Talmud Talk and Jewish Talk

David Kraemer


Anec­do­tal evi­dence, com­bined with pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Jew­ish dis­course, sug­gest that there is an iden­ti­fi­ably Jew­ish” qual­i­ty of Jew­ish speech. Jew­ish con­ver­sa­tion leads with ques­tions, inter­rupts with objec­tions, and is relent­less­ly argu­men­ta­tive. Schol­ars have not­ed the Tal­mu­dic echos of these char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Yid­dish speech, and they have often assumed the Tal­mud and Yeshi­va-cul­ture as a source of these habits. Krae­mer lays out method­olog­i­cal prob­lems with estab­lish­ing such cau­sa­tion and refines obser­va­tions con­cern­ing par­al­lels between Tal­mu­dic and pop­u­lar Yid­dish dis­course. Final­ly, ask­ing about the plau­si­bil­i­ty of such direc­tion­al influ­ence, he reviews the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the Tal­mud and its sup­port­ing insti­tu­tions in the Yid­dish-speak­ing world from the inven­tion of the print­ing press to the end of the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry, estab­lish­ing a pri­ma facie case for the plau­si­bil­i­ty of such a conclusion.

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Let me begin by sharing a couple of brief anecdotes, recollections of past experiences that will yield the question I would like to address in this essay. The first is an experience I had when I was a relatively young child, no more than seven or eight years old. My parents came home from dinner at a local restaurant. They were upset, having heard what they characterized as “antisemitic” comments uttered by gentile neighbors who happened to be sitting at the next table. What were the comments? “Jews are so rude; they can’t have a conversation without interrupting.”

The second anecdote recalls something I heard from the religion editor at an academic press in the ‘90s. I decided to drop off the type-script of the book I was then publishing in her Manhattan office to save myself the cost of shipping. While I was in her office, we had a conversation about the process of evaluation of academic books for publication. “It is more difficult to work with Jews,” she reported, “because their reviews tend to be more argumentative and critical.”

Now, it is easy to dismiss these anecdotes as mere anecdotes, hardly worth noticing and surely unworthy of extended comment. But before we reach such a conclusion, let me add a couple of well-known popular references that reinforce the impression left by the stories just told, suggesting that there may well be a larger phenomenon at play here. The first is a scene from Woody Allen’s career-defining film, Annie Hall. To characterize the differences between his own (well, “Alvy’s”) Coney Island-based Jewish family and Annie’s WASP family in Wisconsin, Allen depicts the two families at their respective dinner tables, employing both alternating and split-screen perspectives. Throughout the sequence, the conversation at Annie’s family’s table is well-mannered and well-ordered, while the conversation at Alvy’s family’s table is loud, chaotic, and punctuated with interruptions, with each person speaking, in a raised voice, over his or her neighbor. Again, argument and interruption characterize the conversation of the Jews, in profound counter-distinction to the gentile (or at least the WASP) alternative.

Secondly, consider a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. The play opens with a view of the market of Anatevka, as chaotic as any market (or perhaps, as any Jewish market) until the assembled folk coalesces into distinct groups, each in its proper place, according to “Tradition!” Later, we return to the public/market square, now to witness Tevye and his future son-in-law, Perchik, meeting for the first time. Perchik observes to the gathered men of the village—themselves arguing about this and that—that they “should know what’s going on in the outside world.” Mordcha responds that the outside world should worry about itself, and Tevye says he is right, citing (sort of) a verse from “the Good Book.” Perchik rejects this, saying “You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in the world.” Tevye remarks that this, too, is right. Then Avram challenges Tevye, insisting that, being in contradiction with one another, they can’t both be right. “You’re also right,” Tevye avers. The exchange is less chaotic and disrupted than the ones recounted above, but it is no less argumentational. Significantly, the argument does not come to a conclusion.

These accounts and stories suggest a thesis: “Jewish” discourse, conversational and otherwise, is characterized by aggressiveness and argument, argument that may not yield resolution. Now, if we can justify this thesis, it would be worth digging deeper and asking “why?” What are the factors or influences that have led to this outcome? Why is “Jewish” discourse more “peppery” than that of (at least some) others?

But it is not difficult to see how wobbly the foundation of such an inquiry would be, at least given the cases we have cited thus far. To begin with, the first two pieces of “evidence” adduced above are anecdotal, and both represent the observations of non-Jews (not that that fact is in itself disqualifying) with relation to Jewish speech in English in twentieth-century America. The third case, from Annie Hall, is obviously fictional, and it is exaggerated for laughs; the same is true of the scene from Fiddler. Add to this the fact that we have cited only four cases, and it is hard to argue that a case has been made for something identifiably “Jewish” in Jewish speech.

At the same time, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that there is, in fact, something captured in these cases that is worth exploring. Two anecdotes do not a case make, but these anecdotes do confirm that at least some non-Jews, in significant contact with American Jews in the latter half of the twentieth century, experienced and observed something similar about Jewish speech. Might we add to the assembled cases to evaluate their observations? Furthermore, should we dismiss comic fiction just because it “isn’t real?” Or should we instead affirm that fiction, including comedy, is often more insightful, more real, than journalistic accounts, and that writers of fiction, including humorous fiction, are often more astute than other observers? In my mind, the latter is more likely to be the case than the former.

It is important to note that all the four cases referenced above are the product of a particular historical-cultural context. The (Ashkenazi) Jews whose habits of communication are characterized are immigrants or the children (or, in Allen’s case, grandchild) of immigrants from Eastern Europe, which is surely significant. The majority of Jews in that “old world” spoke a uniquely Jewish language—Yiddish (“Jewish”)—and their communities were characterized by heavily concentrated and often large Jewish populations. These are precisely the circumstances that would have permitted the development of characteristically Jewish habits of communication, habits informed by strong doses of identifiably Jewish sources. In light of this, is it worth focusing our attention on this slice of the Jewish world and seeking additional evidence that might strengthen the thesis suggested, ever so tentatively, above.

One well-known testimony to the habits of that world are the writings of Sholem Aleichem. Let us take an example from his Tevye the Dairyman stories, this one written in 1899, to begin to broaden our vision. In the selected scene, from “Today’s Children,” Tevye is sitting with Leizer-Wolf, negotiating the latter’s proposal of marriage to Tevye’s daughter, Tzeitl. Of interest for our purposes, first, is Tevye’s conversation in his head in response to Leizer-Wolf’s proposal: “He has children her age…” is his first thought. But, on account of Leizer-Wolf’s wealth, “she’ll have everything she wants.” Still, Tevye hesitates, “he is a bit common.” But in the very next moment, he realizes that “not everyone can be a scholar.” Hearing no outward response from Tevye, Leizer-Wolf asks about his silence. “This… is a matter that calls for reflection,” Tevye answers. “She is my first-born child.” “On the other hand,” Leizer-Wolf counters, “you will be able to marry off a second daughter, too, and later on a third.” 1 1 Marvin Zuckerman and Marion Herbst, eds., The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, v. II, Selected Works of Sholem-Aleykhem (Malibu, CA: Pangloss Press, 1994), 268-9.

This is obviously the foundation of the first “on the one hand… on the other hand” scene in Fiddler. What characterizes it, precisely like the Perchik scene recounted earlier, is the insistence that every question be viewed from multiple perspectives, and that no perspective is obviously or necessarily correct (they might “both be right”). On the one hand, this might be seen as expressing a quirk of Tevye’s personality, even his sloppy reasoning. On the other hand,Tevye must be understood as Sholem Aleichem’s partial caricature of the “common Jew,” who seeks to imitate the pious, more learned Jew, as an archetype in the “real” world of the shtetl. Besides, even Leizer-Wolf, understands that there is always an “other hand.” This is only one of many such examples in these stories. 2 2 See also, for example, Zuckerman and Herbst, Selected Worksof Sholem-Aleykhem, 263-4. As represented by this author, once again, Jewish conversation is characterized by argument that offers, and may not reject, alternatives.

Let us now push back even earlier, to a couple of brief examples from the writings of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher Sforim). Published in 1864, and the first story published under his pen-name, “The Little Man” begins with a torrent of questions and comments on questions. The narrator commences:

The first question that one Jew asks another, even a total stranger, as soon as they have met and shaken hands, is: “And what is your name?”

It occurs to neither of them that his response might be as follows:

“Tell me, brother, why is it so important for you to know my name? Are we going to discuss the betrothal of our children? I’m called by the name I was given and let me be!”

But the question “And what is your name?” is a natural one. It is as much a habit as feeling the material of someone’s new coat and inquiring: “How much is it a yard?” 3 3 Marvin Zuckerman, Gerald Stillman, and Marion Herbst, eds., The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, v. I, Selected Works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Malibu, CA: Pangloss Press, 1991), 53.

Lines later, the author continues:

After this initial question, Jews become curious in earnest. They bombard one with all sorts of questions, such as

Where are you from?

Are you married?

Any children?

What business are you in?

Where are you going?

And many others… 4 4 Zuckerman, Stillman, and Herbst, Selected Works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, 54.

Speaking not about particular Jews but Jews in general, the author makes a claim for the centrality of questioning to Jewish speech. Jews lead with questions, and questions are followed by more questions. Indeed, they “bombard” one another with questions. The way of the Jew, as Mendele represents it, is to question, and to do so aggressively.

In the next chapter, Mendele narrows his focus to groups of Jews in the synagogue courtyard. As he reports it, “I noticed groups of people arguing. They were talking, laughing, worrying, shaking their heads… Commotion, activity, noise, talking with hands and feet.” 5 5 Ibid., 59. A similar picture is painted by Mendele in chapter 4 of “Fishke the Lame.” The scene is a fair, and as the narrator says, “a fair is a fair—it’s noisy.” But he goes on: “A Jew at a fair is like a fish in water;” he’s at home with the tumult. The description of the goings-on is very colorful:

They ran around. They bargained… He stood in front of it and argued so loud you could hear him all over the square… It was all hustle and bustle… They talked with their hands and all at the same time. Then they stopped to think… Then, uproar again. 6 6 Ibid., 188.

So in addition to the persistent questioning that is “natural” to the Jewish speech represented by Mendele, there is also its “chaos,” Jews gesticulating (much as the student in the yeshiva), raising their voices (ditto), and interrupting one another to make their points.

While the specifics of each account are different, the purport is the same. The tumultuousness of the conversations and accompanying movements is reminiscent of what we noticed in Alvy’sfamily home in Coney Island, as well as of the observations of our neighboring “antisemites” in 1960s New Jersey. So as our focus expands, the foundation strengthens, and the suspicion that there is something “Jewish” about Jewish speech is rendered at least modestly more plausible.

Still, as with the former, chronologically later examples, there are problems with these latter, chronologically earlier examples as well. The works of both Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Moykher Sforim are literature, fiction, representing the speech of Jews but not recording it. Even if the accounts cited above were based upon actual speech—and we need not imagine that they were—the moment oral expression is rendered in writing, its quality changes irrecoverably. Moreover, we have no idea how the “voice” of the writer transformed or created any real or imagined “original” speech. If speech is our primary interest, then written versions, of any sort, are a poor substitute.

Unfortunately, there is no way around this conundrum. Audio recordings of actual east European Jewish speech (or any other speech, for that matter) extend back less than a century-and-a-half, and until the invention of electronic recording in the 1920s, few recordings of any sound were made. This means that records of actual speech we might examine are restricted to the last century. From before that, the speech in which we are interested is forever lost. 7 7 Jordan Finkin offers related observations on the methodological challenges of recovering Yiddish speech. But he does not adequately account for the consequences of representing speech in writing. Note his sentence: “We simply do not have enough of the kinds of texts that would allow us access to the full extent of the spoken registers of the language” (emphasis added). The problem is not only the extent of the texts, it is the problem of texts representing the spoken word per se. See Jordan Finkin, A Rhetorical Conversation: Jewish Discourse in Modern Yiddish Literature (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 82.

So where does that leave us? It seems to me that the prima facie case suggested by the examples adduced above allows us to affirm our thesis, that is: that there is something “Jewish” about the speech of Jews, at least if we restrict our inquiry to Ashkenazi Jews subject to the influences of Yiddish, Eastern European Jewish cultures. This is likely to be truer of Yiddish communication itself, but need not be restricted to it. To the extent that Jews maintained social separation from their gentile neighbors, speaking Yiddish sometimes to the exclusion of coterritorial languages, particular habits of expression, under specifically Jewish influences, developed. At the same time, it is safe to assume that such habits were transmitted, to one extent or another, to the “next generation”—the generation of non-Yiddish speakers whose own speech was learned by hearing and imitating the patterns of their parents and grandparents. Thus, it is fair to expand our inquiry to Jewish speech in the broader “Ashkenazi orbit.” In recognition of the fact that even the sorts of literature that represent such speech (as opposed to pious writings or Yiddish translations of rabbinic tales or teachings) are overwhelmingly from the mid-nineteenth century or later, we must restrict ourselves to consideration of the “Jewish” speech of this period. At the same time, we must assume that the formative influences on the “Jewish” components of Jewish speech in the Ashkenazi orbit have earlier roots, so we must consider the social-cultural (speech is always social-cultural) context of earlier centuries as well.

Bearing in mind the caveats and definitions expressed above, I begin by asking, “what is ‘Jewish’ about Jewish conversation?” To the extent that there is something Jewish in Jewish speech, what is the source of its distinctly Jewish qualities? Surely, there are multiple answers to this question. But I would like to focus on one important answer: while not the only influence, the Talmud is, as others have argued, a powerful influence on the patterns of Jewish conversation in the world just defined. Just consider the obvious Talmudic echoes and parallels found in the cases reviewed earlier: compulsive questioning, quick objection, seemingly chaotic point and counterpoint, even the insistence that each opinion or perspective be answered with its “on the other hand.” As even the casual student of Talmud will recognize, these are profoundly Talmudic qualities. David Roskies himself validates this direction when writing about I.L. Peretz’s “shtetl fiction,” of which he has this to say:

The compressed intimacy of the dialogue reveals both the insularity and the total cultural recall of even the average shtetl Jew; the men use biblical and rabbinic phrases, aphorisms, an elliptical style, and the rhetorical questioning of the Talmud. 8 8 David Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1995), 102.

He too suspects that what we might call “Talmud-talk” is central to the communication of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the Ashkenazi setting. It is this thesis we will pursue below, specifying the relevant Talmudic habits of discourse and making a case for the plausibility of their influence on the speech of common Ashkenazi Jews.

The influence of Talmud on Jewish (here meaning Yiddish) speech has been studied before. 9 9 In addition to the literature cited below, see Max Weinreich, “Yidishkayt and Yiddish,” in Mordecai M. Kaplan Jubilee Volume, ed. Moshe Davis (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1953), 481-514, and Uriel Weinreich, “Notes on the Yiddish Rise-Fall Intonation Contour,” in For Roman Jakobson, ed. M. Halle, et. al. (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1956), 633-43. For example, in his History of the Yiddish Language, Max Weinreich offers lengthy lists of Yiddish words and phrases that quote or partially adapt Talmudic language, and he even explores briefly how Yiddish patterns of speech reflect Talmudic precedents. 10 10 Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, vol. 1, trans. Shlomo Noble (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 215-7, 223-5. Jordan Finkin furthers this case, offering examples of Talmudic vocabulary, grammatical forms, and habits of discourse finding expression in Yiddish literature. 11 11 See Finkin, A Rhetorical Conversation in general, and see Finkin, 81 for Finkin’s cataloging of the types of influence. Perhaps clearest and most uncompromising in supporting the nexus between Talmudic and Yiddish expression is Benjamin Harshav’s claim that

In its popular forms, Yiddish internalized and schematized some essential characteristics of “Talmudic” dialectical argument and questioning… These became “second nature” to many Jews. 12 12 Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 1990), 91.

These studies constitute a foundation for the argument I wish to make. But approaching this question as a Talmudist, not a Yiddishist, I believe I am in a position to build on their foundation and offer nuance that has not earlier been suggested.

In an important study, Zelda Kahan Newman examines how Talmudic chant influences Yiddish intonation patterns, in the course of which she also illustrates how certain Talmudic habits of expression find their way into Yiddish speech patterns. 13 13 Zelda Kahan Newman,“The Jewish Sound of Speech: Talmudic Chant, Yiddish Intonation and the Origins of Early Ashkenaz,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 90, No. 3/4 (Jan.-Apr., 2000): 293-336. But her emphasis is primarily on the music of the speech and not on its forms or substance. Her categorization is amenable to analysis for these elements, too, and I will therefore begin with her categories, taking them in another direction.

The first of Newman’s categories is “an a fortiori argument in talmudic chant.” 14 14 Zelda Kahan Newman, “The Jewish Sound of Speech,” 296-7.
The speaker in such a case may or may not use classical Talmudic vocabulary to express himself, but the logical structure of such an argument is clear: because this is the case, then that must obviously be the case. Whether or not such arguments have a particular music in a Jewish setting, the logic of such arguments is not specifically Jewish, and I thus don’t count this as a Jewish habit of speech, whether it is Talmudic in origin in the Jewish setting or not.

Newman’s second category is “balanced statements in Talmudic chant.” 15 15 Ibid., 297-304. She observes that: “in the Talmud… a consideration of alternative possibilities is quite common. In the Talmud, a conditional statement ‘if x, then y,’ is seen as only half a statement.” Though her description of this category is overly general, her examples make clearer the object of her focus. Unfortunately, the “Talmudic” examples she offers are technically not Talmudic at all, but Mishnaic. Nevertheless, Newman’s argument has identified something important here, a quality that will ultimately lead us back to the scenes from Sholem Aleichem Fiddler on the Roof described above.

One of the most outstanding features of Talmudic argumentation is in fact its balance, that is, its insistence on balancing arguments in favor of one position with arguments in favor of the opposing position; at the end of such deliberations, the Talmud prefers not to decide in favor of one position or another. To take a simple example:

Baba Batra 9a

R. Huna said: We investigate [the truthfulness of a beggar who begs] for food, but we do not investigate for clothing.

If you wish I will say [that this opinion can be defended by interpretation of] scripture, and if you wish I will say [it is supported by] reason.

If you wish I will say reason: this one [the one asking for clothes] is shamed [because of his nakedness] and this one [asking for food] is not shamed.

And if you wish I will say scripture… [technical close reading of Isaiah 58:7 omitted here]

And R. Judah said: We examine for clothing but we do not examine for food.

If you wish I will say [that this opinion can be defended by interpretation of] scripture, and if you wish I will say [it is supported by] reason.

If you wish I will say reason: this one [the one who is hungry] is suffering and this one [who is naked] is not suffering [actual pain].

And if you wish I will say scripture… [technical close reading of Isaiah 58:7 omitted here]

This tightly structured deliberation is, on the one hand, of a very specific, formulaic kind, which, in all of its details (justification by reference to both reasoning and scripture), occurs only fourteen times in the Bavli. On the other hand, its approach, and particularly its balance, is thoroughly representative of the Bavli’s typical assumptions and approach. The deliberation begins with two opposing opinions with respect to the laws of tzedakah; those who offer the opinions are here Talmudic sages—Amoraim—but they could just as easily be Mishnaic sages, even Hillel and Shammai. Rather than testing each opinion and seeking to refute one or the other, the Talmud seeks to support the plausibility/wisdom of each, defending each both as a logical and as a reasonable outcome of a close reading of scripture. Now, to be fair, this deliberation ends with the observation that:

It is taught [in a baraita] in agreement with R. Judah: If he said “clothe me” we check after him; if he said “feed me” we do not check.

Now, this may be an indication that, in the opinion of the sugya (the Talmudic deliberation), R. Judah’s opinion should be accepted for halakha. But it may simply be a report of a fact: there is an earlier tradition that agrees with R. Judah’s opinion. In any case, the text doesn’t declare the halakha definitively. What is more crucial, though, is that the reasoned defenses of both opinions that precede this report remain in place. Both are clearly offered as being equally good, and, based upon the Talmudic deliberation, there is no way to conclude that this one is right and that one wrong. In the end, it is fair to say, with the gemara’s support, “you’re both right.”

It is evident that the sort of approach just exemplified is at the foundation of the humorous scenes involving Tevye quoted above. But grounding those scenes in the Talmudic precedent allows us to see that what is in those settings played for a joke is not a joke at all. Indeed, it is Tevye, despite his deceptive simplicity, who is actually the “wise man” of Fiddler , and his perceptive responses to Perchik and his interlocutors are unimpeachably wise. To the degree that Tevye’s speech—whether in its original, literary late nineteenth century or its derivative, dramatic mid-twentieth century context—accurately reflects Jewish (East European Yiddish) patterns, it may be said that those patterns learn their lesson from the Talmudic source.

It would be unfair to claim that the sugya just cited is, in all of its qualities, representative of the Talmud as a whole, though it does model an important genre. Equally important are what Newman names, in her categorization of Yiddish voice patterns based upon Talmudic precedents, “Kashes—(a presupposed negative).” 16 16 Ibid., 304.

Introducing what she means by “kashes,” Newman writes:

Inevitably [in the Talmud], there are differing interpretations of the law. Arguments are presented for each interpretation. As the debate proceeds, proponents of differing views find logical inconsistencies or insupportable conclusions in each other’s arguments. These difficulties are weighed and judged and sometimes refuted until the issue is resolved in favor of one opinion—or until the contenders admit they can come to no satisfactory conclusion. The proceedings are grounded, as we see, in the attempt of each side to invalidate its opponent’s arguments. It is this negation, or, more precisely, the negative presupposition which is the soul of talmudic debate. 17 17 Ibid., 304-5.

Talmudic debates, however, rarely seek to resolve an argument in favor of one opinion when they begin with two or more. On the contrary, they seek to defend each of the opposing opinions, as we saw in the examples offered above. And objections that might seem to seek to invalidate the opponent’s arguments actually set the stage for a defense of that argument, thus strengthening the opinion against which the objection is directed. If an opinion can withstand sharp critical inquiry, it will emerge as trustworthy and therefore durable.

But Newman’s description does, nevertheless, capture something important, that is, the Talmud’s persistent deployment of objections and questions. Indeed, the “speech-acts” for which the Talmud is most commonly known are probably these. And it is this habit of expression that underlies several of the examples quoted above. The Talmud and critical argumentation are, it might be said, one and the same. Let me offer an example of this quality, and ask how it—and its popular distortions—inform Jewish habits of speech.

The beginning of the second chapter of Bava Batra discusses a person’s obligations and limitations with respect to his neighbor’s adjoining property. A deliberation beginning on 17b and continuing to the top of 19a commences with the following Amoraic opinions:

It is said: if someone comes to locate [his new ditch or cistern] close to the side of the [property] boundary [with his neighbor], Abbaye says, “he may locate close,” and Rava says, “he may not locate close.”

These opinions are then put in the context of other related opinions, which sets the stage for a long series of objections. The series proceeds along the following course:

It is taught [in the adjacent Mishnah]: “a person should not dig a pit close to the pit of his neighbor,” [suggesting that] that reason is that there is [already] a pit [on the adjacent property], but if there is not a pit, he may locate it close [to the boundary]… this is difficult for Rava!

Rava could say to you, “it has been said concerning this… ‘we have taught this [obligation to distance] from the wall of the pit [meaning that one must always leave room for a three handbreadths wide wall of a pit, and one may therefore never dig right up the boundary line]…

Come and hear [another objection]: Crumbly soil, this one may dig his pit from this side and this one may dig his pit from this side; this one must distance [his pit] three handbreadths and plaster it with plaster, and this one must distance [his pit] three handbreadths and plaster it with plaster [implying, against Abbaye, that one may not dig right up to the boundary].

Crumbly soil is different [and Abbaye is not talking about such an exceptional case]…

Come and hear [another problem, now from the Mishnah]: “we must distance pressed olive waste and manure and salt and lime and stones from his neighbors wall a distance of three handbreadths and plaster it with plaster.” The reason is that there is [already] a wall [on the adjacent property], but if there is not a wall, he may locate it close [to the boundary, this teaching thus contradicting that of Rava]!

No, when there is no wall [already there] he may likewise not locate it close. So what does the Mishnah come to teach us [with its language that seems to suggest the opposite]? That these things are damaging to a wall.

And so forth. In all, there are ten objections directed against either Abbaye or (mostly) Rava in this sequence, and in each case the gemara defends the sage whose opinion is attacked by offering an alternative interpretation of the text on which the objection is grounded. Crucially, when such an alternative is offered, the intent is not to reverse the direction of the objection (we should not say “with this new interpretation, it is the opposite opinion that is now problematic”), because the original interpretation always remains plausible. In the end, both (or, more correctly, all, as different related opinions are offered as the deliberation progresses) opinions remain plausible and no definitive conclusion of the dispute may be offered. In this respect, this example and others like it are similar to the genre of deliberation exemplified earlier.

The most obvious quality of this and similar deliberations, whatever their outcome, is their assumption that stated opinions must be repeatedly tested and challenged, difficulties and internal inconsistencies repeatedly identified and resolved. This is the argumentational quality of the Talmud par excellence. I say “whatever their outcome” because it is easy to miss the fact that these arguments are directed at testing and thereby strengthening stated opinions, not disproving or undermining them. Unfortunately, it is fair to say that what common Jewish conversation learned from such examples is not that your opponents view must be defended but that persistent, repeated objections are central to Talmudic, and therefore Jewish, discourse. 18 18 This “Talmudic” quality of Yiddish discourse has frequently been observed. See, for example, Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish, 112. It is such argumentative discourse that my editor experienced when she commented on the critical habits of Jewish scholars. She might not have known this, but they were just being “Talmudic.”

What about the observation that Jewish discourse is characterized by interruptions, by multiple parties to the conversation speaking at one time? Does the Talmud have anything to do with this acknowledged habit of Jewish conversation?

Perhaps it does. Look at the telescoped quality of Talmudic argument, as captured in a text quoted above, now without my interpolated interpretive comments.

It is well that the House of Hillel expound their reason and the reason of the House of Shammai, but why don’t the House of Shammai say like the House of Hillel? [in the original, 12-18 words]

The House of Shammai would say to you, “If so scripture should say ‘in the morning and in the evening.’ What is ‘when you lie down and when you rise up?’ At the time of lying, you should literally lie, and at the time of rising up, you should literally rise up.” [19-21 words]

And the House of Shammai, this “and in your walking on your way,” what do they do with it? It excludes… the bridegroom. [12-13 words, excluding a short section not directly related to the point]

What can easily be seen here is that Talmudic comments—and it is fair to say that these are average such comments—are quite terse, and when they are woven together into a deliberation, the quality of speech is almost telegraphic. So the first part of this conversation is 12-18 words in the original (as opposed to 32 in the translation), the second is 19-21 (as opposed to 51), and the last is 12-13 (as opposed to 23). (The imprecision in counting is due to my indecision regarding how to count single graphemes that represent multiple words. For example, does UB’Sh = uveit Shammai = “and the House of Shammai” count as one unit, two units, or more in the mind of the reciter?) If we admit that the full meaning of the communications does require us to fill in the connecting reasoning that is here left out, demanding more “mental words” from the student than appear on the page, then we will recognize that the Talmud constantly interrupts itself, because the next expression easily begins before the prior thought has come to completion.

There can be no doubt, then, that qualities of Jewish conversation that have been identified as “Jewish” have meaningful parallels in Talmudic discourse. But can we assert more than a coincidental similarity between the Talmudic forms exemplified above and parallel habits of Jewish communication (again, where “Jewish” means within the Ashkenazic orbit)? Can we say that the latter is somehow, to some degree, the product of the influence of the former? Harshav, in the quotation excerpted earlier, seems to accept the observed phenomena as sufficient for confirming this influence. Finkin approvingly cites Harshav, Weinreich, and others in support of this conclusion, while offering important additional support. 19 19 Finkin, A Rhetorical Conversation, 2, 35, and 38. He is also sensitive to the need to identify the pathways through which the elite discourse of the academy found its way to the ears, and therefore mouths, of the masses; he identifies, in particular, the prestige of the scholar as crucial in aiding this transmission. 20 20 Ibid., 4. Still, there is much more we can say in this regard.

So, to begin with, what do we know about the availability of the Talmud in the lands we are discussing, without which the influence we have been describing would have been impossible? Key to the ultimate large-scale proliferation of the Talmud was the invention of the movable-type printing press, a technological revolution that facilitated the dissemination of knowledge in an utterly unprecedented way. The first complete printing of the Talmud was that of Daniel Bomberg in Venice, 1520-3. This edition was widely distributed, and it was so popular that Bomberg issued a second and third printing in 1526-39 and 1543-49. 21 21 Marvin J. Heller, “Earliest Printings of the Talmud,” in Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein, ed. Sharon Liberman Mintz and Gabriel Goldstein (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 2005), 72-6. In 1553, Pope Julius III ordered the destruction of the Talmud, a policy perpetuated by his successor, but printing of the Talmud continued elsewhere, particularly in Poland, and it was “the most popular printed Hebrew book in Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” 22 22 Antony Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia, vol. 1 (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010), 129. Polonsky estimates that between 48,000 and 80,000 copies of the Talmud were produced in Poland during this period. 23 23 Polansky, The Jews in Poland, 129.

Proliferation of the Talmud by virtue of new editions printed in Ashkenaz continued through the 19th century. New printings were issued in Slavuta, Ukraine, in 1801-6, 1808-13, and 1817-22. An edition was also issued in Vilna in 1835. 24 24 Ibid., 98. Most important of all was the so-called Vilna Shas, published by the widow and brothers Romm, completed in 1886. The response to this edition was extraordinary. When the family sought subscribers for the set before undertaking the project of producing the work, they set four-thousand as the minimum number. Over ten-thousand initial subscribers committed, based upon the house’s description and before a single set was printed. The first volume sold 22,000 copies, and there were still 13,000 subscribers at the time of the printing of the final volume. 25 25 Zeev Gries, “Romm Family,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, This response was obviously evidence of the central place of Talmud study in the Jewish world throughout these centuries. But printing does not assure popularity. What other development or developments raised the profile of the Talmud in this Jewish society?

Along with the spread of the Talmud, and to a significant degree explaining its spread, was the growth of the yeshiva in these same lands during this period. Consider, first, the testimony of Nathan Nata Hannover (d. 1663):

Throughout the dispersions of Israel there was nowhere with so much learning as in the Kingdom of Poland. Each community maintained yeshivot… Each community maintained young men… and for each young man they also maintained two boys to study under his guidance, so that he would orally discuss the Gemara, the commentaries of Rashi, and the Tosafot… and thus he would gain experience in the subtlety of Talmudic argumentation. 26 26 Polonsky, The Jews in Poland, 125-6.

Of particular importance for the spread of the yeshiva and its influence was R. Elijah—the Gaon—of Vilna (1720-1797). For the Gaon, there was nothing more important than Torah study, and Torah study meant, more than anything else, Talmud study. The zealousness of the Gaon and his followers for Talmud study was unprecedented and unparalleled, leading them to neglect the study of other parts of the Jewish canon and even other demands on their time. Given the Gaon’s immense prestige, his commitment had considerable influence on the future of study in Ashkenaz, particularly through the work of one of his students, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, the founder of the first modern yeshiva in 1802.

Other yeshivas founded on the same model quickly followed. Already in 1815, such a yeshiva was founded in the town of Mir (Belarus), 27 27 See Shaul Stampfer, “Mir, Yeshiva of,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, and it was followed by others. But the study of Talmud got its most significant boost with the creation of the genuinely modern yeshiva—organized, independent institutions that raised their own funds—in the latter part of the 19th century. Outstanding among these was the yeshiva of Telz, which developed a rigorous curriculum of Talmud study. 28 28 See Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford and Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012), 294-99. In this and other yeshivas, students would ideally continue their Talmud study for years, well beyond their basic studies and ordination as rabbis. Obviously, students who had attained this level of achievement were already married and having children, so the yeshivas raised money to support such advanced students so that they did not have to labor to support their families. 29 29 See chapter eleven of Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas. When community support for scholars was not enough, their wives would labor to assure that the family could have food on the table, while they would labor only for the sake of Heaven. 30 30 Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 139.

The dominance of the yeshiva and its culture was challenged and even overshadowed in some regions by Hasidic courts. But one need not look far to appreciate that this did not mean the elimination of the prestige and influence of the Talmud. Instead, the Talmud took on a new and arguably no less important role in the Hasidic setting. Teachings attributed to and printed in the names of such Hasidic luminaries as R. Elimelekh of Lesansk, R. Nachman of Bratslav, and even the Ba’al Shem Tov himself, are replete with quotations of and references to the Talmud. When quoted in these texts, the Talmud functions as Torah in the full sense. It makes no difference whether a “prooftext” comes from scripture or Talmud; both are authoritative. What this means, of course, is that the spread of Hasidism was itself a vehicle for the spread of the influence of the Talmud, and “Hasidic” language is not unaffected by Talmudic language. Furthermore, the populism of the earliest generation of Hasidic masters was soon moderated and the importance of Talmud study reasserted. 31 31 Michael Stanislawski, “The ‘Vilna Shas’ and East European Jewry,” in Printing the Talmud, eds. Sharon Mintz and Gabriel Goldstein, (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 2005), 100.

Perhaps unexpectedly, very much the same may be said of the challenge represented by maskilim, reformers, and others who rejected the authority of the yeshiva and Talmud. Of course, rebels must rebel against something, and the language of rebellion is to a significant degree determined by that against which it rebels. To reject the “casuistry” of the Talmud, they had to engage it. What this means is that the Talmud that was “rejected” by modernizing parties persisted among them as a shadow, with a powerful presence. Indeed, this is precisely what we saw earlier in the stories of Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Moykher Sforim. Both authors were enlightened, modern Jews, and the pictures of the pious Jews in their stories were often parodic. But this did not stop them from using the vocabularies and forms of the yeshiva or the Talmud. On the contrary, the parody requires the presence of the subject of the parody. Indeed, it is precisely through the naïve reading of their “romanticizing” stories—among readers oblivious to the way the authors’ representation is tinged with cultural critique—that the flavors of this world have been kept alive for many.

So all of the necessary elements to argue for the plausibility of the influence of Talmud on Jewish speech are present: the physical Talmud itself, the proliferation of its study, the growth of its prestige, the ubiquitous relationships of its students and other Jews—all of these combined to form the path by which the Talmud could leave the study hall and find a place in common Jewish parlance. Even the growth of what we might call the “anti-yeshiva resistance,” itself evidence of the power of the Talmud, ironically provided a path through which the influence of the Talmud spread. If not definitive, this quick review at least demonstrates the plausibility of our thesis that Talmudic discourse is an important factor in the development of Jewish speech habits in the Yiddish-speaking world and the worlds to which it gave birth.

Beyond this, though, we must recognize that even if many of the influences upon Jewish speech cultures were those of the surrounding linguistic culture, one of the uniquely Jewish influences in all settings was the language of the Talmud, which has no direct parallel in any host culture. What made Judeo-Arabic or Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) or Judeo-Italian or Yiddish (Judeo-German) Jewish? Of course, the fact that the speakers of these dialects were Jewish, and that they used a vocabulary infused with Hebrew or Jewish terms, be they biblical, liturgical, or Talmudic. But at the core of Jewish language, however diverse, is also Jewish habits of thinking and arguing. From the period of the growth of the Talmud’s authority at the hands of the Babylonian Geonim onward, Jewish thinking has been influenced, to one degree or another, directly or indirectly, by Talmudic thinking. The same may also be said, therefore, of Jewish communication.

The Talmud had a different place in each of the Jewish communities just mentioned, being more central and influential in some than in others. Crucially, in more recent centuries, in the lands where Ashkenazi Jews have lived, the Talmud’s station has been more powerful than in any prior Jewish culture. There can be no surprise, then, that the influence of the Talmud is felt not just in the vocabulary of those Yiddish- (and now Hebrew and English) speaking communities, but even in the way the imaginations of those Jews shaped—and continue to shape—their languages and cultures.

Kraemer, David. “Talmud Talk and Jewish Talk.” In geveb, June 2020:
Kraemer, David. “Talmud Talk and Jewish Talk.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


David Kraemer

David Kraemer is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics and Director of the Library at The Jewish Theological Seminary.