Talmud Shiurim at Sof Maarav

Contributed by Gregg Kinkley

An hour before we start our prayers,
(Invoking names like Abe and Sara),
Earnest study of the layers
Of our tradition, through Gemara,
Commences ‘round the hour of nine;
A guided tour of divine
And often thought-provoking mirth:
Come learn how study’s wisdom’s birth!

For well over a decade now, a small band of devoted Sof scholars have met before prayer services on “every other” Shabbat to discuss Talmud. They are learning to appreciate the sources and interpretation of our great faith. Talmud, far from being a dry, overly-detailed, or needlessly argumentative chore, turns out to be an important, enlightening, and entertaining part of revelation. Who knew; nu?

We do not plow through the Talmud volume by volume or follow crucially selected sugyot (Talmudic topics). We learned over time what methods of legal inference are available from the Talmudic toolbox, becoming more comfortable with technical terms, such as kal v’chomer. binyan av, gezeirah shavah, hekeish, smukhah, and klal u’frat. We learned how they are used, when we are permitted to use them, and to what end. This was a path of study which, though daunting, helped us understand the “code” which needs to be mastered in order to fully appreciate what the Talmud has to offer us.

More recently, our study has taken a new approach: Armed with an incremental sophistication from our study of the tools mentioned above, we have plunged into the study of Talmudic material dealing directly with the topics posed by the weekly parashah. In this way we have combined the Torah shiur sessions we enjoy every other Shabbat with our Talmud shiur: “Talmud Torah,” so to speak. Under this approach, we have looked more deeply into selective topics. These include: the mechanics and significance of the Azazel ritual, the nature of the sins of Nadav and Avihu, the rabbinic disfavor with which the bitter waters test of the Sotah ritual is held, and currently (inspired by the Balak and Pinchas parashyot) we are learning the parameters of the disturbing sanction of violence and “breaking of the covenant of peace” as set forth in the Zimri and Cozbi story.

The study of such a complex compendium of lore as the Talmud will naturally appear to present great challenges, especially for the beginner, yet it has something to say to everyone in any circumstance. Aware of the linguistic, legal, and historical barriers to receiving the full message of the Talmud, special care is taken to guide all students along the road to a better understanding and appreciation of this central document of our Yiddishkeit. Other groups have taken our Tanakh, in whole or in part, and tried to make it a part of their tradition. The Talmud, however, is uniquely Jewish, and represents the best of what we have to offer the world and ourselves. Zil g’mor!!