Reflections on the Completion of the Babylonian Talmud

As a freshman in high school, I attended a celebration that marked the completion of the Babylonian talmud in the program of learning known as daf yomi ( “the daily page”) in which participants from all over the world study a page of talmud a day with the aim of completing the Talmudic corpus in its entirety. Several days after the event, with the encouragement of my teachers and my father, I decided to embark on that journey through talmud with the beginning of the new study cycle.

For almost eight years, I carried a tractate of the talmud around with me virtually everywhere I went. I would take my Artscroll gemara to school, on trips, and even to friends’ houses, always doing my best to keep up with the cycle. It wasn’t always easy to stay motivated or focused; perhaps more often than not, my “studying” of the talmud was more akin to mere reading, as many sections of it – even entire tractates – simply didn’t hold my interest or were too difficult for me to properly understand with the amount of time I had in my daily study session (which frequently took place on carpool rides, during downtime in the synagogue service, or late at night when I was too tired to properly focus). Despite the many, many days of which it could hardly be said that I truly learned anything from reading my page of gemara, I kept going. I wanted to see the entire talmud and I didn’t want to stop until I reached the end.

Finally, I have arrived at the finish line. Looking back on whom I was when I started my voyage, it is clear to me that I am a quite a different person now than I was then. Yet, through all these years, the daily page of talmud has been a constant in my life, from berachot to niddah. Now that I stand at the completion of this phase in my life, I feel a need to express to others, but primarily to myself, what I have learned – in a general sense – from my daf yomi experience.

First and foremost, I think that the daf yomi has incredible value in that it enables participants to see the entire talmud, even if they don’t fully understand it. Critics of daf yomi fault the pace of the learning program for being far too quick for people to fully understand and appreciate what it is that they are studying. This argument certainly has its merits, but it presumes that only a full, accurate understanding of the material of the talmud has any value at all. Over the course of this past daf yomi cycle, I found that contrary to the claims of daf yomi’s detractors, I was gaining a great deal from the program despite its accelerated pace. My Aramaic reading skills, my familiarity with basic Halachic and Agaddic concepts throughout the talmud, and my ability to recognize the structure of Talmudic argumentation all benefited significantly from my daily study of the talmud. More importantly, I think, I gained a broad appreciation and a deeper understanding of what the talmud actually is, and, by extension, the religion that emerges from it: Rabbinic Judaism.

There is a common misconception perpetuated in the Orthodox community that the talmud, as a subset of “the Oral Torah”, is simply a code containing the laws that God transmitted orally to Moses at Sinai, and that the many legal debates contained therein are simply attempts to reconstruct the original tradition that each interlocutor received from his respective teachers. When you actually read through the gemara, however, you begin to realize that this characterization is an erroneous oversimplification. While there are a number of laws in the talmud that are attributed to tradition, sometimes even dating back to the time of Moses, the cases where the phrase “halacha l’moshe misinai” actually appear are few and far between. The primary sources for the amoraim were simply the oral texts of the tanna’im – the mishna, halachic midrashim, braitot etc. – and the primary source for the halacha of the tanna’im was the text of the Bible. The tanna’im certainly also had Halachic traditions, but tradition went hand-in-hand with textual interpretation, and the latter – in my estimation at least – comprises the bulk of the tannaic material contained in the talmud.

In addition to their role as interpreters of texts, the rabbis of the talmud were also legislators. Most Jews who observe the rabbinic tradition understand that there are mitzvot derabannan, takkanot, and gezerot, but I think that it is only when one sees the entire talmud, or at least a large portion of it, that he can really appreciate the extent to which the rabbis of the talmud were not just judges who decided based on knowledge of halachic tradition whether something should be permitted or forbidden. Rather, the rabbis (perhaps the tanna’im more so than the amoraim) were creators of religious public policy. The rabbis were tasked to create a social, cultural, and legal framework within which the laws and values of the Torah – as the rabbis saw them – could be realized. The rabbinate in Talmudic times, in this sense, was both a religious and political entity.

In short, the rabbis of the talmud were textual interpreters, tradition-bearers, and legislators. What they seldom claimed to be, however, was prophets or emissaries of God. Rabbinic Judaism is a religion that, in a sense, cares more about the text of God’s law and the proper interpretation of it within the rabbinic legal framework than God’s will itself, leading to the famous “lo bashamayim hi” stories in which the rabbis are depicted as outwitting God in the interpretation of His own law. It is to their credit that the rabbis of the talmud were very much aware of the extent to which their legal system, in a way, crowded out God from the halachic decision-making process.

Another observation I have made over the course of my study of the talmud is the extent to which rabbinic Judaism is a pluralistic religion; the talmud does not speak with a single voice but rather with a multitude of opinions. When perusing the talmud, one is introduced to all sorts of interesting positions on halachic questions that – from our vantage point – have been settled long ago.  A person also begins to realize the extent to which contemporary Judaism differs from Talmudic Judaism: although, for the most part, contemporary Orthodox halacha is derived directly from the talmud, some rules (both lenient and stringent) in the talmud have been, for various historical and practical reasons, rejected in our everyday practice of Judaism. Conversely, a number of things that we consider to be “part of Orthodox Judaism” appear nowhere in the talmud, like the customs of mourning during the period of sefira and “the three weeks.” It should also be pointed out that certain priorities and sensibilities were heavily emphasized in Talmudic times but aren’t treated with as much import now, and vice versa. The way the talmud discusses sexuality in certain places, for example, is a far cry from the Victorian-like prudishness with which that subject is dealt with today in some segments of Orthodoxy.

A final point I would like to make concerns the non-legal parts of the talmud. The occasional anecdote or agadda often serves as a well-needed respite from the rigorous and often dry halachic conversations that dominate most of the talmud. Anecdotes and aggadot aren’t just “breaks” though; they are invaluable sources for understanding whom the rabbis were and what they believed. The stories of the talmud give a student of the talmud a sense of whom the rabbis were as real people: people with personalities, egos, and even marital problems. Similarly, aggadot are a window into the system of rabbinic theological beliefs and value hierarchies. The more agaddot one studies, the more one appreciates the complexity and variety of the rabbinic belief system.

Many, many more things remain to be said about understanding the nature of the talmud and its shaping of rabbinic Judaism to this day. I have only given some of the rashei perakim, the chapter headings, of what a person can come to understand when he makes it through the talmud. Would I recommend this undertaking, of attempting to complete the entire Babylonian talmud, to everyone? Probably not. I do, however, think that both men and women can gain a great deal from studying the talmud in this fashion. It is incredibly empowering; when you have seen the entire talmud, the canonical work of rabbinic Judaism, you can understand your religion in a much deeper and broader way than you can just from hearing bits and pieces of the canon. The talmud is the fundamental material from which a halachic Jew constructs his lifestyle and world-view, and seeing the whole thing in its entirety can be eye-opening, as it was for me, and as I hope it can be for some of you.

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