Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Gates of Talmud

Last night my wife and I went to the first night of a 5 part program at my kid's school. It was a double header - first, conversational Hebrew followed by an Intro to Talmud class.

The conversational Hebrew was painful. I could understand quite a bit (about 1st grade level at the school :) ), and can read fairly well, but my speaking was terrible. My mind would constantly switch to Spanish mode since that was the last foreign language I learned (in high school). Other people had similar problems - there was a lot of Spanish/French filler being uttered inadvertently.

Then, the Hebrew class was over and a few brave souls stayed for the Talmud intro. I had to stay since my wife was one of the organizers of this thing.

My dance with the Talmud goes back a few years. Of course, like many people I was intrigued with this mysterious work that has such a hold on Jews and gentiles alike. I bought a copy of the Steinsaltz edition Ketuboth and tried to work through it myself. After a little while I gave up.

When we moved about four months ago, I joined a Friday night study group (chaburah) where we go through topics in Jewish law, starting with the Talmud and going through the major commentators. This is an extremely painful little diversion since everyone else in the group is much more advanced than me. Nonetheless, like a man thrown overboard, you try to stay afloat as best you can.

So even though I had been exposed to Talmud several times, I had never been in a classroom situation where the purpose of the class was to teach you Talmud.

We started with the English translation to figure out what we were going to read. One sentence. Then we opened to a page where the sentence was broken out into syntactic units, Hebrew and English side by side. You see, the Talmud doesn't really have much punctuation.

The teacher began. He read each phrase in a sing-song manner, Hebrew followed by English. The class echoed him after each couplet.

Teacher: HaMafkeeeed - if a person entrusts
Us: HaMafkeeeed - if a person entrusts
Teacher: eitzel chaveirooooh - to his neighbor
Us: eitzel chaveirooooh - to his neighbor
Teacher: b'heimah oh keileeeem - an animal or utensils
Us: b'heimah oh keileeeem - an animal or utensils

We repeated this over and over again. 4 times, then another 4 times. Over and over we took turns reading it. It took an hour to get through one sentence.

While this was happening, I suddenly developed a powerful feeling of connection to my ancestors, little boys sitting in Cheder in the little shtetls outside of Kiev, chanting the same Gemorah in the same sing-song manner. A warm, happy feeling.


Blogger B. Spinoza said...

I offer Talmud lessons free of charge. But you'll have to pay extra for rishonim :)

May 02, 2006 2:36 PM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Ah, but with that method they were bored stiff!

May 02, 2006 4:02 PM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Tag - You're it! Enjoy!

Israel Meme

May 03, 2006 5:13 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Hmm... interesting. One recommendation: If you could learn the structure of how the Talmud works, you'd find it much easier to learn other portions as well. i.e. basic words that come up on a regular basis, the differences between types of Q's, etc...

May 03, 2006 2:01 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Talmud is great stuff. There are lots of online tools such as aishdas' webshas. You can also buy electronic lectures on any daf. And, it must be mentioned, the Shottenstien Artscroll Talmud is a great tool for opening up gemara to all.

May 03, 2006 5:18 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Thanks guys.

I am getting into it slowly. The biggest thing is finding the time, and also the atrophy of the 35 year old brain. Both the Steinsaltz and the Schottenstein are very helpful.

My biggest breakthrough came when I realized (I think) that a lot of the discussions (at least the ones I've been exposed to) are not really interested in determining an objective viewpoint; they almost seem to focus more on analyzing the logical consistency of an argument. Once I got that, I could follow along much better.

May 04, 2006 11:41 AM  

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