Introduction to the Study of Talmud - Arvei Pesachim

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            Having an introductory lesson to a course entitled "Introduction to the Study of Talmud" might seem redundant.  The answer, however, is embedded in the title of the course.  This is not an introduction to the Talmud, but an introduction to the STUDY of Talmud.  If I were writing an introduction to the Talmud, we could easily reach an entire year's worth of introductory lectures, which I think would in fact be interesting and informative, without ever reaching the actual learning of the text.  However, most of the important information included in those lectures would not really be appreciated until we got down into the workings of text itself.  In fact, for nearly all of the history of Talmud study, the only way one learned "how to learn" was by jumping into the text, a text which for thousands of years has been called the "sea of Talmud," and that is the method I propose to base this course on.  We shall directly attack selected text and, hopefully, progress.  But first, for one lecture only, I shall present a few points, introductory points after all, before we begin the actual study.

            For this course, I am assuming no background at all, a clean slate, so to speak.  Some of these points may be known to many of you, and for that I beg your forbearance.

1.  A word or two on text.

            Talmud consists of two distinct primary texts, the Mishna    and the Gemara.  Surrounding these two, there exists a huge literature, spanning 1800 years and thousands of books, of commentaries, summations, and extended discussions, which continues to this day.  When we study Talmud, we are in fact addressing that entire literature, though obviously much of it must wait for advanced levels of learning.  But even on the beginning level of this course we are not studying a BOOK, but rather a literature, which in fact precedes the actual Talmud, and of course extends beyond it.  From a literary point of view, the Talmud is the basis and core text, most importantly because it is authoritative, and hence is the starting-point for any subsequent discussion.

            The Mishna is printed as a distinct work, and often studied separately.  In editions of the Talmud, the Mishna is printed together with the Gemara as a unit, and that is the way we shall be studying.

            The Mishna is a halakhic code.  It presents a set of rulings on all halakhic matters, in all areas of life.  True to the nature of the Oral Law, it is not generally written in a monolithic manner, but rather preserves controversies and disagreements, hundreds of them, from the authorities of the Mishnaic period, roughly the first century and a half of the Common Era.  Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the head of Palestinian Jewry, compiled the present form of the Mishna and thereby summarized and codified the halakhic rulings of the previous centuries.  This was the first code of Jewish law.

            The Gemara is the record of two centuries of discussion, argument, elucidation, and controversy surrounding the text of the Mishna, first in the land of Israel, and subsequently in the great Torah centers of Babylonia.  Unlike the Mishna, the Gemara is not a code.  It is more like the protocol of a debate, spanning several hundred years and more, where the basic literary form is question and answer, and the most common conveyor of meaning is disagreement.  It is impossible to READ Gemara; you have to join the discussion in order to grasp the meaning of what is going on.  In order to understand an answer, you have to understand the question, and that understanding is far more important than summarizing the conclusion.  It would be quite accurate to say that Gemara is more about halakhic reasoning than about halakha itself, though obviously the goal is halakha.  In fact, in most cases, the halakhic conclusion is not explicit in the Talmudic text itself, but will be found only in later rabbinic works.  It is quite common to find an extensive rabbinic discussion of the "hava amina," the opening and ultimately rejected understanding, for the fact that this position did not survive the scrutiny of the Talmudic discussion does not make it unimportant.  It is often correct to state that only by understanding the "hava amina" can we understand the conclusion, the "maskana."

            The previous paragraph has illustrated, inter alia, an important technical aspect of our study.  The Mishna is written in Hebrew (in a dialect that is called by the linguists, not surprisingly, Mishnaic Hebrew).  The Talmud is written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic.  Both are filled with hundreds of technical terms, both legal and logical, which are often difficult to translate.  I shall of course translate or explain them as they come up, but we shall prefer the use of the original terms even in an English-language lecture.  Our goal, again, is to study text, and to enter into the world of Talmudic study.  Every Talmudic discussion consists of a "hava amina," literally, "I would have said," and a "maskana," a conclusion.  A standard question when reading a position that is rejected by the Gemara is to ask, "what was the hava amina?"; i.e., what was the (ultimately rejected) understanding of the subject that underlay the opening position expressed in the gemara.  Once you answer that question, the teacher asks the opposite question - "now tell me what is the maskana," meaning not the conclusion itself, but the change in logic that caused the change in position.

            I assume that Aramaic, and perhaps Mishnaic Hebrew is not a language in which most of you are fluent.  All editions of the Talmud are accompanied by running explanatory commentaries, the most important of which is that of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century France).  But, I must admit, Rashi himself wrote in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic.  I therefore recommend that you acquire an English translation.  While the text of each lesson will include a link to both the original and translated text, it will be far more efficient if you have a full text of the entire page in front of you.  There are several translations of the Talmud, but, for our purposes, the best is the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud printed by ArtScroll Publishing.  Our sections are found in Pesachim v. III.  I recommend that you buy it, if you are serious about the course, especially if you hope to continue in the study of Talmud.

            (The Talmud as a whole is usually printed in 20 very large volumes.  The Schottenstein translation is much larger, with each normal volume of the Hebrew original divided into three translated volumes with commentary.  Buying the whole set will make a significant dent in your bank account, but will enrich you immensely.  For the purpose of this course, buying ONE volume will suffice.  In any event, each page of Talmudic text will be posted on the web, so you can manage to get by without spending a penny.)

            While I recommend a translation, and will translate myself as we continue and provide a glossary, the text we are studying will be the original.  The ability to read the Hebrew words is assumed.  I shall be constantly referring to the Hebrew and Aramaic text (with explanation and translation), for again, the purpose is to introduce you to the study of Talmud as all students of Talmud study it, which is the original, with the traditional commentaries (all of which are not available in translation in any event).

            We shall begin our learning with a mishna in the tenth chapter of Pesachim.  Basically, our topic will be the seder of Pesach, which is what the tenth chapter, "Arvei Pesachim," is about.  We shall not, however, begin from the beginning of the chapter, but from the third mishna, which takes up the seder narrative immediately after kiddush.

2.  The "daf" - a page of Talmud

            The Hebrew word "daf" means page.  In the tradition of Talmudic learning, it means a leaf; i.e., a physical page, which of course has two sides.  To distinguish the two, we use a postscript, so that the page we are beginning on is daf 114a.

            A scan of this daf can be seen at

            Take a look at this daf.  

  1. You will see up on the left-hand corner the letters kuf-yod-daled - קיד, which means 114.  (On the web scan, this is circled in red and marked with the number 1).  In all standard editions of the Talmud (but not the Schottenstein), the first side (114a) is always on the left side of the open volume.  The reverse side (114b) does not have any Hebrew page number at all, but for several centuries has had an Arabic numeral, in this case "228" (Notice that the Arabic numerals refer to sides, while the Hebrew ones to full pages.  Why? That's just the way it is!).
  1. Running down the middle of the page, in block Hebrew letters, is the text of the Talmud.  On the page we are examining, there are two different mishnayot, which are marked with the enlarged letters   מתני spelling "Matni," which is an abbreviating for "matnitin," which is the Aramaic for "Mishna." (Marked with the red number 2 on the webscan).  After the few lines cited from the mishna, we find the letters גמ "gimel-mem" (number 3), which is the abbreviation for "gemara." This is where the gemara discussion of this mishna begins.  Sometimes, as in the case of the first mishna on this page, the gemara will be very short, but most often it will encompass several pages.
  2. On either side of the main text are two commentaries.  On the right side is the running commentary of Rashi, R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in Champagne in the 11th century.  Rashi is the primary commentary on both the Talmud and the Bible, and every talmudic discussion will begin with his interpretation of the talmudic text.  The lettering in the standard editions of the Talmud is in a different script than that of the central Talmud text.  This script is popularly called "Rashi-script," although it was not used by Rashi himself.  It is a printer's version of the cursive script used by scribes in the Middle Ages.  If you are not familiar with it, it may be difficult to read, but I hope you will quickly get used to it.

The chapter we are learning is an exception, in that Rashi's commentary is very short and has been supplemented by that of his grandson, the Rashbam.  The right-hand column is therefore divided into two, with the Rashbam following directly after that of Rashi, and to some extent duplicating it.  This is the only chapter of the Talmud with this arrangement.

  1. On the left side is a commentary consisting of several extended comments, each beginning with the Talmudic text to which it refers marked in bold letters.  This is the "Tosafot," which simply means addenda.  In true talmudic tradition, the Tosafot do not have one particular author, but record the discussion in the French (and German) schools of Rashi's disciples for the next four or five generations.  Very often, the starting point for these discussions was the commentary of Rashi, and most often they will begin with a question which will give rise to an alternate explanation.

            Gemara with Rashi and Tosafot is the bread-and-butter of Talmudic study.  We are aiming at reaching that level.

            The page contains an additional outer ring of various glosses of later authorities, citations to halakhic codes, and cross-references to other Talmudic passages.  Aside from this, there are thousands of books that continue the discussion.  In our study, we shall examine, occasionally, some of the more important of these additional commentaries.

            An extensive and detailed account of these and other features of the talmudic daf can be found at:

which probably has even more than you might want to know at this stage.  If you take a look at the daf presented on Professor Segal's webpage, you will see that it looks exactly like the one we are studying, even though it is from a completely different section of the Talmud.  The page layout has been standard for nearly five hundred years, with some additions.

            Next week, we shall begin the third mishna of the tenth chapter, which is the SECOND mishna on this page (the one all the way at the bottom).  Try reading the mishna now, with Rashi and the Rashbam, and using the translation, if you have one.  We shall go over this mishna in next week's shiur.

Online, the scan of the original daf can be found at (you can change the size to "large" to get a better view.)