As I mentioned yesterday, I–and several other people in my graduating yeshiva class–recently began the Daf Yomi cycle. For those who are scratching their heads, “Daf Yomi” essentially translates to “a page a day,” and is a commitment to study one page of the Talmud, front and back, a day. Done this way, it takes seven years to study the whole Babylonian Talmud. Because it takes so long, and because the Daf Yomi cycle is standardized so that everyone is on the same page at the same time, it’s not uncommon to jump in pretty much anywhere.
In our case, we timed our entry into the cycle to coincide with the start of a new tractate, which in this case is the tractate Menachot (“Grain Offerings”). It’s a little unfortunate that we didn’t start with the previous tractate, Zevachim (“Sacrifices”), since much of the material in Menachot refers back to Zevachim’s discussions. Fortunately, the discussions themselves and a decent set of footnotes makes it easy to jump in anyway.
I’ve actually owned a copy of Jacob Neusner’s translation of the Babylonian Talmud in both dead tree and electronic format for years, and often use the .pdf version to look specific passages or subjects up. However, for the Daf Yomi I’m collecting Artscroll’s Schottenstein Edition as I go. It’s not a bad way to build a library, since I’m basically committing to spending $27-40 (depending on whether I catch a sale) every five weeks or so for the student edition. I’m using the Schottenstein as my primary text, but with Neusner’s on-hand for those times when I forget what a certain technical term means or otherwise want a second opinion.
I’ll go ahead and say up front that the Talmud is not something the vast majority of people out there want to study. Nor should they, at least not without a bit of training on how to understand and follow the rabbis arguments. All too often, I see Christians digging a quote out of the Talmud and citing it without regard for its original context or the unique style of the Talmudic rabbis, and completely distorting Judaism in the process.
Here’s the truth about the Talmud: It contains the debates of about six centuries worth of rabbis on the proper meaning of Scripture and application of Jewish Law (i.e., the Mishnah). It contains the winning arguments along side the losing arguments and the theoretical arguments that are put forth only to test a premise that may have been expressed many pages earlier.
For example, in Menachot’s fourth folio, the rabbis begin debating over whether it would be possible to offer treif–an animal that died on its own–as a sacrifice in the Temple. This sounds utterly ridiculous and even blasphemous, and it is. I could easily see a Christian commentator using this passage as an example of the rabbis distorting Scripture. Actually, what they are doing is taking an obviously false position in order to test the consistency of an argument over whether a certain circumstance would invalidate the Mincah (grain offering). If the position on the grain offering would, if applied consistently, cause one to allow the sacrifice of treif, then it is obviously false and must be thrown out.
Reading through the arguments being presented and seeing how rigorously the rabbis tested every proposition and sought utter consistency in every ruling has given me an even greater respect for them. It has also already, after only five days, expanded my understanding of rabbinic hermeneutics. I’ve discussed the subject before and had a pretty good head-knowledge of the basic rules, but already this study has improved my “feel” for the nuances as well as taught me a new principle that I didn’t already know.
I won’t be attempting to do a regular commentary on the Talmud, but I will be using my studies as the springboard for quite a few posts in the future. Until then,