The Tender Talmudist

I am an avid Talmud student, but I am not a great Talmud student. The back and forth of nuanced Talmudic argument, especially its close readings of the inconsistencies and discrepancies in texts, fascinates me yet at times eludes me. Because I am at times a “logic challenged” student, I am lucky to have had outstanding Talmud teachers whose commitment to scholarship and teaching has shaped me as a Jew, a student of Torah and a rabbi. Yet, I have learned my most important lessons in Torah from my teachers by watching what they did, not necessarily from what they taught formally in class.

During the year that I lived in Jerusalem as a rabbinical student, I learned with one of the world’s top Talmudists. Each Sunday, I would sit for hours in the bet midrash, the study hall, with my havruta, my study partner, desperately trying to understand complex Talmud passages that our teacher told us we would examine in that night’s class. My havruta, a lawyer by training, would plow through each passage, asking not only sharp questions about what the text meant, but even sharper questions about the text’s origins, corruptions, and literary design. I struggled to keep up with her, catching perhaps 50 percent of her insights, if I was lucky. Often, Sunday night class was torture for me. I would sit in dazed silence as our teacher elegantly worked through issues in the Talmud at an incredibly erudite level that felt to me like an impenetrable, esoteric mystery. Imagine the seating arrangement of eight rows of students in the academy of the great Rabbi Akiva, which is described in the Talmud. The last of the eight rows was reserved for the least advanced students. In that Sunday night Talmud class, I felt like one of the janitors cleaning Rabbi Akiva’s schoolhouse. I lived in mute terror during class all that year.

Between semesters, my wife and I planned a trip to Italy with some family. Before we left, I found the courage to knock on my teacher’s door and ask to meet with him.

“Professor, my wife and I are going to be in Rome, and I would love to be able to get to the Vatican Library’s Judaic books collection. Is there any way you could help me to arrange that, and is there any manuscript research I can help you with when I am there?” I asked, trembling slightly.

He paused for a moment, then said, “Yes, in fact you can help me a great deal. The Church is holding a thirteenth century manuscript of Bava Metzia, (the Talmudic tractate we were studying), one of the many manuscripts it took from Jewish communities over the centuries. I want you to look at the colophon, the scribe’s inscription at the end of the text. There, you will see written a five letter word in Hebrew that represents the medieval dating system for the year the tractate was copied. I think the word is samtukh, but it is not clear if one of the letters is a vav or a yud, which looks similar to it. I need to know what that letter is. Go look at it for me.”

Thank you, Professor, I’ll do my best,” I said.

He wrote me a letter of introduction, and we flew to Italy. When we arrived at the Vatican library, one of the guards took the note from my hand and admitted me, as he eyed me with a subtle wariness bordering on suspicion, for after all, I was not a “regular,” a Judaic scholar who frequented the library. Indeed, that librarian had little reason to worry, but still, he had a little reason to worry. After looking up the call number for the manuscript, I approached the call desk in the hushed reading room in trepidation. Soon, the book was in my hands, and I felt two millenia of Jewish creativity, struggle, suffering and perseverance rush through my body. I touched the thick vellum pages lovingly, for they truly were the pages of an old family treasure I wanted to reclaim. In the hour I was there, my mind bounced back and forth between thoughts of utter wonder and the sincere desire to take my chances, abscond with the book and run back to Jerusalem, where it would finally find its proper home.

Notwithstanding my youthful romanticism, my grounding in reality prevailed, and I slowly made my way to the back of the book. Slowly scanning to the bottom of the page, I found the colophon. There was the five letter word indicating the year of writing. Yet however I looked at it, I could not decide if the faded letter in question was a vav or a yud. Was the acronym samtukh, samtikh, something else?

I returned to Jerusalem, despondent. I had failed in my mission, and as I knocked on my teacher’s door, I feared having to tell him the truth.

“Professor, I went to the Vatican and I looked at the colophon on the manuscript. I could not decide if the letter you had me examine was a yud or a vav. I am sorry that I could not bring you back more definitive information,” I said slowly and sadly.

A normally reserved man, my teacher smiled and said, “Oh, don’t worry, that letter in question is a vav, no doubt. We know when the tractate was copied.”

“Then, why did you send me to the Vatican to do the research for you?” I asked, somewhat puzzled and irritated.

Gently, he responded, “Because you wanted to go and I wanted you to have the experience of holding Jewish history in your hands.”

A greater, more beautiful lesson that this one, he never taught me again, nor did he need to.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.