Six Memos from the Last Millennium - A Novelist Reads the Talmud

You can have fun reading the Talmud


By Joseph Skibell
University of Texas Press, £17.99

Joseph Skibell has a storyteller's eye and he uses it superbly in this book, seeing the Talmud as a compendium of tales from all manner of literary genres, from noir to comedy, with myth and mystery, satire, farce and crime all making an appearance.

His filleting of talmudic sugyot (passages) is erudite and eminently readable, but it is his insights into the characters of the protagonists that make this book such a delight to read, bringing the sages alive warts and all, for us to know and love.

Having researched and collected the background information about them scattered through Talmud, he reads the characters as much as the legal argument, presenting us with the host of motives and of carefully constructed implicit commentary that would not be available to the ordinary reader of the daf (folio). What he uncovers is a world rich in drama, with actors whose backstories offer intriguing explanations for the sometimes opaque teachings recorded on any given page.

The storyteller's instinct to focus on the humanity, history and context of the characters means this book illuminates the Talmud, its structures and its narratives, in a rich and engaging manner, and while the legal arguments are teased out, it is clear they are secondary to the relationship we can have with the text for ourselves.

It is rarely acknowledged that reading Talmud can be enormous fun and the more we can enter its world, the better we are able to join in that fun. My (Orthodox) Talmud teacher in Jerusalem used to say that anyone interested in a keeping a dynamic Judaism had to be proficient in Talmudic discourse. Skibell reveals this discourse in all its warm humanity and I look forward to the next instalment.

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