Let My People Know

"The thought-language of the Talmud"


In the last hundred years, the Talmud has been translated, completely or partially, into a few modern languages.

There is a French and a German translation, and at least two full English translations. 

Yet these translations, which vary in the level of their scientific precision, have not succeeded in overcoming the basic problem of translating Talmudic "language."

The problem is not a simple linguistic difficulty.

In fact, the Jewish-Aramaic jargon of the Sages is neither very rich nor very complicated. 

Although, like all ancient books, it contains a small number of words and expressions that are not fully understood, the ongoing exegetic tradition of many generations is very helpful for the skilled translator. 

A much greater difficulty is that of the basic literary style. 

It is very hard to transmit into any other language the flower of a living dialogue between people who know one another and who live the issues they discuss. 

Such a discussion creates, by its very nature, a professional jargon, with its own terminology. 

Any participant in such discussions is supposed to have prior knowledge of the pertinent subjects–all of which may be complete foreign to an outsider.

Yet the main difficulty that these translations have not overcome is the very essence of the matter: the thought-language of the Talmud. 

The Talmudic dialogue, which constitutes the major part of the book, is, in its essence, stenographic and fragmented. 

Complex and complicated ideas are expressed in few words, and whatever is said is but the visible tip of the iceberg, whereas the major part of every idea has to be understood from the content, from the general framework of Talmudic thinking and on the basis of a tremendous amount of prior knowledge which is taken for granted–knowledge that was transmitted orally from generation to generation in frontal teaching.

An additional problem, which is even more basic, is the thought-language of the Talmud. 

The Talmud has a way of thinking of its own. 

It cannot be compared either with the legal way of thinking–even though the Talmud deals extensively with legal issues–or with the mathematical way of thinking, although it has precise axiomatic foundations and a logical system with set rules. 

This book, which is totally based on abstract thinking, contains almost no abstract concepts. 

Its way of thinking is built upon real models and highly complex operations with these models.

The new translation of the Talmud is only partially a verbal one. 

Mainly, it attempts to translate the Talmudic universe of thinking and logic into a language which people brought up within Western culture can relate to and understand.

After the simple, literal translation comes the main work: filling in the gaps in the sentences and between them, explaining issues that are quoted from other sources, and tying the conversational framework in such a way that will be coherent for the student.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From an essay, "The Talmud," January 01, 1994, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz