Category Archives: Guest Posts

The presidential seder. Not everyone has moved to the living room yet.

Between Furniture in the Mishnah and the Mishnah on Furniture: On Kirshenbaum, ‘Furniture of the Home in the Mishnah’- Guest Post by Yair Furstenberg

Karen Kirshenbaum, Furniture of the Home in the Mishnah (Hebrew; Bar Ilan University Press, 2013).

It has recently become quite common to find families moving their Pesach Seder from the dining room table to the living room couches. At least in part this step is motivated by a keen interest in conducting what seems to be a more authentic Seder, as shaped by the rabbis two millennia ago along the lines of the Greco Roman symposium. Consequently, the stiff seating arrangement around the alter-like table is replaced by a more liberated recline at small personal ones. Continue reading


Outside Aphrodite’s Bathhouse: On Rachel Neis’ ‘The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture’- Guest Post by Zachary Braiterman

Rachel Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2013

NeisAs a devoted reader, I was flattered by Yitz and Shai’s invitation to review for The Talmud Blog the new book by Rachel Neis, arguably the first full length study ever on “rabbinic aesthetics” or “rabbinic visual culture.” As a scholar trained in modern Jewish thought and philosophy, I have explored in my own work the intersection of art, philosophical aesthetics, and Jewish culture.  It’s on that basis that I was asked to read Rachel Neis’ book. Why not?

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Whence Good Questions?- Guest Post by Jon Kelsen

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers; he’s one who asks the right questions.” -Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), 1964

I spend a lot of time asking questions, and a lot of time learning and teaching Talmud. These pastimes are deeply related; the process of uncovering and addressing qushyot u’ba’ayot constitutes the meat and potatoes (or tofu and quinoa, for some of our readers here) of the Talmudic enterprise. The Bavli is a text explicitly animated by query, and we know the joy of the Talmudist who discovers that she or he has “asked like a lamdan,” who has raised the question of Abbaye, the Stamma d’Talmuda, Tosafot, or R. Akiva Eiger. To be a good learner, and certainly a good learner of Talmud, therefore, includes being able to ask good questions. Continue reading

The Flow of Things: Ruminations on Talmudic Layout
Diane Samuels, ‘The Luminous Manuscript’. Permanent exhibition of The Center for Jewish History, NY. Posted with artist’s permission.

As our readers may have noticed, we’ve recently adapted the blog to WordPress’ new “Twenty Fourteen Theme.” Besides exemplifying  WordPress’ sleek sense of style, the theme caught our eye in that it structures the homepage almost like a daf of Talmud, with the main text in the center and related texts surrounding it towards the margin. 

In celebration of The Talmud Blog’s redesign, I have been invited to offer some observations on the layout of the Talmud inspired by my background as a practitioner and scholar of the visual arts. This is a double honor for me as this is also my inaugural post. Thank you for the invitation.

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A Review of Eyal Ben-Eliyahu’s “Between Borders”- Guest Post by Hanan Mazeh

Eyal Ben-Eliyahu, Between Borders: The Boundaries of Eretz-Israel in the Consciousness of the Jewish People in the time of the Second Temple and in the Mishnah and Talmud Period, Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2012, 348 pp. $27.

Eyal Ben-Eliyahu‘s Between Borders is the kind of book which deals with such fundamental questions that it makes you wonder how it is that they had not been seriously addressed before.  Based on his 2007 Hebrew University dissertation, the book aims to examine the territorial borders of the land of Israel as reflected in a wide array of Palestinian texts – from biblical books through the Amoraic era – and tries to formulate the different concepts of “Eretz Israel” that these borders represent.

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A Review of Weiss Halivni, The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud- Guest Post by Zvi Septimus

halivni picDavid Weiss Halivni, TheFormation of the Babylonian Talmud (trans. and ed. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). 312 (+35) pages

David Weiss Halivni began work on his Talmud commentary, Sources and Traditions, in 1968 with the publication of a volume on Seder Nashim. In the forty-five years since, Halivni has published an additional seven volumes, covering Seder Moed and Seder Nezikin. Continue reading

Fair and Fowl: A Review of ‘Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim’ by Dalia Marx – Guest Post by Ilana Kurshan

marx reviewDalia Marx, Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim. A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013,  XII + 258 pages. €89.

A few weeks ago I was learning daf yomi while nursing my daughter when I came upon the following Talmudic passage, which begins with a quote from the Song of Songs: “‘Our little sister has no breasts.’ Rabbi Yohanan said: This refers to Eilam, who merited to learn but not to teach” (Pesachim 87a).” My infant daughter was lying bare-skinned on my breast, and I looked down at her as I puzzled over this passage. Why is having no breasts analogous to learning but not teaching? Continue reading

Review of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, ‘Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism’- Guest Post by Raphael Magarik

ShanksImplicit in the title of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s new book, Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism, is the question: What does gender have to do with “time-bound, positive commandments”? What motivates rabbinic texts to rule that women are exempt from those mitzvot? And as the phrase “in Judaism” implies, this question arrives entangled in important arguments over how Jewish women ought to practice today. Continue reading

Meeting the Bavli at the National Library: Notes from an Uncultured Anthropologist- Guest Post by Assaf Harel

Pumbedita & Vilna in Silicon Valley” is the title of the opening session in a series of five public meetings at the National Library of Israel. The series aims to investigate the relevance of the Bavli in the 21st century. Baldly, the first session asks: “Is the Babylonian Talmud relevant to the secular-western society in which we live?” Continue reading

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.