May 23, 2024
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Swimming in the Sea of Talmud

In referring to the corpus of Talmudic literature, many have used the metaphor “Yam Ha-Talmud” (ים התלמוד), the sea of Talmud. This usage became popular in the time of the Rishonim and is probably based on a Midrash that interprets the phrase, “and the sea is not full,” (והים איננו מלא) from Chapter 10 of Proverbs (משלי). The Midrash says that the sea is the Talmud, which has within it many wisdoms. There is a well-known “map of Jewish law” produced by Abba Kovner that hangs in the Bet Ha-tefutsot museum in Tel Aviv that depicts the history of Jewish legal interpretation as a river with many branches; my print of it hangs right next to my desk at SAR High School.

I’m inspired by this metaphor as a learner and teacher of Talmud. As a learner, the constant discovery of new angles and ideas every time I take a new look at a Talmudic passage is reminiscent of the way scientists continually discover new aspects of the ocean. I’m reminded that scientists know more about space than they do about the ocean. The oceans and seas are so accessible, and yet there remains so much left to find; I often feel the same way about the Talmud. And as a teacher, the ways to bring students into the Talmudic waters are many. Some students take naturally to Talmud and some do not. Of course, one obvious aspect of Talmud study that can make its study complex is its linguistic character. The Talmud features both Hebrew and (Talmudic) Aramaic, and often switches from Hebrew to Aramaic (or vice versa) from phrase to phrase!

Students who take naturally to Hebrew and Aramaic often have an easier time getting used to the Talmud, and some can jump into the deep end and start swimming right away. Students whose facility with Hebrew lettering and language is less natural often struggle to parse the words of the Talmud. Students who struggle with language, in general, often have an even more difficult time with Talmud.

Students who struggle with the lettering and language of Talmud can learn, and there are many approaches to teaching them. Sometimes it makes sense to simply allow students to use translations. Between Artscroll, Sefaria, Mercava and others, there are many excellent translations available that allow students to parse a Talmudic passage. At other times, it makes sense to push students to encounter the Talmud in its primary language and slowly make their way through a passage. Nearly every passage contains words that students already know or can quickly learn, and, with a little hand holding, students can be guided to a rudimentary understanding of a given passage. At still other times, a teacher might choose to barely encounter the text and focus instead on concepts, posing a question that a passage addresses, collecting ideas from students, or sharing what the Talmud says about a question and thereby generating discussion.

Some teachers may believe that we should simply not teach Talmud to students who don’t have natural aptitude for it; perhaps it would be better for these students to focus on Mishna and other “easier” Judaic texts. While I understand that impulse, I disagree with it. In any case, I have actual students in my Talmud classroom who deserve to learn. They should, like more advanced students, have access to the joy, fun and play that can be hallmarks of Talmudic learning and that can be hard to come by for students who struggle in this way.

For students who take naturally to Hebrew and Aramaic, the new vocabulary terms they collect as they begin their Talmud study are exciting. I remember joyfully memorizing lists of Aramaic terms and their various suffixes as well as some of the classic abbreviations (those were my favorite) as a grade schooler. For students who don’t come to language learning as naturally, that joy is harder to come by. This is why I’ve been working to “game-ify” the learning of Talmudic vocabulary with a specific eye toward these students.

With support from the Covenant Foundation through SAR’s Innovation Lab, I reached out through a colleague to foreign language teachers of students with language-based learning disabilities who offered two important suggestions. First, students need to hear new words as they see them; the learning must include both audio and visual components. Second, the more context a student has for why they’re being exposed to a particular phrase at a particular time, the better.

These two central ideas have led me to use two online tools as I develop a gamified Talmudic vocabulary curriculum. One is Gimkit Creative. Gimkit allows a teacher to create gamified quizzes that include both audio and visual components. Its enhanced version, Gimkit Creative, allows a teacher to design a game that includes some context. For example, a unit about the setup of the Sanhedrin – the Rabbinic High Court in Jerusalem – could easily include a Gimkit game unit made to look like the Sanhedrin in the Beit Hamikdash and designed to have a player tasked with discovering the name of the Sanhedrin’s leader. In order to learn that name, the player would have to make their way around the game map, encountering tasks along the way that could only be solved by answering questions correctly, and the questions would include both audio and visual vocabulary prompts.

Another tool I’m using is Google My Maps, which allows users to design a map overlaid on top of the familiar Google Maps design. In this way, students can gain critical geographic and historical context for their learning. For example, students can be directed to a Google My Maps spot, perhaps the birthplace of Hillel the Elder in Bavel, and given some historical information about him. They would then be tasked with helping Hillel travel to the yeshiva of Shemaya and Avtalyon in Jerusalem to begin his studies. In order to get to Jerusalem, they would need some money and resources and would have to complete a level on Gimkit in order to do so. After completing it, they receive a code that enables them to uncover the next step on the Google My Map, and so on. SAR High School’s incredible ed-tech professionals have been a huge resource in beginning to build this project.

In using tools that bring audio and visual components to language learning and add geographic and historical context, I’m hoping that even students who struggle with language acquisition will begin to dip their toes into the Sea of Talmud. As they wade in and find that the waters are safe and fun to explore, they’ll learn to float, to swim and eventually to jump into the deep end all by themselves, confident that they too have found the tools they need to navigate our central Jewish texts.


Rabbi Lindenbaum teaches Jewish Studies and works in Israel Guidance at SAR High School. He graduated from Yeshiva University with a degree in History and received his semikha from Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg of Jerusalem. He earned certification from the Jewish New Teacher Project and participated in the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators’ inaugural Aleinu L’Shabeach conference focusing on Tefillah education as well as Mechon Hadar’s JJGI Fellowship for Rabbis and Senior Educators.

About Machon Siach:

Machon Siach was established in 2015 with a legacy gift from Marcel Lindenbaum z”l, honoring the memory of his wife, Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum z”l”.

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