“Come and Hear: What I Saw in My Seven-and-a-Half-Year Journey through the Talmud” by Adam Kirsch. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2021. 224 pages. $32.50.
For 7 1/2 years, Adam Kirsch took part in the Daf Yomi (Daily Page) program, in which he studied a page of the Talmud each day. To him, and to all others who have persisted in such a lengthy and intellectually challenging project, my hat remains permanently doffed.
I am a dilettante in the world of Talmud study — for several years, I have taken part in a weekly Zoom class (you might term it Daf Shevu’i, Weekly Page) in my synagogue, Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, led by Rabbi Steven Suson. The presence of a teacher asking penetrating questions was essential to expanding my understanding of what we were studying. (It’s not clear to me how much help Kirsch received, although he gives credit to several scholars and editors in the Acknowledgements section.)
Even more than the intellectual challenge is the grind of one hour’s study every day for so many years. It would seem to require a high level of dedication, if not devotion.
Briefly, as Kirsch — a secular Jew who is a poet and literary critic — explains, the Talmud consists of the Hebrew-language Mishnah, originally the Oral Law, and Gemara, commentary on the Mishnah, which was written in Aramaic. (The author used English translations.)
Basically, the Talmud consists of discussions by Jewish sages about putting into practice halachah, Jewish law from the Torah, producing rules and regulations for everyday life. In this regard, the author notes, “as a guide to actually living a Jewish life, the Torah turns out to be radically inadequate.”
For example, the Torah commands no work on Shabbat, but what is work? Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk, it says, on separating dairy and meat. OK, no boiled, milk-flavored young goat. But why not a cheeseburger, whose meat probably comes from papa steer, not mama cow, and cheese, at least in its final iteration, is not boiled. (Sorry, despite my impeccable logic, no cheeseburgers.)
In relating debates by rabbis on various topics, the Talmud records not only the sages whose opinions became part of Jewish law but also the ides of the “losers” in those discussions. So, why bother with those other opinions? The Talmud, according to Kirsch, is “a record of teachings handed down over centuries by many different sages who sometimes disagreed.
All of these traditions are important and sacred, and the Talmud doesn’t want to discard any of them.”
In addition, Kirsch says, the Talmud also delves into aggada (storytelling), biblical homilies, stories about the rabbis’ personal lives and their thoughts on the nature of the universe.
So, what did the author learn during his 7 1/2 years? Here are a few examples from this perceptive, well-written book about one of Judaism’s basic documents:
* From Tractate Ketubot: At weddings, the bride’s beauty is customarily praised. But what if the bride clearly was not beautiful? Hillel and Shammai, two of the renowned, much-quoted rabbis who disagreed on so many issues, parted company here as well. Hillel advocated for praising a bride’s beauty no matter what, while Shammai favored flattering some other aspect of the woman, like her character or family.
As usual in disputes between the two, Hillel prevailed, with the rabbis deciding “to err on the side of kindness,” Kirsch notes.
* From Tractate Gittin: The Torah (Deuteronomy 24:1) allows a man to divorce his wife by giving her a divorce certificate, a get. But, the author writes, it takes Tractate Gittin (the plural of get) “to translate this into a workable legal process.”
Changes were made in the divorce process “ ‘mi’pnei tikkun olam,’ for the sake of the betterment of the world. “Today, the phrase tikkun olam is often used … to signify the improvement of society in the name of social justice,” according to the author. “But this is a recent spin on a phrase that, in the Talmud, simply refers to a practical improvement in legal procedure.”
*Tractate Sanhedrin: Modern liberal Jews’ distaste for capital punishment has deep roots, for, the author notes, the Sages also shared that feeling and made conviction in a capital case almost impossible.
There must be 23 judges and two eyewitnesses who warned the person that the crime he was about to commit would subject him to the death sentence. Even the smallest discrepancy in the two testimonies will invalidate them.
“The Talmud’s extreme reluctance to execute criminals marks a clear departure from the Torah, which prescribes the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, from murder to violating Shabbat,” Kirsch notes. As always, the Sages justify their rulings by turning to other parts of the Torah.
* Tractate Nidda: Masturbation is a problem of “cosmic” proportions, the author says. God created a finite number of human souls, all of which need bodies to be born so the world can end. “Wasting semen means throwing away an opportunity to bring one of those souls to earth, thus delaying the arrival of the Messiah,” the author explains.
Learning Talmud is becoming increasingly popular in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Kirsch notes.
If you’re considering delving into the Talmud, you might want try “Come and Hear” first. It’s an excellent introduction.
Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrants’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books), is available for purchase online.