The Talmud

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Ed. Rabbi Norman Solomon
Penguin, 2009, £16.99

Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book; you engage in it, rather than read it as you would a piece of literature.

Thus Normon Solomon introduces the challenge of how to reduce this epic work, how to capture the intricacies and richness of the Babylonian Talmud that shaped rabbinic Judaism and remains today a core element into a one-volume anthology. The Talmud consists of law and lore, literature and theology, humour and intellectual debate. It contains discussions of historical figures, commerce, Temple offerings, torts, holiday observances, family relationships, agriculture and capital punishments, to name but a fraction of the subjects covered within its 63 volumes. The task of selecting representative sections which reflect the diversity of the entire work is mammoth.

Some have attempted this feat before using different presentation methodologies. They have chosen their favourite sugyot (sections), their personal ‘top ten’ list of passages they think capture the essence of the Talmud. Others have shared passages outlining the various styles of writing or methods of reasoning that the Talmud utilises. Normon Solomon, however, has chosen to follow the classic outline of the Babylonian Talmud, maintaining the identity and integrity of the original volumes by selecting a passage from each to present in this anthology. In this sense, the anthology follows a very traditional pathway — parallelling the daf yomi model where Jews study a page a day of Talmud from the beginning to the end — so too does this anthology lead its readers through an abbreviated version of the Talmud, briefly touching on each masechet before moving to the next.

In other ways this anthology diverges significantly from tradition. The introduction expresses an appreciation of scholarly methodologies for studying Talmud, providing historical context, social and cultural history, literary analysis and even some references to textual criticism. In addition, the appendices contain numerous reference tools for those beginning their exploration of  Talmud, including maps, illustrations, timelines and an extensive bibliography and index.

The selections themselves are uneven in terms of both length and accessibility to the novice. This is perhaps unavoidable within the framework that Solomon has chosen, as most modern readers will find that the selections from tractates about Shabbat or marriage will be more relevant and engaging than those chapters regarding purity of Temple objects or tithes to the priests. Solomon has seemingly tried to offset this ‘relevance imbalance’ by allowing for longer selections from tractates that might resonate more with the modern reader.

The use of different fonts, spacings, upper and lowercase letters, and bold typeface makes the intricacies of talmudic discourse more accessible to the beginner. In addition, Solomon provides a useful introduction to each tractate, summarising the contents and contextualising the particular passage. All of these elements — the introductions, the appendices, the typeface — make this edition eminently readable.

The question is, however, how best to use this resource. Ironically, it suffers from the same challenge as the Talmud itself; as talmudic material is organised according to a logic of its own, it is difficult to find a particular passage that speaks to the issue you want to explore. The stream-of-consciousness methodology of talmudic discourse defies modern taxonomic categories. Therefore, without an index and/or extensive knowledge of the entire Talmud, this remains a resource that requires a teacher or a guide. What Solomon does not provide is a commentary to walk one through the passages themselves. Though this is understandable as adding commentary would have expanded an already substantial tome into at least a second volume.

It is the perfect text for a university professor to assign varied sections of Talmud for study in a history of Judaism class. Alternatively, a rabbi might use it as the text for an English language ‘Introduction to Talmud’ adult education course. The casual reader picking it up off the shelf in a bookstore, however, will be at a loss to utilise this resource. Perhaps Solomon’s next project could be to write a mishneh torah to guide students through the intricacies of the passages he has chosen.

This weakness, however, is also the very strength of the Talmud. While it is not readily accessible to the casual reader, it remains one of the richest ever literary and legal creations. This new anthology is a welcome addition to the ever-growing bookshelf of Talmudic literature in English translation, which allows teachers to guide those without knowledge of Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew into the ‘Sea of Talmud’.

As it is written in Pirkei Avot ‘Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.’ One could apply this same statement to Solomon’s anthology. It contains everything, which is exactly what makes it difficult to navigate. But if one invests the time to ‘turn it’, it has everything, or at least a little bit of everything, and more than one could rightfully expect from 822 pages.

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