"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Two

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study is back, meeting each Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants are studying the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

Henry is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. Chapter Two of his exploration appears below.

You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here.

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What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Two: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself. (Have you read Tristram Shandy? If not, you really should. Poor Tristram becomes quite familiar with this sort of thing.)

As I discussed last week, the Written Torah consists of Torah, Prophets, and Writings – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. We know that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple all of the books of the Tanakh existed in written form. We have the physical examples that were discovered at Qumran on the Dead Sea. Some people believe that the entire Tanakh is the precise word of God. If we accept this (and even if we don’t), how did the word of God come to be written down?

Writing and Jewish law (halacha) are connected from the beginning within the Tanakh. The first mitzvot to be revealed are the Ten Commandments. These come in two drafts. The first, written by "the Hand of God," doesn’t make it to us intact. The one that we actually get to read from is inscribed into stone by Moses.

There are a number of lessons about writing in the Jewish tradition that we can learn from this story:
1) Use of the written word is an attribute that we share with the Divine.
2) Our written texts, physically produced by human hands, are sufficiently similar to those produced by the Divine "Hand" that they can have the full authority of the words of the Divine.
3) The written word can partake of the same permanence – that is, the same perfection – as the word of the Divine received directly.

The Written Law has the virtues of permanence and fixity. Appearing in the written text, it provides a certainty on which the believer can base their confidence that the will of God can be known, followed, and be made a source of constant support.

These virtues can also become weaknesses, however. Permanence is the extreme of orthodoxy. Humanity is ever shifting in location, social mores, technology, artistry, and even temperament. As long as the Law remains at the center of human concerns, permanence works in its favor. But, if the law becomes dislodged from that center even slightly, that permanence is transformed into a weakness.

If the Law requires a physicality, it is always threatened. The first set of tablets is smashed. The people remain without the benefit of the Law until a second set of tablets can be carved for them. Dependence on fixity of physical permanence stifles the preservation of the Law through memory. When the Law enters memory through repeated reading or through memorization of an oral text, it enters the mesh of human memory and, like the human mind as a whole, becomes malleable.

In the First Temple period, both sets of tablets lie in the Ark. They are not brought forth. We never hear of the reading of the Law until the reign of Hezekiah, when a lost scroll (generally assumed to be the Book of Deuteronomy) is rediscovered during the renovation of the Temple. It becomes clear from the aftermath of the reading of that scroll that the Israelites (Judahites) had forgotten most of what Moses had taught. The quality of Jewish faith in the First Temple period seems thin to us now. It appears to be a brittle monotheism lacking all of the intellectual ferment that we associate with the Jewish mind.

The nations of Israel and Judah come under dire threat in the eras of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The coming of a new or renewed faith among Jacob’s children starts to become visible. Writing and the technology of writing plays a part in this change.

Next week, we'll find hints of an explanation of the ties that bind the Written Law to the Oral Law.

READ CHAPTER THREE: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.
Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Eva Leavitt's Bat Mitzvah

Facebook_EvaLeavittShalom. My name is Eva Sivan Leavitt and I’m a seventh grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. I am looking forward to my bat mitzvah, which will take place this Saturday, March 18.

I've been part of the Beth Sholom community since preschool, and now I’m entering the adult community. My portion is about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, and Aaron making the golden calf.

Some of my hobbies are art and cooking, and I also sing in a chorus. I have lived in Israel for a year, and I love traveling. Traveling gives me a chance to see the world in a different way and to learn about other people and cultures.

I think that to enter adulthood is to learn more about yourself and not so much about reaching a milestone or becoming a certain age. I think that each person has a different path to entering adulthood.

I want to thank Rabbi Glazer for helping me with my drash, and to Noa Bar for teaching me my Torah portion and my haftarah.

Shana Cohen's Bat Mitzvah

Facebook_ShanaCohenHello! Hej! Jambo! Hola! שלום! Bonjour! Hallo! Helló!

My name is Shana Cohen, and I am a third generation San Franciscan and a student at Gateway Middle School. I like soccer (I play on SF Sol), reading, spending time with family and friends, animals, horseback riding, art, and being creative. I am bilingual – I speak both Swedish and English – as well as bicultural. I especially enjoy traveling, and have been fortunate to spend summers in Sweden with my family, and to travel and meet people around the globe. Wherever I go, I make friends and have experiences that I will always remember. So many people from my life have made an impact on me that has contributed to my journey towards reaching the age of mitzvot.

On February 25th, I will have my bat mitzvah, a changing point in my life. I will be sharing it with friends and family from many parts of the world including California, Sweden, Germany, and Kenya. No matter how far (or near) you came from, I am so thankful you are here to share this day with me and my family.

In this week's parsha, we learn that all Jews, rich and poor alike, were required to contribute half a shekel for the Mishkan. You will learn more about Parashat Mishpatim during the Torah service, which includes my d’var Torah.

The maftir that I will read describes a census taken of the children of Israel. Everyone over the age of 20 is required to give half a shekel to restore the Mishkan. The Mishkan was a portable structure used until the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The Israelites could bring sacrifices to redeem for sins or express thanks. Later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa, God calls Moses to Mount Sinai to get the commandments. Meanwhile, the people became impatient and worried. As a result, they make a golden calf to have a substitute for God. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai he sees the calf and breaks the tablets. God punishes the Israelites by making them drink the gold of the golden calf. Moses is mad but tells God to give them a second chance. He then returns to Mount Sinai to receive a new set of tablets.

I want to thank my mamma and pappa, my brother Ari, all my grandparents, and the rest of my family and friends. I also want to give special thanks to Rabbi Aubrey Glazer and Noa Bar for instilling in me the gift of Torah, and connecting it to my everyday life. I also want to thank Congregation Beth Sholom for supporting my ongoing Jewish education, and the opportunity to create lifelong friendships.

It will be my pleasure to see you at CBS this Shabbat.

Max Billick's Bar Mitzvah

facebook_maxbillickMy name is Max Billick, I’m a seventh-grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. I’m interested in politics, history, constitutional law, world languages, Talmud, and cooking.

This Shabbat – on the fourth day of Sukkot Chol HaMoed – I will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. On the occasion of my bar mitzvah, I will be recognized as a member of this community and brought into the covenant.

On Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot we will be reading from Parashat Ki Tissa. In the parsha, G-d commands Moses to conduct a census. After the census, G-d gives two tablets to Moses on which Moses inscribes the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, the Israelites decide to make a golden calf. G-d is displeased about this but Moses is able to convince G-d to not forsake the covenant. When Moses saw this for himself, he was enraged and broke the tablets. He pleaded with G-d again not to forsake the covenant, and again carved tablets that he inscribed the Ten Commandments upon.

I want to thank my tutor Noa Bar, for helping me prepare for my bar mitzvah, and Rabbi Glazer for his invaluable help in preparing my d’var Torah.

Evan Fox's Bar Mitzvah

EvanFox_2Shalom.

My name is Evan Fox. I am a seventh grader at Presidio Middle School. My favorite subjects are Physical Education (P.E.) and Language Arts. I enjoy playing soccer, tennis, and drums. I also like listening to music, cooking, and playing Minecraft.

My bar mitzvah is coming up, and I’m excited to share the special day with my family and friends. I think of a bar mitzvah as a day where I become a Jewish adult. I will become a devoted member of the community.

My parshat is Yitro. Yitro is so important, because it is when the Ten Commandments are shown to the Israelites. People may think Yitro is all about the Ten Commandments, but that’s only half of it. Moses was under a ton of pressure while judging the Israelites. Yitro, his father-in-law, helped release quite a bit of pressure off of Moses. Pressure (and its pros and cons) are the other part of Yitro.

I would like to thank my tutor, Randy Weiss, for teaching me trope, my maftir, and my haftarah. I would also like to thank Rabbi Glazer for helping me construct my d’var Torah. And, of course, I would like to thank my family for showing me support and helping me get prepared.

See you on the 30th!