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Talmud in English

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The Babylonian Talmud. Seder Nezikin. Translated into English under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein. Soncino Press, London.


The Talmud is a stupendous post-Biblical work which gathers up the results of Jewish legal, ethical, and religious discussions extending over several centuries. This is all that most people know about it.

Some people are aware also that, while there is only one Mishnah, there are in fact two Talmuds, a Jerusalem Talmud and a Babylon Talmud, one comprising the Mishnah together with the discussions of Palestinian rabbis, the other incorporating practically the same Mishnah together with the discussions of the Babylonian rabbis.

In each case the discussions for which the Mishnah provided the text are known as the Gemara, or Completion. The Gemara supplements the Mishnah, and the two together constitute the Talmud.

The Talmud is not easy to read for various reasons. The Mishnah is written in new Hebrew, a Hebrew in which many new words and phrases were coined to express new ideas, and in which foreign vocabularies, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, were extensively drawn upon.

The language of the Babylonian Gemara, where it is not pure Aramaic, is a peculiar mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, with an occasional sprinkling of Persian words. The style also for the most part presents great difficulty, for it is a kind of précis-writing which presupposes oral amplification and explanation, so much so that the Talmud has been described as a collection of reporters’ notebooks rather than a connected book.

Thus the Talmud does not lend itself easily to translation. Often if the text were translated literally the result would read like pure nonsense. To make it intelligible words or even whole sentences have frequently to be supplied. Nor will even this entirely suffice; footnotes have to be added to make the matter clear. It must be remembered, however, that the Talmud has two different methods of exposition, one of which makes easier reading than the other.

One is the dry, legalistic method which discusses legal principles and provisions for the walk of lifeand is known as Halachah from a root meaning "to walk"; the other is the more humanistic method which illustrates rules of behavior by means of tales, anecdotes, parables, etc., and is known as Haggadah from a root meaning "to narrate." This latter method relieves and enlivens the dry, legalistic discussions.

In view of all the difficulties of one kind and another, it has been maintained by many that it is impossible to translate works like the Zohar and the Talmud. The word "impossible", however, does not seem to find a place in the vocabulary of the directors of the Soncino Press.

The eight volumes of the Talmud, now published as a first instalment, complete the important division known as Nezikin or Damages. This division, which is subdivided into ten tractates, treats of such matters as damage to property, courts of justice, trials, arbitration, offences punishable by flogging, private and public oaths, traditions of early authorities, pagan worship, aphorisms and maxims of successive generations of teachers, and erroneous rulings by religious authorities in matters of ritual law. Thus it covers what we know as civil law and criminal law.

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