Unlocking secrets of the past

Rarely studied in mainstream yeshivot today, Mesorah's new Jerusalem Talmud makes the ancient text far more accessible.

talmud book 88 298 (photo credit: )
talmud book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Jerusalem Talmud Schottenstein Edition Talmud Yerushalmi - Tractate Berachos vol. 1 Mesorah Publications $34.99 For centuries, folios of the Jerusalem Talmud languished in the backs of libraries acquiring dust and being opened only by leading rabbinic sages and Talmudic scholars. Mesorah Publications, whose English and Hebrew translations and elucidations of the Babylonian Talmud have been credited with enabling Talmud study among the masses, is now embarking on a similar effort for a more complex text - the Jerusalem Talmud. Completed between the years of 200-350 CE, the Jerusalem Talmud, like the Babylonian Talmud, serves as a compendium of discussions based on the Mishna between the sages living in the northern parts of the land of Israel. Written in Israel, it places a far heavier focus on issues of tradition surrounding the land of Israel than does the Babylonian Talmud - a fact which makes it even more relevant for the large Jewish presence in modern day Israel. Written in an environment of persecution and harsh anti-Jewish activity, the Jerusalem Talmud is viewed as a reflection of the Jewish community to persevere with Torah study in the face of spiritual enemies. After five generations, the drafting of the text was put to an end when the Jewish community was forced into exile by the Romans. So unlike its Babylonian counterpart, the Jerusalem Talmud was never able to be edited and reworked in a manner that would make it more easily understood. For ensuing generations, the Jerusalem Talmud, or the Yerushalmi, as it is more commonly known, was a "closed book" to the majority of world Jewry. Incorporating a dialect of Aramaic far less common than that used in Babylonia, few students were able to decipher it. The text became increasingly less studied, and today the Yerushalmi is rarely found in the curricula of mainstream yeshivot. Talmudic scholars also point to the absence of the line by line commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), whose elucidation on the Babylonian Talmud is an indispensable resource in appreciating the original intent of the text. It is for these reasons that the publication of Mesorah's Artscroll series is being viewed with such significance. In the introduction to this first volume of the Jerusalem Talmud, the publishers describe their effort as one which "will unseal the gates of one of the most vital portions of the Oral Torah." Indeed, for Talmudists and students all over the world, one cannot overestimate the impact the Artscroll series has had upon Talmudic scholarship. The completion of the English elucidation of the Babylonian Talmud in 2005 resulted in more than 70,000 people around the world relying on Artscroll for their Talmud Study. Estimated to be completed in about 10 years, the elucidation of the Jerusalem Talmud, which has begun with the release of tractate Berachos, will largely adhere to the format popularized with Artscroll's Babylonian Talmud. Each new discussion is introduced with a clear explanation of the issues at hand. Unlike more outdated translations of the Talmud, Artscroll relies upon a modern and easily understood style of English to break down the often quizzical terminology utilized by the Talmudic sages. Each line of text is elucidated using bold script to directly translate the text, complimented by insertions of regular script to make the intent of the text more understandable. This formula, already familiar to the thousands who have been using Artscroll's Babylonian Talmud for years, will make the transition to the Jerusalem Talmud relatively easy. A new footnote section called variants is also an excellent addition. According to the series editors, this section was born out of necessity to address the many instances where commentators present explanations on the text that deviate greatly from the traditionally accepted commentaries. While some Jewish studies educators (this author's high school Talmud instructors, for example) feared the Artscroll series would provide an easy way out for students looking to avoid the challenges represented by the Talmud, most have been convinced that the elucidation of these texts has allowed many more people to become involved with Talmud study than in generations past. To date, available in English, Hebrew and French, the impact of the Artscroll is only beginning to be felt, and the Jerusalem Talmud will serve as an additional measure of its role. Revolutions like these in Jewish scholarship are rare and can often only be best appreciated with considerable hindsight. Yet in the relatively short amount of time that Artscroll Talmuds have been appearing in study halls and Jewish homes around the world, it is clear the Mesorah publishing house has offered a valuable contribution to the spread of Jewish study. By unmasking this vast yet historically under-appreciated text of the Talmudic period, this series is sure to be recognized as an important and necessary step in the evolution of Jewish scholarship.