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The reading of religious texts and reaching a clear understanding



Being a religious Jew and an academic student of religions, can sometimes present you for some interesting reactions, especially when you live in a society like the Israeli, where the idea of various religious groups living together is okay, but studying each other religious texts are less normal (it does happen though).

One reaction I’ve gotten a couple of times is based on a mishnah in the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, which states that:

… these do not have a portion in the world-to-come: One who says, ”Resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah,” and ”the Torah is not from Heaven,” and an heretic apikoros. Rabbi Akiva says, Even one who reads external books…” (Sanhedrin 10:1 – Kehati translation)

The problem being R. Akiva’s statement. According to the people reacting to when I tell what I study, what I study is contrary to what is allowed from the Mishnah (and the Mishnah is considered holy, also by me). The Hebrew is “af haqore bisfarim haḥitzonim” (אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים), the “ḥitzonim” meaning something external, that is, outside the accepted tradition, which would include any religious (or non-religious) book you can imagine, which is not either part of the Canon or Rabbinical of nature. Or does it mean this?

Let us take one Jewish commentary, before we delve into some of the interesting aspects of Talmuds and manuscripts, that of R. Yitzḥaq Alfasi, who states that these books are books of heretics who interpreted the Biblical texts according to their own opinions, rather than to follow those of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. From this we can learn that external texts are not so much connected to non-Jewish religious texts, as they are connected to Jewish religious heretical texts. This will also be clear from the following discussion.

First I want to relate to the Babylonian Gemarrah on the Mishnah, which is found in Sanhedrin 100b. Here we can read (differences of wordings is caused by the use of a difference translation, the Hebrew is the same):

R. Akiva said: Also he who reads uncanonical books, etc.” A Tanna taught: This means the books of the Sadducees. R. Joseph said: It is also forbidden to read the book of Ben Sira.

So here we see that the books thought about, as understood by a Tannaic rabbi, as well as the later Amorai, R. Joseph, are Jewish books. They don’t relate to, e.g., Greek or Persian religious writings, only Jewish – in their eyes – heretical writings.

In the Yerushalmi we can read the following on the same mishnah (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 28a):

R. Akiva adds: one who reads the outside books such as the books of Ben Sira and the books of Ben La’aga. But he who reads the books of Homer and all other books that were written from then on, is considered like one who is reading a secular document… (here is a quote from Ecclesiastes 12:12)… Hence, casual reading is permissible but intensive studying is forbidden.

Also here we see that it is related to other Jewish writings (Ben Sira and Ben La’aga both being Jews) as being problematic, as far as they are considered heretic, while Greek texts, and texts written after that particular time are not.

The question is why this is the case? What is so bad about the Jewish heretical writings, which is not found in the non-Jewish religious texts? The answer is found in the discussion following R. Joseph’s statement in the Talmud Bavli. Basically – to sum up – the problem lies in the fact that the Jewish heretical writings are too similar to the canonical Jewish writings, that is, the Canon of the Bible and the sayings of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. One – particularly an unlearned – can easily confuse the two (as an example try to read the writings of Ben Sira and compare them with, e.g., Ecclesiastes), while this is not the case with non-Jewish religious writings (compare, e.g., the Torah and the Quran). Also, since they at this time, of the Mishnah, did have a canon, when it came to the Biblical writings, then it would not be a problem with later texts, since we would know that they are written too late to be part of the Biblical canon.

According to the Sages, z”l, what we are dealing with is a question of accepted texts being part of the canon, and therefore holy, or heretical texts proposing themselves as being holy texts, part of the canon.

There is also the question of which words were used about the texts in questions. We find differences depending on which manuscripts we are reading. As we saw, the Tanna taught that what was meant was “books of the Sadducees,” but some manuscripts have “minim” (מינים) instead of “Sadducees.” This word is used about heretic Jews, particular Christian Jews – which most likely also is why “Sadducees” have been inserted in some manuscripts, since Christians in the Medieval times didn’t take so lightly on what could be considered an affront to Christian dogmas and teachings.

But all in all we get a picture of a statement, which most likely was primarily concerned with the confrontation between canonical Holy Texts, and heretic writings, which might have been confused with Holy Scripture, rather than a statement against the study (even more the modern academic study) of non-Jewish religious texts, which – as we saw – were considered on level with secular writings, and as such would not be object for the same intensive study, as would be the case with Jewish Holy texts.

What can we learn from this, besides the already explained? Well, that when we are dealing with religious texts, particularly when they are found within a religious tradition (and most religious texts are, not surprisingly), then we need to get into the details and expand the reading if we want to really understand their meaning. Just reading one text artificially, and then believe that we get the full picture from that, is simply misleading. Unfortunately many religious people today seem to read their own religious texts that way, something which damage and bring their religion down on a level, rendering it without meaning or purpose. Religions, whether it be Judaism or other religions, are not afraid of the critical study of their texts, on the contrary, they demand it. They want the believer to understand what the religion is about, not just based on a shallow reading of one or two text, for then to believe that the answer and solution is found, based on that inadequate reading.

Stoning in Judaism and Islam and what the comparison of the two can tell us


First off I want to relate you to an amazing and informative post by Jessica on askanislamicist, where she writes about Schacht and Hallaq, two Islamicists, who are important to know and understand in order to get the discussion at hand, and in the academic study of Islamic law in general. So please take a little time reading her post before reading the following.

Did you read it? Good, let’s get to it.

As you without a doubt read in my two last posts, I am telling a little about my assignments, having the last post being about my assignment on the Quranic view on Biblical texts. In this post I will deal with my seminar paper on the comparative study of stoning in Judaism and Islam. But first, why stoning? What is it that makes a sane guy (as far as I am sane, I’m doubting that sometimes, and I know my wife wasn’t too sure after having witnessed me going in depth with the issue) focus on stoning, maybe one of the most cruel capital punishments the human mind can think of? Well, let me tell you this; as part of this study I also read about other capital punishments, and there are methods of killing out there WAY worse than stoning. As a matter of fact, if I should choose between all the methods of being killed (and no, please don’t take this as an encouragement, I do like to live), stoning definitely comes on my top5 list. Just think about the Chinese way of cutting of pieces of the body, flesh first, then limbs, until you die. Or the Persian method of – well- feeding you with milk and honey until you – as a consequence – have certain natural urges, but then trap you in a hollow tree or two boats put together, place you in the desert, and let bugs be your only company, until you die from one of several causes. Detailed enough I think, and I do apologize. But this study was a lot about details, and how they did not fit together.

When one says “stoning,” many might think of “Muslim barbarians” stoning innocent women in Africa or wherever you find these kinds of guys. Well,  breaking illusions, as it is portrayed these cases of stoning is actually going against Islamic law, and is more telling about people basing their judgment on lack of knowledge, than actually relating to Islamic law. Of course, the women being stoned (because it is interestingly enough mostly women, though Islam also prescribes stoning for men) probably don’t care much, but when we relate to Islam and the matter of stoning, this is of extreme importance. The equitant being that some Americans groups killed people randomly with gas, and then establish that this was telling of the States in general, since gassing is one of the ways of killing criminals convicted to death (and any innocent who ends up there, based on a error of judgment).

That aside, Islam is not the only religion having stoning as a death sentence, as well as stoning is not the only way of killing. There is also crucifixion and beheading, depending on what the crime is. Stoning in Islam is given for adultery, but not all people committing adultery are judged to stoning. One has to be “muhsan,” that is, married, free, Muslim, adult, and of sane mind. A slave, for example, cannot be judged to stoning, but “only” lashes, and only half of what the free non-muhsan Muslim would receive. So the punishment is to a lesser degree dependent on what is done, as to who has done it, except in case of sodomy, which also leads to stoning, no matter the status of the person doing the crime.

In Judaism it is a little different. Here it is not so much the status of the person who did the crime that matters, as the crime being done. For example, if you have sex with a married woman you would receive a different punishment than if you had sex with a betrothed woman, who was a virgin, or if you had sex with your daughter in law or your father’s wife. Also, in Judaism stoning is not only related to adultery, but also to certain rebellious attitudes, for example he who curses his parents, as well as idolatry.

Another difference, which I put particular interest in, is the concept of stoning, that is, how it is done. In the Bible, the Torah, we find stoning mentioned with two terms, s’qilah (סקילה), and regimah (רגימה). It is not clear what the difference between the two is, when reading the Torah itself, but relating to various dictionaries, such as Gesenius’, we can learn that the term s’qilah is related to something heavy, probably being related to the Arab word shaql (شقل), while the term regimah is related to the sense of something being thrown as a missile, piling up. This is interesting, since the Arabic word for stoning is rajm (), which is basically the Arab form of the Hebrew regimah, consisting of the same root (resh/ra, gimel/gjim, mem/mim), and they both carry the same basic meaning.
What is even more interesting is that when we read the Mishnah on stoning, in Seder Neziqin, Massechet Sanhedrin, we see that stoning is described in relation to s’qilah, namely via a heavy stone thrown on the sentenced in order to crush him (after having been pushed down from a height of two men – maybe an influence from Roman law, though not of interest here). If he does not die from this, a second heavy stone is thrown at him by the witnesses, and then – if he should survive that as well, he is to be pelted by “Israel,” that is, the people witnessing the stoning. The word used in order of the heavy stones is s’qilah, while the term used for the people pelting him is regimah. Here we clearly see the difference between the two terms, the one relating to crushing with a heavy stone, where as the other is relating to stones thrown/pelted at somebody. For the Hebrew speakers it might be interesting to read the verses in the Torah with that knowledge in mind, and see what meaning the verses give you now – and please write in a comment what you got out of it, could be interesting to hear.

Stoning in Islam is solely described with the term rajm, that is, the Arabic version of regimah. The understanding is the same, pointing at a shared Semitic origin. Also, if we read ancient Semitic laws, such as Hammurabi and the Eshnunna, we will see that the term regimah/rajm is also used, so there is a pre-Judaic/Islamic origin of the regimah/rajm.

Considering these details, and many more which I also describe, it is hard to reach the conclusion that the stoning of Islam is influenced or even borrowed from the Jewish ditto. Rather it seems like they share a common origin, but Judaism developed the concept of stoning, maybe influenced by some non-Semitic sources. It seems more that the Islamic concept of stoning is of a pre-Islamic Arabic and maybe even Semitic origin, going back to early Aramaic-Arabic relations, long before Islam.

This was the first part I dealt with in the paper. The second part is relating to the Schacht-Hallaq impasse (!!), and their claims. Schacht believes that stoning is a later Islamic concept, most likely borrowed from Judaism, and from Iraqi-Jewish sources (such as the Talmud and the early Geonim). Schacht sees the Iraqi Muslim scholars and jurist as the definers of Islamic law, particularly Shafi’î, who is considered one of the greatest and earliest Islamic legal minds, and the founding father of the four roots of Usul al-Fiqh (Quran, Sunnah, Ijma, and Qiyas). Hallaq on the other hand sees the Hijaz as the legal forming center, and refuses Schacht’s critical attitude to the hadiths. Hallaq sees a lot of pre-Islamic Arabic legal practice as the base for later Islamic law, or at least sees Islamic law as being founded in a shared Semitic origin, rather as mere borrowing from Jewish or Roman law (the latter is something Schacht believes strongly being the source of much of Islamic law).

But relating this to stoning. Since Schacht believes that stoning only entered Islamic law some centuries after Muhammad’s death, and that it is based on Jewish traditions, while Hallaq sees the opposite, what can my study say about this? I think it’s obvious. The Islamic concept of stoning does not seem to be much influenced by the Jewish concept. If indeed Islam “borrowed” the Jewish stoning as a punishment, and this is based on Iraqi Muslim scholars’ meeting with Jewish ditto, why then use the term rajm, and not for example shaql, based on the Hebrew s’qilah, or a derivation thereof? Why do we not see more similarities, or rather any similarities? Why is one judge enough to judge in Islam, when twenty-three (or more) is needed in Judaism? Why are four witnesses needed in Islam, when two is enough in Judaism? Why is Islam more focused on the status of the person, when Judaism is more focused on the crime being done? And so on. It seems a little weird to claim that the Jewish concept of stoning should be the base for the Islamic ditto, when so little is similar between. And Roman law is totally out of the question – as far as I know – since stoning is not used as a capital punishment.

I would rather believe that the roots of Islamic stoning is found in a Semitic environment not being too exposed to non-Semitic cultural encounters, and of all places I can think of the Arabian Peninsula is the only place that could be, which would mean that stoning in Islam most likely is based on pre-Islamic Arabic practices. And if that is the case, then this is definitely going in Hallaq’s favour.

Of course, stoning could be based on Sassanian law (pre-Islamic Persian dynasty), but my knowledge about Sassanian law is close to non-existent. So if anyone out there can enlighten me on that subject I would be grateful.

Some notes here in the end I probably need to share, which is obvious from the paper itself, but not from what I have written here: The Quran says nothing about stoning as a punishment. On the contrary, the Quran prescribes lashes as punishment for adultery. I related only to Sunni-Fiqh, not Shi’a, and I based the paper on the Maliki al-Muwatta, though many of the hadiths I related to also are found both in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. I also only related to the Mishnah, not so much to the Gemarrah, since the Mishnah lays the foundation and the Gemarrah only relates to the broadening of details. Furthermore I spent some space in the paper on discussing the hadith about the two Jews being brought to Muhammad, and the problematic nature of ‘Abdullah ibn Salâm’s involvement, considering that he should have been a learned rabbi, in comparison to the details being presented in the hadith.

With that said I think it’s time to stop. Thanks for your time.

All the best.

The Quran and the Biblical Texts


Warning: This post might be somewhat offending to some Muslims, since it deals in part with the Quran outside the Islamic traditional understanding of it and its message.

As I explained in my last post I did four assignments, and one of them was about how the Quran views and understands the Biblical scriptures. I am not going into detail or post the whole assignments here, that would be a little too much, but there were some aspects which I found rather interesting.

First off, I based the assignments on the findings of Gabriel Said Reynolds (which can be found in his “The Qur’ân and its Biblical Subtext”), who argues that the Quran, as far is it being studied by academics and on its own, should be studied in light of the Biblical texts, which – for him – gives more sense than reading it in light of tafsirs (Islamic commentaries), since that would mean that one would study the Quran through an afterthought, rather than relating to what might be the basis for the Quranic thought, which according to Reynolds are the Biblical texts, and I understand why he thinks so.

Though Reynolds’ book in itself is very interesting I won’t deal so much with its details here – though I might in another post – but more relate to his overall concept.

The second scholar I related to is Mondher Sfar and his “In Search of the Original Koran: The True Story of the Revealed Text” (translated by Emilia Lanier). This book is most likely to offend quite a lot of Muslim minds, since it basically attempts to challenge the Islamic traditional understanding of the Quran as revealed text and how it is revealed. Nevertheless I found it being somewhat in line with Reynolds’ book, and since I did want to challenge the normal understanding of how the Quran viewed the Biblical texts, I related to these two books.

Besides that I related to a etymological inquiry into certain terms, which normally are considered to be related to the Biblical texts, such as Tawrat (Torah, the Five Books of Moses), Zabur (the Psalms of David), and the Injil (the Gospel, relating more to the revelation Jesus got according to the Quran, rather than the four gospels and the New Testament as a whole). I also delved into the usage of suhuf, meaning scrolls or parchment, as well as kitab, meaning book. The two last terms seemed to be rather general, so I did not spend so much time on them. Here I related heavily on Jastrow’s dictionary, as well as the six translations of Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Sahih International, Muhsin Khan, and Dr. Ghali (all as found at Quran.com – I can highly recommend the website).

What is interesting is not so much that the Quran views itself as being from the same source (God), or that carries the same significance – that it is sent in order to guide in the right direction, as a law from God. What is interesting is that it hints several places that the details of this divine law is not the same as it is presented in the Tawrat, Injil and in the Quran itself. It does hint at the Tawrat being specifically for the Jews, the Injil specifically for the Christians, and the Quran specifically for the Arabs/Muslims. We see it particularly in the fifth Surah (chapter), where Muhammad deals with the question of law and judgment.

What I was especially surprised about was the zabur, which traditionally has been interpreted and understood as being the Psalms of David. This is understandable, considering that David is connected with a revelation called “zabur,” but the term is also used in other contexts. In the following I will quote what I wrote in the assignment:

Zabûr (زَبُور )

Zabur, which root (ز ب ر ) appears 11 times in the Quran, in the forms zubar (زُبَر – 18:96), zubur (زُبُر – 3:184, 16:44, 23:53, 26:196, 35:25, 54:43, 54:52), and zabur (زَبُور – 4:163, 17:55, 21:105), is normally understood as the Psalms given to David, though it is not clear whether it is the collections of psalms as they appear in the Bible (תהילים ).

In Lane’s dictionary he relates to Ibn Barî saying that the ”zibur” (الزبر ) means ”the Book of the Law revealed to Moses and the Gospel and the Kur-an [together]” (Lane, ”Arabic-English Lexicon”, on زبر, pp. 1211). I do not see the sense in relating this root to any other than the one hinted at by Ibn Barî, though he does not mention David in this relation, which is related to the zabûr in the Quran.

21:105 vs. 54:52 – 21:105 speaks of it being told that the righteous will inherit the land, while 54:52 speaks about recording deeds of the criminals. It could be understood from this, that the Zabur is something holding records of people deeds (?). But is it all people, and if so, all in the same “zabur”, or is it only the criminals as it might appear from 54:52 (in this case relate to Pickthall’s translation of zubur to “books of dark prophecies”).

When we relate to the use of the term, we see that it is used with different though related meanings. From a number of verses do we learn that zabur is something sent to more messengers (Quran 3:184, 16:44, 26:196, 35:25 – all expressed in the plural). There does seem to be a contrast between zabur, used in singular, and other messages sent to prophets, where the messages in general is sent to a number of messengers, but the zabur, with the definite article, is related to David only (Quran 4:163, 17:55). These are two of the only times zabur in singular definite form is mentioned in the Quran, the third being in relation to a statement about the righteous and their destiny as being the inheritants of “the land” (Quran 21:105), a statement which reflects Isaiah 60:21 – a possible connection – which could tell of an understanding which covers more than only the Psalms of the Bible. This could hint at the real understanding subscribed to the term, zabûr, to cover those part of the Bible (the TaNaCh part), which includes the Prophetical books as well as the Scriptures (the “NaCh” part, if not all, then at least in the overall meaning). This would also seem to confirm Reynolds’ approach, confirming the link and connection to the Biblical texts. If we relate to the Jewish traditional organization of the Bible, the prophets are gathered under one, “Nevi’im”, and it would seem that this could be the relation between the zabûr and the Biblical texts, except though in the case of the linking of the zabûr to David. Why zabûr is connected, if at all, to the Psalms though these are not normally considered prophetical by the Jewish tradition, can be related to how the Christian tradition views them, indeed as being prophetical, and considering how often the Psalms are connected to being prophecies about Jesus, in some way or another, it is no wonder if the Quran would view the Psalms as being part of the Divine revelations.

Based on this I believe that it would be correct to only understand zabûr as the Book of Psalms in the two cases when it is prescribed to David, if we should understand it in this relation at all, while in any other case, when the Quran talks about az-zubur and az-zabûr (in 21:105) as covering the Bible, except the Torah. It would also seem weird that the Quran did not have any concept of the rest of the books in the Bible, if we only understand zabûr either in context of the Book of Psalms or as covering all Scriptures in general, an understanding I believe we rather should find in the usage of kitâb.”

And with that I will stop here. Please comment and ask if there should be any questions.

All the best

The Religious Fanatic!


First off, sorry. Forgive me for my laziness these days (or should I rather write weeks), but studies, searching for work, being (attempting to be) a good husband, and so on just takes all my time and “creative” energy.

That aside, I need to write – at least once in a while – and today is yet another one of those time.

I will ask you, my dear readers, here in the beginning of the post, to imagine a Muslim woman bringing in a non-Muslim boyfriend/lover/very dear friend into the house of her parents or, let’s say, the local mosque. Now, we can probably all imagine how provocative that would be, at least if it was known that he was a non-Muslim, but let’s imagine that one of the Muslim worshipers present (or close family members of the house) would be so provoked that he would get up, take a knife (or maybe even a spear, any kind of weapon really) and in one cut kill both the Muslim girl and her boyfriend. How would we react? Well, obviously many of us probably would condemn the action and call it religious fanaticism. Yet, this was what one of the Israelites, called Pinhas, did in the Torah portion of last week (in Parashat Balaq), and – to make matters worse – he was praised for it, being the cause of the removal of the wrath of God, something he is being praised for also in this week’s Torah portion.

I’m not going to defend or explain it, only mention that the Torah itself mention that this was what saved the Israelites from God’s anger, after acting, well, rather wrong.

So why am I mentioning this? Well, I want to do a little commercial. Not for religious fanaticism, but rather for a web-page helping boys becoming Bar Mitzvah to prepare for their Bar Mitzvah. You see the connection? No, that comes here:

See, the coming Saturday, Shabbat, is my Hebrew birthday, kaf-gimmel b’Tammuz, and in Judaism your Bar Mitzvah falls on your 13 year birthday. Now, I am clearly being a little older than that, but when you become Bar Mitzvah you become responsible, and that is often shown publicly by reading either all the Torah portion or at least a part of it in front of the community. That can be rather terrifying, and some might wish that some religious nutnik would pierce either themselves or someone else with a spear, just not to have to do it. But alas, we are long past the days when religious zeal would be praised (at least in some parts of the world), and I would much prefer to listen to a nervous boy reciting the Torah with his puberty voice, than to see someone being pierced in the middle of the congregation, but maybe that’s just me.

Back on track. As you might have guessed – if not, then let me point it out – since my Hebrew birthday is in this week, this week’s Parashah – the Hebrew word for ‘portion’, relating to the Torah portion being read that week – is “my” Parashah. Parashat Pinhas. Yes, my Parashah begins with the appraise of a religious zealot, a group I have some problems with today, but which I nevertheless find some pride in having as my portion (if only I ever get the chance to PIERCE the Jew bringing a tjikse into the congregation! Maybe if I was in the States).

Anyway, keep on the track. When reciting the Torah a tune is normally used. Sometimes, for example when I am reciting the Torah, the tune sounds rather odd and not very melodious, but recited by a person with a good voice, and particularly a person trained in reciting, the recital can be very beautiful. There are various tunes, depending on the tradition, such as the Ashkenazi (the typical North-European/Western tradition), the Sfaradi (the more oriental), the Moroccan (gives itself), the Yerushalmi (also oriental and close to the Sfaradi), the Yemenite (guess who uses that one), and so on.

My favorite is the Moroccan, being the – in my ears – most melodious and various of them, and that is also the one I “trained” my recital in, though it certainly is hard to hear when I recite. This tune – from my own experiences – was most beautiful expressed in a synagogue in Tel Aviv, which I attended some years ago, lead by R. Zerbib, sh’litah, a very warm and intelligent rabbi, doing a great job bringing Torah to the “simple Jews” in what is considered the secular capital of Israel (party’s going on non-stop). I am normally not that much of a emotional person, but hearing this reciter (I never got his name) did bring tears in my eyes. It was simply beautiful. Anyway, should you ever get to Tel Aviv and want to attend at an open and welcoming synagogue, then I can recommend this one, Habayim Yesharesh, found on 10 Nathan HaHacham St., a side-street to Ben Yehudah. The community is mostly French and Moroccan Jews, but English is spoken, so don’t hesitate to give them a visit.

That was the first commercial I wanted to make. The second is for a Bar Mitzvah page, called – surprisingly – Bar Mitzvah, which offers help, advice and training for boys becoming Bar Mitzvah, as well as a lot of other things for the rest of us. Part of what can be found is a trainer in recital with the Ashkenazi, the Moroccan, and the Sfardi tune, found in the lower menu (you will see it when you enter the page) under “blessings and readings”. Check it out, also if you’re not practicing for Bar Mitzvah, it’s definitely a look worth.

Shavu’a Tov!

Pictures and their Lies



Are you on Facebook? If you are, then you have probably received, been tagged in, or seen various pictures presenting a story about how the one or the other is a bad person, a hypocrite, or something else. Maybe you have seen pictures picturing two persons next to each other, in two different situations, attempting to show the one in a good light and the other in a bad light.

Take this picture, which I saw today, of the Indian and the Thai PM, presenting a narrative of the Indian PM as lazy and above his people, while the Thai PM is on the ground with her people.

I’m tired of these kinds of pictures. It is said that a picture say more than a thousand words, and it is true, but rarely do we consider which thousand words they are forced to tell us. Rarely do we question the author’s motive when we see the pictures. Rarely do we get the full picture, when we see these pictures of this or that situation, or this or that person.

Take a look at the picture above again. What do you indeed see? You basically see a picture of the Indian PM on his way somewhere, destination unknown for us. He’s sitting looking out of the window, either contemplative over what he sees or deep in his thoughts. Maybe he indeed is very worried about the flood. But he’s not being presented that way, rather he is being presented as one sitting well and travelling well, compared to the Thai PM, who is standing in the muddy water with the people suffering from the flood. But what do we know of her and her methods of getting there? Nothing, we just know that she is there. But in all truth, for all that we know the two could be in the same positions when travelling and being there. We don’t know how she travelled there, maybe she flew the same way as the Indian PM or even better? And maybe he will also stand in the muddy water with his people upon arrival.

This is just one example on how pictures are being manipulated to tell you more than thousands words of the creators narrative. I don’t know whether the Indian PM really is a selfish bastard or whether the Thai PM is a self-sacrificing saint, but the picture here attempting to portray it that way is manipulating.

More and more I lose my trust in pictures and the people presenting them as “truth.” There is simply too many examples on how pictures have been manipulated, presented with a fake narrative, or simply been used in a totally different story, as recently where BBC used a picture taken in Iraq in 2003 to tell a story about a massacre in Syria in 2012.


Be critical when people want you to by a story through pictures. In general, be critical.

Let’s Have a Dialogue!



I’ve begun reading a book called “Trialogue: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue,” by Reuven Firestone, Khalid Duran, and Leonard Swidler, a book which attempts to define and guide to a dialogue among the three religions. I haven’t read that much yet, but it seems promising.

It wakes some interesting thoughts. The first and most obvious being “what is dialogue?”

Most of us have probably tried to be talked to, where the talker definitely didn’t want you to respond. Two people, or more, being involved but only one being allowed to talk. That definitely isn’t dialogue. The word dialogue comes from the Greek word ‘dialogos,’ meaning ‘conversion’ or ‘discourse,’ consisting of the two words ‘dia,’ meaning ‘through’ or ‘across,’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘word.’ This is a word that signifies a conversation taking place from both sides, both being attentive to the other as well as taking part in the conversation. A person denying you the right to be heard, is certainly not conducting a dialogue.

But what about two persons fighting? Both having something to say, that must be a dialogue, no? Well, considering that neither of them probably aren’t that attentive to what the other person has to say that probably wouldn’t be considered a dialogue either. The teacher teaching his students rarely do dialogue, merely teaching them, or at least this is an example from the book, though I have to say that most teachers I have been studying with, certainly have paid attention to their students and participated in dialogue with them, as well as many authors of non-fiction books describe how they learned from their students, somewhat telling me of some kind of dialogue.

Dialogue is when two parts, two persons, have a conversation where they are attentive to each other, not having it as their premise that they are correct and the other part wrong, but rather that they are interested to have added nuances or knowledge to what they already might know, or even not know. Dialogue is established when we give up the need to be right, when we want to relate ourselves to what the other has to say. But dialogue can only appear where both parts have this premise. Many people today talk nicely and polite, but still with the premise that they have to convince or persuade the other part. No matter how polite one will speak and behave, this still isn’t dialogue.


In the meeting between religions this is also an important premise, that if we really want to be able to live next to each other, with each other, then we need to open up for each other, get to understand each other. But that won’t happen as long as the premise is to make the other believe as myself. Sure, I understand that some religions have a commandment or expectation to proselyte people, but still. We are in an age where there is so much material on all the religions, where people are more curious than ever, where it is almost impossible not to do some kind of “proselyting” in the meeting with people, so it really isn’t needed. Actually, the need to proselyte might actually just push some people away.

No, if we want to live with each other we need dialogue. And dialogue between religions is not based on the idea that “I already know so much about your religion, now you have to learn about my religion,” but rather “how do you experience and live your religion?” Dialogue is not to define others, based on one’s own perceptions of their religion, but rather allow them to define themselves in context of their religion, as well as how they experience their religion. Dialogue between religions is not necessarily to recognize one’s own religion in the other, nor to find all the overlaps, but rather to get insights and understandings of how the other religion also can be experienced by its practitioners. This can certainly also be achieved within the religions themselves. No religion is at it was when it was created, and today most religions hold several streams, meaning that there are different ways to practice and understand each religion. For example, if you take a Wahabi and a follower of Hazrat Inayat Khan, then you get two different forms of Islam, but both being Islam. The same goes for most religions. We need to be attentive to how people experience their own religion and their own world, that way we might learn a little more about both.


One of my goals for this blog, as well as my studies, is dialogue. I know that I present a subject, which I explain about, but I never want it to end there, I want to involve you out there. Even if you feel that it is above you, or you don’t know enough about the subject, then you still should take part in the dialogue. Many things are discovered by fresh eyes and odd thinking (compared to what is established thinking), and only by opening up for those who think different than ourselves, can we get new insights, which we otherwise may have been ignorant too.


So, do you have any good experiences with dialogue?

Studying the Talmud – First Mishnah, First Sugya



In the last part we dealt with the first mishnah of Tractate B’rachot, being presented for opinions on until when we can recite the Shma’, the context of the Shma’, and so on. In this part we will focus on the first discussion relating to the mishnah, called “sugya,” where the Gemarrah will discuss the issue of the order of the recitals of the Shma’:



Building Block Sugya


The text of the Gemarrah is build up by several parts, dealing with different issues. Each of these parts are called “sugya.”
Mishnaic Sage Tanna


When the Gemarrah talks about the Tanna, then it is referring to the Mishnaic Sage behind the Mishnaic text.
As It Is Written Dichtiv


Whenever the Gemarrah states this term, then it deals with Biblical texts.
If You Want `I Ba’yet

אי בעית

This expression introduces a strengthening analogy.
If This Is So `I Hachi

אי הכי

This expression introduces a challenge to the preceding argument.


תנא היכא קאי דקתני מאימתי ותו מאי שנא דתני בערבית ברישא? לתני דשחרית ברישא!

תנא אקרא קאי דכתיב בשכבך ובקומך – והכי קתני זמן קריאת שמע דשכיבה אימת? משעה שהכהנים נכנסין לאכול בתרומתן

ואי בעית אימא יליף מברייתו של עולם דכתיב ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום אחד

אי הכי סיפא דקתני בשחר מברך שתים לפניה ואחת לאחרית ובערב מברך שתים לפניה ושתים לאחרית לתני דערבית ברישא

תנא פתח בערבית והדר תני בשחרית עד דקאי בשחרית פריש מילי דשחרית והדר פריש מילי דערבית:

To what is the Tanna referring since he teaches ”from when,” and more, why is it that he teaches about the evening first? He should teach about the morning first.
The Tanna refers to the verse ”when you lay down and when you rise[1] – And this is what he is teaching, when is the time of the recital of the Shma’ when laying down? From the time that the Kohanim enters in order to eat their Terumah.
And if you want, [then] say that he learned from the creation of the world, as it is written “and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”[2]
If this is so, [why is it] in the end [of the Mishnah] taught ”In the morning do you bless twice before [the Shma’] and once after [the Shma’], and in the evening do you bless twice before [the Shma’] and twice after”?[3] Teach in the evening first.
The Tanna opened in the evening and then teaches in the morning, [and] while referring to the morning he explains the subjects of the morning and then returns and explains the subjects of the evening.


Two questions:

  1. What does the Tanna (of the Mishnah) refer to when he asks “from when”?
  2. Why does he teach about the evening Shma’ before the morning Shma’?

1: The Gemarrah wonders why the Tanna asks the question “from when” in regards to the evening Shma’. As we learned in the last post this is a rather sudden way of introducing the Mishnah. No explanations on what is going on or what we are about to deal with, just a question throwing us directly into the discussion. This isn’t the worry for the Gemarrah though – it is more interested in the source for the Mishnah’s question. “On what do you base this question? Why do you find the need to ask ‘from when’?” The answer is based on the Biblical verse of Devarim (Deuteronomy), which is part of the recital of the Shma’, and which gives us hints at when we should recite it. If we are to recite a Biblical text, shouldn’t it give us answers about itself as well? The Gemarrah answers for the Mishnah as well: when you lay down [to rest] and when you rise. And since the laying down comes first, then it is clear that this is the Shma’ which the Mishnah relates to, the evening Shma’, and evening, that is, when the evening Shma’ of “when you lay down” can be recited from “when the Kohanim enters to eat their Terumah.”

This first answer answers both the two questions asked, namely what is the basis (Devarim 6:7) for the question, and why is the evening Shma’ dealt with before the morning Shma’, namely because of the order of the wordings of “when you lay down” and “when you rise.”

The Gemarrah offers yet an answer, if the first isn’t satisfying, namely that we can establish the order of why the evening Shma’ is dealt with before the morning Shma’ on the order of Creation, namely that evening came before morning, as it is seen in Bereshit (Genesis) 1:5 – “and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”

A third question:

  1. Why is a later mishnah dealing with the subjects of the morning Shma’ before the evening Shma’, if the order of the Biblical verses argues for the opposite?

The argumentation of the order is challenged by the Gemarrah, referring to a later Mishnah (B’rachot 1:4), which in its order deals with the subjects of the morning Shma’ before it deals with the subjects of the evening Shma. If this is the case, the Gemarrah states, then the Tanna should deal with the morning Shma’ first here also, not the evening Shma’.

This, explains the Gemarrah, is no problem since the Tanna begins with the evening Shma’, which should be so based both on the context of the verse commanding the recital of the Shma’ twice a day, as well as the order of the Creation, but only in order to begin the whole discussion, and then continue to the morning Shma’, and while he is dealing with the morning Shma’ then he deals with its subjects as well, for then to return to the evening Shma’ after that.

There are a number of answers given to us here, not all of them being answers to questions asked, but that is also part of the discussion of the Gemarrah. What we learn here is the order of the recital of the Shma’, having it based on two Biblical verses (Bereshit 1:5 and Devarim 6:7), that evening was prior to morning in the Creation, that the Tanna only used the evening Shma’ as an introduction to the discussions on the subjects related to the recital of the Shma’.


As we see from this first discussion the Gemarrah doesn’t have a problem conducting a discussion with itself. It raises problems as they come, and deal with them based on quoting sources, the Bible and various Mishnaic material, in order to establish a conclusion, a conclusion the Gemarrah itself isn’t afraid of questioning.

There are three sources for the deducing of rules presented for us here. The first, and most important, is the Biblical Scripture, the Torah, the second is the Oral Tradition, here presented in the form of the Mishnah itself, and the third is the inferring by analogy (called Maqqish or Heqqesh).[4] The last is done by the comparison of two cases, in order to establish a conclusion. Here presented in the comparison between the evening Shma’ being presented before the morning Shma’. The question is why this is so. By comparing to two Biblical sources, Devarim 6:7 and Bereshit 1:5, we can learn that just as the evening Shma’ is mentioned in the Bible, so should it be in the Mishnah, which again follow the order of Creation. By this do we see the red thread between the Written and the Oral Torah. In the mishnah itself, the one dealt with already, we see a fourth source, namely consensus, which was the case of the “the Sages say.”


This conclude the first Sugya of the first mishnah.


[1] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:7.

[2] Bereshit (Genesis) 1:5.

[3] Mishnah B’rachot 1:4.

[4] See TB Zevachim 57a.

Studying the Talmud – Berachot 2a, First Mishnah

Chapter 1, page 1b:

Mishnah (I struggled with the layout, so forgive me for the result, I simply couldn’t get it better):

מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין (?). משעה שהכהנים נכסים לאכול בתרומתן עד סוף האשמורה הראשונה דברי ר’ אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים עד חצות. רבן גמליאל אומר עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. 

מעשה(:) ובאו בניו מבית המשתה),) אמרו לו (:) לא קרינו את שמע(,) אמר להם(:) אם לא עלה עמוד השחר חייבין אתם לקרות  

ולא זו בלבד אמרו אלא כל מה שאמרו חכמים עד חצות מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר(,) הקטר חלבים ואברים מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר וכל הנאכלים ליום אחד מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר

א”כ למה אמרו חכמים עד חצות(?) כדי להרחיק אדם מן העבירה: 

The recital of the confession of faith Shma’, Qriyat Shma’ שמע
The Qriyat Shma’ is the compilation of three Biblical passages, which is considered the confession of the Jewish people. It is introduced with the sentence “Shma’ Yisrael, HaShem Elohenu, HaShem Ehad,” declaring the belief in the complete unity of God. It is recited twice daily, morning and evening.
The priests of the Kohanic family, being descendents of Aharon, A”S. Kohanim כהנים
During the times of the Temples, the Kohanim was the priestly family which was responsible for performing the sacrifices. They are part of the tribe of Levi, the other Levites working as assistants for the Kohanim, as well as being assigned in teaching the Torah. It is only a Kohen who could become High Priest, and they hold certain privileges, such as having certain sacrifices prescribed them for food, which only could be eaten in a pure state.
The Crop Offering Terumah תרומה
One of the twenty-four Kohanic gifts, which only was to be eaten by the Kohanim, their near family, and their servants, and only in a state of ritual purity. It is the first part of the crop, which was given to the Kohanim. The practice didn’t stop with the destruction of the Temple, but continued years after.
The First Shift HaAshmurah HaRishonah האשמורה הראשונה
The Temple-service was organized in shifts. Rabbi Eli’ezer here states that the time of the reciting of the Shma’ could be done until the end of the first shift.
The Sages achamim חכמים
This term is used to cover the majority of the Sages’ opinions, and the ruling is normally following the majority decision, though few examples on a minority decision can be found. The term doesn’t cover specific persons, but always the majority. Hence one rabbi can in one example be one of the Sages, and in other being talked about on his own.This is an important term in the study of the Talmud, always hinting at what decision to follow.
Halachic Midnight atzot חצות
The halachic midnight is based on how many hours with sun there is during the day, and will such rarely fall precisely on the time of the midnight of the twenty-four hour day. In order to estimate the length of a halachic hour the Sages took the number of hours during the day and divided it with twelve.
Leader of the Sanhedrin Rabban רבן
A title used for the head of the Rabbinical council during the time of the Tannaim.
“If so” Im Ken אכ
Literally “if yes.” Meaning “If this is the case, then why…”

“From when do we recite the Shma’ in the evenings? From the time that the Kohanim enter in order to eat their T’rumah until the end of the first shift, words of R. Eliezer. And the Sages say until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says until the dawn rises.

And it happened: And his sons came from the drinking house, they said to him “We did not recite the Shma’,” he said to them “If the dawn still has not risen, you are obliged to recite.”

And not this alone did they (the Sages) say [until midnight] but in all that the Sages commanded until midnight are we commanded [to perform] until the dawn rises. The incenses, the fats, and the limbs. And (we) are commanded until the dawn rises in all the eating on one day.

If that is so, why did the Sages say until midnight? In order to keep man from the sin.”[1]

 “From when,” does the Talmud start, following the Mishnaic order. We are from the first word presented with a question which leads us directly into a practice still followed today, but nevertheless also involving rituals not possible to follow today, and not even at the time of Yehuda HaNasi, when the Mishnah was written down. “From when do we recite the Shma’?” The question relates to the daily recitation of the Qriyat Shma’, what is considered to be the Jewish declaration of faith per excellence. Here the question is about the recitation of the evening Shma’, asking from when we can begin to recite it. The answer has implications also for the modern Jew, but the answer is already outdated when it was written. “From the time that the Kohanim enter to eat their T’rumah.” The T’rumah is the sacrifice designated for the Kohanim, the Levite family in charge of taking care of the sacrificial rituals at the Temple. But when Yehudah HaNasi wrote the Mishnah, the Temple had been in ruins for around 130 years, leaving the contemporary Jew confused as of when the Kohanim did just that. It doesn’t seem to bother the author though, since he continues to focus on until when we can recite the Shma’, even without stating the question. What is of more importance is the ending times of the Mitzvot, forming the discussion in the rest of the introductory Sugya. We will see later on that this does bother the Amoraim, the Talmudic Sages, spending some time and energy on the question of “why in the evening first?”

But let us start with what is at hand. The mishnah is presenting one asked and one unasked question, one answer to the asked question, and three answers to the unasked: From when? From the Kohanim enter. And until the end of the first shift, until midnight and until the dawn rises.

The first of the three answers are credited to Rabbi Eliezer, but it isn’t clear whether he also states the first question and answers it, or it is only the answer on “until when,” which is credited to him. Nevertheless, the answer on “from when” is accepted as being “from the Kohanim enters,” but in the matter of “until when,” we have the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer (until the end of the first shift), the Sages[2] (until midnight)[3], and Rabban Gamliel (until the dawn rises). As we normally follow the majority opinion, the opinion of “The Sages,” that is understood to be the case here as well. But then we are presented for a story. Rabban Gamliel’s sons come home from the “drinking house.”[4] It is after midnight and they still haven’t recited the Shma’, so they ask their father what to do, and since the dawn still hasn’t started to rise, they are still obligated to recite.

This story leaves me with a slightly different understanding of what Rabban Gamliel had in his thoughts. Maybe he did indeed agree with the Sages, that we should recite before midnight, but if something kept us from it, then we are still obligated until the dawn begin to rise. Clearly the sons have an understanding of the demand to recite the Shma before midnight, otherwise they would not feel the need to ask their dad about whether it is expected of them or not, so I would think that it isn’t too far stretched to believe that it was the practice at their place to recite the Shma’ before midnight. Based on that I believe that we can see Rabban Gamliel being part of the majority here, but that he adds an addition, following both the rationality of the Sages (as we will see be explain), as well as following the limits of the Biblical Commandments.

The mishnah continues. “And not only that, but every time the Sages said until midnight, we are commanded until the dawn starts to rise.” What is going on here? Apparently the Sages tend to restrict the time limit of the Biblical Commandments, which happens not only in this case, but in any case when the Sages say “until midnight.” And then it follows up by telling that we are commanded until the dawn begins to rise in various incidences, but why is that? Wouldn’t it be enough just to say that when the Sages say until midnight, then we are from the Torah commanded until the dawn begins to rise? The thought here seems to be, that the Mishnah wants to teach us something. We will return to this later.

The mishnah concludes by asking why the Sages stated until midnight, when the Torah commands until the dawn starts to rise. Should we not follow the Torah? The question is ‘yes,’ and that is what we can learn from the happening with Rabban Gamliel and his sons, that even if we pass the rabbinical commandment of reciting (or fulfilling any of the other commandments, which is until the dawn begins to rise, but which the Sages have said until midnight), then we are still obliged to fulfill them. The reason, the mishnah explains, is that the limit of midnight is established in order to keep man from sinning, that is, better that he does it early while he is still awake, than delaying himself and then risking falling asleep. The rabbinic commandment, which is called mitzwah d’Rabbanan (commandment from the Rabbis) is a “fence,” placed around the Torah, in order that we don’t do wrong by mistake (the Pirqei Avot talks about this fence in chapter 1:2). The commandment from the Torah, on the other hand, is called mitzwah d’Orayta (commandment from the Source).

This concludes the first mishnah in the Talmud Bavli, Seder Zera’im, Massechet B’rachot.

[1] My translation has been kept very strict to the text, unless where I had no choice but alter it in order to give meaning. I will give a more meaningful translation, as well as insert in the original text additions, which will render it easier to read for a modern reader. There will be made differences between the original text and my own additions.

[2] The Hebrew term is more correctly translated to “The Wise,” but I would believe that “The Sages” gives more sense. It isn’t a fixed group of people, but should be understood as the majority of the Sages, according to which opinions the Halachah (legal decision) normally is set, though there are examples on the opposite. But as a guiding rule, we should see the majority rule as being the Halachah.

[3] It is important to note that we are not necessarily talking about 12 o’clock, as the end/beginning of the 24 hour day, but about the Halachic midnight, being fixed according to the hours of sunlight, which moves the midnight according to the time of the year.

[4] This is the literal translation of “Beyt Mishteh,” but there are various thoughts stating that it should not be understood as a pub or the like. RaMBaM, Z”L, states that when the word is used, it is always understood as being a gathering where there has been focus on the wine (in his commentary to the Mishnah, same place). Likewise the Tosefot Yom Tov explains that whenever the term is used, it is in regards to a wedding.

Studying the Talmud – An Overview over the Daf



Before I begin on the first mishnah it would be a good idea to give an overview over a typical daf in the Talmud. Daf is Hebrew for page, and the subject is found by relating to the page it is written, that is, according to the Order, then the Tractate, and then the page. And since each page has two sides, the number of the page will be followed by a or b in order to indicate which side we are dealing with. That is when we use the Latin script to indicate where in the Talmud to look, the Hebrew is different, but the idea is the same. So if we for example should relate to where we will be begin then it would be Seder (Order) Zera’im, Massechet (Tractate) B’rachot 2a. Page two because each tractate starts on the second page, not the first page, and a because it would be the first side of the page.

Let’s look at what it looks like:

This is the first page in the Talmud Bavli, which we will be focusing on in the coming. I will tell you about the parts of the Talmud during the next couple of pictures or so.

The name of the chapter is given from the first word of the chapter. In this case it is “me’eimatai,” “from when,” which is written in top of the page to the right (as well as in the big box introducing the text):


The next part, next to the title of the chapter, is the number of chapter, here “Pereq Rishon,” the first chapter:


And then follows the name of the Tractate, here B’rachot:


As said, the title of the chapter is the first word of the text, which is introduced by the title:


In the middle of the page we have the talmudic text itself, with the Mishnah and the Gemarrah. It is this text which we will be focusing on:


The first part is the Mishnah, the first mishnah of the Talmud, actually beginning with the title, and then continuing until the two letters gimel and mem, which is short for Gemarrah:


The mishnaic text is rather short compared with the discussions following it. The following is the Gemarrah, which continues on the next many pages, before we will reach the second mishnah:


The text surrounding the Talmudic text to the right is Rashi’s commentary. On the second side of the page it will be to the left instead of to the right. Rashi, besides his commentary to the Torah, also wrote an extensive commentary to the Talmud, revealing his great insights and knowledge on both Torah and Talmud:


On the other side and underneath the Talmudic text we find the commentaries of the Tosafot, not to confuse with the Tosefta. The authors of the Tosafot were the disciples of Rashi and other later commentators, adding to his commentaries on a rather high level, taking advanced discussions for granted:


On the sides of the commentaries we have references to the Torah and various passages, as well as the commentaries of R. Nissim Gaon, Z”L, but I won’t be referring to these much.

So this was a short introduction to a typical page in the Talmud Bavli. The Yerushalmi reminds but has some differences, but I will get back to that when (if) we will study it instead.

In the following post I will make a study with you of the first mishnah. Until then, take care.

Studying the Talmud


Something I have been thinking about for a long time, and which I have promised to per video but simply never can make myself get around, is to do a study of the Talmud, if not all the Talmud (that is going to take some time, maybe also too much time), then at least some. And not only in order to study it or to talk about it, but also to study the reasoning of the Talmud, especially the different ways of discussions in the Mishnah and the Gemarrah.

But before we get there an introduction is in its place.

First off, there are two Talmuds: The Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi. Why there are two and which one I will be relating to will be explained a little later. The structure of the two Talmuds are very alike, they consist of a textual body with commentaries being written around them, elucidating the text. The textual body consist of two parts, the mishnaic text, which is the foundation, and the text of the Gemarrah, which takes the most space by far. The reason for this is that the mishnaic text is the actual body being commented on by the Gemarrah.

The Mishnah:

In Judaism (that is, Rabbinic Judaism, which from now on in this context simply will be called Judaism for convenience) there are two bodies of holy Scriptures, the Bible (called TaNaCh) and the Mishnah. The Bible is structured in three parts, the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophetical Books), and the Ketuvim (the Scriptures), thereby forming the word T-N-K (pronounced TaNaCh). The Torah, which is the five Books of Moshe Rabenu, A”S, is the Holy Book in Judaism, being the foundation for every commandment and principle deduced by the Sages. It is known by other names as well, describing its nature in comparison with the other Jewish Scriptures, namely Torah she’bichtiv, the Written Torah, and Humash, the name being based on the number of books (the number five in Hebrew is hemesh). That the Torah, the Humash, is written is important in relation to that part of the Torah, which is believed to have been given Oral, namely the Oral Tradition or Torah she’be’al-Peh (the Torah which is in the mouth), which has been transferred orally from generation to generation, from Moshe Rabenu, A”S, until R. Yehuda HaNasi, Z”L, who saw the need to write down the Oral Tradition in the beginning of the third century CE.

The Mishnah is organized in six “Sedarim,” from the word ‘seder,’ which means ‘order.’ These Sedarim are organized in massechot, tractates, which each has a number of chapters, which each has a number of ‘mishnayot.’ The term “mishnah” with a small ‘m’ is the decisions brought down through the ages, though not all are going back to Sinai. In differing between the Mishnah in its total and the single mishnah, I will write it with capital m and without.

The six Sedarim are as follows:

Seder Zera’im, which deals with agriculture, though the first tractate, Massechet B’rachot, which we will be dealing with in the beginning, is concerned with prayers and blessings. It has eleven tractates in it.

Seder  Mo’ed, which deals with the festivals, and which has twelve tractates.

Seder Nashim, which deals with issues concerning women, such as the various forms of marriage, divorce, female impurity and so on. It has seven tractates.

Seder Nezikin, which deals with civil law and the structure of the courts, as well as punishments, idol worship and witnesses. Here we also find the ethical tractate, Pirqei Avot. It has ten tractates, though the three first, Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra, originally was one tractate.

Seder Qodashim, which deals with issues related to holiness. It has eleven tractates.

Seder Tehorot, which deals with purities. It has twelve tractates.

There are other mishnaic materials besides the Mishnah. When R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, had organized the Mishnah there was still mishnaic material left. This material was collected by his disciples in a work called Tosefta, which means ‘addition,’ a work which is being referred to by various rabbis in the discussions of the Gemarrah as proof-text, in their attempts to strengthen or attack a position. But in comparison to the mishniyot of the Mishnah they have lesser authority.

The Mishnah is written in what is called “mishnaic Hebrew,” a form of Hebrew being slightly simpler than the Biblical Hebrew, showing its traces of being a spoken more than a written language. It has some differences from Modern Hebrew, such as the suffixes in the plural, but any Hebrew speaker should be able to read and understand the mishnaic text without any noteworthy troubles.

The Gemarrah

Not long after the death of R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, the compilation of the Mishnah, and the gathering of the Tosefta, the need to explain the mishniyot in the Mishnah appeared, both because the Jews found themselves under new situation as well as the Mishnah being presented in a very straightforward language, which leaves many details unexplained, something I believe will appear from the beginning of our study.

Therefore the rabbis of the religious centers, found in two geographical areas, namely in Eretz Yisrael, what constitutes the Galilee, Judea, and surroundings, and Babylon, began to comment on the Mishnah.  Their comments, which were written in the spoken language of their time, Aramaic, show proof of their geographical background, such as local features being used in their examples and discussions. There are other differences as well, such as the type of Aramaic, the Babylonian Gemarrah being written in Eastern Aramaic, and the Palestinian Gemarrah in Western Aramaic. Also the elements differ, the Babylonian having a lot of Persian and Babylonian mythical elements incorporated.

The Babylonian Gemarrah is the most extensive of the two, having a century more to be edited and worked upon, finished most likely around 550 CE, though there has been proved later editing, conducted by the anonymous group of rabbis called Savoraim.

The Palestinian Gemarrah was never finished, being disrupted around 425 CE caused by anti-Jewish pogroms by the Christian emperor Theodosius II, and therefore lack a lot of material as well as organization. It does hold material which the Babylonian Gemarrah doesn’t cover, especially in context of agriculture, since that issue was important for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, while not for the Jews in Babylon, having the commandments only being connected to the Land of Israel. Therefore the Babylonian Gemarrah is considered the more authoritative of the two, except on issues where it doesn’t mention anything.

From this we find one Mishnah and two Gemarrot, one Babylonian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Babylonian Talmud or Talmud Bavli, and one Palestinian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Palestinian Talmud or Talmud Yerushalmi.

Mentioning the Mishnah in this context one thing has to be pointed out, namely that there are some smaller differences on the mishnaic text in the two Talmuds. I have dealt with this issue in some earlier posts, which you can read here, here and here. This might have been caused by the Mishnah being transferred orally in the Land of Israel even at the time of the disruption of the Palestinian Gemarrah, causing the changes in language as will always appear through time, while the mishnaic text most likely was considered holy in its written form from the beginning in Babylon.

Regarding the Sages. We will see that a lot of Sages will be mentioned by names, and I will try to explain when and where they lived. But sometimes the Gemarrah talks about ‘Tanna.’ This is the title for the Sages living in the Mishnaic times, that is, from the time before the compilation of the Mishnah. The Sages of the Gemarrah are called Amoraim.

With this said (or written) I feel that we are ready to begin the study of the Talmud.