Whether you’re watching Game of Thrones, Star Wars, or Dumbo; or reading Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, or the Talmud, there’s one thing you need to do if you’re going enjoy or benefit from any of these: you must suspend your disbelief.
The term suspension of disbelief is defined as:
A willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal; it’s the sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.
This semi-conscious decision to put aside rational thinking and assume the premise as fact for the duration of the story is something you’ve learned to do. If you can’t do it, you’re going to have problems. Especially with the Talmud.
For seven and a half years I followed a program called Daf Yomi, during which time I read the entire Babylonian Talmud, one page a day, in English.
It’s not really “a page” as we know it. Rather, it’s “a folio” a day. A page of Talmud is densely written and encompasses much more than one printed page of English. Typically, it took me 30 to 50 minutes. And it was often a grind. There were a lot of footnotes.
Unlike Harry Potter or Dumbo, the Talmud is not considered fiction—by some, anyway. But as I read, night after night, I decided it might as well be.
Is the Torah a work of fiction? Hmmm. Perhaps Noah did have an ark and the animals came two-by-two. And Balaam’s donkey spoke to him, and Jonah was swallowed up by a giant fish. And the prophet Elijah rose up to heaven in a flaming chariot. And Dumbo flew. Who am I to say?
My Talmudic journey began years ago when a number of my Temple Sinai friends invited me to join their Talmud study group. We would meet once a week at a member’s home and take turns reading aloud in English from a book that looked very much like a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. There would generally be tea and often cookies (I never turn down a cookie).
I realized early on that if you want to get through even a page of Talmud, it was imperative to suspend your disbelief in the same way you do when you enter Disneyland and see a man-sized mouse. (Goofy and Pluto are both dogs, right?)
In my first published book, What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About Judaism, I described the Talmud in this way:
Many of the laws, passages, and directives in the Torah are not fully explained, are confusing, or may seem contradictory. Over the centuries, law based upon study and analysis of the Torah was passed down by word of mouth. This oral law, which provided explanations and amplifications of the written law, was finally organized and written down by the earliest rabbinic scholars in the first through third centuries CE and is known as the Mishnah (“recapitulation”), deals with temple rituals, holiday observances, agricultural issues, and family life, but also contains many proverbs and philosophical observations.
Scholars at the time wrote commentaries and discussions about the Mishnah. These commentaries, called the Gemara (from the Aramaic, meaning “to finish or complete”), are interspersed into each paragraph or section of the Mishnah and give insight into historical, spiritual, ethical, and legal issues.
The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemara is called the Talmud. There are two versions of the Talmud: the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. These days, when we refer to the Talmud, we refer to the Babylonian Talmud, which was completed in about 500 CE. Talmudic study, while quite difficult, opens a world of spiritual wisdom, humor and anecdote, and rabbinical arguments and puzzles. (…It’s) a storehouse of advice…
Like many authors, I pretty much believed what I wrote. Then I actually read the Talmud.
Some of you have read The Rabbi Finds Her Way, a novel I wrote with Catherine deCuir. In one episode, our fictional rabbi, after hearing some disappointing news from her husband, says to him, “Well, as it says in the Talmud, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’” He asks, “Does it really say that in the Talmud?” She replies, “It might as well.”
Writing dialogue for fictional characters is a very powerful thing. The characters often say what you yourself think.
Much has been made about the so-called legal arguments that make up much of the Talmud. I must disclose to you that unlike many of my friends and fellow congregants I am not an attorney—I’m only married to one. Regardless, I just don’t think that Talmud study is anything like being in law school.
Often, a line of logic will be expounded by one sage only to be rebuffed, ridiculed, dismissed, or all three by another scholar, often a “colleague” who lived in a different location. This colleague might have even lived in a different era. Many times it feels more like politics than law. And frequently, the issue remains unresolved; this is a regular theme in the Talmud.
Often these intellectual arguments revolve around topics that are bizarre, ridiculous, or other-worldly.
Question: What should a woman do if a snake desires her?
Answer: She should either have sex with her husband in front of the snake, or stand on two barrels, and do such-and-such.
When I became aware that some of my friends were reading the Daf Yomi, I became curious.
Daf Yomi is a daily regimen of reading (and hopefully learning) the Talmud. Adhering to the plan allows one to complete the reading of the entire Talmud during a cycle of approximately seven and a half years.
Tens of thousands of Jews worldwide study in this way. At the end of each cycle there is a celebratory event called a Siyum HaShas.
The idea of Jews around the world studying the same daf each day with the express goal of completing the entire Talmud was first proposed in 1920 by Rabbi Moshe Menachem Mendel Spivak. In 1923 the concept was introduced at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna, and the first cycle of study began in September of that year.
Rabbi Meir Shapiro viewed the program as a way to unify the Jewish people, suggesting that a traveler journeying by sea from the Holy Land to America could enter a house of worship in New York and find others studying the very same page of Talmud.
These days, you can find Daf Yomi study groups in a wide variety of in-person and online settings, and even on commuter cars of the Long Island Railroad. (When my father commuted on the LIRR, mostly he played bridge; sometimes pinochle.)
I learned that the 13th Daf Yomi cycle would begin in August 2012 and started to entertain the idea of doing it myself. I was already retired from my day job and the idea of a “journey” of a different kind held a certain appeal.
When I finally began to read the Talmud I was in Amsterdam. The place where we were staying had a good wi-fi connection, and I downloaded the first few volumes of Talmud to the ArtScroll app on my iPhone. Due to procrastination, I was two months late in starting, so I needed to catch up. I did so by doubling up on the daily reading program. The language, although English, was sometimes challenging, and the concepts, precepts, and ideas were often so challenging as to produce exasperation if not dismay.
Often, when I came across something particularly crazy, upsetting, or outrageous, I would take a screen shot on my phone. This was often the case a couple of years later while I was on my 2,644 mile walk across America. I might be in a motel in New Mexico, in my tent next to a barbed wire fence in Oklahoma or Texas, or in a campsite in Indiana or Virginia.
Here are a few details from those screen shots:
- If a partially fertilized hen’s egg later re-enters the hen, eating the egg is prohibited.
- The process of Chalitzah which negates the necessity of a widow marrying the brother of her late husband, requires her to remove his shoe and spit in his face; if she instead removes his sock, the whole process is invalid.
Get the picture?
Regardless of “misinformation presented as fact” in a pre-scientific age document, I must tell you that some things I read disturbed me greatly, and are never alluded to when people discuss the “wisdom” in the Talmud. Examples:
- After having sex with a girl less than three years old, her hymen grows back.
- According to Rav Shimon, “A man can sell his daughter in marriage or into servitude repeatedly.”
To my dismay, discussions about sex with children occurred a number of times.
That said, much of the advice and situations were just silly. One involves a description of a man who falls off a roof and upon hitting the ground has an unexpected sexual encounter with his wife who is lying below.
More wisdom from the Talmud:
- A woman who eats eggs will have children with large eyes. A woman who eats fish will have charming children. A woman who eats celery will have radiant children. A woman who eats coriander will have fat children, and a woman who eats etrog will have fragrant children.
- A woman who has marital relations near a mill will have epileptic children.
- A wife should know with certainty whether her husband “shoots like an arrow.”
- Garlic instills love, eliminates jealousy, and increases the semen.
- A man may write a divorce decree (known as a “get”) upon anything, even the horn of a cow or the hand of a slave, as long as he gives the wife the cow or the slave.
Then of course, there is Talmudic medical advice.
- If you have cataracts you should bring a scorpion that is spotted with seven colors, dry it, grind it into a powder with antimony, and apply three doses to each eye. No more, because the eye may burst.
- If you have a nosebleed, bring a man who is a Kohen whose name is Levi and have him write his name backwards.
- One who engages in conjugal relations while standing is liable to be seized with a severe cramp.
- As long as one is able to stand on one foot and put on or take off ones shoe, he is still considered young.
Then there is the misogyny.
- Reish Lakish (a well-known Talmudic personality) agreed that “It is better to live as two together than to live alone,” but Rava said this reasoning cannot be applied to monetary transactions.
- “Ten measures of conversation descended to the world. Women took nine of them…”
- In tractate Bava Kamma, we are told that if a man has two wives, one young and one old, the young one pulls out his white hairs, so that he will look younger, and the old one pulls out his black hairs, so that he will appear older. In the end, he is bald from both sides.
If you want to create Talmudic stories about demons, witches, magicians, bandits, thieves, wicked men, and sorcerers, all you need to put together a viable narrative is a lot of cherry-picking, good editing, and a fertile imagination. But if you want your writing to be politically correct, respectful, and egalitarian, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
When I started the 13th cycle, the online version of the Talmud was relatively new, and the English translation contained many misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors. I soon found myself on a first-name basis with Eli, the editor of the ArtScroll online edition, and I contributed hundreds of corrections during seven-plus years.
In fact, Eli asked me in an email if I’d be coming to New York to attend the Siyum Ha-Shas, which would take place on January 1, 2020 at MetLife Stadium. (The previous Siyum drew over 90,000 participants.) The parking lot opened at 8 a.m. and the event would be filled with thousands of Orthodox and Chasidic Jews, with most of the men wearing the traditional black hats that define their sect.
While Autumn in New York sounds romantic, January in New York is another thing (I grew up there). And other than my acquaintance with Eli from ArtScroll, I wouldn’t know anyone there. So I decided to celebrate the completion of my Talmudic journey in Oakland with my Temple Sinai community and my own rabbi (she’s a Reform rabbi and I’ve never seen her wearing a black hat).
(Ironically, my wife and I began a planned 112-day World Cruise in January 2020, which was aborted after 60 days due to the beginning of the pandemic.)
Do I regret my time reading through the 73 volumes (totally on my iPhone)? Not really. My regrets in life are few. I could have stopped at any time, and many people who begin the Daf Yomi do just that; but it’s not as if it was the primary activity in my life.
Afterwards, people would ask what I learned from my Talmud experience. I’d often answer that one of the most valuable skills I picked up was to be able to hold two or more opposing viewpoints in my mind simultaneously without needing to determine which, if any, was the truer, wiser, or even more plausible of the conflicting arguments. Another gem was to not always expect to learn the truth. Sometimes there is no truth.
There was certainly some beautiful language, and perhaps even wisdom. Rabbi Schneur Zalman said, “The tongue is the pen of the heart, but melody is the pen of the soul.”
And moments of humor: A person’s inclination to sleep at night is not as strong as his inclination to delay rising in the morning. (Yoma 22a)
When asked if I’d recommend that someone read the Talmud, I was hesitant. Honestly, I’d recommend first attending a Talmud study group to get your feet wet, because whatever you think the Talmud is, I can tell you it isn’t that.
If you want to know what I really think you should do, I’d recommend that if you’ve never read the entire Tanakh (which includes the Torah, the Nevi’im, and Kethuvim), do that first. Then read the New Testament, particularly if you’re Jewish. Really. I firmly believe that every Jew should have an understanding of basic Christian belief. Then, perhaps, read the Quran. Sorry to say, but I think all of that is more relevant and valuable than the Talmud. (That said, I can guarantee you that most readers of the Talmud have never read the New Testament, let alone the Quran.)
This may not have been what you expected to hear from me. But as the Talmud says, “C’est la vie.” (Does it really say that? It might as well.)
(An abridged version of this essay was presented at Temple Sinai, Oakland, California, on December 28, 2019.)