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Surprise, Discovery, Ritual, Meaning, and Wonder

Five years into the seven-year ‘Daf Yomi’ cycle of Talmud study, our columnist pauses to reflect on what the ancient text has taught him about being Jewish today

Adam Kirsch
August 22, 2017
Images: Flickr Commons
Images: Flickr Commons
Images: Flickr Commons
Images: Flickr Commons

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

For readers who are following the Daf Yomi cycle, this month marks a major anniversary. It has been five years since we began reading the Talmud, back in August 2012, with the first page of Tractate Berachot. Since then, we have made our way through some 1,800 folio pages (though a few may have slipped through the cracks along the way) and completed 23 of the 37 tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. Our journey through the whole text is now two-thirds done; the 13th Daf Yomi cycle will be completed in January 2020, whereupon the 14th will begin the very next day. For despite the calendar, there is no end to the study of Talmud: as tradition says, it is like an ocean, and a whole lifetime isn’t enough to sound its depths.

My own encounter with the Talmud has been unusual in a number of ways, and I am constantly aware of the unorthodoxy—in several senses—of my approach to it here in Tablet. One difference has to do with terminology: Usually, people say they are “learning” Talmud, rather than “reading” it, and while any reading of it involves constant learning, I do feel that reading is the right word for what I’m doing. I am not learning from a teacher, but going it alone, which to me seems like the only way to read. I am reading in English, not learning the original Hebrew and Aramaic. And, of course, I am writing about my experience here in Tablet. In all these ways, my Daf Yomi experience is nonstandard, though I hope not inauthentic.

The more profound unorthodoxy, however, has to do with belief and observance. Talmud study has expanded greatly in recent years—the popularity of Daf Yomi is a sign of that, as is the appearance of a wonderful tool such as the Koren Talmud Bavli, the English edition which I am reading. But it is still the case that the vast majority of people who spend time with the Talmud are Orthodox Jews. I was raised in a Conservative synagogue and today I am not observant, which puts me at a disadvantage in many ways. Customs and laws that to Orthodox Jews are second nature are new discoveries for me.

I still remember how, early in the cycle, I wrote about the Talmudic dictum that one’s shoes should be tied in a certain order: First you put on the right, then the left, then tie the left, then tie the right. I had never heard this before and it struck me as a strange idea: why should God care how we put on shoes? When I wrote this, however, one reader complained that if I didn’t know such a basic Jewish fact as the right way to put on shoes, I had no business writing about the Talmud at all. It was a good demonstration of the gulf in Jewish practice and expectation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

I believe, however, that for the purposes of these columns, my unfamiliarity with the Talmud might actually be an advantage. I think I approach the text with the kind of assumptions and questions that the majority of American Jews (and non-Jewish readers, too) would bring to it. What, on the most basic level, does the Talmud say? What sorts of subjects is it concerned with? How is it written? What is the famous “Talmudic” quality that, in English, is merely a synonym for needless complication? One reason I wanted to write about the Talmud is that I could never find a book that answered these questions in what felt like a concrete and comprehensive way. I hope to serve as a kind of scout of the territory for readers interested in the Talmud—hopefully, a good, encouraging scout like Joshua and Caleb, not an intimidated or despairing one like the other 10 spies.

And the landscape I have discovered is amazingly varied. Because Jewish law is so encompassing, covering every area of human life, the Talmud deals with everything under the sun. Medicine and astronomy, architecture and geometry, cuisine, and cosmetics—these facets of ancient life are captured in the Talmud in all their living reality. Then there are the major subjects of the various tractates: the prayer service; the organization and operation of the Temple; the holidays and their rituals; Shabbat and its many restrictions; marriage and divorce; real estate and commerce; contracts and court procedure. For the rabbis, all these elements went to make up what they knew as Judaism. The Judaism most of us know in the 21st century is a very different thing; under the pressures of modernity, science, and assimilation, we have lost touch with that ancient heritage.

This is not simply to be regretted—we have gained as well as lost, and alienation from the past is not only a Jewish experience. But I think that many modern Jews feel a longing to give their Jewishness a deeper meaning, a spiritual and intellectual content. We know we are Jews—the world wouldn’t let us forget it even if we wanted to—but what does being Jewish mean? That is the great modern Jewish question, and much of our thought and literature is devoted to answering it. But there is no real way of understanding what Jewishness means unless we understand what it meant; and for that, the Talmud, the text that stood at the center of Jewish life for more than a thousand years, is essential. Without it, we can hardly expect to know what our ancestors thought, or even more important, how they thought.

There is no real way of understanding what Jewishness means unless we understand what it meant

After five years, I’m much more familiar with Talmudic ways of thinking than when I began, but it still has the power to surprise me. A good example came in last week’s reading, in Sanhedrin 19b, when the rabbis try to make sense of a confusing set of relationships in the story of King David, in the Book of Samuel. The Talmudic passage begins with a discussion of the unique legal status of a Jewish king, who is exempt from being judged by a court and from giving evidence in court. Another privilege of kings is that no one may marry a king’s widow. Here Rabbi Yehuda objects: actually, he says, another king may marry a king’s widow. This is proved by the example of David, who is said to have married “the wives of your master,” Saul, after Saul died.

The sages, however, disagree with Yehuda’s interpretation of the biblical verse. When it says “the wives of your master,” it does not mean Saul’s wives, but rather “women appropriate to him from the house of the king”: that is, relatives of Saul who would be suitable to marry David. These were his daughters, Meirav and Michal, both of whom were promised to David by Saul. But this raises another problem, which is that Jewish law forbids a man to marry two sisters. Thus “Rabbi Yosei’s students asked him: How did David marry two sisters while they were both alive?”

To get around this obstacle, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha comes up with an ingenious explanation, drawing on the law of marriage contracts. At first, he reasons, David was betrothed to Meirav; but the betrothal was legally invalid, which left him free to marry her sister Michal. And why was the betrothal invalid? Because earlier, Saul had promised a treasure to anyone who killed Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior. When David accomplished this feat, he became Saul’s creditor. Now, betrothal under Jewish law—as we learned extensively in Tractate Kiddushin—requires the payment of money or an article of value; it can be a small sum, as little as one peruta (a coin of little value), but it must actually be paid. If the groom forgives an outstanding loan from the bride’s father, this does not count as payment, and any betrothal on that basis is invalid. David, the Rabbi argues, must have betrothed Meirav by forgiving the “loan” (really the promised reward) from Saul, which is illegal; therefore he was never actually betrothed to Meirav at all, and so he was free to marry Michal.

This passage is remarkable not just for its legal and intellectual dexterity, or for its command of the Biblical text—two of the chief rabbinic virtues. It also reveals the rabbis’ lack of what might be called a historical sense—that is, a sense that Jewish life has changed over time. For Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, it stands to reason that iron-age chieftains like Saul and David lived by the same halakha that he knew, a thousand years later. There is no room for the idea that halakha evolved, that Torah meant something different to David than it does to the Talmudic sages. Indeed, the Talmud regularly depicts David—and even earlier Biblical figures, like the patriarchs—as if they were rabbis, debating the law in Talmudic fashion. (When the Bible says that David slayed two warriors, the Talmud says at one point, it really means that he studied two tractates of Mishna.)

This anachronistic way of thinking grows directly out of the rabbis’ sense of the permanence of Torah. The law does not change, and so Judaism does not change. In fact, of course, it does evolve dramatically over time, and the rabbis of the Talmud themselves participate in that evolution. But they innovate without acknowledging that this is what they are doing; their innovations are always cast as recoveries of the Torah’s original meaning. This way of nullifying historical change is one of the Talmud’s strangest and most important ways of thinking: time itself means something different to the rabbis than it does to us. This is the kind of discovery that can only be made by encountering the Talmud directly. After five years, I’m still grateful for such surprises, which teach me more about what Judaism means than any other Jewish experience I’ve had.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.