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'The Jerusalem Talmud often gets brushed under the rug'

New online translation by Sefaria may be the Jerusalem Talmud’s ‘Cinderella moment’

The nonprofit offers free access to Jewish texts, and debuts one of its most ambitious projects yet – an interactive version of a cryptic and oft-overlooked version of the Talmud

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem. His nonfiction has appeared in The American Scholar, Literary Matters, and Speculative Nonfiction, and his fiction in The Woven Tale Press, Atticus Review, and the UK’s Ambit. He most recent book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

Illustrative: A 12-volume set of Babylonian Talmud with commentaries, printed in Amsterdam by Immanuel Benveniste, 1644-47 (Kestenbaum & Company)
Illustrative: A 12-volume set of Babylonian Talmud with commentaries, printed in Amsterdam by Immanuel Benveniste, 1644-47 (Kestenbaum & Company)

The Babylonian Talmud’s lesser-known counterpart — the Jerusalem Talmud — is getting its moment in the limelight with the introduction of its first and only complete online manuscript, along with full English and French translations.

Released late last month by Sefaria, a nonprofit offering free access to Jewish texts, the Jerusalem Talmud joins its Babylonian cousin, which Sefaria previously made available online.

As a Jewish text the Talmud, an ancient collection of rabbinic interpretations on matters of faith and religious law, has never been known for its accessibility. It can take years of study before one is able to navigate the Talmud’s passages without a teacher. Until the modern era, virtually only those who possessed an Orthodox Jewish education — mostly men — were given the scholarly tools to decipher the often-cryptic texts written in Aramaic, an ancient Levantine language.

In the digital age, it is possible to make the Talmud available to anyone with an internet connection — but Sefaria’s initiative ups the ante by also making the texts understandable, with links, references, and translations at the click of a finger.

Incorporating a translation into English made by Heinrich Guggenheimer — first published by academic press Walter de Gruyter between 1999 and 2015 — Sefaria has created a digital edition of the Jerusalem Talmud incorporating all 17 print volumes, section by section, appearing with its original Aramaic counterpart. And while it may be especially vast in scope, this latest effort is merely an extension of what Sefaria is always doing: steering Jewish texts considered obscure back toward the mainstream.

The question at the center of the effort of uploading the Jerusalem Talmud to Sefaria’s site — with images of the original manuscript, translations into two languages, and linked cross-references — is whether this access will lead to deeper, more grounded conversations among learners of the Jewish tradition of all ages, genders, and levels of knowledge.

According to Lev Israel, chief data officer of Sefaria and one of the main staff members behind the effort to put the Jerusalem Talmud online, the issue is not only about access, but also about what it means to learn from a computer rather than from a book, a manuscript, or another person.

Illustrative: This undated photo provided by Sotheby’s in New York shows the first-ever printing of the Talmud in Venice in the 1520s. (Sotheby’s via AP)

“We’re in the middle of this transition which has already altered our perception, and it’s hard to get perspective on this,” says Israel. “The digital text is malleable. If you have low visibility, you can increase the size. If you’re blind, you can have the computer read it aloud. The Jerusalem Talmud amps this up: We’re increasing access for people who had access. It’s a radical accentuation of what we’ve been doing all along.”

For Israel, making the Jerusalem Talmud available online isn’t just about providing access, it’s also about changing the narrative around this important text within Jewish religious and academic scholarship.

“I hope this changes what the Jerusalem Talmud means for future generations,” he says. “That the story ceases to be that it’s inaccessible — that it’s a mysterious, distant type of book — once it’s more at hand. Because it is so obscure, the Jerusalem Talmud often gets brushed under the rug.”

A tale of two Talmuds

The story of the Jerusalem Talmud is the story of the lesser stepsister. The term Talmud usually refers to the combination of the Mishnah, a written version of the oral tradition of the Torah that was written mainly in Hebrew until the 3rd century CE, and the Gemara, commentaries on the Mishnah written in Aramaic in two major ancient territories, Babylon and Palestine.

Each of these two commentaries represents its own body of wisdom, with unique interpretations of the Mishnah, and each covers slightly different aspects of Jewish law. But whereas the Babylonian Talmud, which was codified around 500 CE, was circulated in complete manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, the Jerusalem Talmud was rarer, with the only known complete manuscript dating as late as 1289 CE. So, for most of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Temple, it was the Babylonian Talmud that was studied and consulted to decide religious matters, to such a degree that the word “Talmud” became synonymous with the one that emerged from Babylon.

Senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan. (Courtesy)

The Jerusalem Talmud was not completely forgotten — but its scarcity, as well as its style, made it more difficult to apply. It’s also written in a different Aramaic from the one that became familiar to yeshiva students who pored over the Babylonian Talmud. As Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan, a scholar of rabbinic literature and senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, explains, the Jerusalem Talmud is shorter, more cryptic, and less edited than the Babylonian Talmud, also known merely as the Bavli. It’s harder to make sense of the text, he adds, and so that people have to be more careful in reading and interpreting the Jerusalem Talmud — or Yerushalmi, as it is also known — especially since the links in the text aren’t as clear.

“I often say,” says Simon-Shoshan, “that you will never complain about the Bavli being unclear after you open the Yerushalmi.”

Even its name is misleading. Known as the Jerusalem Talmud, it was likely written and compiled in the Galilee, incorporating texts from Caesarea and Tiberias, centers of rabbinical learning after the Bar Kochba revolt, which shifted the center of rabbinic activity and Jewish life from Judea toward the north.

And while it was not written in Jerusalem, as the name might suggest, it refers to the laws of Jewish life in the Land of Israel, at the center of which was Jerusalem — known spiritually as Zion. Some scholars call it the Palestinian Talmud, while others yet call it the Talmud of the Land of Israel. And all this debate exists before one even looks into a single page of this complex Jewish source.

An additional complicating factor when considering the two Talmuds is that the Yerushalmi was codified first — and may have even been available in Babylon at the time of the compilation and completion of the Bavli.

Dr. Elana Stein Hain, director of faculty and senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. (Courtesy)

Dr. Elana Stein Hain, director of faculty and senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, points out that while the Bavli was popularized by Jewish tradition over the past 1,500 years, the Yerushalmi is an important intermediary step to understanding the wisdom of Hazal, the Jewish sages of the Talmud.

“Anyone who really wants to understand the development of Hazal’s thought,” says Stein Hain, “can’t do it by skipping straight to the Bavli. The Yerushalmi is an intermediary step. It can actually give you a sense of why they developed the Bavli as they did, or how they could have developed it differently.”

The Yerushalmi, Stein Hain adds, got cut off early, and so it didn’t become dominant. And while, in her words, the “supremacy of the Bavli” will not be undone, it’s possible that Sefaria’s making the Yerushalmi available online with translations represents its Cinderella moment.

“Some people have thought of the Yerushalmi as very secondary,” continues Stein Hain, who is also on Sefaria’s board of directors. “Others see it as a critical way of understanding the Bavli. I try to understand the big ideas that are in Hazal, not just the bottom line of [rabbinic law], and so the Yerushalmi gives me a whole new set of ideas.”

Elevating discourse

Sefaria chief data officer Israel says that the project to bring the Jerusalem Talmud to broader readership is about improving the quality of discussions taking place at this particular moment in history.

“The conversations that happen nowadays on the internet, but also in our living rooms, are really more about who can yell the loudest, who can be the most shocking,” Israel says. “They bear no relationship to fact. It’s all about what’s most persuasive — and I think a lot of the work we’re doing is to provide resources to ground the conversation in primary sources.”

Simon-Shoshan, too, sees the move to digital platforms as being groundbreaking in the way our global societies are restructuring their notions of knowledge, education, and communication.

“The move to online text isn’t like the move from written manuscripts to printed books,” he says. “It’s like the move from oral traditions to written texts.”

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