P. 14


           Finally, the Midrash Halacha is a work of the Mishnaic era that provides a sentence-by-sentence
interpretation of halachic (or legal) concepts learned from the verses of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and
Deuteronomy. Its constituent parts are the Mechilta (treating the book of Exodus), the Sifra (Leviticus), and the
Sifrei (Numbers and Deuteronomy). See generally BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Megillah 28b (Gemara discussion of
Sifra, Sifrei, and Tosefta).

           For standard English translations of the Sifrei, see MIDRASH SIFRE ON NUMBERS (P. Levertoff trans.,
17 See A. COHEN TALMUD, supra note 16, at xxxi-xxxvii. The term Gemara means "learning" or "scholarship" in
Aramaic and "completion" in Hebrew. The commentary and debate on the Mishnah that the Gemara records took
place from about 200 C.E. to about 500 C.E. in the Talmudic academies of Jewish communities in Mesopotamia
(Babylon) and Palestine. Id. at xxxi. The scholars of both groups during that period were called Amoraim, meaning
"speakers" or "expounders." Id. However, the Gemara of one group varied, in extent and selection, from the
material preserved by the other. Id. at xxxii.

           There are thus two Talmuds, one called the Babylonian and the other the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud.
Id. For various reasons, the Babylonian Talmud has long been of primary importance, and citations to the Talmud
in this book are to its Babylonian version.

           Standard citation to the Babylonian Talmud follows the conventions set by Daniel Bomberg, who
published the first complete editions in Venice in the early sixteenth century. Its numbering is by folio, and page,
and the pagination is based on a system that assigns numerical values to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each
folio leaf bears a Hebrew numeral. Each leaf has two sides, referred to by the first two letters of the alphabet, which
correspond to the numbers one (alef) and two (bet); the verso is alef and the recto bet, since Hebrew is written from
right to left. Although modern editions include page numbers in Arabic numerals, it is considered a sign of
ignorance and bad form to use them in Talmudic discourse. Thus, for example, the Arabic page number 202 of a
given tractate is properly referred to as koof-alef (the equivalent in Hebrew numerals of 101, which is half of 202),
side bet (2)–or as page 101b.
18 For example, the Gemara discusses and analyzes laws relating to the Sabbath, marriage and divorce, damages,
contracts, crimes, bailments, sacrifices, and ritual uncleanliness. For a capsulized statement of the content of the
Gemara, see STEINSALTZ, ESSENTIAL, supra note 15, at 279–83. Rabbi Steinsaltz comments that

           [t]he purpose of the Talmud is talmud Torah (literally study of Torah) in the widest sense of the
           word, that is, acquisition of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, since Torah is regarded as
           encompassing everything contained in the world. An allegory in the Talmud and the commentaries
           depicts the Torah as a kind of blueprint for construction of the world. Elsewhere, the Talmud
           calculated that the scope of Torah was several times that of the world. Thus all of life is of interest
           to scholars and constitutes fit subject matter for the Talmud, to be discussed in brief or at length.
           The concept of Torah is immeasurably wider than the concept of religious law, and while Jewish
           religious jurisprudence encompasses all spheres of life and overlooks almost nothing, the scope of
           Torah is even wider.
Id. at 95.
19 The Gemara itself suggested that the refusal to deal with ostensibly absurd questions was understandable in terms
of the limitations on human tolerance, but was ultimately a mistake. No matter how baldly hypothetical a question
appeared, it might nonetheless raise issues warranting careful consideration. Consider, for example, the following:
one of the Rabbis was viewed askance for asking whether a two-headed man was required to wear two sets of
tefillin (phylacteries). Just then, another man entered the academy, announcing that his wife had given birth to a
two-headed boy (Siamese twins?) and asking whether he must make one or two contributions for pidyon haben
(redemption of the first born son). BABYLONIAN TALMUD, supra note 3, Menachot 37a.
20 See, e.g., BABYLONIAN TALMUD, supra note 3, Berakoth 6a (discussing how to find footprints of demons
surrounding one's bed at night by sprinkling sifted ashes).
21 This is not surprising, since traditional Judaism regulates the entire lives of its adherents, including sexual
relations and bodily functions. Thus, the Sages were necessarily required to discuss the minutiae of these matters.
See, e.g., BABYLONIAN TALMUD, supra note 3, Nidah 33a (discussing sex); id., Shabbath 41a (discussing
appropriate posture for males leaving communal bath); see also STEINSALTZ, ESSENTIAL, supra note 15, at 96.
Rabbi Steinsaltz notes that
           although the talmudic sages were marked by their almost excessively modest approach to sexual

   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19