The Talmud that was composed and finally edited with late insertions in Babylonia around the seventh century is a staple of learning for many Jews. About a century ago, a rabbi suggested that Jews should read a page daily, front and back, a practice that has been widely accepted. Under this regimen, it takes seven and a half years to complete the entire Babylonian Talmud. I did so twice. The discussions in the Babylonian Talmud are difficult to follow and understand and, as a result, many Jews who piously study the Talmud are reading the text as devout Jews who don’t understand Hebrew read prayers in Hebrew without understanding what they are reading. There is also a Jerusalem Talmud that wasn’t edited well because of persecution when the editing began; it is difficult to study, and not many people do so.

Great scholars, such as Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) used both Talmuds. Maimonides created his Code of Jewish Law, called Mishneh Torah, and based it on the discussions in the two Talmuds. He suggested that by using his law book there wouldn’t be a need to use either difficult Talmud, but many Jews ignore his advice and study the Talmud, despite its difficulties. Yisrael Ury wrote this book to present his innovative idea of using boxes and directional arrows to chart the discussions of the Babylonian Talmud thereby making it somewhat easier to understand.

For example, in a rather simple Talmudic discussion where one sage differs with the view of another, Ury suggests drawing two boxes, one uncolored and the second colored. The first represents the view that is not accepted as law, the second the correct opinion. The student should place a directional arrow under the two boxes showing that the law moves from the erroneous to the correct opinion.

Some readers may find Ury’s suggestion helpful because they will be able to see a diagram. Others may find it simpler to write three lines: X says such and such. Y says such and such. The ruling is as Y says. Another difficulty with Ury’s suggestion is that when more than two sages discuss a matter, the page becomes filled with boxes. Still another problem is that the Talmud generally doesn’t declare whose opinion is correct. Yet, as previously stated, there are people, no doubt, who will find Ury’s suggestion helpful.

Books By Charting the Sea of Talmud reviewed by Israel Drazin