Rabbi Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli
Imagine a box was discovered in your old family home. Inside the box: old legal documents, love letters, found objects, diaries stuffed with family stories that make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself. This is a way I often think about Talmud, and I’m not the only one. When I recently asked my students why they learn Talmud, the “box in the attic” was an image often used to explain their interest. The box shows that for them, learning Talmud is not a difficult commitment, at least not in the usual way we think about difficulty. Rather, they feel driven to know, they must know. The Talmud is about them: how can they not look?
Anna puts it this way: “I feel like every time I am in class, it's like opening a box in an attic. Brush off the dust, pry open the old-fashioned lock and wow! There's gorgeous stuff — only instead of fancy dresses, exquisite china or well-made wooden toys, I find fancy ideas, exquisite discussions and well-made arguments. I have yet to have a Talmud study that didn't challenge my preconceptions, force me to work hard, and cause me to laugh.”
Anna’s description of prying open the lock shows another reason why the box image works so well for Talmud: you have to open it. “It is not given to you as [mere] inheritance,” say the sages. Keep it in the corner, for others to study if they like, and it is useless. And the cover doesn’t lift easily. The language of the Talmud must be mastered. Yes, you could read it in English, but that would be like hearing someone else tell you what’s in the box, while you yourself are blindfolded. Can you be sure that what you’re hearing is really all there is? (This is never the case with English translations.) On a deeper level, can you bear not encountering these precious items for yourself?
If you choose to engage with the words of the sages directly, the “lock on the box” opens slowly, but becomes one more treasure for you to delight in. The language of the Talmud is crafted not just to communicate concepts, but faces, gestures, the rise and fall of the human voice. It uses unique devices designed to bring oral tradition to the page, so that you can reconstruct and engage in something more like a real conversation. And while the phrase “Aramaic grammar” might give you nightmares, it is really much more approachable than you might think. Most of my students started off with very basic prayerbook Hebrew. Now they can read Rashi. Their secret was approaching the text with dedication and curiosity. With these two qualities, it is impossible to fail.
Thanks to the pandemic and the explosion of interest in Daf Yomi, there are more ways to learn Talmud well than ever before. Naturally, I recommend the homegrown variety. It’s good to have local friends who are into this sort of thing. Here in Hamilton, you can learn Talmud using traditional methods, even if you don’t always feel like a traditional person. It is perfectly free. You can sign up for the year program (every Sunday evening), the summer intensive (coming up the third week of August), or both at firstname.lastname@example.org. But there’s a catch: no one can do it for you.