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Talmud: The Back Story

Shamma Friedman.

There is no getting away from the Babylonian Talmud. Love it, hate it, or both, this monumental work, so unlike anything we generally think of as a book, has been central to Jewish life for a millennium and more, managing time after time to find new readers and to summon new forms of reading.

Relevant Links
The Talmud in the Computer Age  Shamma Friedman, Printing the Talmud. From oral transmission to manuscripts to print to computerization: are we equipped to exploit the dramatic innovations of the Internet for the great goals of talmudic research and instruction?
A Good Story Deserves Retelling  Shamma Friedman, Jewish Studies Internet Journal. In an example of his method at work, Friedman unfolds the legend of Rabbi Akiva (pdf).

In the English-speaking world, the Talmud is becoming better known thanks to initiatives like the Steinsaltz and ArtScroll translations. Less well-known are the scholars whose labor is shaping how the Talmud is likely to be read and understood for generations to come. Of these, one of the most significant is Shamma Friedman, whose collected talmudic essays, mainly in Hebrew, have recently been published. Friedman, a soft-spoken American who moved to Israel in 1973, has pioneered in the effort to get into the workshop of the Talmud's many editors and offer a glimpse, painstakingly arrived at, of how the great compilation came to be.      

Born in Philadelphia in 1937, Friedman studied at the University of Pennsylvania before immersing himself in the Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary under the tutelage of Saul Lieberman and Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky. Both men were former students of Jacob Nahum Epstein, who, at the Hebrew University in the 1930s and '40s, had delved into the foundational questions of how the talmudic texts came to be brought together over time and how the different parts relate to one another. 

The traditional "back story" of the Talmud is put forth in the 10th-century "Epistle" of the great Babylonian scholar Sherira Gaon. It is an invaluable source for reconstructing the generations of sages and students, and the chains of transmission, that yielded the Mishnah and Gemara, which in turn, and together, make up the Talmud. Yet many questions are left unanswered by Sherira. When and how were the Mishnah and Gemara, both of which were Oral Torah, written down? What exactly was the role of the post-talmudic Savoraim, the "explainers" who, Sherira says, "rendered interpretations akin to judgments"?

Epstein and others (including Abraham Weiss and Hyman Klein) gained purchase on these questions by investigating the relationship among the three basic historical layers of which the Talmud is composed: sources associated with the sages known as Tannaim, dating from before and up to the composition of the Mishnah at the turn of the 3rd century; the many statements and discussions attributed by name to the Amoraim, sages coming after the Mishnah; and the anonymous editorial voice known as "the stam" (literally, "plain voice") in which the first two layers are embedded and which surrounds, organizes, and discusses them.

The finished Talmud weaves all of these fragmentary traditions and texts into coherent dialogues among sages living miles and centuries apart, regularly transposing and reformulating sources while adding a sophisticated apparatus of explanation. The result is a work that not only is intellectually compelling but regularly achieves powerful literary effects. To Epstein and the others, what became increasingly clear was that strong editorial hands had been at play in the process.

How did all this work over time? Friedman, in a now-classic 1978 article synthesizing decades of research, offered a clear, logical method through which one could differentiate the text's constituent historical layers. He stipulated three sorts of criteria: linguistic (the more Hebrew, the earlier the text; the more Aramaic, the later); evolutionary (the more concise, the earlier; the longer and more involved, the later); and scribal (the more consistent a text across different manuscripts, the earlier; the more various, the later).  In addition, however, Friedman focused on the need to understand each sugya (literally, walk or passage)—the basic literary unit of which, in the hundreds, the Talmud is composed—as a literary work unto itself.

In subsequent articles, reprinted like the first one in the new volume of his collected studies, Friedman outlined methods for establishing "families" of early talmudic manuscripts and their interrelationships, reconstructing the transition from hand-written to printed texts, discerning the underlying literary structures of sugyot, and sifting out the literary and (painfully sparse) historical elements in tales of the sages and their lives. With all this in hand, he set out to reconstruct the composition of the Talmud as a whole by grasping the intentions of its editors and earliest interpreters, one chapter at a time. Demonstrating how it could be done, he published in the 1990s two large volumes on a single chapter of a single talmudic tractate (Bava Metzia VI), dealing with the rights of artisans.

This has been, needless to say, an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. A similar decades-long project, focused less on sugyot and more on whole tractates, has long been pursued by another disciple of Lieberman's, David Weiss Halivni, whose work is grounded in his own powerful erudition and interpretive instincts. Friedman's method, though no less demanding, is more systematic, which has enabled him to train a number of younger scholars. He has also made deft use of technology: the Society for the Interpretation of Talmud, founded by him, now turns out book-length commentaries to individual chapters in which the text's various strata are presented in distinct layouts and typefaces, with synopses, modern-Hebrew translations, and historical commentaries, and with all the manuscript versions viewable side-by-side in appendices. That work has itself has been made possible by the computer. Indeed, another body founded by Friedman, the Saul Lieberman Institute, has placed online all known talmudic manuscripts, whole and in fragments, so that multiple versions can be viewed simultaneously.

Though much of the work by Friedman and his students is perforce technical, its significance extends beyond academic confines and has already begun to reshape historical understandings. (Thus, Jeffrey Rubenstein has shown that Friedman and Halivni's efforts yield a more coherent picture of the evolution of the great Babylonian yeshivas.) Friedman's work has also come to be a reference point for numerous other studies of the talmudic text itself, and modified versions of it have been adopted for Talmud studies in Israeli schools. 

Steering a middle course between Orthodox stances that place the Talmud outside of history and a postmodern skepticism that argues against the ability to say anything about its history at all, Friedman's massive scholarship yields a complex picture: a picture of hosts of talmudic sages consciously and ceaselessly reinterpreting earlier traditions in order to achieve coherent teachings to guide them in the present.

This portrait of rabbinic culture begets, in turn, a powerful challenge. Modern intellectual integrity having yielded a restless scenario of fragmentary ancient texts being worked and reworked into the sources we have today, can we somehow put the pieces back together into a coherent and compelling story? And will that story reflect not only the work of the rabbinic interpreters but also the original texts and traditions, by now lost to us, that they were trying, through their editing, to maintain? 

The answer is yes, but it will be a different story, in ways both stranger and more familiar: a story of internal ferment and spiritual survival in the face of profound uncertainty.

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Israel Drazin on January 27, 2011 at 8:07 am (Reply)
The Talmud studies produced by Shamma Friedman and his students are so significant that people cannot say that they understand a talmudic sugya (section) unless they read and understand the comparisons of that sugya with the other places - mishna, tosephta, beraita, yerushalmi, various midrashim, etc. - where the matter is discussed, usually with many important variations. This study reveals the development of the ideas in the sugya over time, reveals history, sociology, psychology, and the development of the law.
Evan on January 27, 2011 at 9:57 am (Reply)
Thanks for a fascinating article.
Guest on January 31, 2011 at 10:35 am (Reply)
>The Talmud studies produced by Shamma Friedman and his students are so significant that people cannot say that they understand a talmudic sugya (section) unless they read and understand the comparisons of that sugya with the other places - mishna, tosephta, beraita, yerushalmi, various midrashim, etc. - where the matter is discussed, usually with many important variations.

This wasn't discovered by Shamma Friedman. There's a reason why great talmidei chachomim are traditionally described as learned in Shas Bavli, Yerushalmi, Sifra, Sifrei, Tosefta, etc.
Israel Drazin on January 31, 2011 at 12:16 pm (Reply)
I did not say that Dr. Friedman discovered anything. I said he and his students assembled and analysed the various ancient sources in his series of books. They placed the large amounts of material in an easy to read and easy to understand fashion. This enables people to not only read the Babylonian Talmud, but see the Babylonian Talmud in the perspective of the other sources that often preceded it. I was saying also that without knowing the other sources and how the sugya (section) in the Babylonian Talmud developed, a student of Talmud would really not understand what he or she is reading. I think that we are actually agreeing with each other and we need to thank Dr. Friedman and his students, scholars in their own right, for this work.
Lewis Regenstein on February 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm (Reply)
I enjoyed Shamma Friedman's very detailed and interesting article on, "The Talmud in the Computer Age," and your article on him, and would like very respectfully to comment on some of its contents that seem to place the traditions of Our People in a very poor light.

I understand that there are many wonderful and valuable teachings in the Talmud, and I have often quoted some of these in my writings.

But it is also true that the Talmud and the traditions it embodies include many teachings, rules,and passages that are perceived as incomprehensible and oppressive towards Jews, and malicious and insulting towards non-Jews, and have often been characterized as foolish and even hateful.

Such language in this holy book which would seem to make it an inappropriate document to characterize as the centerpiece of Judaism.

Mr. Friedman discusses the lengthy period after the Babylonian exile when “written translations of the Bible were banned.. When found they were confiscated and removed from circulation”, and written blessings were similarly prohibited (“Those who write blessings are as those who burn the Torah”: the Tosefta). I am surprised that he expresses no condemnation of this anti-intellectual prohibition which is so inconsistent with and harmful to Jewish tradition.

It is so nonsensical , it seems to me, that it can only be understood as being intended to perpetuate the power & domination of the Pharisaic rabbis, who had a monopoly as keepers of the oral tradition.

Other rules discussed by Mr Friedman, such as the prohibition on rescuing from a fire on the Sabbath a holy scroll that has the name of the Almighty (his footnote # 7), allowing rescue but sealing the scroll off from distribution (#8), ridiculing anyone who has more than 24 books in his home or who reads more than 24 books (#19), etc., also seem irrational, ignorant, and pernicious.

I do not understand how the Talmud, a human invented work admittedly of "hearsay" and opinion, has such a strong religious authority, even greater to many than the Bible, which was inspired by the Almighty and written by our patriarchs and prophets.

The Talmud is full of opposing opinions, superstitions, & hatred/contempt for non-Jews, even passages that seem to constitute violent condemnations of the Christian messiah Jesus. Not surprisingly, Christians do not appreciate such calumny.

One often-cited passage says, as I recall, "kill all the gentiles, even the best of them should be killed," which seems a bit extreme. Defenders of the Talmud says this refers to the Romans, who at the time this was written had cruelly persecuted the Jews. But the authors of the Talmud, very wise and learned people, knew the difference between gentiles and Romans, and surely could have made the distinction had they wanted to.

Indeed, through the ages, when gentiles have learned of these passages, this has given ammunition to our enemies and brought the wrath of Christians down upon Jewish communities throughout Europe, resulting in pogroms, expulsions, and other persecution. In one instance, a Talmud was put on trial, found guilty, and hung !

Anyone who studies an anti-Semitic website or book will find dozens of quotations from the Talmud that are simply indefensible. Talmudic scholars rarely deny that such passages exist, but claim that they are misunderstood and taken out of their proper context.

Jewish publications rarely mention these problematic quotations, some of which have been expurgated from later editions of the Talmud, , so Jews, when confronted with such quotes, know nothing about them and can usually offer no defense or explanation. But knowledgeable anti-Semites know the passages well, and utilize them effectively to stir up hatred of our People.

Then there are the puzzling, nonsensical details, like being allowed to tear open a package of food on Shabbos, but being forbidden to
tear the letters on the package – except when the food is for a hungry child
who cannot understand why he is being deprived of the food in the package, in which case, one may tear the letters.

Can this minutiae truly reflect the will of the Almighty ?

And do not the many detailed prohibitions on what one can do on Shabbat violate the commandment, given twice in the Torah, that one cannot add to or subtract anything from the law ? (“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you...”: Deuteronomy 4:2). Calling newly created rules “interpretation of the law” does not make them so.

Yes, there are many wise and even brilliant teachings in the Talmud. But how can a book filled also with such irrational, detailed rules, and statements that are widely seen as malicious and offensive, which scholars say cannot be understood by a layman, be the centerpiece of a great religion ?

I therefore wonder how Mr. Friedman can write that "The Babylonian Talmud is second to none in the post Biblical cultural history of the Jewish people; and in addition has often taken an honored place in Western culture. It is both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge."

Others have written that the Talmud is the foundation of Judaism, even though a very small percentage of Jews has ever seen a Talmud, much less read one.

It would be most helpful if Mr. Friedman could be interviewed by you again, and would comment on and explain these many problematic portions of the Talmud, and how a book containing such language can truly be deemed to be the foundation of our great and proud faith.

These are the kinds of questions that are never asked about the Talmud, which is usually assumed to be a work of great wisdom and authority, when in fact parts of it appear to be neither wise nor rational.

I am certainly no expert on the Talmud, and would be most grateful for any information that contradicts what I have written. But unfortunately the kind of critical analysis the Talmud deserves seems to come almost exclusively from our enemies, instead of from Jewish scholars who are in the best position objectively to assess this complex work, but who compete with each other in lavishing unqualified praise upon it.

Ultimately, the standard by which we should judge the Talmud is a simple one: Does it accurately reflect how the Lord would have us lead our lives ?

Thank you for taking the time to consider this message.

Sincerely yours,

Lewis Regenstein
Yossi Ginzberg on February 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm (Reply)
Excellent article, and a pleasure to read.

I'd make one nit-picking comment: It is not Artscroll or Steinsalz that are making the Talmud better known- there was a Soncino English translation over a half-century ago, and Hebrew and Yiddish translations have been around for even longer. The new translations are simply cashing in on the rapidly-growing Orthodox population that is using them to learn the daily Daf Yomi or to keep up with their kids in day school.

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