'The Talmud is essential, enhanced, emblematic'

New Talmud ‘biography’ seeks to bring the foundational text to life

Prof. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer has studied the Oral Law since he was 17; now he shares its story with an accessible, big picture view of its centrality to Judaism

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)

From the waters of Babylon to the modern page-a-day study practice of Daf Yomi, the Talmud has kept Jewish minds engaged over millennia. Now a new book gives the ancient transcription of Judaism’s Oral Law the same kind of in-depth treatment that its long-ago rabbinic writers once applied to legal and cultural issues.

“The Talmud is an extremely rigorous, analytical, challenging discourse,” said professor Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, author of “The Talmud: A Biography.” The Northwestern University professor brings almost three decades’ worth of study to bear on the subject.

“One of the things I’m trying to do is give a sense of what advanced study of the Talmud is, done by some of the great minds in Jewish history, who spent their entire lives studying the corpus,” said Wimpfheimer.

The book is published by Princeton University Press through its Lives of Great Religious Books series, whose past subjects have included works of diverse faiths, including Judaism (the Dead Sea Scrolls), Christianity (the Confessions of St. Augustine) and Islam (the Quran in English).

Yet the book is aimed at a spectrum of readers, including not only those well-versed in the Talmud (or, in Aramaic, the Gemara) but also those who have never heard of it before.

Wimpfheimer takes them through the development of the Talmud — specifically, the Babylonian Talmud — in the first through eighth centuries CE.

Readers learn about its contents, which address both legal and other topics in a discursive style characterized by commentary; rivals and detractors who challenged its legitimacy over the centuries, including its notorious burning in the Paris Disputation of 1240; and the current state of interest in the Talmud.

According to Wimpfheimer, more people are studying the massive text today than ever before.

Prof. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, author of ‘The Talmud: A Biography.’ (Princeton University Press)

Raised in an Orthodox household, Wimpfheimer himself has been studying the Talmud “pretty much nonstop from age 17,” he said. “I’m 45 now. It’s something I feel qualified to speak of, probably more than anything else.”

An associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern, Wimpfheimer is also the author of “Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.” He told The Times of Israel that he had a definite idea of how to approach the Princeton project, taking the long view of the Talmud’s impact over the centuries rather than seeing it as a product of its specific time and place in post-biblical Babylon.

Although Wimpfheimer’s book is about a religious work, rather than a personality, he sees it as a biography nevertheless. That’s what initially attracted him to the project, he said: “I bristled a little bit that we tend to periodize.”

Surveying a thousand years of history as opposed to a hundred years, Wimpfheimer was able to explain what he calls the Talmud’s “role at the heart of Jewish culture. It was absorbed and received as the central canonical work around which life is organized.”

Mercava’s ‘Daf Yomi’ app displayed on an iPad Mini. (photo credit: Courtesy of Mercava)

It played a central role in his own life growing up; in his late teens, it was “somewhat of an obsession,” he reflected.

Now, he said, he has “some distance from the passion of my youth. I understand the Talmud has different capacities, different ways, to different people. The Talmud is essential, enhanced, emblematic.”

This wide-ranging approach might benefit the equally wide-ranging readership he hopes the book will attract.

“I definitely tried to write with multiple audiences in mind,” he said. “I definitely wanted the book to be understandable, sort of appeal to those who have never heard of the Talmud before, also to be valuable for people who have heard of the Talmud before, and even study the Talmud extensively, but who don’t have a big-picture understanding of what it is, where it comes from.”

The curious incident of the dog and the cake

This wide-ranging appeal can be seen in a section of the Talmud Wimpfheimer repeatedly returns to in the book, one that might be called “the curious incident of the dog dragging the cake.”

A hungry dog sees a cake baking over coals. The dog drags the cake off to eat, inadvertently carrying one of the coals with it and setting fire to a neighbor’s haystack. How to assess the resulting property damage?

This hypothetical dilemma vexed rabbis Yohanan and Resh Laqish in third-century Palestine. Their debate was preserved in the Mishnah — the oral predecessor to the Talmud dating to 200 CE — and further discussed in the Talmud as an example of its inquiry into halacha, or law. Wimpfheimer uses it as a motif to explain the Talmudic approach to debate. He credits the idea of including it to a peer review during the draft phase.

Wimpfheimer sees this hypothetical example as a way to contrast biblical times and today — the “big gap between us and them,” he said. “Our world is very different from these strange rabbis’ conversations in the Talmud.”

But, he noted, this ancient discussion of fire liability is also more accessible to modern readers than other sections of the Talmud.

“What happens to property damaged in a fire is highly relevant [to today],” Wimpfheimer said, citing a 2008 British legal case containing similarities to “some of that issue as the Talmud described it, that kind of fire liability.”

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)

“In some ways, the example chosen is specific, interesting, relevant. It does not require a lot of background information. It’s not hard to explain the whole set of the Bible in order for the reader to understand, ‘OK, what happens to someone’s property damaged by someone else’s property?’” he said.

In addition to halacha, the Talmud also addresses aggada, or stories about issues that do not pertain to law. Again, Wimpfheimer found an accessible example of ancient biblical commentary, or midrash, for contemporary readers: God reportedly holding Mt. Sinai above the Israelites to threaten them to accept the Torah.

“This can also be understandable without much context,” Wimpfheimer said. “Pretty much any Western reader is familiar with the idea in Jewish tradition of God giving the Ten Commandments.”

He added that in the Talmud, “tremendous complications” arise from the midrash, “philosophical, mystical thinking on how God is treating the acceptance of the Torah.”

A burning Talmudic debate

Through the centuries, the Talmud has taken on an important role as a symbol of Judaism. Yet this was not automatic. The book explores the Talmud’s rivals and detractors, whom Wimpfheimer said represent a crucial part of its history.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on Monday, July 30 (photo credit:Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the completion of the seven-year Daf Yomi cycle — the learning of the entirety of the Talmud, one day at a time — at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on Monday, July 30, 2012. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Arguably the most infamous example was the Paris Disputation of 1240, when the Talmud was put on trial in France, leading to the burning of over 20 cartloads of handwritten codices.

Wimpfheimer calls the trial “a powerful experience” in which the Talmud was “very much personified. It was on trial, indicted, convicted, executed.” He found poignancy in its defenders, medieval rabbis from France and Germany called the Tosafists, who said that the ideas in the Talmud would survive its burning.

“I was attracted to these kinds of moments,” he said. “In terms of biography — birth, how you grew up, were raised, die — when it’s an inanimate object, what do you write about? The Talmudic relationships, what kind of relations does the Talmud as a book have?”

The Babylonian Talmud had a rivalry with the Jerusalem Talmud. It was also criticized by the biblical literalist Karaite sect beginning in the late ninth century.

Ironically, Wimpfheimer said, “those negative relations [played] important roles in how the Talmud became more authoritative, more sacred over time.” In North Africa, he said, “all the people protected the Talmud against the Karaites. Antagonists were important in cementing its role and position.”

Illustrative: Jewish Orthodox women study Talmud at Kibbutz of Migdal Oz religious study seminary on May 23, 2013. (FLASH90 / Gershon Elinson)

This continued into modern history, he said, as groups such as spiritual Hasidim and pragmatist Zionists first distanced themselves from the Talmud, and then, “once they were established, reclaimed the Talmud through interpretation.”

Today, members of all groups can read and study the Talmud thanks to widespread literacy and accessibility.

“Average readers can read and understand it, which was not the case 100 years ago,” Wimpfheimer said. He noted that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the text was considered elite and reserved “for only the select, advanced brains who were able to handle it.”

English translations abound, including online. Thousands of people study the Talmud daily, some of them through the Daf Yomi project. Started in 1923, Daf Yomi now offers a way for readers to connect with the past.

“I think the Daf Yomi project and program appeal to people who in some sense connect with Jewish tradition pre-Holocaust,” Wimpfheimer said. “There are some nostalgic feelings as well,” for people who “see ourselves as traditional Jews, and one of their activities was to study the Talmud.

Ultra-orthodox boys study the Talmud (illustrative photo credit: Flash90)
Ultra-orthodox boys study the Talmud (illustrative photo credit: Flash90)

Today the Talmud has a universal, multi-faith appeal and members of all walks of society feel they can be in dialogue with sages — new and old. “It invites the reader to take an active role,” he said.

Wimpfheimer added, “The Talmud opens up a millennia-long conversation. It opens itself up to commentary, further commentary, discussion. Even today, people study in pairs, there’s discussion and debate with a partner rather than reading and absorbing. It’s part of why the Talmud continues to appeal.”

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