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The Organization of the Talmud

How do we make sense of the organization (or lack thereof) of the Talmud?





The rabbis are masters of associative thinking, aren’t they? it has the quality of two good friends meet up after a week of not talking and excitedly jump from topic to topic. So, for example, Berachot 2 talks about when to say the Shema and they jump to when night is and then they jump to God crying every night and then they jump to WHY IS THERE SUFFERING IN THE WORLD, anyway? 


Remembering that this document was originally a series of conversations/debates that took place over generations of rabbis over a couple hundred years (from 200CE-500CE— often with rabbis from different eras arguing over which way is the MOST ETHICAL way to behave in any given situation reasoned by sighting proof texts from Torah— like if Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy were in vigorous debate one citing Genesis and another Deuteronomy), and that this voluminous body of information was written down and put together in the 6th century WITHOUT the use of computers or EVEN a printing press after centuries of ruling authorities persecuting Jews for uttering these stories aloud let alone writing them and teaching them, the work becomes a stunning and precious treasure on its own.


In my estimation, the fact that it is loosely arranged by topic (tractate name) is a miraculous feat in itself. Having it is an affirmation of the endeavor to survive and protect our ethical principles and on top of the the value to preserve on the page various opinions on the same subject, the method of drawing our reasoning from Torah and our general loveable dorkiness in preserving this precious material.


So, it’s hard to follow, but ultimately forgivable. 


And with this frame one can see why we have protected not only the Torah but the Talmud over centuries. This is why I stand in awe of it and love engaging with it even if it can be hard to read at times. Later, in the 11thc, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon aka Maimonides attempts to organize and streamline it as a legal code which is helpful but definitely takes away the flavor of these vigorous debates that are made for the sake of heaven. And so we study...

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