Throughout centuries of exile, the Talmud has been an oasis of calm for the Jewish people. Heinrich Heine famously called it “the portable homeland of the Jewish people.” The study of Talmud, even in the centuries-long suspension of national sovereignty, binds Israel together. For the uninitiated, the Talmud’s hold on the Jewish imagination can seem almost magical.
But for those who understand the rôle the Talmud plays in Jewish life, it seems only natural. The tenth-century Gaon Saadyah ben Yosef famously wrote that “our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torahs” — ‘Torahs’ pluralized, referring to the Torah she-bi’khtav, the Written Torah, scripture, and the Torah she-ba’al peh, the Oral Torah, consisting of the interpretations, laws, doctrines, stories, mysticism, and theology transmitted via the rabbinic tradition.
The Talmud, as the basic text and main corpus of the Oral Law, confers nationhood on the Jewish people; it both unites and divides us, joining us together in study and practice and factionalizing us with its dialectical argumentative style and the multiplicity of voices it contains. The centrality of Talmud to Jewish life is manifested even in the linguistic conventions which have developed around it: to ‘learn Torah’, sans qualifier, more often than not refers to the study of Talmud. (For that reason, I will use the terms interchangeably here too.)
The relationship between Israel and the Torah is beautifully metaphorized in the Talmud’s gloss (BT Berakhot 57a) on Deuteronomy 33:4: “‘The Torah was commanded to us by Moses, an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob’ — do not read morasha/inheritance but rather me’orasa/betrothed.” Throughout the long exile, and even when the Sages themselves seemed to doubt the persistence of Israel’s covenant with God, the Torah — and especially the Talmud — served as a shelter and as a home.
Jewish learning is discursive, dialectical; its main modes are the ḥavruta, the study-partnership, and the ḥabura, the study-fellowship. The central physical nexus of Talmud learning is the Beit ha-Midrash, the house of study, which in modern times is often an extension of the synagogue. This is because, in Judaism, the line between study and prayer is thin: many of the central elements of the prayerbook are selections from the Torah and Talmud, and the study of Torah is viewed as a sort of communion with God, a way of penetrating into the inner workings of His mind.
The daily morning prayer service formerly included a period of time set aside for study, remnants of which abide in today’s prayerbooks. The synagogue and the Beit ha-Midrash are the central institutions of communal Jewish life: on a Shabbat afternoon in a religious Jewish community, their halls will be packed with people learning the Talmud: it is a sort of national pastime.
Chaim N. Saiman, in the introduction to his book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, offers a poignant example of this. He describes a flyer posted at a New York synagogue, advertising a lecture (a common enough phenomenon) on the subject of “Bidding Competitively on Goods or Properties when Others are Previously Involved”, to be given by the dean of an institute for advanced study of Talmudic business law (a much less common phenomenon, one imagines). “It was as if,” Saiman writes, “the chair of Harvard Law School’s forum on corporate and financial regulation had been invited to share his recondite expertise with the parishioners.” Nearly one hundred and fifty people, laymen, attended.
Why? Because in Judaism, study of the law — no matter how abstract — is a spiritual experience. It connects us to our forefathers, who studied the same texts as we do, to our brethren elsewhere, and ultimately to God, whose logos is embodied in the texts we study. The metaphors for this relationship, this dependence, are manifold: Torah is compared to a tree of life, a sustaining fountain, even (BT Kiddushin 30b) a potent drug; their connotation is clear: the Jewish people depend on Torah for their very survival.
What happens, then, when the normal structures of communal learning are overturned? That, and nothing less, is what has happened in the past few months: synagogues and study halls closed to the public, prayers and classes cancelled. These measures were necessary — the rabbis of the Talmud, who said (M. Sanhedrin 4:5) that “he who saves a single soul is considered as if he has saved an entire world” would be the first to agree — and yet they upended the forms of Jewish life. Throughout history, communal Torah study held the Jewish people together, and its sudden suspension was a severe shock to the system.
Modern technologies alleviate the situation somewhat — but only somewhat. As anyone who has tried to teach over Zoom now knows (and as critics of the increasing technologization of human interaction have tried to warn us), education requires face-to-face, in-person contact. I’ve had to teach Talmud this way a bit, and I’ve had to learn it; and having been in the positions of both teacher and student, I can say that it is not at all the same. It is difficult to imagine the giving of the tablets at Sinai occurring over the Internet — the revelation cannot be televised.
Quarantine, in a way, is an inverse exile. We are not wandering; precisely the opposite, in fact: we are confined to our dwellings. There is a certain phenomenological similarity between the two, a profound strangeness which pervades all aspects of life: they share the attenuation of social interaction, the feeling that all the normal conventions of society are upended and reversed; the exile is not all that different from the isolate.
And yet isolation is, for the student of Talmud, perhaps more difficult even than exile. The Talmud (BT Ta’anit 23a) records a the story of Ḥoni Ha-Me’agel (‘the circler’, so named because of the famous episode in which, during a drought, he drew a circle in the dust and informed God that he would not leave it until rain fell) who, waking up after a seventy-year-long nap, cried “Give me a study partner or give me death!” To study Torah is to study communally, and in the absence of community, it is difficult to study Torah.
El’azar ben Arakh, one of the greatest scholars of the Tannaitic era, having moved away from centers of Torah for health reasons, returned and found himself unable to even read the most basic passages in the Bible. Prolonged social isolation, I worried, might have the same effect: without the standard schedule of study, without even a standard schedule of any sort, the danger of forgetfulness loomed large. We humans are indolent creatures, inclined to take the path of least resistance.
Discouraged from even leaving my home, unrequired to put on trousers in the morning, it seemed unlikely to me that I could keep up my regular schedule of study, which normally includes several hours of iyun, in-depth analysis of the text and implications of the Talmud and a few more of bekiyut, the quicker-paced form of study focusing on the plain meaning of the text. (The Talmud is a sea: it is possible to descend to its depths and also to sail its breadth.) The regular way of doing things had been all but obliterated, and there was only so much time I could spend studying over Zoom. It was a recipe for distraction and headaches. (Of course, that Talmud has a cure for that — BT Eruvin 54a counsels that ‘one who has a headache should study Torah.’)
Fortunately, even in the absence of the usual structures of Talmudic learning, I had a lifeline: the Daf Yomi, the daily folio studied by tens of thousands worldwide. Founded in 1923, it was originally conceived as a way to make Talmud study accessible to the laity and as a unifying initiative, a way of tying Jews more closely together. Every single day, one folio of the Talmud is studied by thousands of Jews, men and women, religious and irreligious, orthodox and non-orthodox, at all levels of education and expertise. The cycle takes seven and a half years, and last year, it started anew and I jumped aboard, for the first time. I had no idea how important it would become in the following months.
The first tractate, about the laws of blessings and prayer, passed uneventfully. It was the day after Purim, four days into the study of the second tractate, on the laws of Shabbat, when things changed. Lockdowns were imposed, daily life all but suspended, and suddenly it was no longer possible to study communally. My daily daf, formerly a solitary addendum to my schedule, assumed a much larger stature.
With nowhere to be and not much to do, I started devoting a lot more time to Daf Yomi, studying the medieval commentators in more depth, taking time to consider the implications of passages I’d otherwise have skimmed. I started paying more attention to the disputes between Rashi and the Tosafists, sometimes working through passages multiple times to test out their diverging readings of the text. (It’s no accident that the Talmudic tradition inspired some of the most celebrated textual interpreters of recent times, from Derrida to Strauss.) I’d look up the marginal cross-references to the codes and try to figure out why Maimonides or the Shulḥan Arukh decided in favor of one side of a dispute rather than the other.
Daf Yomi was also an oasis of reality in a time when almost everything had shifted to the virtual. As quarantine dragged on, I found myself looking forward to the hour or so I’d set aside — the time of day varied — for studying the Daf. Sometimes, during the early enervating days of quarantine, it was the only time during the day that I would sit down with an actual physical text. (I finished One Hundred Years of Solitude a couple weeks in, and didn’t find myself able to sit down with a novel until the lockdowns had lifted.) In a way, studying Mesekhet [Tractate] Shabbat during that time felt a bit like Shabbat itself, a shelter from technology and virtuality. I’d sit down with a cup of tea, [try to] turn my phone off, and immerse myself in the teachings and the arguments of the text.
And ‘immerse’ is the right word: the discourse of the Talmud has no discernible beginning and no apparent end; it is a jumble of self-referencing texts not bound by any clear program or hierarchy. It can be wildly disorienting: different passages may be underpinned by entirely different and often contradictory premises, and slightly divergent versions of the text can entirely alter the meaning of entire sections. The traditional metaphor for the Talmud is a raging sea, and there’s a reason that’s the case. Yet, beyond the difficulties of the text, I found in it a beacon of lucidity during a time when everything else made very little sense.
Tractate Shabbat is nominally eponymous, a discussion of the laws of the Sabbath, but the Talmud, like the Jewish people, wanders a lot. Interspersed among the legal discussions, the halakhah, are agaddah: anecdotes, parables, tidbits of information, puns, theological discussions, historical data, life advice, and so on. And so, included in the pages of Mesekhet Shabbat are discussions of folk remedies, of bloodletting, of overly friendly snakes, of the deleterious effects of excessive bathing in the springs of Emmaus, of astrology, of reward and punishment. And every once in a while, between the involved discussions of legal minutiae (valuable in their own right), a passage like this one would pop up: “Rav Ashi said: I saw that Rav Kahana, when there was suffering in the world, would cast off his fine cloak and clasp his hands to pray, saying ‘I am like a servant before his master’. And when there was peace, he would put on [the cloak], and cover himself, and wrap himself in it, saying, ‘prepare to greet your God, Israel.’”
That passage changed the way I prayed the past several months. It would be impossible to list all the passages that made a similar impression, or the moments I felt the ancient text to be uncannily relevant. I remember reading a passage discussing the proper formula for praying for the sick on Shabbat, early in the tractate, when my synagogue’s list of names for prayer was growing daily.
I remember, a week later, a tangent about the laws of communal prayer, and the sadness of studying those laws with all the synagogues closed. I remember the shock of the statement of Resh Lakish, the bandit-turned-scholar, that “words of Torah only survive in a person who kills himself over them.”, and the sublimity of the narrative of Moses’s ascension to Heaven to receive the Torah, and his fight with the angels for the right to take it down to Earth.
Yet, the more I studied, the more I came to appreciate those aspects of the Talmud most often invoked by its critics: its obscurity, its long-winded tangents, its preoccupation with edge cases. If it is obscurantist, it is obscurantist only in form, not in content. Its logic, though different from the formal logic of western philosophy, is profoundly lucid: how else could thinkers like Maimonides or Spinoza emerge from its milieu? If it goes on long-winded tangents, and it does, those tangents are some of the most fascinating material it has to offer. And if it is preoccupied by edge cases, that is due to an obsession — different in method but not in spirit from that of philosophy from Plato onward — toward the clarification of language as a prerequisite to a clarification of reality.
When the Talmud returns several times to the question of whether a hole-less sewing needle can contract ritual impurity, I found, it is trying to clarify the very meaning of a utensil: is such an object ūtēnsilis, the criterion for receiving impurity, or not? When, early on in the tractate, the rabbis discuss the case of an object thrown onto the foliage of a tree protruding from a walled courtyard, they are trying to figure out if a tree and its foliage form a conceptual unit, or if a public/private distinction can apply within one organic object.
It is without exaggeration that I say that Tractate Shabbat is the most sophisticated exposition of action and intention that I’m familiar with. Its legal passages are preoccupied solely with the questions of what does it mean to act? and what does it mean to intend something?, and, increasingly, I found myself preoccupied by those questions as well. Seemingly abstract questions about far-fetched cases took on an increased importance. How much of that was quarantine-brained obsessiveness, I don’t know. Maybe Daf Yomi was my sourdough starter. But I don’t think it was just that.
Quarantine gave us many bromides & cliches about togetherness while apart. But for me, through the Daf Yomi, they were literally true. I was studying the same page as thousands of my fellow Jews, and, in the weeks and months when synagogues were closed, that meant a great deal. Sitting in my living room, alone with my Talmud, I was studying with my brothers and sisters in a class which transcended time and space.
We finished Mesekhet Shabbat a few months ago, and moved on to ‘Eruvin. But after one-hundred and fifty-six pages and one-hundred and fifty-six days, I’m not quite ready to move on just yet, and not just because of the few comments by the Tosafists which I haven’t yet worked through. I’m going to miss the quiet afternoons, evenings, and late nights spent quietly studying, because I know that as the world returns to normal those times will become rarer and briefer. And I will miss Mesekhet Shabbat itself, even though I’m never really done with it. We Jews tend to personify our books, so maybe it isn’t strange to say that I feel grateful to Mesekhet Shabbat, my portable Beit ha-Midrash, for its companionship during a long isolation from communal life. “We will return to you, O Tractate Shabbat,” goes the traditional meditation after finishing a book of the Talmud, and return I shall.