular statement and the larger editorial structure of the sugya.

Through this approach, we get a glimpse of the intellectual history of the sugya and, more importantly, we inherit a wide range of halakhic values that operate in the Talmud—values that guide the binding halakhic interpretations of the Talmud and that can and should operate in our own thinking and decision-making.

Finding a home for critical Talmud study;

On the teaching of Talmud: Toward a methodological basis for a curriculum in oral-tradition studies.

Pinchas Hayman, Bar Ilan University, Israel, Religious Education 92:1 (1997), pp. 61-76.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The apparently modern, historical view of Talmud study was once practiced by traditional Jews, even by Maimonides himself. Rabbi Richard Hidary, in “Traditional versus Academic Talmud Study: Hilkakh Nimrinhu le-Tarvaihu” notes:

Among the many thousands of people who spend time studying Talmud today,one finds a split between the traditional learning found in yeshivot and the academic research conducted in universities. Before we can evaluate the relationship between these two approaches and the value of each, we first need to define these terms better and trace where this split actually began. Let us define “academic” study as the analysis of the history of a text, including evaluation of manuscript variants, grammar and lexicography, issues of redaction, the historical context in which it was composed and other comparative studies. Let us further define “traditional” learning as the study of the substance and content of the text, such as the reasoning of each side of a mahloket and the conceptual basis for a given halakhic position. Consider the following quotation.

How was the Mishnah written? Did the Men of the Great Assembly begin to write it followed by the sages of each generation who each added small amounts until Rabbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi] came and sealed it? On the other hand, most of it is anonymous and an anonymous Mishnah is by R. Meir? Furthermore, most of the sages mentioned in it are R. Yehudah, R. Shimon, R. Meir and R. Yose who are all the students of R. Akiva?…The order of the Sedarim is clear; however, regarding the Massekhtot , why is Yoma before Shekalim and Sukkah before Yom Tov, and both of them before Rosh ha-Shanah? And so, too, regarding every Massekhet that was not ordered together with others that are similar in content? And the Tosefta about which we heard that R. Hiyya wrote it – was it written after the Mishnah or at the same time as it? Why did R. Hiyya write it? If it is additional material that explains issues in the Mishnah, then why did Rabbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi] not include it? After all, it is also stated by the Sages of the Mishnah? So, too, the Baraitot – how were they written? So, too, the Talmud, how was it written? “And the Saboraic sages – how were they ordered after Ravina, who reigned after them as the heads of the yeshivot from that time until today and how long did they each reign?

This is not the syllabus of the “Introduction to Talmudic Literature” course I took at Revel. Nor is it a copy of the major comprehensive exam I took as a graduate student at NYU. This is the list of questions that the learned Jews of Kairouan, Tunisia, sent to Rav Sherira Gaon in the year 987. The Gaon’s responsum remains one of the most important sources for the history of Rabbinic texts and their transmission. If the Gaon and his correspondents concerned themselves with questions of the redaction of the Mishnah and the Talmud, does that turn them into academics? Consider another quotation:

In some versions of the Gemara, it is written that if one tells his fellow, “Only repay me in front of witnesses,” and the other claims “I did repay you before this person and that person but they went to a foreign land,” he is not believed. However, this is a scribal error which caused the teachers to err based on those books. I have researched the old versions and have found one that is reliable and I have received in Egypt part of an ancient Gemara written on parchment as they used to write five hundred years ago. I have found two witnesses in the parchments regarding this halakha and in both of them it is written, “If he claimed, ‘I repaid before this person and that person and they went to a foreign land,’ he is believed.”

This is not written by a Geniza scholar in Cambridge or a Talmudic text critic in Hebrew University. This is from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot malveh ve-loveh 15:2. If Rambam made efforts to obtain the best manuscripts and evaluate them, does that make him untraditional? Are those of us who take time to read Talmudic manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza – perhaps some of the very manuscripts used by Rambam – also being untraditional? Obviously not. Using the definitions above, it seems clear that the Gaon and Rambam were both traditional as well as academic.


Artwork inspired by Talmud study

Daf Yomi is the discipline of learning a page of Talmud a day. draw yomi is an on-line project to follow the daf yomi cycle and to respond each day with a drawing. http://drawyomi.blogspot.com/

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