The Society for the Advancement of the Torah Sheb'al Peh
Innovation in Learning , Return to Tradition
The Talmud Bavli: The Past, the Future
Jewish schools dedicate many hours and resources to study of Mishnah and Talmud, but more than seventy percent of all students are still unable to learn a page of Talmud on their own at the end of secondary school studies. How can this be improved?
Study of Talmud in our day is different than in the days of the Gaonim (7th – 10th centuries), and Rishonim (11th to 16th centuries). Our sages cautioned us not to transcribe Torah Sheb'al Peh into writing (Gittin 60b), but persecutions and destructions eventually forced scholars to preserve the Talmud in texts. Today, we learn exclusively from texts – usually from the Vilna printing of 1880. The first full printing of the Babylonian Talmud was of the non-Jewish printer Daniel Bombergi of Venice, in 1520-1523. Before that, the Talmud was learned orally, or from manuscripts. As study moved from manuscripts to printings, the mentality of study changed. Manuscripts were only an aid to study - scholars knew the entire Masorah by heart, and even corrected manuscripts according to the Masorah they learned from their Rebbeim. Printed texts created a revolution, “exiling” the Torah Sheb'al Peh into the fixed format of literature.
The Masorah for the learning of Torah Sheb'al Peh organized learning of sources from the Tannaim and Amoraim augmented by commentary and analysis of later teachers in the Shakla V'Tarya, and strictly separated between the various components. Scribes preserved these lessons in written protocols, scholars and editors polished and edited the protocols, the result being the manuscripts we have today. These protocols recorded all the sources – Tannaim, Amoraim, and the words of the later teachers, as one continuous text. Editors of the protocols did not need to mark the various components, since scholars using the manuscript knew how to distinguish the various layers of text to learn the recorded lessons correctly. In our day, however, students of Torah Sheb'al Peh receive no training in how to learn these different components, even though complete, proper understanding of the text is virtually impossible without it. The authentic method helps to understand these various components in Talmud, and ensures more accurate, independent, and enjoyable study.
The original method operates on a model of four stages of increasing complexity. Each stage presents a series of learning skills, and the sum total of the four stages is the ability to learn Talmud independently. The first stage is study of Mishnah with relevant skills. The second stage teaches skills for comparison of the Mishnah with Tosefta, beraitot, and midreshei halachah of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Yishmael, to arrive at a more complete picture of what the Tannaim taught. This comparison of Tannaitic sources is preparation for study of the Amoraim in the Talmud, who concentrated on resolution of contradictions in tannaitic sources. The third stage is study of Amoraic teachings, which includes learning the Amoraic statements, called “memrot”, and the various forms of Amoraic discussions, called “sugyot.” The final stage is study of the anonymous, Aramaic-language Shakla V'Tarya called by the Rishonim “Gemara,” “Talmud,” "Stama d'Gemara" or “Stama d’Talmuda.”
These four stages – Mishnah, Torat HaTannaim, Torat Ha'Amoraim and Shakla V'Tarya – are cumulative, and form an upward spiral of skills which enable independent study. Each individual skill is presented and explained through simple examples, then drilled in increasingly complex examples until mastered. At the end of the process, study of Mishnah and Talmud becomes clear, logical and fulfilling.
The first stage is learning Mishnah. Mishnah transmits halachic traditions from Sinai, and later stages of rabbinic legislation, organized into six divisions (“orders”) and subdivided into sixty-three independent tractates. The tractates are organized into five hundred and twenty-five chapters, and the chapters into over four thousand individual paragraphs, called “mishnayot.” Compilation of the Mishnah is attributed to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (death circa 220 CE).
Traditionally, Mishnah was learned by heart with ancient chants, but modern study discarded this practice and adopted Western educational theories which devalued rote learning. We recommend return to the traditional practice of learning by heart with the aid of traditional melodies, since we are meant to know Torah, not only where to find it.
To understand Mishnah, the following skills are necessary:
1. Study of the Written Tradition in Preparation for Study of Mishnah:
The first skill is learning of Written Tradition, including identifying the "peshat" - plain meaning
of the verse according to context, separation of the verse into component ideas, and
development of the ability to ask relevant questions about the meaning of the verse.
2. The Mishnah as Commentator on the Biblical Text:
Mishnah often acts as a commentator on the Torah, defining, specifying, expanding or
applying the Torah Shebichtav.
These first two skills help us define what Mishnah is doing, and understand the “value added” by the Torah Sheb'al Peh to the Torah Shebichtav.
3. Nesiim, Tannaim, and Locations of Sanhedrin:
Learning Mishnah requires knowing the six Nesi’im from Hillel until Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi,
and the locations of the Sanhedrin in their generations. Other leading Tannaim are then
placed in context by attaching them to a given Nasi or Sanhedrin.
4. Layers in Mishnah:
Once the names and places are known, we can identify layers in the Mishnah. The layers
teach us about the evolving application of halachah by the Tannaim in new circumstances
from generation to generation. Layers may also be discerned by the way a later layer
comments on an earlier one.
5. The Editing of Mishnah from Earlier Sources
Mishnah is an anthology of many sources. Some mishnayot are terse, others expansive.
Some are laws, others dialogues. Some bring their sources from Torah Shebichtav, most do
not. By identifying the different types of mishnayot, we can see how they were included into
Rebbe's Mishnah, causing many intentional topical and formal digressions. Rabbi Yehudah
HaNasi also used mneumonic devices to aid memorization of Mishnah.
LEARNING TORAT HATANNAIM
The second stage of learning is comparing Mishnah to the rest of Torat HaTannaim. This is called learning “parallel” sources, since all tannaitic literature was composed during the same period, by the same scholars, for the same general purposes. Mishnah consists of about five hundred chapters and four thousand paragraphs (mishnayot), but this is less than ten percent of the Torat HaTannaim which survived! Understanding the Tannaim from study of Mishnah alone is like using only one hundred pieces of a one thousand piece puzzle!
There are three reservoirs of Torat HaTannaim outside Mishnah. The first includes the seven Midreshei Halachah which have survived to our day. Midreshei halachah are ordered according to the verses of the Torah, and they derive new halachah from Biblical verses or connect existing halachah to verses by allusion. Though edited at the beginning of the Amoraic period, they present teachings of Rabbi Akiba (b. Yosef) and Rabbi Yishmael (b. Elisha) from the Yavneh period one hundred years before. Our Mishnah generally follows the Midreshei Halachah of Rabbi Akiba. Comparing Mishnah to Midreshei Halachah often clarifies the rationale of the law in Mishnah, and sometimes provides additional opinions not brought by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi at all.
Tosefta, the second parallel source, is almost twice the size of Mishnah. Traditionally, Tosefta is attributed to Rabbi Chiyyah and Rabbi Hoshaya, student colleagues of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Since Mishnah and Tosefta share the same topical organizational structure of six orders and sixty three tractates, location of parallel sources is relatively simple.
The third and largest store of Torat HaTannaim parallel to Mishnah are the “beraitot” in the two Talmudim. “Beraitot” are terse quotations from Tannaitic compilations which did not survive in their entirety, and they therefore need to be studied with care, but their sheer quantity – some eighteen thousand in number as quoted in the two Talmudim, make them irreplaceable in understanding the Tannaim. There are many kinds of beraitot, and the various types have various degrees of standing and authority in the eyes of the Amoraim. Locating beraitot in the Talmud is not difficult, since every beraita appears after one of several code words reserved by the Talmud for their presentation.
Learning Torat HaTannaim has another great plus. The Torat Ha'Amoraim and the Shakla V'Tarya often compare different Tannaitic sources for clarifying halachah. Learning all the parallel sources before learning Talmud is great preparation for learning Torat Ha'Amoraim and Shakla V'Tarya.
LEARNING TORAT HA'AMORAIM
Editing of Mishnah was completed within a generation of the death of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (c. 220 CE). At the same time, the Amoraic Period began (“amora”= academy head or master, or scholar), and concluded in Israel five generations later (c. 375), and in Babylonia eight generations later (c. 500). Mishnah and the rest of Torat HaTannaim developed in only three or four academies, but Torat Ha'Amoraim developed in tens of academies in the Land of Israel and Babylonia.
Amoraim interpret Mishnah, compare and contrast sources of Torat HaTannaim, add their own layers of commentary, opinion and discussion, and deal with matters untreated in Tannaitic sources. Torat Ha'Amoraim is a direct continuation of Torat HaTannaim, concerned basically with halachic decision-making on a case by case basis. As in Torat HaTannim, there is little generalization or conceptualization presented in Torat Ha'Amoraim. Torat Ha'Amoraim is unique, however, since it is a gradual, layered accumulation of remarks, terse discussions or legal decisions, and is not presented in edited works such as Mishnah or Tosefta.
Most importantly, Torat Ha'Amoraim does not exist on its own. It is part of the overall discussion in the Shakla V'Tarya of the Talmud, which is very different than the Torat Ha'Amoraim itself in form and language. Correct identification and separation of Torat Ha'Amoraim from the Shakla V'Tarya is an inescapable first step in learning the teachings of the Amoraim. How is this done?
The basic unit of Amoraic literature is the “memra” (plural: “memrot”), or statement, of the Amora. Although the spoken language at the time of the Amoraim was Aramaic, memrot are over eighty-five percent of the time in Tannaitic Hebrew, signaling that they were edited for memorization. (This refers to the original kernel of the statement of the Amora, and excludes the linguistic polishing or explanations in Aramaic often added later to the statement, such as הכא במאי עסקינן.) The remaining fifteen percent of Amoraic literature contains conversational material, legal decisions preserved as originally rendered in Aramaic, narrative case studies or Aggada (non-halachic sources). Whether in Hebrew or Aramaic, however, Torat Ha'Amoraim is recognized by its exact attribution of every edited Amoraic statement to a given scholar. This enables consistent analysis of varying judicial trends or approaches. These two characteristics – consistent named attribution and predominately Hebrew language redaction – aid in identifying Amoraic memrot within the Talmud.
Individual memrot accumulate by generational sequence, giving rise to sugyot (singular: sugyah), or discussions, surrounding given topics. In Talmud study, one comes across sugyot comprised of memrot from a single academy, muliple-academy sugyot, and sugyot combining memrot from Israel and Babylonia. Each type of sugyah has its own unique characteristics and challenges.
It is customary to attribute editing of the Torat Ha'Amoraim (and most of the Shakla V'Tarya as well!) to Rav Ashi and Rabina, of the sixth and seventh generations of Amoraim, respectively. This attribution is based on the prevalent interpretation of the words of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi, 11th century France) on the phrase “Rav As(h)i and Rabina are the end of teaching” in b. Baba Metzia 86a, and the clear attribution of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam, 12th century Spain and Egypt), in his introduction to Mishneh Torah. However, Rav Sherira Gaon (Babylonia, 10th century) does not discuss any such editing of the Talmud, but rather the close of the Amoraic period with Rabina b. Rav Huna and Rav Asi=Yosi of the eighth generation. According to Rav Sherira, the Shakla V'Tarya was added after Rabina b. Rav Huna and Rav Asi=Yosi completed editing the Torat Ha'Amoraim.
LEARNING SHAKLA V’TARYA
The Babylonian Talmud is composed of three overall layers: Torat HaTannaim (such as Mishnah and beraitot from up to approximately 240 CE), Torat Ha'Amoraim (such as memrot and sugyot from up to approximately 500 CE), and a third layer which presents the Tannaitic and Amoraic sources, comments on them, and extrapolates from them to new cases and topics. This third layer is called Shakla V'Tarya, also known to the Rishonim by various names: “Gemara,” “Talmud,” “Stama d’Gemara,” “Stama d’Talmuda,” or simply “Stama,” which means “anonymous.” The Stama seems to be later than most of the Torat Ha'Amoraim in the Talmud, since it is rare to find a sugya in which the Amoraim are aware of, relate to, or react to the Stama. Who exactly wrote it, when, and why?
Historically, we know that the named Amoraic sources conclude by c. 500 CE. The Gaonic Period commences about a century later, and is documented by significant literature of various forms from the year 700 CE. Therefore, virtually no literature has survived from the intervening period of 500 to 700 CE. Is this because it is to be found in the Stama layer of the Talmud? Or, does the Stama appear to be later than most Amoraic traditions in the Talmud simply because it is from the last generations of the Amoraim themselves?
Rabbis and scholars have taken different positions on this topic. The standard approach credits Rav Ashi (6th generation Babylonian amora, d. 427 CE) and his colleague Rabina with editing the Talmud. This approach is based on Rashi’s interpretation of b. Baba Metzia 86a – that Rav Ashi and Rabina are “sof hora’ah,” “the end of teaching,” and on similar statements of other Rishonim. Rav Sherira Gaon (10th century Babylonian Gaon) who predates Rashi by a century and reflects the Babylonian opinion, clearly identifies the editing of the Talmud with Rav Asi and Rabina b. Rav Huna (8th generation Babylonian Amoraim, d. circa 500-505 CE). Rav Sherira adds that after the end of the Amoraic period, additional interpretations and explanations that were “k'rovim l'hora'ah = similar to teaching” were added to the Talmud.
The identification of the Stama d’Talmuda as late Amoraic or Saboraic is a fascinating question for learning and research, but the issue has no halachic implications, for several reasons:
1. The people of Israel have accepted the Talmud in its entirety as the source for halachah
2. Halachah is derived from Talmud, but fixed in later codes such as the Shulchan Aruch of
Rabbi Yosef Karo (Safed, 16th century) which bind observant Israel, irrespective of the
exact dating of any given source material
3. Saboraim are also part of the unbroken chain of tradition, just like the Amoraim before them and the Gaonim who follow them. A source dated from the Saboraic period will be no less relevant halachically because it is post-Amoraic!
For learning, the stress is on the functional question of how the third, Stama layer is to be learned. It is clear that the Talmudic layer of the sugyah functions differently than the Amoraic traditions. It presents, comments, interprets, generalizes, conceptualizes, and extrapolates Tannaitic and Amoraic traditions. The Talmudic layer also develops sugyot of its own to investigate issues not dealt with in earlier sources, and it utilizes very specific, highly sophisticated, and frequently recurring patterns of logic, discussion and argumentation which rarely if ever occur in Amoraic discussions. Since Talmudic literature assumes learning and understanding of all the earlier sources on which it is based, it should be learned only after study of all the earlier teachings in any given sugyah.