The recently deceased scholar Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz who authored sixty books and hundreds of articles is the author of the 549 page book “Reference Guide to the Talmud: The Indispensable Talmud Study Aid.” It is one of five new books published by Maggid Books. I reviewed four of the volumes previously. The series focuses on five main topics of Jewish tradition in easy to read English. The books are very extensive and are filled with eye-opening and thought-provoking information. People of all religions will learn much from them. I think that this volume is the best and most comprehensive introduction to the Talmud that I saw.
The books are: (1) “A Concise Guide to the Sages,” the Sages being called Hazal in Hebrew, a Hebrew acronym for “our Sages, may their memory be for a blessing,” (2) “A Concise Guide to the Torah,” (3) “A concise Guide to Halakha,” Jewish Law is called Halakha in Hebrew, meaning “guide path,” (4) “The Concise Guide to Mahshava,” Mahshava being Hebrew for Jewish thought, and (5) “Reference Guide to the Talmud.”
“Reference Guide to the Talmud” is a detailed explanation of the Talmud a work begun toward the end of the fourth century CE and completed over the course of the ensuing century and a half. It is the recorded dialogue – of questions, answers, and discussions – of generations of Sages. Steinsaltz’s book contains a general introduction of eleven pages followed by four parts.
Part one with three chapters from page 15 to 56 describes the historical background: Life in the Talmudic Period, Jewish Communities in and outside Israel, especially about Babylonia and its culture and language, and Generations of Tanna’im and Amora’im. We read about the politics, the synagogue which exited in and outside Israel during the second temple period, the study hall which was and still is so fundamental to Judaism, the Samaritan zone and other localities in Israel and in Babylonia, the early Tannaitic period of six generations from 20 CE until 200 CE, the period of the sages mentioned in the Mishna, and the later eight generation of the Amoraic period until 500 CE, the Sages included in the Talmud, with information about where they lived and the world events occurring during their lives.
Part two has nine chapters from page 59 to 222. Among much else, it describes the tractates of the third century Mishna and the later Talmud, the layout of a Talmud page, the mixed language of the Talmud sometimes Hebrew sometimes Aramaic (the latter being the language that Jews spoke when the Talmud was composed, thus making it more possible for the average Jew to read it), a helpful guide for Talmud study, a detailed glossary that defines words, explanations of the methodology of the Mishna, the Talmud, and Talmudic hermeneutics (the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation). The latter informs readers on how the Sages interpreted the Torah and how we can understand what the Sages did and why they did so. We read Rabbi Yishmael’s famous thirteen hermeneutical principles, those of Rabbi Akiva who took a radically different approach to understanding the Torah, other hermeneutical principles, and restrictive hermeneutical principals. Knowing these basic approaches to the Torah clarifies why Sages came to widely different interpretations.
Part three contains two chapters from page 225 to 476 on principles governing halakhic decision making, and halakhic concepts and terms. The large number of pages devoted to halakha. Jewish law, highlights its significance and how Rabbi Steinsaltz is meticulous in explaining the many principles and legal concepts.
Part four’s four chapters from page 479 to 517 offers readers additional resources for the study of the Talmud: the Talmudic weights and measures, Rashi unusual script, plans of the Temple, and explanations of abbreviations.
This is followed by a Hebrew index from page 519 to 530, and an English index from page 531 to 549.
In short, Rabbi Steinsaltz has made a significant contribution by giving us an easy to read and understand treasure of explanations of the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most important set of books.