Introducing the Email Talmud Study Group

One of the central texts in Jewish law (halakha) and lore is the Talmud. (There are really two talmuds, the Babylonian [Bavli] and the Palestinian [Yerushalmi)]. For a variety of historical reasons, the Babylonian talmud discusses most issues more extensively, and is generally the more authoritative source for halakha (Jewish law). In most informal conversation, references to "the talmud" are to the Babylonian talmud; that will be the case in the next few paragraphs.)

Regrettably, the talmud is often a closed book that remains a mystery to many people.

Sometime around October 1997, in the context of a discussion in the soc.culture.jewish USENET newsgroup, there was a suggestion to begin a "thread" on studying talmud especially aimed at those who had limited prior opportunities to learn talmud. The newsgroup format turned out to be somewhat unwieldy, and the informal study group switched from the newsgroup to a mailing list (supported with the generosity of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which hosts the mailing list). The translations and comments were produced jointly by me and by Professor Amitai Halevi of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

The function of this email study group is to give novices a taste of what the Talmud is all about, what it is like, and how talmudic debates work themselves out. We have tried to keep the explanations at a level we hope is appropriate for novices, and we have tried to remain lucid. On the other hand, more seasoned students are certainly welcome to join; we hope that they too will find the review useful.

The Talmud is divided into six "Orders;" Nezikim (Damages) is the fourth of those. The first three tractates of Nezikim are Baba Kama, Baba Metzia, and Baba Batra, the First, Middle, and last Gates. We'll start with Baba Metzia, the Middle Gate, a tractate dealing primarily with civil laws.

Each tractate of the talmud has its own "personality." Baba Metzia (along with Baba Kama and Baba Batra) is notable in it's reliance on logic rather than on Biblical proof-texts.

Chapters in the talmud are generally identified by their opening words, and we will be starting with the second chapter, "Eilu M'tziot" (literally, "These are the found objects") -- dealing with the obligation to return a lost object, and how one can determine ownership.

The civil laws that are the focus of this chapter are readily understandable to the modern student, many of the concepts are familiar, and the language and style are straightforward (compared to some other tractates). It is also one of the classic "yeshivishe" tractates; there is enough depth so that experienced students can commit six hours a day, six days a week, to intensive analysis ... and cover 40 folio pages in year.

Some guidelines: The subject line on the emailed text (and the section headings in this website) indicate the tractate and the folio page (e.g., Baba Metzia 21a). Talmudic citations (at least to the Babylonian Talmud), are always in the form on a page number followed by the letter a or b, for the first or second side of the page. The first page in every tractate is page 2. (Curious bit of trivia: The standard folio pagination was established by a Christian printer, Daniel Bomberg, working in Venice in about 1520.)

In each posting, we've tried to present the translation and explanation of the original text. (The langauge of the mishna is classical mishnaic Hebrew; the language of the talmud is a form of Aramaic.) There are several English translations of the talmud that are readily available: our own suggestion would be either the Artscroll or the Steinsaltz. We try very hard to stick to English, but there are occasional technical terms that we transliterate and explain.

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