How to Start Learning Talmud

תלמוד ממתאי (ברכות ב)

In traditional Jewish learning, we often refer to the “sea of Talmud.”1 This is not merely a picturesque metaphor; it expresses a key characteristic of the Talmud. Dipping into it is like entering a vast sea: there is no beginning or end, and all of it connected to the other parts and to its depths. This means that no matter where you start, including the first word of the first volume of the first order (pictured above), you are entering the story in the middle, and you probably don’t have all the background knowledge and context you need. Fortunately, you have centuries’ worth of tools to help you navigate. Here is what I have learned about getting started with Talmud, after years of study, both in yeshiva and academic settings.

Table of Contents

1. Getting Started: The Basics

When I started learning Talmud, I searched for a guide that would help me get my bearings. There is no such guide, and for good reason: it’s impossible to get your bearings in Talmud without encountering the text (you’ll need plenty of sitzfleisch!) There are helpful reference works, on which, see below. This might be the most important thing I could tell any beginner approaching Talmud for the first time: you can’t do it without doing it, and only sitting down and reading lots of Talmud will allow you to understand how the Talmud “works.” This can be frustrating for whole-to-parts learners (like myself), who need to see the big picture before examining the details, but the Talmud is decidedly a parts-to-whole enterprise. You must start with the small details and only then can you see the big picture.

You are supposed to be confused at first, up to a point—you should know foundational halachic concepts, or you’ll be too lost. For example, if you have no idea what teruma is, you will be too confused by the first sentence of the Talmud to make much of it. If you don’t know a basic term or concept, take your time to look it up (Google works great, though better in Hebrew than in English, and AI chatbots can be good as well—as an example from that first sentence, you might search for “teruma,” then read just enough to understand that teruma is specially tithed produce that kohanim (Temple priests) are allowed to eat under certain conditions of ritual purity). As I work through the entire Talmud, I am slowly writing background information in my Talmud Guides.

What is the Talmud?

When we talk about “the” Talmud, we are referring to the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud). The Bavli was redacted in approximately the years 200 to 500 CE in Sasanian Persia, which the Jews of the period still called Bavel (Babylonia) after the ancient empire, and which is today mostly Iraq—that is, a diaspora community residing outside the Land of Israel. There is also another Talmud, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), which was redacted in Eretz Yisrael from approximately 200 to 400 CE. In comparison to the Bavli, the Yerushalmi, which was actually written not in Jerusalem but elsewhere in the Land of Israel, is shorter, less edited, and generally displays an earlier stage in the development of the text. This is because of the difficult political conditions in the Land of Israel in late antiquity. As a result, the Bavli, composed in somewhat rosier political conditions, is our “main” Talmud.

Both Talmuds contain two texts: the Mishna and the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishna. The Mishna was a definitive formulation of the Oral Law, the tradition that was passed down alongside the Written Torah, made by Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi (usually referred to simply as “Rabbi”), c. 200 CE.2 Initially, it was forbidden to write down the Oral Torah, but the extreme persecution of Jews in Roman times made it permissible, in order that the Oral Torah not be forgotten (see Rambam’s introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna). The Mishna is written in clear rabbinic Hebrew, also called Mishnaic Hebrew. It is declarative, straightforwardly stating the halacha—scholars call this apodictic—often along with different positions of various rabbis. The Gemara, which is a wide-ranging commentary on the Mishna, is, in contrast, dialectical—written in the manner of a back-and-forth conversation. It uses cases, often edge cases, to probe the parameters of the law and often gets into conceptual analysis, though it is not systematic in the manner of Western philosophy. The Gemara includes, along with the legal analysis that is its mainstay, plenty of aggadeta, or narrative stories about the rabbis. The Gemara of the Yerushalmi is written in Galilean Aramaic, a dialect of Western Aramaic, while the Bavli is written in a dialect of Eastern Aramaic, which are distinct dialects, though mutually intelligible. These were the spoken vernaculars at the time of the writing of the Gemara.

The rabbis of the Mishna are called Tannaim (“teachers”),3 and there are, traditionally, seven generations of Tannaim. The rabbis of the Gemara are called Amoraim (“sayers”) and there are traditionally seven generations of Amoraim as well. Both the Mishna and the Gemara, then, are comprised of multiple layers of rabbinic discussion from many different time periods, but which are juxtaposed by the text as if they are having a continuous conversation with each other. As a general rule, Tannaim have higher authority than Amoraim, being closer to the revelation at Sinai, and an Amora cannot argue with a Tanna, though he can argue with a fellow Amora (as a Tanna can argue with a fellow Tanna).

Below is a the Vilna daf, a page of the Talmud Bavli. Daf means folio page in Hebrew, i.e., a double-sided page (a single side is called an amud). It’s called the Vilna daf because it was first printed this way in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania between 1835 and 1854 by the Press of the Widow and Romm Brothers, based upon the first printings of the Talmud by Yehoshua Shlomo Soncino in the fifteenth century, adopted in the first complete Talmud printed by the Daniel Bomberg in Venice in the early sixteenth century. The printed form of a page of a sefer (Jewish book) is known as tzurat ha-daf.

Click to enlarge, then click again on the image with the magnifying glass. PDF version here.

The most important elements to focus on for beginners are the center column of text (Mishna and Gemara) and Rashi’s commentary, which provides context, gives definitions, explains difficult words, and also much more, such as giving halachic positions, which you’ll see more as you become more experienced in learning Talmud.

In Which Tractate to Start?

There is no wrong or right way to start learning Talmud. It’s great to start right at the beginning with Masechet Berachot, especially because the subject matter is engaging right off the bat. If you are less familiar with Jewish prayer, though, you might want to start elsewhere. Sukkah, Rosh Hashana, Megilla (on Purim), and Taanit (on fast days) are smaller tractates that are eminently doable and may deal with topics you are more familiar with. A classic place to start is with the second chapter of Bava Metzia, which deals with the laws of returning lost objects. Bava Kama, the first tractate of Seder Nezikin, is likewise a good example of clear-cut legal rules having to do with damages, like what happens if you dig a pit in the public domain and someone falls inside it. If you like history, you might enjoy starting with Sanhedrin.

2. Learning How to Learn

Methods of learning Talmud (darchei ha-limud) have existed since the Talmud itself, and began to be articulated in the period of the early Rishonim (medieval period). These may become interesting to you later on as you gain experience with Talmud, but your first task is to learn how to decode the peshat, or straightforward meaning, of the text.

Using Translations Effectively (or Not)

The availability of English translations has opened up the world of Gemara to many people, a wonder, but I really encourage you to begin by learning the original text, even if you have to go very slowly line by line and look up half the words. Doing three lines in the original is more effective in terms of learning how to learn than an entire daf in translation. You can always check your understanding by revealing the translation when you’ve given the original a good shot first. For this I recommend using Al HaTorah, where you can easily toggle the English on and off for each phrase, and leave it off by default. You could also use Sefaria and set it to Hebrew only in the language options.

I do not think it’s possible to understand the “mind” of the Gemara by reading the English with its extensive interpolations, even though many of them derive from Rashi and other classic sources, but which fundamentally alter the process of decoding the text. The text of the Gemara is extremely sparse and formulaic, and it requires work to unpack. It’s so much more enriching and satisfying to do that work yourself, with some traditional help from Rashi. Give yourself the opportunity to struggle with it and emerge with understanding.

There are two major options for English translations of the Talmud, Artscroll and Koren (these are the names of the publishers of the translations; the Artscroll was made by a team while the Koren is by R. Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)). Both are more than translations: they, by necessity of the extreme terseness of the Aramaic, include supplementary and explanatory phrases. These are distinguished by being unbolded, while the direct translation is bolded. The Koren also includes illustrations, biographies of the sages, and other tools. The Artscroll is available to purchase in printed volumes or in digital form, and the Koren is available in printed volumes, as purchasable pdfs, or free on Sefaria.

Deciphering Peshat ha-Talmud (the Simple Meaning of the Text)

Your first task is just to understand the words on the page. Go slowly and make sure you know what each word means in a language you know well. At this stage, a dictionary will be your best friend (see below for digital tools that make looking up words much faster). Once you can translate the phrase for yourself, you’ll want to understand the argument that it’s making. Is it a statement, a question, or an answer? Rashi can be very helpful in decoding the basic meaning of the text, if you are able to read his commentary in the original (or you can use a translation, which generally relies on Rashi).

Learning the Expressions of the Talmud

Some introductions to Talmud try to teach you the formal mechanics of Talmudic expressions, like the way מיתיבי literally means “they respond,” but always functions as “they raise a difficulty,” specifically when introducing a statement by a Tanna that seems to contradict a statement of an Amora. I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to memorize these expressions and their technical functions before you even begin. On the other hand, it’s natural to pick them up as you spend more time with the text.

A few starting expressions that I do think are helpful to know:

  • מתניתין (“our Mishnah”), often abbreviated, indicates the beginning of a direct citation of a Mishna which will then be examined, while גמרא indicates the beginning of Amoraic commentary on that Mishna.
  • תנן (“we teach”) introduces an quotation from a Mishna.
  • תניא, תנו רבנן (“it was taught,” “the rabbis taught”) indicates the beginning of a baraita, a Tannaitic source not included in the Mishna.
  • אמר (“he said”) indicates the beginning of a memra, an Amoraic statement.

About Baraitot, Memrot, and Other Sources

As mentioned above, our Mishna is a compilation of Oral Law made by Rabbi (Yehuda ha-Nasi), the head (nasi) of the Sanhedrin, the court of seventy that made decisive and binding rulings for the Jewish people, around the year 200 CE. Rabbi’s Mishna is definitive, but it was not the only version of the Oral Law that existed. Other Tannaitic teachings were preserved, some orally and others in writing, such as the collection known as Tosefta (“Additions”) which collects traditions in the same order as Rabbi’s Mishna. The Tosefta is the major extant collection of Tannaitic statements from outside the Mishna, each known as a baraita (plural: baraitot), meaning “outside one.” However, more collections of baraitot circulated orally, many of which are cited by the Talmuds. Each baraita carries the authority of the Tannaim, just as do our Mishnayot.

Other major sources of Tannaitic statement that exist in writing are the Midrashei Halacha (legal midrash), especially the Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, the Sifra, and the Sifre. It is helpful to identify when a baraita is being cited by the Gemara, because it tells you what layer of authority you’re working with. A statement of a Tanna can only be contradicted by another statement of a Tanna, not by that of an Amora, which must defer to it. When an Amora makes a statement, which as we’ve seen is generally introduced by the term amar, it is called a Memra.

Delving into Parshanut ha-Talmud (Interpretation of the Text)

Once you have a solid grasp of the plain meaning of the Gemara, you can begin to analyze it conceptually. How does the argument work? What does each position mean for the halachic concept in question? What are different valid positions on the issue, and which one do we follow? What are your own questions about the Mishna, or on the Gemara?

At this stage, few of the mefarshei ha-Talmud (interpreters of Talmud) are available in English, and most of them are written in a rabbinic mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, like the language of the Gemara itself (If your Hebrew is strong, dig in!). However, both Artscroll and Koren are working on English translations of Tosafot, which is the running dialectical commentary printed alongside the Gemara on the daf. Tosafot are an edited compilation of the work of many hands, and many alternate versions of Tosafot exist. The version we have in our Talmuds is based on the selection of early modern printers and their editors. Tosafot are just one of many medieval commentaries on the Talmud, but due to their centrality on the daf, they have become a definitive commentary that is usually studied after Rashi.

On the outer margins and at the “back of the book” (literally for printed volumes), you will find additional commentaries. Some of the most important are the Rabbenu Chananel, Rabbenu Nissim Gaon, Rif, Ramban, Rosh, Rashba, Ritva, and Ran (Ran is formally a commentary on the Rif). With the exception of the first three, these are longer even than Tosafot, written in whole paragraphs, and present an analysis of the sugya (unit of Gemara). There are also whole books devoted to halachic subjects that discuss in further detail aspects of the sugyot. It can also be interesting and instructive to see how the sugyot are used in the codes, such as Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and the Tur/Beit Yosef/Shulchan Aruch.

Bekiut vs. Iyun: Covering Territory or Learning In Depth?

There are two basic modes of Talmud learning, bekiut, or general knowledge, and iyun, or in-depth learning. Both are incredibly valuable and you don’t have to choose; you can do both, alternating or at the same time. It’s a good idea to decide which approach you’re going to take for a given tractate or study session and set your learning goals accordingly. If you choose the bekiut route, you want to figure out just enough to move forward as fast as you can, so you can cover the most ground and gain familiarity with large amounts of texts. If you’re doing iyun, feel free to move slowly, ask the text all your questions, and delve into commentaries. For iyun, a good unit might be as small as a sugya on one Mishna on a topic you’re interested in, or as large as a whole perek, but probably not more than that at a time.

3. Texts and Tools for Learning Talmud

There are a wealth of tools available to you to support your Talmud learning, many of them for free. Below, I go through the ones I think are most valuable, especially for beginners.

Sefer or Digital?

The choice of paper book vs. digital text is very much down to personal preference and circumstances. Each has positives to recommend it, as well as drawbacks. For example, many digital texts lose the traditional page layout, tzurat ha-daf, which may or may matter to you, while printed books are expensive and most printed Gemaras don’t have nikud (vowel dots). You also don’t have to be exclusive: for bekiut, I use digital texts; for iyun, I will sometimes use a printed Shas.

Here are my personal recommendations for print and digital Gemaras:

  • My favorite printed edition of the Bavli is Oz VeHadar (the regular one with the brown cover, although the Metivta Shas edition is a favorite of many people).
  • I highly recommend Al HaTorah for learning Talmud digitally. Its layout is more like reading a daf to me and as I mentioned above, I like that you can toggle translations easily (and can ignore them if you prefer). However, there are two great features that Sefaria offers: the ability to look up any word simply by highlighting it with your mouse, and the in-text pop-up info on the rabbis mentioned in the Mishna and Gemara. Both sites also have Mishna, Tosefta, and Yerushalmi, all with commentaries, if you get into learning those.
  • If you want tzurat ha-daf, the best digital version is Mercava, which also has helpful tools, such as toggling nikud on and off and automatically highlighting the text by function (question, answer, rebuttal, contradiction, etc.)

Daf Yomi and Other Learning Programs

Daf Yomi is a project started in 1923 by R. Meir Shapiro (after being proposed in 1920 by R. Moshe Menachem Mendel Spivak), which is a program for learning Talmud one daf at a time, completing it in a cycle of seven and a half years. A huge plus of daf yomi is that it gets people on the same page, literally: you can follow along with thousands of Jews from around the world. It’s become very popular and there are many resources built around daf yomi. It works very well for many people.

I tend to think that daf yomi is not a good fit for new learners, however (and maybe not for experienced learners, either). The pace of daf yomi is fairly rapid, so it essentially requires beginners to rely on translations or interpolations. As I’ve said, I think this deprives you of gaining text skills and independence. Something I personally dislike about daf yomi is that it breaks up the text in an arbitrary way, rather than by the internal organization of the text. I like learning the Gemara on an entire Mishna as a unit, breaking it up logically by topics within the sugyot. I would recommend setting a learning goal of a chapter (or a masechet if you want a bigger challenge) as a starting place.

R. Yitzchak Frank’s Practical Talmud Dictionary (new ed., Maggid, 2016)

This indispensable study aid translates phrases rather than words, both into Hebrew and English (though its longer definitions are only in English). It gives details about how the phrase functions in the text.

R. Yitzchak Frank’s Gemara Card (new version, Maggid, 2016)

This isn’t even a book, it’s a lamented trifold card that is absolutely chock-full of the most important information you need at your fingertips as you learn Gemara, including a lexicon of the most commonly used words and phrases, another of common abbreviations (rashei tevot), a chart of major sages and their generations/locations (Eeretz Yisrael or Bavel), a basic Aramaic grammar, and weights and measures used in the Talmud.

R. Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz), Reference Guide to the Talmud (rev. ed., Koren, 2014) [Kindle version here]

This comprehensive and eminently usable reference is great to have on your shelf for the many questions that come up in the course of learning Talmud.

Introduction to the Talmud (Artscroll, 2019) [Hebrew version here]

This introduction, written from a traditional perspective, is more of a narrative introduction and sourcebook than a reference volume, though it also works in that capacity.

R. Yitzchak Frank;s Grammar for Gemara and Targum Onkelos: An Introduction to Aramaic (new expanded ed., Maggid, 2016)

If you want to get a better grasp of Aramaic, R. Frank’s expert teaching methods work great for Aramaic grammar as well. You may get more out of this book once you have a bit of Aramaic experience in the text first, but if you’re an analytic type, it can help to read it first, then read it again later.

R. Joshua Kulp and Jason Rogoff, Reconstructing the Talmud (Hadar, 2017)

For an introduction to academic methods of studying the Talmud and teasing apart its historical layers and development, I highly recommend Reconstructing the Talmud. It is also full of detailed examples from the text of the Talmud that walk you through the concepts. (There’s also a Volume 2 if you want more.)

Websites

In addition to the digital texts mentioned above, a few websites that are great for Talmud beginners are:

  • The Aramaic-Hebrew dictionary tool on Daf Yomi Portal (there is also a Daf Yomi Portal app [Android | iOS], though I like using the website version of the dictionary). The “distance” between Hebrew and Aramaic is less than that between English and Aramaic, so this tool was a game changer for me in terms of retaining Aramaic vocabulary.
  • For all things related to the Jewish calendar (which come up a lot in the Talmud), Hebcal is your best friend. TorahCalc lets you quickly calculate tons of Jewish things, such as Talmudic units of measure.
  • Dafyomi.co.il looks like it’s straight out of 2004, but it is full of point-by-point daf summaries and Tosafot summaries in English. It can be really helpful for beginners as a way to check your understanding.
  • WebShas is a no-frills but valuable index of topics in the Talmud, made by a rabbi, as opposed to AI or other automation (for an app that does similar duty, see below, Hamafteach).

Apps

TES Talmud Dictionary [Android | iOS], $14.99

The classic, and still indispensable, Jastrow dictionary, app-ified. If you just want access to Jastrow and don’t need a dedicated app, Jastrow is also available freely on Sefaria.

Kehati App [Android | iOS], free

It can be helpful to learn all the Mishnayot on a perek or masechet before starting the Gemara, and the modern Kehati commentary on the Mishna is a brilliant guide. It’s now available free of charge through the Kehati app, both in Hebrew and in English translation (in the same app).

HaMafteach [iOS only], free

I’m not much of an Apple person, but this app is worth getting an iPad for, honestly. It’s a powerful digital index of Talmud topics. I forget to use it as often as I should!

Steinsaltz Daily Study [Android | iOS], free

I’ve tried hopping onto Daf Yomi twice before ultimately deciding it wasn’t for me, but this was my favorite learning app for Daf Yomi during those trials. Even if you don’t use the Steinsaltz tools, it’s got a great layout for keeping up with daily learning and built-in trackers for accountability and keeping track.

Shas Chabura [Android | iOS], free

Shas Chabura is a tracking app for daily study. It’s not totally customizable, but it does offer more flexibility than I’ve found in any other Daf Yomi-style app. If you just want to keep track of your learning, whether in a sefer or somewhere online rather than in a dedicated app, this might be the right fit.

Talmud Quest [Android | iOS], free

This lightweight app quizzes you in a smart way about Gemara words and terms. It has beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels.

Podcasts & Shiurim in English

Most Talmud podcasts are done daf yomi style, that is, daf by daf. Even if you don’t learn by the daf, it can be helpful to look up a podcast for a given daf you happen to be on.

Daf Yomi for Women (and everyone!) by Hadran.org.il

Hosted by Rabbanit Michelle Farber, this is my hands-down favorite overview of the daf. I often listen to old episodes on something I’m currently learning.

YU on the Daf (and in general)

Yeshiva University offers tons of audio shiurim, including on the daf. You can also listen (and select your favorite speakers/series) on their dedicated app [Android | iOS].

YourTorah on the Mishna

This podcast is on the Mishna, not the Talmud, but it’s an incredible introduction to the sixty-three tractates that make up the backbone of the Talmud, each in 18-minute episodes.

Daf HaChaim

If you enjoy visuals and diagrams to help your learning, Daf HaChaim specializes in them. Also available as an app [Android | iOS]

Real Clear Daf

Another great (and yes, very clear) overview of the daily daf for Daf Yomi is Real Clear Daf. Also available as an app [Android | iOS].

Here’s wishing you many moments of discovery and learning in the great sea of Talmud!

Notes

  1. This expression does not itself occur in the Talmud, although already in Tanach, Torah is compared to the sea (see Yeshayahu 11:9 and Iyov 11:9), and there is a hint of the phrase in Yerushalmi Sotah 8:3. One of the earliest Rishonim to use the phrase ים התלמוד is R. Yitzchak Aboab in the introduction to Menorat ha-Maor, written c. 1300.
  2. There is also a vast library of rabbinic literature from the period of the Tannaim and Amoraim, including Midrash Halacha which interprets the the legal portions of the Torah and Midrash Aggada which interprets that narrative portions of the Tanach.
  3. There was also a position in later academies which we might call “lower-case-t” tannaim or “reciters,” who were experts in certain tractates and could recite them from memory on command, as needed by teachers and students.

Tamar Ron Marvin Avatar

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