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The Structure of the Talmud

Viewed superficially, the Talmud seems to lack inner order. The order of the Talmud is not that commonly found in standard textbooks. The arrangement of the Talmud is not systematic, nor does it follow familiar didactic principles. Since the Talmud deals with an overwhelmingly broad subject - the nature of all things according to the Torah, its contours are a reflection of life itself.

 

The structure of the Talmud is associative. The material of the Talmud was memorized and transmitted orally for centuries. Its ideas are joined to each other by inner links, and the order often reflects the needs of memorization, Talmudic discourse shifts from one subject to a related subject, or to a second that brings the first to mind in an associative way.

 

There are, of course, a number of features characteristic of the way the Talmud is organized. First, it is very rare for the Talmudic discussion of any given subject to begin with a detailed definition of the subject.

 

A second feature of Talmudic organization is that subjects are arranged so as to stimulate interest. Tractates usually open with a somewhat puzzling introduction, taken from the very depths of the subject, and only afterwards does the discussion return to its original starting point.

 

In general the Talmud starts from the Mishnah (whose structure is based on similar principles), and, after explaining it, the Talmud continues to develop themes connected with it. The sources bearing on these themes are quoted and discussed in detail. Sometimes, however, when a source connected to the central theme is quoted, a detailed discussion of that source ensues.

 

Sometimes, too, the Talmud passes from one subject to another in an associative way. After the statement of a certain scholar is cited, a whole series of his statements may be presented and the Talmud may drift away from the first, central topic. Sometimes the focus of attention may shift from subject to subject until we find ourselves far from the original starting point. However, not only does the Talmud ultimately return to the original subject, it is also guided by an inner connection - sometimes very subtle, but often very strong - between all the subjects discussed. This connection is never merely superficial, and the seemingly wayward digressions in fact add substance and interest to the central theme.

 

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