Shlomo’s Short Guide to Unpacking Gemara

The Unpacking Gemara Guide in Adobe Acrobat

Talmud is the Oral Law, and not just in name. Until the 6th to 8th centuries of the Common Era, it was a memorized text transmitted orally. As such, its style is more about memorization and compactness than full explanations. The rabbis of old used some techniques which could be comparable to a .zip file of a computer today to make Talmud more transportable in someone’s head. As I write D’vrei Torah I often have to take passages of Talmud and unpack or un-zip to understand the passage.

I’ve been thinking of the process I use to do exactly that, and thought I’d teach some of that process so others can get the full experience of Talmud. So here are some of my ideas.  I decided to take my slogan It is a matter of Torah and I am required to learn and use the passages it came from to explain this. For those that don’t know it’s  actually a bit of toilet humor found in the middle of the tractate on prayer, Brachot. Yet as we unpack it, there a lot more going on than just a toilet joke.

The People of the Question

Jews are not the people of the book as much as they are the people of the question. No where is this more true than the Talmud where virtually everything is questioned and challenged. In that frame of mind there are always questions I keep ready to ask about a passage.

  • Are there any pronouns?
    • What do they reference?
  • Who said it?
    • Mishnah/Gemara/Baraita.
    • Amora or Tanna
    • Who trumps who?
    • Who else is involved?
  • Are there references to something else?
    • Biblical passages
      • Where is it?
      • What is it?
      • What’s the context there?
        • Full passage and surrounding passages
        • Context in story.
        • Any additional details?
      • How does it fit here?
      • Is it a proof text
      • Are they applying a mitzvah
    • Talmudic Passages
      • Where is it?
      • What is it?
      • What is the context there?
      • Any additional details?
      • Agrees or disagrees with the current passage.
      • Is there a hermeneutic?
        • Which one?
        • How does it work here?

An  Example- It’s a Matter of Torah

Let’s take these two passages of Gemara from Brachot 62a and
parse them
as an example. For brevity, I cut out two passages in between these
two:

It has been taught: R. Akiba said:
Once I
went in after R. Joshua to a
privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not
sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not
standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the
left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare
to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of
Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben ‘Azzai said:
Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three
things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and
south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I
also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the
right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with
your master? — He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to
learn. …

Why should one wipe with the left hand and not with the right? — Raba
said: Because the Torah was given with the right hand, as it says, At
His right hand was a fiery law unto them. Rabbah b. Hanah said: Because
it is brought to the mouth. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: Because one binds
the tefillin [on the left arm] with it. R. Nahman b. Isaac said:
Because he points to the accents in the scroll with it. A similar
difference of opinion is found among Tannaim. R. Eliezer says, because
one eats with it; R. Joshua says, because one writes with it; R. Akiba
says, because one points with it to the accents in the scroll.

Phase 1: Translating.

If you know Aramaic and Hebrew, translate the text from the
original.
Often English translations don’t tell you enough of the story, but
looking up the word themselves will give you major insights. If you
cannot translate, use several translations of the text to understand
possible nuances. As translation for a foundation, I prefer the Socino
for several reasons, primarily for its academic integrity.

Phase 2: Parsing.

Take the text and find discrete elements or phrases in it.
Write it
into a list. You can do a short summary list like this:

1. Akiba learned
three things from R. Joshua

2. East-west not north to south

3. Sitting not standing

4. Wipe with the left and not right

5. Ben Azzai asks why?

6. Matter of Torah…(etc)

Or take the translated text and chop up the text with a few
returns in
your word processor (I often do this while translating). A “chop up”
list may look like this:

1. It has been taught: R. Akiba said:

2. Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy,

3. And I learnt from him three things.

4. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south;

5. I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting;

6. And I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not
with the right.

7. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your
master?

8. He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn.

9. It has been taught: Ben ‘Azzai said:

10. Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him
three things.

11. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and
south.

12. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing.

13. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with
the right.

14. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your
master?

15. He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. …

16. Why should one wipe with the left hand and not with the right?

17. Raba said: Because the Torah was given with the right hand,

18. As it says, At His right hand was a fiery law unto them.

19. Rabbah b. Hanah said: Because it is brought to the mouth.

20. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: Because one binds the tefillin [on the
left arm] with it.

21. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: Because he points to the accents in the
scroll with it.

22. A similar difference of opinion is found among Tannaim.

23. R. Eliezer says, because one eats with it;

24. R. Joshua says, because one writes with it;

25. R. Akiba says, because one points with it to the accents in the
scroll.

Take the list and Look for common elements, and make it into
an
outline. Add comments about references to other texts in parentheses:

1) Akiba – why is this story here?

a) Akiba learned three things from r.
Joshua

i)
East-west not north to south (the link to the passage above it)

ii)
Sitting not standing

iii) Wipe
with the left and not right

b) Ben Azzai asks why?

i) Matter
of Torah

c) Ben Azzai does it to R. Akiba

i) learns
same three things

d) Akiba asks him

i) Matter
of Torah

2) Why wipe with the left?(link to1.a.iii/1.c.iii)

a) Raba Torah was given

i) Quote
(Deut. 33:2)

b) Rabbah b. Hana – food hygiene

c) Simeon b. Lakish -tefillin

d) Nahman b. Isaac – pointing Torah

3) Tanna answer

a) Eliezer –  food hygiene

b) Joshua – writing

c) Akiba – pointing Torah

Phase Three: Fleshing It Out With Questions And Answers.

Use the questions above and start to ask and answer
what is
going on in
the passage:

1) Akiba – Why is this story here?
It’s here as a link to the passage
preceding it arguing over the direction one needs to go to the
bathroom. The idea is not to defecate in the direction of the Temple,
but since that changes from where you are, there is a difference of
opinion. R. Akiba has an extreme view and thus we are treated to this
story.

a) We learn in a Baraita, The Tanna R. Akiba learned three things from
his teacher R. Joshua after following him into the restroom.

i) East-west not north to south so as not to profane the temple. (the
link to the passage above it)

ii) Stitting not standing. Why? It’s just less messy.

iii) Wipe with the left and not right. Why? This we learn more about
below.

b) Ben Azzai, a student of Akiba asks why?

i) Akiba responds. But what is he really saying?  “It is a
Matter of Torah to know how My teacher does the halacha and I need to
learn by observation.”

c) The Tanna Ben Azzai, who heard the story above, does the same thing
to R. Akiba. Why?

i) Ben Azzai learns the same three things – so there is no
inconsistency between what Akiba said in the story above and Akiba’s
actions.

d) Akiba asks him the same question – since it’s a repetition, we need
to ask ourselves why is this scene repeated after Akiba told him all
this already?

i) Ben Azzai responds the same too, but does he mean the same?
“It is a Matter of Torah not only to know how you do the
halacha and I need to learn by observation if you practice what you
preach.”

2) Why wipe with the left? (link to1.a.iii/1.c.iii) The next passage
takes the third of Akiba’s observations about wiping with the left hand
and asks why it should be the left. We are given answers based on a
right handed person:

a) Raba (Amora) Torah was given with the right hand. You want to handle
Torah the same way as God, and not with a dirty hand.  There’s
a proof text.

i) At His right hand was a fiery law unto them. (Deuteronomy 33:2)
Since the rabbis invariably quote only part of a verse, quote the whole
thing: 2. And he said, The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir
to them; he shone forth from Mount Paran, and he came with holy tens of
thousands; from his right hand went a fiery law for them. The context
of the entire verse can be that the fiery law is Torah.

b) Rabbah b. Hana (Amora) Because it is brought to the mouth. What’s
“it?” Given Raba’s explaining the right hand, we can again assume the
right hand. In that case, you do not want to bring your dirty hand to
your mouth. You don’t want to eat<br> with a dirty hand.

c) Simeon b. Lakish (Amora) Because one binds the tefillin [on the left
arm] with it. On right handed person tefillin goes on the left arm and
thus the hand touching the box of the parchments to do the binding
would be the clean right hand once again.

d) R. Nahman b. Isaac said: Because he points to the accents in the
scroll (taamei Torah) with it.  Huh? This one does not make
sense to me, since scrolls are unaccented. It becomes one of those
places where translation becomes necessary to see if there are
alternate meanings to some of the words. The key words here are because
he points (shows, clearly explains) to the accents (sense, wisdom,
sound reasoning) in the scroll (Torah) with it. Doing a concordance
search Taamei Torah in all other cases (B. Pesachim 119a, Sanhedrin
12b, and Sanhhedrin 102a) does not mean the accents of the Torah. But
instead the reasons for the Torah.  Thus we re-translate this
phrase as Because he gives a clear argument with it the reasons for the
Torah. Again the meaning does not seem clear, but here we can make a
few suppositions that gesturing during lecture was common. If that is
so showing a filthy hand to those you are talking theology to would be
rude and disturb your argument.

3) Those were all Amoraim, but there is no agreement.  There
are also Tannaim who answer the questions

a) R. Eliezer says, because one eats with it; this is just like Rabbah
b. Hanah

b) R. Joshua says, because one writes with it; this is new. So what’s
special here? Touching parchment, particularly sacred written objects
like torah and tefillin. So Resh Lakish and R. Nahman b. Isaac are
alluded to but not specifically matched.

c) R. Akiba says, because one points with it to the accents in the
scroll. just like R. Nahman b. Isaac

 Phase Four: A Narrative Re-Write

Take the above notes and write it into paragraphs:
We find an Aggadic passage regarding the previous passage to the
direction one is to face when evacuating in the latrine. The primary
idea in that passage is not to defecate in the direction of the temple
and thus profane it, but since that changes depending where you are,
there is a difference of opinion. R. Akiba has an extreme view and thus
we are treated to this story.

 We learn in a Baraita, The
Tanna R. Akiba tells a story to his Student
Ben Azzai that he learned three things from his teacher R. Joshua after
following him into the restroom. First, to evacuate East-West and not
North to South so as not to profane the temple, as discussed in the
previous passage of Gemara. Secondly, sit while defecating and don’t
stand. It’s just less messy. Finally, one should wipe with the left
hand and not with the right hand. This we learn more about below. Ben
Azzai, a student of R. Akiba asks R. Akiba why he would ever do such
disrespectful things to his teacher. R. Akiba responds it is A Matter
of Torah to know how R. Joshua performed the halacha and R. Akiba was
required to learn by observing R. Joshua doing them.

We are then told that Ben Azzai, who
heard the story above, does the
same thing to his teacher R. Akiba and follows him into the privy. He
learns the same three things. There is no inconsistency between what R.
Akiba said in the story above and R. Akiba’s actions. R. Akiba asks Ben
Azzai the same question Ben Azzai Asked R. Akiba in the previous story.
Ben Azzai gives the same answer but means something a little different.
Ben Azzai responds that it is a Matter of Torah not only to know how
Akiba performs the halacha but also he is required to learn by
observation if R. Akiba practices what he preaches.

After skipping some other passages, The
next passage takes the third of
Akiba’s observations about wiping with the left hand and not with the
right hand and asks why it should be the left hand to wipe after
defecation. We are given answers of various later rabbis, Amoraim,
based on a right handed person. Raba believes it was because Torah was
given with the right hand. He uses as his proof text Deuteronomy 33:2,
which is the beginning of the blessing of Moses:
And he said, The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir to them;
he shone forth from Mount Paran, and he came with holy tens of
thousands; from his right hand went a fiery law for them.
God then gave and handled Torah with his right hand. Either in
remembrance of that you want to keep that hand clean, or You want to
handle Torah scrolls the same way as God, and not with a dirty right
hand.

The next rabbi with an answer is Rabbah
b. Hana.  He answers
“Because it is brought to the mouth.” What’s “it” in the sentence?
Given Raba’s explaining the right hand, we can again assume the right
hand, or clean hand. This is a matter of hygiene. People tend to eat
with their dominant hand. In that case, you do not want to bring your
dirty hand to your mouth. You don’t want to eat with a dirty
hand.

The Amora Simeon b. Lakish, sometimes
known as Resh Lakish answers:
Because one binds the tefillin on the left arm with the right hand, so
you want that hand clean. On a right handed person tefillin goes on the
left arm and thus the hand touching the box of the parchments to do the
binding would be the clean right hand once again.

 The Amora R. Nahman b. Isaac
said: Because he shows to the sound
reasoning in the Torah with it. Socino had a translation of Because he
points to the accents in the scroll with it. This one does not make
sense, since scrolls are unaccented. Comments by Rashi point to a habit
of gesturing the accents while reading. However, the translation could
be as above. The key words here are because he points (shows, clearly
explains) to the accents (sense, wisdom, sound reasoning) in the scroll
(Torah) with it. Doing a concordance search of that phrase
Taamei Torah

in all other
cases (B. Pesachim 119a, Sanh 12b, and Sanh 102a) does not mean the
accents of the Torah
, but instead the reasons for
the Torah.

Thus we re-translate this phrase as Because he gives a clear argument
with it the reasons for the Torah. Again the meaning does not seem
clear, but here we can make a few suppositions that gesturing during
lecture was common. If that is so showing a filthy hand to those you
are talking to would be rude and disturb your argument.

Those were all Amoraim, but there
is no
agreement.  There are
also Tannaim who answer the questions and since Tannitic opinion trumps
the Amoraic opinion, we can try to see if there is a consensus there,
but once again it’s all over the place.
One opinion is from the Tanna R. Eliezer, who believes because one eats
with his right hand, he should wipe with his left. This agrees with
Rabbah b. Hanah’s hygiene opinion.

Next we have R. Joshua, the Teacher
of R.
Akiba. Interestingly, R.
Joshua is the guy R. Akiba followed into the restroom in the first
place. He gives a new opinion, believing because one writes with the
right hand, and therefore writing or touching sacred documents while
composing should not be with a dirty hand; This is a new opinion but
has elements like R. Simeon b. Lakish who didn’t want the parchment in
the tefillin touched by a dirty hand. It also could be compared to
Raba, if we say “Giving with the right hand” is equivalent to writing
with the right hand.

Finally we have R. Akiba once again.
Interestingly while he does follow
the practices of R. Joshua, he does not give the same reason for the
practice. Instead, like R. Nahman b. Isaac, Akiba believes because one
uses his right hand to explain the reasons for the Torah you want to
keep that hand clean.

After this form of unpacking, then one can take the passage
and begin
to understand the passage on deeper levels.  This is of course
just a sample of what can be done with an Aggadic passage. There is a
lot more going on in a halakic one, including the form of
argumentation, and the devices use for such a form.
There is one step we can go further with this passage which we
mentioned above. Certain rabbis have more authority than others, and
some trump others in a context of statements. The rules for this are a
bit more than the scope of this work. But there are resources that are
under construction for this.

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