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A 1,500-Year-Old Text Comes To Life

z6By Rabbi Avishai Magence

There is a famous story, probably pure fiction, about a brilliant student in one of the great yeshivos who was studying tractate Chulin, which deals, among other things, with dietary laws. One day, his wife brought him a chicken’s internal organ for inspection. The student saw the body part and told his wife that he’d be more than happy to examine the liver that she presented to him. When the woman responded that it was not a liver, rather a kurkevan (gizzard), the man exclaimed excitedly: “This is it! The holy kurkevan we’ve been studying about for so long!”

The notion of a Talmudic scholar who is studying Chulin yet cannot tell the difference between two internal organs seems incongruous, but many of us undergo a similar experience as we plow our way through the Talmud—a 1,500-year-old text. We feel a distance from the text, and sense that it doesn’t apply to our own lives. Add to that the average speed at which most people attempt to review the daf yomi, and the sense of detachment only deepens.

For the past 45 years, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has been on a mission to eradicate the feeling that the Talmud references a foreign world. He started with the Hebrew version of his commentary on the Talmud, and continues that mission today in English with the tools of the 21st century. No one claims that every note and image offered by the Koren Talmud Bavli is crucial in terms of comprehending the Talmudic discussions, but there is no question that the cumulative effect of these marginalia is that the learner experiences the ancient text in a unique and profound way. The discussions, disputes, rulings, and moral teachings over which Jewish scholars have pored for centuries come to life.

An example of this, taken from a daf recently studied worldwide, is the Talmud’s reference to gambling with dice. On Eiruvin 82a, the Talmud quotes a mishnah according to which people who “play with dice” are disqualified as witnesses in court. The reason for this is that “those who play games of chance do not fully relinquish ownership of their gambling money, as they expect to win their bet. Consequently, one who accepts money in such circumstances has effectively taken something that the giver has not wholeheartedly handed over, and he is therefore like a robber, at least by rabbinic decree” (p. 156 of Tractate Eiruvin Part Two, Koren Talmud Bavli).

This idea seems to be quite straightforward, especially given the clean and succinct commentary quoted above, yet can easily be lost as a technical halacha if studied simply within the flow of the Talmud text. The structure of the Koren Talmud Bavli, with regard to both layout and content, assists readers by focusing them on other aspects of an issue such as the linguistic perspective, historical context, scientific background, and often an image and/or sketch.

From the linguistic perspective, the language note takes the reader back to the Hebrew text, which uses the word kubiyya for dice, and then even further back to the Greek origins of that Hebrew word, κυβεία, kubèya: a game of chance played with dice.

Many of the people studying the Talmud may be familiar with basic modern Hebrew. It is therefore insightful to learn that the word kubiyya, which in modern Hebrew is used to describe cubes in general, actually has its roots in an ancient gambling game involving dice. This is the first step in delivering a millennia-old concept directly into the world of the modern Talmud student.

The images in the margins of the Koren Talmud Bavli address a far more universal “language.” Depicting both authentic ancient Roman dice and an ancient sketch of people playing with dice, this version of the Talmud drives a powerful message home: The concepts discussed in this magnificent corpus pertain to the real world. It’s not that we assume people doubt this observation, but the visual experience does wonders for the subconscious as well as for the conscious mind. This in and of itself is a well-established Talmudic concept: Hearing [testimony] cannot be considered preferable to seeing (Rosh Hashanah 25b).

This is but a mere example of the unique learning experience with the Koren Talmud Bavli. The main objective of the beautiful layout, concise commentary, and heterogeneous marginalia is to breathe life into a text which ages ago was taught orally—the liveliest of methods. In essence, it creates a bridge between the ancient world of the Talmud and our own, which in turn gives the reader the true sense that Torah pertains to the real world. v

Rabbi Avishai Magence is editor and content curator for the Koren Talmud Bavli.

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Posted by on June 13, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.