Rabbi Folberg suggested this book during our first mentor meeting of this semester when I told him I wanted to start reading Talmud. Talmud has always been one of my biggest interests in Jewish texts and Judaism in general. The study of it plays a huge role in one of my favorite books, one of the books that brought me to conversion. The Chosen by Chaim Potok. You encounter snippets and description of Talmud in that book, but really not a lot of the text itself. I’ve been curious for years.
I haven’t finished Talmud for Beginners, but I absolutely believe that it’s a great place to start.
Rabbi Abrams begins with introducing the concepts and historical background of the Talmud itself. She explains the fall of the temple, the socioeconomic status of the Sadducees and Pharisees, and how that divide continued into the Talmudic tradition with the Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai schools of thought. She explains the names of the groups of sages and their political and geographical background, and she reminds the reader in several places that it’s important to keep those factors in mind when studying the Talmud. Rabbi Abrams explains some of the very basic facts of how the Talmud is written down and how that tends to transfer into halacha. This was one of the most interesting pieces for me.
Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Judah HaNasi were the main compilers of the Talmud, and Rabbi HaNasi made choices like this:
When Rabbi Judah HaNasi felt that a certain tradition accurately reflected normative Jewish practice and though, he included it in the Mishnah anonymously, without saying which rabbi taught the tradition. When an opinion was important or interesting but was no the opinion of the majority of rabbis, he attributed it to the rabbi who taught it… In general, an anonymous opinion is adopted as the law over one that is attributed to an individual rabbi. In addition, generally, those opinions stated last in a Mishnah became law.Talmud for Beginners by Judith Abrams (xvii)
Honestly this simple and succinct description is worth the price of admission on this book. I feel like it offers such high preparation for continued study.
Next Rabbi Abrams lays explains the tractate as an exploration of our relationship with god and how that relationship is shaped by prayer, with each chapter or section forming a different part of that explanation. Of course each chapter includes a number of passages of Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara where they are interesting together), with her interpretation added on and some explanation given as to how she arrived there. The book is part instructional manual and part excellent literary analysis, and it makes my nerd heart happy in so many ways. She supports her assertions through the text and is able to bring so much meaning to simple phrases and the structure of the text.
I would definitely recommend this book to someone interested in understanding Talmud and learning how to study it on their own. In the preface, Rabbi Abrams offers these 6 questions as a place to start when reading any passage of Talmud:
- What are the rabbis saying?
- Why do you think the rabbis included this particular piece of Talmud here?
- Do you agree or disagree with the opinion stated?
- How do you feel about what you have read?
- Will you put this piece of Talmud into practice in your own life? If so, how and why? If not, why not?
The end of the book also has a few amazing Appendixes, one with a short blurb about each of the Sages, one with the halachah that were decided based on the tractate, and a glossary of terms throughout the book.
I know that really makes it sound like I’ve only read the beginning and the end, but I swear the chapters in the middle have been really engaging and illuminating and exciting. I hope to read more of her books in the future.