Redacted Intertextuality – An Addendum

When I go abroad, I like to see art. Usually, something with presence and gravitas, as you might find at Washington’s National Gallery – a museum in which I once spent a precious 3.7 minutes with children before being asked by a guard, firmly but not unkindly, to leave. He was right. We were disrupting the quiet, spiritual serenity of taking in Great Art. A museum like that is a temple. The emotions swell, and sometimes, tears threaten.

Subtle, well thought-out modern art has a different set of effects. Even for an uneducated amateur like me, it can hit you deep in the gut and keep your thoughts back in the gallery long after your eyes have readjusted to the glare outside. Last week I found myself in the contemporary section of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle to see an exquisite exhibit entitled “Lost Places”.  It was, really, a psychological thriller.

A lot of contemporary art uses what might be described as explicit, closed expressions of intertextuality to get the mind’s wheels turning. One type includes works that are sub-divided into different components and then given to develop certain, suggestive connections between the various parts. A work that has stayed with me from “Lost Places” is a video installation by Israeli artist, Omer Fast. Like some of his other pieces, Nostalgia I-III (2009) performs this sort of intertextuality remarkably well. The three sections of the installation had videos going simultaneously with surprising and unexpected connections. Here is the way the museum’s curator describes the piece, followed by a clip (until 3:00) that because of the limitations of the medium cannot do much justice:

Omer Fast (*1972, Jerusalem / Israel) explores the shifting meanings of places and the resultant unravelling of apparent certainties. A key stylistic device in his films and video works is the interview, which – as a seemingly realistic format – holds the promise of authenticity, but is invariably staged with actors. The three-parts of Fast’s video installation Nostalgia I-III (2009) are linked by the motif of a trap: in Nostalgia I (first room) we see a gamekeeper attempting to construct a trap using bent branches. Nostalgia II (second room, 2 monitors) shows a conversation between two actors in an office of the immigration authorities, whereby the issue of building a trap also becomes the pivotal point of the narrative. Nostalgia III (cinematic projection) is a 30-minute feature film in which the current geopolitical constellation has been inverted: in this scenario, Africa is the only safe place left in the world. Europeans try to enter an unnamed African country through a system of tunnels and repeatedly find themselves in situations where they are trapped and subject to the arbitrary practices of the police and other authorities. The multiple narrative levels of Fast’s Nostalgia deconstruct the apparent objectivity of history, nationality, justice and injustice.

For many, ‘explicit intertextuality’ is really no intertextuality at all, since intertextuality is a framework for understanding the complex and non-explicit relationship between widely disparate ‘texts’ realized synchronically. As Daniel Boyarin noted in Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, ‘sources and traditions’ approaches cannot really be understood as employing a method of intertextuality. There are also problems with thinking about intertextuality when its realization is confined to a limited canon, like rabbinic literature, or especially to a single work of art.  Instead, in works like Fast’s installation, the effect of the interconnections must be to remind viewers that the carefully curated intertextuality of the piece simply reflects the intertextuality of the everyday – or if you are religious, God’s intertextuality.

Regardless of what we’ll call them, theoretical methods that seriously probe the intersections between various parts of rabbinic literature on an intertextual axis can be nicely related to some of these expressions of contemporary art. Last year, I mused about how the redaction of the Bavli and its relationship to the culture that produced it can be illuminated by YouTube’s Life in a Day. Now, it occurs to me that Life in a Day‘s canvass is far too wide and overpopulated. Maybe its worth thinking about the redaction of the Bavli and its suggestive juxtapositions along the lines of a contemporary video installation like Fast’s, which take place within a single space. Within the confines of a tractate or pereq, the Talmud has multiple screens going, which you view when you walk into different ‘rooms’ or see things from different angles. The videos on the screens frequently intersect despite apparently broadcasting separate films. If you’ve joined daf yomi and have followed the tides of some of the early aggadot in the first chapter of Berakhot, you can see this with certain reocurrences, like the tangible presence of night and its various articulations. Reoccurrence  however, is not merely restatement, and when one text is read in light of the other, sparks fly. The flip-side, of course, is that maybe like in Fast’s Nostalgia, the illuminations are little more than a trap. But that too is an illumination.

Updates to the Lieberman Databases

I can’t claim to be much of a sports guy. Yes, I enjoy running, and I joined a makeshift ultimate frisbee team at my highschool for a couple of months (we were doomed from the get go- when it came to frisbee, the Modern-Orthodox kids were nothing compared to those from the Conservative day schools; why, I do not know), but that is pretty much the extent of my athletic career. I also cannot say that I follow sports all that much, and perhaps the two are tied together. But still, when it comes to the Olympics, I always end up watching my fair share, more out of awe for the amazing feats of athleticism than out of allegiance for the teams of my two home countries. Most amazing to me is seeing how athletes have progressed over the years, setting new records in almost every sport. While I try and shy away from claims of historical progress, these concrete numbers show that humans really are getting better at performing very specific actions, like “snatching188kg weights.

In the realm of academic Talmud, the bar is also constantly being raised. If only a few decades ago it was completely legitimate to cite in an academic article the Munich manuscript of the Bavli by quoting from Rabinowitz‘s Dikdukei Sofrim, nowadays that would never fly. Rabinowitz’s Dikdukei Sofrim was one of the most influential projects on Talmud study ever (its ambition, however, cost Rabinowitz his life, as he passed away while travelling in Russia to find more Talmudic manuscripts). The situation today is decidely different. From the comfort of an iPad, one can access many more manuscripts than Rabinowitz could ever have dreamed of seeing, and the Dikdukei Sofrim is now mainly used to see what girsa was before each rishonOne who wishes to employ philological methods in studying a sugya now how has a couple of tools for consultation:

Prof. Saul Lieberman

Perhaps the most heavily relied on tool of all, which may deserve more credit, is the Lieberman Institute’s Sol and Evelyn Henkind Talmud Text Database. Named for Prof. Saul Lieberman, the institute has been serving the world of academic Talmud for almost a generation. The Institute’s head, Prof. Shamma Friedman, has informed us that since the database went online last year, replacing the 5th CD-ROM version, it has gone through numerous enhancements in terms of how much material it contains. The website now has almost 1,330 transcriptions of genizah fragments and 300 transcriptions of complete manuscripts, transcribed by a team of dozens of scholars over the past few decades. Another addition are the almost 3,000 high-resolution images of the Mishnah and Talmud. About thirty institutions of higher learning are already subscribed. Along with the website of the Academy for the Hebrew Language and Bar-Ilan’s free Tannaim website, the database ensures that almost all of Rabbinic Literature has been transcribed according to the best manuscripts and is readily available online. Many scholars choose to copy from these databases and then check the transcriptions against photographs of the actual manuscripts, while some still insist on transcribing the manuscript evidence all on their own.

An example of the proper etiquette for citing transcriptions of rabbinic texts available online.

Another, and perhaps even more significant, feature of the Lieberman database is its sophisticated search engine. The possibility of using the Lieberman website to perform searches greatly enhances one’s ability to clarify many issues and phenomena across almost every manuscript and genizah fragment of the Bavli.

For years, alongside the CD-ROM version of the text database, the Lieberman Institute produced a CD-ROM of a “Bibliographical Index”. Similar to Moshe Pinchuk’s site on the Yerushalmi, the index lists secondary literature that relates to specific passages of rabbinic literature. For example- someone looking to find secondary literature on a sugya that they are working on can simply punch in the daf number and immediatley receive references to academic works that deal with it. This database is also set to launch as a website, which will allow for constant upgrading by users and will link to the secondary material that is available online. The index includes the Mishnah, Tosefta, Bavli, and Yerushalmi. A preliminary list of the material included is available here.

These databases, which will continue to grow with the help of user input and future technological advancements, will further serve scholars for years to come, ensuring the continued rise of the academic standard to new records. Come 2016, who knows what we will be able to do.

A Trip to the Bookstore

After holding back for a longtime, I caved in last friday and made a trip to my local ultra-Orthodox bookstore, Girsa. As one can imagine, there were even more options than ever for someone coming to do some daf yomi shopping. I lamented that they weren’t all on display together, making it difficult to photograph, but there must have been at least five or so paperback pamphlet versions of Massekhet Berakhot specially designed for the learning of daf yomi, alongside the popular hardcover Artscroll edition. I asked the guy working at the store what the difference is between all of them and he told me that it seems to him to be a matter of personal preference, but that it might be interesting for me to buy all of them and learn from them side by side to see how they really differ from one another (it was unclear whether his suggestion was based on his looking out for my genuine curiosity or just capitalizing on it).

I’m always amazed by how many new books are constantly coming out in this country, with an ever-growing level of specificity. By way of example, here are some titles which caught my eye:

Sefer Rosh Bashamayim (“Head in the Sky”) doesn’t interest me too much- it deals with the halakhic intricacies of under-age and sick people who want to fast on Yom Kippur despite being exempt- but I thought that the title was pretty funny, given its frequent use in Israeli slang [UPDATE: for an alternative, more probable understanding of the title, see the comments section below].

Another book surprised me less by its clever title than its esoteric topic. Its title is actually pretty straightforward: “HaCheck baHalakha“. The book, which spans two volumes, also includes discussions of laws pertaining to the use םכ credit cards and bank transactions more generally (okay, I guess this actually is a very complicated topic).

I also saw a few books that might be of interest to our readers. Two of them are a little beyond my realm of expertise so I will just mention them briefly: Mosad haRav Kook has published a new two-volume edition of  the responsa of Rav Sherira Gaon, edited by R. Nathan David Rabinovitz, and another volume of Peirush Rabeinu Hananel, on Bava Metsia, is out, edited by Yisrael Soloveitchik.

Another interesting title is Yaakov Laufer’s MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna (“From Soncino to Vilna”), which tries to answer questions such as: “What happened to the word ‘Talmud’?”, “Who decided that the Tosafot will be placed on the Gemara page?”, and, most interestingly, “Who set the page layout (tsuras hadaf) for coming generations?”. The book answers much more than that, building off of R.N.N. Rabinowitz‘s monumental essay on the printing of the Talmud to provide a lot of information on the many different editions of the Talmud, their publishers, their innovations, their mistakes, and more, ending even later than Vilna with descriptions of recent digitally printed editions such as Oz veHadar.

Laufer also provides some quasi-philological examples of what has changed over the generations in the text of the Talmud. While he makes extensive use of important academic tools like The Lieberman Institute’s Talmudic manuscripts Database (although in its older version; stay tuned for a post in the coming days on updates to the newer version of the database), his use of textual witnesses often lacks sound methodology. For example, in his chapter on the first Venice Printing, Laufer brings an example of what might be considered mistake in Yerushalmi Megillah, where we read “רב אמר צריך לאמר ארור המן ארורים בניו”. According to Laufer, this version might be a “correction” made by the non-Jewish printer, Daniel Bomberg, of the less politically correct “ארורים כל הרשעים ברוכים כל הצדיקים” which is said in the prayer “Shoshanat Yaakov“, recited on Purim. It seems to me that Laufer has come across an interesting case in which the halakha eventually brought in such codes as the Tur and Shulchan Aruch is influenced heavily by the version of an Ashkenazi Sefer Yerushalmi like text, and he seems to favor it over the version that appears in our Yerushalmi (MS Leiden). Eliezer Brodt, who let us know about MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna, also informed us that he plans on writing more about Laufer’s book over at the Seforim Blog soon (another review can be found here).

Halakhah: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological AspectsTwo more recent publications are David Weiss Halivni’s new volume of Mekorot uMesorot, which completes Seder Nezikin, and another volume in the joint Van-Leer and Magnes series on the Philosophy of Halakha. This volume, partially based on a 2006 conference on Halakha and ideology and bearing the title “Halakha: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological Aspects”, contains contributions from Yair Furstenburg and David J. Landes, both of whom have guest-blogged for the Talmud Blog.

Solidarity and Redemption at MetLife Stadium: Notes from the Siyum Ha-Shas- Guest Post by David J. Landes

The second post in our series on Daf Yomi comes from field notes taken by Dr. David J. Landes, an anthropologist who has worked on Orthodox Jewish study culture. David was present at the central Siyum held at MetLife stadium last Wednesday night.

The 12th Siyum haShas celebration at MetLife stadium in New Jersey on August 1, 2012. Photo courtesy of Menachem Butler.

Over the past several decades a new ritual has taken hold within the Orthodox community, the daily learning of a prescribed daf, or double sided page, of the Talmud Bavli. The nature of this ritual, though, has yet to be fully investigated. On the one hand, it would seem to be purely a matter of study, of acquiring knowledge of God’s Torah. However, the pace of the learning and the limited amount of time that participants in the program generally allot to it – as far as I know, no daf yomi shiur exceeds one hour in length, and 45 minutes seems to be the preferred “shiur” (measure) – makes it impossible to retain much of what is studied. Talal Asad has written that the original sense of “ritual,” before the adoption of the term by modern anthropologists, was “the apt performance of what is prescribed” which involves “abilities to be acquired according to rules that are sanctioned by those in authority.” According to Asad, ritual presupposed “no obscure meanings, but rather the formation of physical and linguistic skills.” Daf yomi would seem to fit Asad’s understanding of ritual quite well: for many it seems to be more a matter of performance akin to davening (daily Jewish prayer), than the acquisition and retention of knowledge. In any event, the performance of the ritual is particularly demanding of one’s time and intellect, and the day of the completion of the cycle was awaited with great anticipation and excitement.

Achdus” (“unity”) was the major theme of Wednesday night’s spectacular siyum has-shas celebration at the MetLife Stadium thrown by the Agudath Israel of North America. At the beginning of the evening the Jumbotrons displayed the many locations throughout the world where other siyum celebrations were taking place, as well as videos of daf yomi classes from all different types of Orthodox communities. The refrain “ke-ish echad be-lev ached” (“like one person with one heart”) was repeated many times over the course of the long evening, especially by the representatives of the Agudah who addressed the crowd. The daf yomi program of study was declared to be the great unifier of ke’lal yisrael, with Yidden of every stripe studying the same page of the Talmud on the same day throughout the world. As one speaker put it, no matter what headgear the learners of daf yomi may wear – a black yarmulke, a kippah serugah, a streimel, or a baseball hat – they are united in the great project of learning through shas together, studying the very same text on a daily basis. The daf yomi program is built on an insight made famous by Benedict Anderson, that the reading by disparate individuals of the same text on a daily basis – for Anderson it was the daily newspaper – can be a key factor in generating the sense of an imagined community.

Emphasizing unity, the organizers were careful to avoid controversial, divisive issues. The evening’s master of ceremonies declared that we care for Jews everywhere, no matter where they may be, whether “in Postville, Bulgaria or North Carolina.” The many speakers did not stray from safe themes, such as love of learning and the miracle of Jewish continuity. The only speaker who touched on a political issue was Rabbi Malkiel Kotler who passionately reiterated that Jews who are committed to learning constitute the “tziv’os ha-shem” (“the army of God”) – an indirect comment on the efforts being made to draft yeshiva students into the Israeli army that probably went mostly unnoticed.

A genuine feeling of community was felt within the stadium. It was easy to strike up conversations with complete strangers, everyone seemed eager to share with one another where they lived and whether they were being me’sayem (completing the Talmud). The crowd was laid-back and comfortable. People mostly sat quietly and listened to the speeches, but there were many quiet conversations going on. On the playing field, where I was sitting, the aisles were filled with people milling about, chatting on their smartphones. Everyone seemed to be taking pictures. In front of the dais there was a constantly changing cluster of people jockeying for position in order to snap shots of the various gedolim.

With the vastness of the crowd and the captivating pageantry, which included live performances by popular chazanim, singers and bands, and slick videos on the huge screens, the feeling that one was part of something much larger than oneself, a collective that spans the globe and transcends time and earthly existence, was palpable. Through videos, speeches, and an el maleh, the martyrs of “churban europa” (the Jewish European holocaust) were repeatedly invoked. Those martyrs, we were told, were celebrating together with us, as were the neshamos (“souls”) of all of the past generations of Yidden. After Rabbi Kotler recited the hadran, and Jay Schottenstein, patron of the Artscroll edition of the Talmud, said the kaddish, a “collective effervescence” (to use Durkheim’s term) broke out. The band played, the chazzan sang, and for a good twenty minutes everyone who was lucky enough to have a seat on the playing field (which I did thanks to the generosity of my brother, a siyum-celebrant who flew in from Chicago) danced, and those who were sitting in the stands swayed together, arms around each other’s shoulders.

Everyone danced or swayed in their rows, except, of course, the women who were sitting very still in their seats high up in the third tier. The work of establishing solidarity is inevitably partial and obscures the work of exclusion that is its complement. It was a given that no women could participate in the learning of daf yomi – they were thanked, though, for making it possible for their men to learn — and there were no women in the program or in the videos, including the historical footage from pre-War Europe. While Modern Orthodox men were welcomed and the Agudah speakers marked their inclusion in the celebration and their participation in daf yomi learning, I have heard that Yeshiva University’s efforts to have one of their roshei yeshiva speak were rebuffed. The crowd was actually quite homogeneous, made up mostly of clean-shaven yeshivish ba’ale-battim (orthodox laymen). There were very few chasidim and a small contingent of Modern Orthodox. Jews of other denominations were not recognized in any way. The Noveminsker Rebbe stated in his speech that the continuity of the Jewish people was due solely to the merit of Yidden who learn Torah.

A sense of hierarchy was also subtly conveyed. Finishing shas by learning a daf a day was certainly celebrated as a great accomplishment, but at the same time some of the speakers hinted that real learning requires a good deal more than a quick run through a daf of gemara. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky urged those who were being me’sayem now that they do it again, but this time with tosafos. Rabbi Yitzchak Steiner implored everyone to learn more deeply and with greater fervor, offering his recently-deceased rebbe, Rav Elyashiv, and Rav Elyashiv’s son-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, as persons to emulate. Another speaker suggested that people consider being regularly tested on their learning in the next cycle (which was met with audible shudders by many around me). It is noteworthy that none of the speakers gave a shiur or “spoke in learning,” which would seem to reflect an assumption that many in attendance either would not be interested or not be able to follow. While the daf yomi program was feted for being a great equalizer, unifying Jews of all types, the distinction between real talmidei chachamim and ba’ale-battim was maintained.

Establishing a sense of identity as a people committed to the study of God’s Torah also requires differentiation from without. The sharp words of the hadran, “anachnu mashkim, ve-hem mashkimim … anachnu ratzim ve-hem ratzim,” (“we awake, and they awake… we run, and they run”) were invoked, and the holding of a siyum ha-shas in a sports stadium was pointed to more than once as a demonstration of this difference between Jews and non-Jews. The venue being a stadium and it being Olympics season, the siyum was depicted as “sweet revenge” for the Olympics held in Berlin in 1936, which Hitler used as a platform to spew his anti-semitic venom. It would not have been appropriate, apparently, to explicitly make reference to the games going on in London, but the contrast was understood: while the non-jews were competing over there, God’s Olympics were being held here in the MetLife Stadium.

Nevertheless, despite the differences being drawn between Yidden who devote their lives to the study of Torah and worship of God, and the non-jews who “waste their time” in idle endeavors, it obviously took a great deal of familiarity with the “goyishe velt” (non-Jewish world) to pull off this kind of event, including intimate knowledge of stadium economics. Corporate sponsorships were prominently advertised and I am told that luxury suites were sold for over a hundred thousand dollars each. And it was apparent that for many of those present it was not their first time in a football stadium: a few rows in front of us a boy sat on a souvenir seat cushion from a recent Superbowl – after a few hours on a very hard seat I was quite envious. The financial and technical resources required to make this event possible are considerable and one cannot help but be impressed by the material power and worldly sophistication of the American Agudah community (it is hard to imagine an event of such scale being undertaken by the Haredi community in Israel.)

One of the functions of daf yomi is to redeem this immersion in non-Jewish culture and society. Participants in the daf yomi program take their gemaras with them when they leave for work in the morning, learn during their commute or during lunch and other free moments, and they take their gemaras with them when they go on vacation and even to ballgames. The glossy commemorative booklet that was distributed to ticket-holders contains an article on the planning of this “historic simchas hatorah.” The article relates that “Thomas M. Steinberg, President of Tisch Family Interests (owners of the New York Giants), once remarked that he finally understood why it had been necessary for him to devote 12 long years to the planning, design and construction of this brand new billion dollar stadium. It was so that tens of thousands of Yidden would have a place to gather for an unprecedented demonstration of kovod haTorah.” With daf yomi, everything in this world exists for the study of torah. Going to work or on vacation enables one to learn; the true purpose of a football stadium as a giant beis medrash is revealed. And on this muggy night in August, with 90,000 people filling the MetLife stadium, the Agudah made it all very believable.

David J. Landes is an independant academic living in the New York area. His dissertation, which he wrote in Princeton University’s Department of Anthropology, is based on fieldwork that he conducted at Yeshiva University and in the Modern-Orthodox community.

Doing Daf Yomi- Guest Post by Yaakov Elman

This post, a first in what we hope will be a series on the Daf Yomi as its 12th cycle comes to a close, was written by Yeshiva University’s Prof. Yaakov Elman. A long time daf yomi learner, Prof. Elman was also Shai’s doktorvater, and his deep influence on this blog parallels the one that he has had on the field of academic Talmud.

The Babylonian Talmud (hereafter: the Bavli) is made up of approximately 1,863,000 words, spread out across 2,711 double folio-pages. Studying a double-page- known as a “daf“- a day, it takes seven years, five months, and approximately six days to complete a cycle of study of the Bavli, and the completion of the twelfth cycle (inaugurated in 1923) will be celebrated today, August 1st, by hundreds of thousands of people world-wide, with an expected 100,000 attendees at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.

Such a regimen is definitely a daunting task, but tens of thousands of Jews rise early, stay up late, or somehow crowd an hour or so of study into their daily schedule, often in synagogue before or after services, on commuter trains, subways, and the like. Most of them do so in groups, with a leader taking them through the intricacies of an Aramaic-Hebrew text that has challenged the best minds the Jewish people have produced for the last millennium and a half. Of course, being part of a group allows for social interchange, and the feeling of participating in a shared goal. But my own experience suggests that while the text alone can be riveting at times and “merely” interesting at others;the Bavli hardly ever requires a stiff upper lip to see it through.

I have been asked to describe the experience of studying the Talmud in this way; let me begin by admitting at the outset that I am not a typical daf yomi person. In the forty-some-odd years that I have studied daf yomi, I have never taken part in a daf yomi group; my schedule is seven blatt on a Sabbath rather than a daf a day. Still, by not taking part in a group I was forced to rely on my own resources, and thus my view of the Bavli is my own and reflects my interests. These have changed over the years, but for the most part, my focus has been on the Bavli’s cognitive style and modes of argument, the individual contributions of its major voices, the society that produced it, and the interaction of that society with its general environment.

I began daf yomi when the thought that I would never complete even the most cursory review of the whole of the Bavli in my lifetime (at the rate I was progressing) became intolerable. I couldn’t stand the thought that I would never get a sense of the whole of the Talmud. One may ask: If the Bavli is more or less uniform in its style of language, thought and argumentation, what’s the difference, apart from the changing subject matter?

The short answer is that not only do the topics change, but the “research agenda” changes as well. Discussions of the Temple service are different from those on practical matters of civil law, for example. Some tractates concentrate on the biblical derivations of the Mishnah’s rules (Zevahim, Menahot); in some, most of talmudic law is based on custom rather than Scripture (Bava Batra, for example). While there are only 12 or 13 major figures, not all appear in the same proportion throughout the whole Bavli, and so one does not get a sense of their approaches without having kept track through a complete cycle (at least).

Daf Yomi takes its participants through the Bavli in a close-up view of the discussions carried on among the Babylonian rabbis of 220-530 CE, from prayers and blessings though the rules governing celebration of the Sabbath and festivals, through rules governing gender relations, civil law, to the Temple service and slaughter. But it is also a reflection of the society whose norms determined the shape of Jewish life for a millennium and a half, and continues to do so for hundreds of thousands of Jews today. It is also the cognitive underpinning of the Jewish mind as it has developed over the last two millennia, indeed, much more so than the Hebrew Bible.

Let me quote from a short description that I published a few years ago on which I would like to expand:

…The Babylonian Talmud is marked by a salient characteristic, its continuous and unending dialogue. The debates are not haphazard. Certain authorities who were contemporaries or near-contemporaries debate all sorts of issues related to the Mishnah, issues that are sometimes only remotely relevant to them personally. Some statistics will give us an idea of what is happening. The Babylonian Talmud is the creation of at least seven generations of Babylonian authorities, and contains several generations of Israeli authorities as well. However, of the hundreds of authorities mentioned by name, more than forty thousand times in toto, only a dozen or so dominate the discussion and are scattered in pairs… These debates are often arranged as structured discussions on a given topic, so that they appear to be stenographic records of actual debates. This appearance is literary only, however, as few of these authorities lived in close proximity. This is true even though the discussion, or sugya (a “walking through), sometimes seems to reflect a long debate over a point, a debate that gives the appearance of having lasted for generations.

The cognitive style of the Bavli is dialogic and dialectical, as manifested not only by its predominant voice, that of its anonymous redactors, who contributed over half of its text (the stama di-gemara), but by its named authorities, who both query and question and investigate incessantly. They take very little for granted; everything must have an authoritative source—and sound logic counts as such a source. As my first Talmud teacher told us ten-year olds: “A gemoro daf men farshtein, nit nur gloiben” (“We must understand the talmudic text, it us not enough to believe it”).

The predominant mode of inquiry is binary: Is A to be construed as X or perhaps (o dilma’) as Y? But while the query may seem simple, the answers seldom are, and alternate possibilities are brought into consideration. At times the query leads to another, in a dizzying array of cantilevered logic. If A, then X or Y or Z. But if A leads to X or Y or Z, then other binary possibilities open up… and so on. This is one of the ways in which the Bavli comprehends the complexities of human experience.

One consequence of the predominance of about a dozen figures over seven generations is that a few sages have a outsize influence on the whole. Furthermore, the contribution of some sages outside this dozen is quite distinctive and can easily be traced. Thus, R. Yirmiyah (a Babylonian who went on aliyah) and Rammi bar Hamma (a Babylonian who stayed home) both tend to propound theoretical problems, often involving boundary conditions for whose solution no authoritative text exists; an inordinate number of their problems defy solution. One result is that after one such query R. Yirmiyah was ejected from the study hall (Bava Batra 23a); on a later occasion, however, he was brought back by dint of another such question (Bava Batra 165a). Another reaction, that of the highly-influential fourth-generation sage Rava to two of Rammi bar Hamma’s questions was “His sharp-wittedness has brought him to error!” It is perhaps no surprise that R. Yirmiyah praised Rammi bar Hamma to his own teacher R. Zeira (Pesahim 48a). It is also not surprising that on at least one occasion R. Yirmiyah’s suggestion was so astounding that the Bavli interprets it as an attempt to make his master, R. Zeira, smile—but, as the Bavli notes: “R. Zeira did not smile” (Niddah 23a).

There are two other aspects of the Bavli’s thought that I think are essential to its understanding: its sense of proportion, and its requirement of reasonableness (as opposed to adherence to pure logic), that is, that statements conform to reality. One might think that with its continuous arguments the Bavli would be bound to strict logic, but then logic is not always reasonable. Thus, in Shabbat 5a, a particular analysis of the text at hand (quoted, as it happens, in the name of a western scholar for which there is no parallel in the Talmud of the Land of Israel) results in an interpretation in which a midget (or an normal-sized person bent over or standing in a pit) is holding a basket within three handbreadths of the ground. Rava reacts as to this proposal as follows: “Did the authority of the mishnah then trouble himself to teach us these [highly unusual] cases?” Though this retort appears only five times in the Bavli, this may be because such interpretations are rare.

The other response is far more common, and appears more than a hundred times in the Bavli. Thus, in Shabbat 151b, the redactors’ reaction to R. Yosef’s assertion that rabbinic students are never reduced to begging is: “But we see that they are!” Formally, the Bavli is a commentary on the Mishnah, a collection of laws and rules governing almost every area of life promulgated about 220 CE, but one which does not—in common with law collections of the time—decide issues at contention. But at times the Bavli will set aside the mishnaic view on matters that are not disputed as a minority opinion, or it reinterprets it so as to change it substantively, or even marginalize it in some other way.

Nevertheless, though the Bavli is often hard-headed and self-critical, and at times questioning (to the point that it embodies some of the characteristics of the later proverbial Yiddish skepticism and bemusement at human failings), these are only some of its moods. The Bavli reflects all the varied moods of a wise and discerning mentor who bemusement at human folly never stoops to cynicism, and will even at times allow itself a certain measured naivité. Its infinite variety, like that of the human mind and heart, keeps it ever fresh, and that may be the secret of why tens of thousands of people are ready to turn the page and experience the lessons of the next day.

Yaakov Elman is Professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University and an associate of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. He has published or edited eight books and dozens of articles on rabbinic intellectual history, Jewish biblical exegesis, and hasidic thought.