{4F805597-AC32-42F4-9EE2-BAD88CE3B8B2} Lecture 4: TALMUD ON-LINE
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By: Rabbi Sidney Slivko

Last week's chat highlighted another aspect of the Mishnah and again illustrated how the process of Talmud works. I pointed out that Talmudic thinking is really about the search for a spiritual "Unified Field Theory", that is, the one truth which underlies and unifies all of the Torah. Each Mishnah we learn has to reflect that single truth, just as the whole Torah is that one truth made manifest.

Our Midrashim tell us that the Torah existed 420 generations before the world was created. God, say the Midrashim looked into the Torah as His blueprint and from It created the world. Yet we know so much of the Torah deals with practical, rooted-in-reality issues, it almost seems impossible that it could have been pre-Creation. Therefore, I understand this to mean that the written Torah stems from a prior source, the same source that developed into the Oral Torah. In that case, Talmud (the process, not the text) is older, far older, than the written Torah it elucidates, because it is, in fact, oral.

So as I told the participants in Sunday's chat, before we plunge into the "text" of the Talmud, let's back up to the beginning, that is, even before the beginning, and understand what we are seeing. The text of the Gemara which I sent you last week recaps the Amoraic discussion on what our Mishna means. Why is it so wordy when it could have been written more concisely? Or is there more to the Mishnah than apparent wordiness? One of the things we have to remember, here, is that the Gemara we are looking at is one stage of the discussion which transcends generations, a premise frozen in time and space. It may (will) change as the discussion moves on. The Amoraim test and question the premise to see if it stands up. If it doesn't, they will suggest alternatives which, too, will be questioned in the same, relentless fashion.

If we read this discussion as if we were actors learning a play, we follow each character as he says hie lines and ask ourselves what does he mean? What is he responding to? The first character in the Gemara asks why the Mishnah is so long-winded. Surely the Tanna knew how to express himself more succinctly. And if he that is so, then what hidden truth is he telling us?

As Werner said on Sunday, the Gemara is trying to figure out the way the Mishnah came to be, and all that went into it.

Ilan on Sunday also questioned the direction of the Mishnah. Robert, in our forums, wrote that the Mishnah is a letter from Utopia. Ilan pinted out that it really seems to be "very down to earth " working from the earth up.

I think in a way, both are right.

Talmud and oral law are Divine, but because of their nature, they are very ephemeral. What we are doing in Talmud is reaching upward, trying to embody the universal truth which God used in his Divine blueprint even in the mundane. "To see the world through Jewish eyes", as a friend of mine once said. This, then is the universal truth, and that is our goal in Talmud. Therefore, it is both the letter from utopia and mail from the mundane. We hope that by processing and internalizing we can meet God halfway.

Some highlights from last week's chat room:

R. Slivko: Werner, how did you understand Robert's idea of the Letter from Utopia?

R. Werner: I saw it a a way of describing the world as the place it should be but not removed from where it is. It's like part of a dialogue or conversation with the Divine.

R. Slivko: Funny, Steinsaltz says that the Torah is God's word to us, the Talmud, however, is our response.

R. Ilan: The mishna seems to be very down to earth in my opinion. However it does not describe how the sages should continue to develop Halacha.

R. Slivko: ...I think the development is really an attempt at reconstruction of what was. That is what the discussions are. The Hakhamim weren't out to innovate, they were out to find what the Halakhah was by figuring out what was behind the Halakhah, then fit the particulars into the general system, that is, the basic klallim.

R. Werner: Elevate the mundane. That feels right. That is our duty of Tikkun Olam in the day to day details, whether or not God is involved. This is what the Gemara is trying to do here. Find the basic klallim which are inherent in the Mishnah. The divinity of the law. That's why the Amoraim believed Mishnah was so concentrated that every word was chosen to mean something significant, and if the Mishnah was wordy, there was a purpose to its wordiness.

R. Slivko:... It also explains something else about the Mishnah which is related to the way it was studied and what Ilan says also helps explain a Mishnah in Avot which has bothered me for a while...

R. Werner:???

R. Slivko: Look in Avot, 3:9 Rabbi Yaakov Said "One who walks on a road while learning [the Hebrew word is "shoneh" as in Mishnah] and interrupts his learning and exclaims 'How beautiful is this tree' the Tora considers it as if he committed a capital crime". Why should that be Isn't he praising God's works? What's wrong with that?

R. Werner: What's wrong is he stopped learning, and that's what we are all supposed to do.

R. Slivko: But we are supposed to live and enjoy the world, too! In fact, one of the things for which we are held responsible is whether or not we enjoyed the "olam hazeh"! So what does it mean? The key word is "interrupts". First, Mishnah was learned by heart, so that means by breaking his attention, he breaks the mnemonic and may get the facts wrong. That is devastating in the long run... But equally important is the fact that he is making a distinction between the Torah he is learning and the "interruption" of life and nature, the mundane. Nature shouldn't be an interruption outside of Torah.. It is part of the Torah he studies. Notice he doesn't say "What a beautiful tree God has created." He just says "It's a beautiful tree." God is up there. Life is here and never the twain shall meet. That is wrong. The Torah is day to day, and if h learns that, the beauty of the tree is self-evident...

R. Ilan: That is probably the major difference between Judaism and other religions

R. Slivko: I think you are right. I think it also explains the difference between Jewish law (halakhah) and Western law. Our law is not based on the individual's rights, that I, what society owes him, but on what he owes society. This is something that a former principal of mine outlined as the difference between responsibilities and rights.

R. Werner: What do you mean?

R. Slivko: Both parties in the Mishnah probably feel a sense of entitlement, the right to a lost object. (Or, as the Gemara finally explains, the right to the object he paid for). The Mishnah seems to be maintaining a balance between "Rights" and "Responsibilities". We can't just say it's my right. We have to act with responsibility. Just like the tree needs to be beauty in context, so, too, inhas to reflect the individual in context.

R. Werner: Like "Freedom of speech" vs. yelling "Fire" in a crowded movie theatre.

R. Slivko: Precisely!

R. Ilan: Another question. You did not explain the problem that the beit din has with the idea of "Pshara" in the sense that some one is guilty of gezel (robbery).

R. Slivko: But is he?

R. Ilan: If he gets somthing that is not his he stole from the true owner

R. Slivko: The Tosafot raise a similar point in the Gemara on 2b (beginning with the words "I tana" - "if he had learned)...

R. Ilan: And what is the result that they come to?

R. Slivko: Tosafot say that in the cases outlined in the Mishnah, we are faced with the possibility that both parties really believe they are right. Another case, one in which two parties claim to have woven a garment, it is clear that one of them lied...

R. Ilan: So there is a problem but the Talmud choose that course of action any way

R. Slivko: Sort of. They have to swear in the case of the woven garment because we want to ferret out the liar. Here, in the Mishnah, the oath is for clarification for the Bet Din and for the claimants (it sets up for them the rules of division)

R. Ilan: I see

R. Slivko: But the Beit Din says "Maybe it did happen like they said it did...".

From the discussion above, we see that the Amoraim did their best to understand the Mishnah in context with other Mishnayot, all of which draw their conclusions from the same source. Even when there is no sufficient proof of deception, nevertheless the claimants still swear. This is not because we do nottrustthem but because we just don't know.


  1. In our Mishnah, we say they swear not because we think they are lying, (as in the case of two who claim they each wove the garment) but to clarify the claims. But why do we believe the oath in the case of the woven garment? Surely the one who lied will probably continue to lie even under oath?
  2. Ilan said that our Mishnah may be allowing one of the claimants to get away with "gezel". What is gezel? How does it differ from "gneivah"? (For a clue, see Sh'mot, ch.22)
  3. Our Gemara points out that seeing a lost object alone is not enough to establish ownership. Why?
Our Talmud Chat Room is open on Sunday, 4-5:00 PM Jerusalem time.

For those of you who are interested in another on-line Talmud and learning opportunities and resources, I recommend the following:

You may also be happy to learn that Adin Steinsaltz's The Essential Talmud is now available from Amazon Online books.

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Wednesday 27 May, 2015 (c) All rights reserved to the Jewish Agency יום רביעי ט' סיון תשע"ה