Come and Hear
What I Saw in My Seven-and-a-Half-Year Journey through the Talmud
Distributed for Brandeis University Press
Come and Hear
What I Saw in My Seven-and-a-Half-Year Journey through the Talmud
Spurred by a curiosity about Daf Yomi—a study program launched in the 1920s in which Jews around the world read one page of the Talmud every day for 2,711 days, or about seven and a half years—Adam Kirsch approached Tablet magazine to write a weekly column about his own Daf Yomi experience. An avowedly secular Jew, Kirsch did not have a religious source for his interest in the Talmud; rather, as a student of Jewish literature and history, he came to realize that he couldn’t fully explore these subjects without some knowledge of the Talmud. This book is perfect for readers who are in a similar position. Most people have little sense of what the Talmud actually is—how the text moves, its preoccupations and insights, and its moments of strangeness and profundity. As a critic and journalist Kirsch has experience in exploring difficult texts, discussing what he finds there, and why it matters. His exploration into the Talmud is best described as a kind of travel writing—a report on what he saw during his seven-and-a-half-year journey through the Talmud. For readers who want to travel that same path, there is no better guide.
"Kirsch gives a tantalizing taste of what reading and seriously grappling with the Talmud is like."
Publisher's Weekly, starred review
"If you’re considering delving into the Talmud, you might want try “Come and Hear” first. It’s an excellent introduction."
Aaron Leibel | Washington Jewish Week
"Once again the brilliant and indefatigable Adam Kirsch, one of America's best literary critics, has done the world a great public service. Come and Hear invites us into the world of the Talmud, one of literary history's most daunting and least accessible texts. Kirsch doesn't merely explain or introduce readers to this world; he shows us why it's a world worth exploring, for anyone who cares about how human beings think. Welcome."
Dara Horn, author of People Love Dead Jews
“It’s no small feat that Adam Kirsch manages to make a labyrinthine text accessible, an ancient conversation eminently alive. Come and Hear is a rare and invaluable doorway into the long-standing house many of us have felt hesitant to enter: the Talmud. Kirsch makes the rabbinic sages feel like recognizable relatives, and the parsing of legal minutiae feel like thrilling detective work. His writing is crisp and clear, even his chapter headings are inviting. Just as the author confides that ‘doing Daf Yomi was by far the most important Jewish experience of my adult life,’ reading Kirsch’s book may be one of yours."
Abigail Pogrebin, author of My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew
“Come and Hear is a clear and incisive introduction for new swimmers in the vast sea of Talmud and for veteran students of its pages who appreciate fresh insights into ancient debates and the rabbinic mindset behind them. Adam Kirsch has placed his own captivating voice into an enduring, quirky, and arcane conversation and remarkable textual reclamation project that has brought ancient wisdom in contact with modern life.”
Dr. Erica Brown, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, The George Washington University
“Come and Hear entices readers to sample the fruits of Kirsch's 7 ½-year Talmud regime, which includes its quirkiest tidbits and the staples of rabbinic debate and wisdom. A joy to read--and a surefire enticement to savor the pleasures of Talmud for oneself."
Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, University of Virginia
“This beautiful book aims to capture what the Talmud actually is. Come and Hear is helpful, clear, practical, and detailed---and always engaged in conveying the fundamental uniqueness of the Talmud, which Adam Kirsch movingly calls its own genre. This is a love song to the ‘freedom to learn without the obligation to agree,’ and a living example of the Talmud's central role in Jewish continuity—in Hebrew, Aramaic, and now, in a leading contemporary critic's hands, in English."
Aviya Kushner, author of Wolf Lamb Bomb
Table of Contents
I. Tractate Berachot and Seder Moed: Prayers, Shabbat and Holidays
1. Berachot: On how to pray, whose prayers are granted, and the perils of snubbing a rabbi’s wife.
2. Shabbat: On forbidden labors, set-aside items, and learning the Torah while standing on one leg.
3. Eruvin: On bounaries, interpreting the Torah, and why the Messiah will come on a weekday.
4. Pesachim: On searching for chametz, the Passover sacrifice, and how to calculate the size of hell.
5. Shekalim: On money-changers in the Temple, the appearance of impropriety, and what happened to the Ark of the Covenant.
6. Yoma: On sacred choreography, the meaning of atonement, and the many uses of manna.
7. Sukka: On squaring the circle, using an elephant as a wall, and why the sages juggled torches.
8. Beitza: On newly laid eggs, good table manners, and why the Jewish people need a fiery law.
9. Rosh Hashanah: On the date of Creation, hearing the shofar, and how to trick death.
10. Taanit: On praying for rain, the importance of solidarity, and the inauspicious dates.
11. Megilla: On divine inspiration, rewriting the Bible, and Haman’s years as a barber.
12. Moed Katan: On holidays, making graves, and the right to be beautiful.
13. Hagiga: On divine judgment and the danger of praying into God’s secrets.
II. Seder Nashim: Marriage and Divorce
14. Yevamot: On levirate marriage, converting to Judaism, and a camel that didn’t dance.
15. Ketubot: On marriage contracts, the value of virginity, and how to deal with a disgusting spouse.
16. Nedarim and Nazir: On how to take a vow — and why you shouldn’t.
17. Sota: On magic potions, unfaithful wives, and a worm that chews through stone.
18. Gittin: On divorce, the destruction of the Temple, and the real meaning of tikkun olam.
19. Kiddushin: On betrothal, the duties of parents and children, and why women don’t have to wear tefillin.
III. Seder Nezikin: Civil and Criminal Law
20. Bava Kamma: On negligence, restitution, and the problem with being robbed by a Jewish bandit.
21. Bava Metzia: On ownership, exploitation, and when to ignore the voice of God.
22. Bava Batra: On real estate, inheritance, and surviving catastrophe.
23. Sanhedrin: On capital punishment, the World to Come, and using magic to make dinner.
24. Makkot: On flogging, perjury, and forbidden tattoos.
25. Shevuot: On taking oaths, the burden of proof, and when to throw a duck at a judge.
26. Avoda Zara: On idol worship, intermarriage, and the rabbi who used an emperor as a footstool.
27. Horayot: On mistaken judgments and why scholars outrank kings.
IV: Seder Kodashim and Tractate Niddah: The Temple, Sacrifices, and Ritual Purity
28. Zevachim and Menachot: On animal sacrifices, meal offerings, and how the Jewish people is like an olive tree.
29. Hullin and Bekhorot: On kosher slaughter, separating meat and dairy, and when a firstborn isn’t a firstborn.
30. Arakhin, Temura, and Karetot: On the value of a life, switching sacrifices, and a punishment worse than death.
31. Meila, Tamid, Middot, and Kinnim: On stealing from God, a day in the life of the Temple, and avian brainteasers.
32. Nidda: On menstruation, ejaculation, and why girls are wiser than boys.
Still, it helps to start with a map. The Talmud is made up of two layers: the Mishna, which was written in Hebrew around the year 200 CE, and the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishna that was composed in Aramaic over the following three hundred years. On a standard Talmud page, the Hebrew text of the Mishna and the Aramaic text of the Gemara sit at the center. Each unit of the Mishna, referred to as “a mishna,” is followed by a corresponding unit of Gemara that comments on it, known as a sugya. Often a few sentences of Mishna can give rise to many pages of Gemara. The standard pagination of the Talmud was established in the first printed edition, in the 1520s; a page number is followed by “a” or “b,” to signify the front or back of the folio page. (A daf is made up of both sides of a page.)
The structure of the Mishna reflects its oral origins. Rather than simply stating the law, it records the teachings of various rabbinic authorities, known as tannaim, even when they conflict with one another. The view that has the force of law is usually stated first without attribution, or attributed to “the rabbis,” while a dissenting view is attributed to the tanna who holds it. For instance, the Mishna records many disagreements between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, rival sages of the first century BCE. As a rule, the law follows the opinion of Hillel, but the opinion of Shammai is always recorded too. As the Mishna says, their disagreements were “for the sake of Heaven,” so both views are sacred and deserving of study. In other ways, too, the Mishna is more like the record of a discussion among experts than a law code. It doesn’t state abstract principles in a systematic fashion; rather, principles emerge from the analysis of concrete problems. Thus, tractate Shabbat doesn’t begin by stating that it is prohibited to transfer items between a public domain and a private domain on Shabbat. Rather, it imagines a situation in which someone in a public domain hand an item to someone in a private domain, or vice versa, and asks which of them is guilty of violating Shabbat.
In Come and Hear, I hope to give some sense of the Talmud’s richness. The book follows the order of the tractates in the Daf Yomi cycle but makes no attempt to be comprehensive. Instead, I pay attention to particular arguments, episodes, and themes, to illuminate what the Talmud thinks about and how. Modern readers will find many things to object to in the logic and values of the Talmud—how could it be otherwise, with a text written more than 1,500 years ago? But my purpose here isn’t to register objections, even when I share them. It’s to enter into the Talmud’s world, with all its difference and difficulty, and share some of what I found there in the seven and half years of my Daf Yomi journey.