ALT+SHIFT: Alfa Beta Talmudi

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | June 1, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Ruth Calderon, Alfa Beta Talmudi: Osef Prati (Yedioth Sefarim, 2014), 247 pages 

In February 2013, Dr. Ruth Calderon, a recently elected parliamentarian from the YeshAtid party, gave her opening speech as a Knesset member. She surprised the nation by teaching a Talmudic story at some length, articulating her deep love for Talmud study, and offering a plea that Gemara take a greater role in Israeli civic life. Few Dati or Haredi Knesset members cite aggadic passages from the plenum; that Calderon is an avowed Hiloni made this all the more noteworthy (and contributed to the video practically breaking the internet). In truth, surprise was not warranted. Calderon holds a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University and founded two pluralistic Jewish study institutions for the broader Israeli public (Beit Midrash Elul in Jerusalem and Alma in Tel Aviv). I very much hope that her efforts bear fruit as secular Jews should also experience the wisdom of our joint tradition and our sacred texts could serve as a common language between religious and secular Jews.

The collection reviewed here is her second volume of commentary on Talmudic narratives (her first book has been translated as A Bride for One Night). The book, whose English title might be A Talmudic Alphabet, utilizes various writing styles including mostly third-person commentary, a first-person account of Calderon’s divorce, and an imagined first-person account from the perspective of R.Yehoshua. A reader might anticipate that a secular writer will express great cynicism about the Sages but Calderon treats them with sincere reverence. She treats what some would see as “wild” Gemarot, such as one discussing the size of various rabbis’ male organs, as a form of humor and not something to be mocked. Her discussion of her own Get ritual resists the temptation to criticize the proceedings. When mishnaic judges forbid a married couple to stay together after a foreign army invades (Ketuvot 27b), Calderon assumes that the judges felt significant pain about the verdict. Perhaps it is her great enthusiasm for the material which motivates her charitable readings.

Calderon sensitively picks up on certain stock images in the Talmud. Entranceways to caves, especially burial caves, are the gateway between this world and the world after death. A butcher, with his mundane profession of physicality, represents the polar opposite of a scholar. A prostitute across the ocean symbolizes the magical allure of hedonistic pleasure.

She also notes general tendencies of the aggadic milieu. Unlike biblical narrative where God frequently steps in to provide salvation, here more responsibility falls upon the human characters. In aggadic tales, God shows a more intimate side smiling at the Sages for overriding a heavenly halakhic ruling (Bava Mezia 59b) and conducting a rather casual and friendly conversation with R. Elazar ben Pedat (Ta’anit 25a). The Talmud shows more interest in the small aspects of daily existence rather than in the wars and politics that dramatically impact on society. A similar pattern emerges when the Sages discuss the relationship between wife and husband. They were more interested in the nitty-gritty of preparing dinner and less in grand tales of romance.

This volume includes several sharp readings and insights. When Rav goes to reconcile with a butcher before Yom Kippur, R. Huna tells him that his visit will kill the butcher (Yoma 87a). Calderon explains that Rav goes at a highly pressured time when the butcher will not have the patience to engage in the kind of conversation such an encounter requires. When R. Yohanan ben Zakkai envisions all the Sages on one side of the scale and R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanus on the other (Avot 2:8), he eerily foresees the eventual split between the Sages and R. Eliezer, resulting in the latter being placed in herem. When an immoral fellow involved in prostitution named Pentakeka sells his bed to provide funding that saves a young wife from harlotry (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 1:4), Calderon notes that the bed symbolizes his dissolute lifestyle until this point.

Psychological sensitivity proves quite helpful. When a poor man grows breasts and lactates to feed a starving child, R. Yosef praises the miracle while Abaye has reservations (Shabbat 53b). Beyond our evaluation of changes in the natural order, Calderon points out that the man may feel that he has lost some of his male identity. A tense exchange between R. Elazar and his son Hyrcanus at the end of the former’s life may reflect Hyrcanus’ frustration that R. Eliezer showed more affection for his favorite student, R. Akiva, than for his son (Sanhedrin 68a).

Calderon makes no use of traditional commentaries but she would find them helpful. The first question and answer in the Talmud states that the opening mishnah was working off a biblical verse. She suggests that the Talmud purposely opens with the notion of intertextuality, how every text works off a previous one. Along similar but not identical lines, R. Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin says that the first answer indicates how all of the oral law is ultimately based on scripture (Tzidkat HaTzadddik 10). This minor quibble aside, Calderon has produced a fine work that could encourage secular Israelis to look more into those Torah sources which animated their ancestors; religious readers who are already familiar with many of these texts will be similarly rewarded for their openness by encountering a Calderon’s sensitive and often insightful readings.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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