Talmud: An Explanation

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Epstein and others (including Abraham Weiss and Hyman Klein) gained purchase on these questions by investigating the relationship among the three basic historical layers of which the Talmud is composed: sources associated with the sages known as Tannaim, dating from before and up to the composition of the Mishnah at the turn of the 3rd century; the many statements and discussions attributed by name to the Amoraim, sages coming after the Mishnah; and the anonymous editorial voice known as "the stam" (literally, "plain voice") in which the first two layers are embedded and which surrounds, organizes, and discusses them.

The finished Talmud weaves all of these fragmentary traditions and texts into coherent dialogues among sages living miles and centuries apart, regularly transposing and reformulating sources while adding a sophisticated apparatus of explanation. The result is a work that not only is intellectually compelling but regularly achieves powerful literary effects. To Epstein and the others, what became increasingly clear was that strong editorial hands had been at play in the process.

How did all this work over time? Friedman, in a now-classic 1978 article synthesizing decades of research, offered a clear, logical method through which one could differentiate the text's constituent historical layers. He stipulated three sorts of criteria: linguistic (the more Hebrew, the earlier the text; the more Aramaic, the later); evolutionary (the more concise, the earlier; the longer and more involved, the later); and scribal (the more consistent a text across different manuscripts, the earlier; the more various, the later). In addition, however, Friedman focused on the need to understand each sugya (literally, walk or passage)—the basic literary unit of which, in the hundreds, the Talmud is composed—as a literary work unto itself.

In subsequent articles, reprinted like the first one in the new volume of his collected studies, Friedman outlined methods for establishing "families" of early talmudic manuscripts and their interrelationships, reconstructing the transition from hand-written to printed texts, discerning the underlying literary structures of sugyot, and sifting out the literary and (painfully sparse) historical elements in tales of the sages and their lives. With all this in hand, he set out to reconstruct the composition of the Talmud as a whole by grasping the intentions of its editors and earliest interpreters, one chapter at a time. Demonstrating how it could be done, he published in the 1990s two large volumes on a single chapter of a single talmudic tractate (Bava Metzia VI), dealing with the rights of artisans.

This has been, needless to say, an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. A similar decades-long project, focused less on sugyot and more on whole tractates, has long been pursued by another disciple of Lieberman's, David Weiss Halivni, whose work is grounded in his own powerful erudition and interpretive instincts. Friedman's method, though no less demanding, is more systematic, which has enabled him to train a number of younger scholars. He has also made deft use of technology: the Society for the Interpretation of Talmud, founded by him, now turns out book-length commentaries to individual chapters in which the text's various strata are presented in distinct layouts and typefaces, with synopses, modern-Hebrew translations, and historical commentaries, and with all the manuscript versions viewable side-by-side in appendices. That work has itself has been made possible by the computer. Indeed, another body founded by Friedman, the Saul Lieberman Institute, has placed online all known talmudic manuscripts, whole and in fragments, so that multiple versions can be viewed simultaneously.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.