I’ve been listening to a number of Orthodox Conundrum podcasts about Talmud study lately. On one of them Rabbi Kahn said something along the lines of, “If you don’t know what Talmud study involves, it’s tort law, in a dead language, with no punctuation.” In fact, there are no vowels either, although it’s not all tort law; it actually covers all aspects of life, or at least all aspects of Jewish life in Israel and Babylon a thousand years ago. Tort law is what yeshivahs generally focus on, though, as it’s very hard and is supposed to be good for intellectual development.

I was thinking about the “no punctuation and no vowels” thing. Nowadays you can get editions of the Talmud like the Steinsaltz and the Artscroll that do have the vowels and punctuation added, but these are definitely viewed by most people as lesser and a crutch for poor students, particularly those who did not have a traditional yeshivah education. All these editions with vowels and punctuation include the “classic” page layout too, with the implication being that you should “graduate” to the traditional page at some point. When I study Talmud (which I haven’t been doing so much lately), I do try to study in the original Hebrew/Aramaic, even though I have to use the translation, but these days I study on the page with vowels and punctuation, not the “Vilna Shas” page without them.

I wonder why this is. Torah scrolls are traditionally written without vowels and punctuation too. However, the Masoretes, a group of scribes in the land of Israel from the fifth to tenth centuries, established the authoritative text of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) including vowels and punctuation. Nowadays, Hebrew Bibles are generally printed with vowels and punctuation. If you want to learn how to read from the unpunctuated, unvocalised Torah scroll, you have to use a special book called a Tikkun which recreates the look of a scroll. I have never encountered anyone who says that this is a crutch and that ideally we should read the Torah unvocalised and unpunctuated.

There may be a few reasons for this. The one that seems most important to me is that the idea of mass Talmud study only goes back seventy years or so. Before then, only the intellectual elite were taught it. However, all boys were taught the Torah (at least in theory), but it would be too much to expect five year olds not just to read an ancient text in a dead language (which is quite a big thing to ask in itself), but to read it without vowels or punctuation too. So everyone was taught with those and it just became accepted as normal.

Another possibility is that some difficult passages in the Talmud can be read multiple ways without vowels and punctuation and that can have halakhic (Jewish legal) impact. Bear in mind that the Talmud is structured as a series of debates, not a law code. Without punctuation, it’s not always easy to tell if it is making a statement, asking a question, asking a rhetorical question or just being sarcastic (yes, the Talmud uses sarcasm). So that might be why we aspire to study in a way that makes those ambiguities more visible, so we are aware of the multiple readings possible and not tied to one specific reading. I’m not 100% convinced by this, though, as the same ambiguities can be found in the Torah. The Torah tells us three times not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk, which is seen as the source for the prohibition on eating meat and dairy together, a major part of the kosher (dietary) laws. Yet in the unvocalised text it can be read just as legitimately as “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s fat,” which would obviously be a very different reading. We rely on oral tradition that it should read ‘milk’ and I think the people who see only unvocalised Talmud study as legitimate would be resistant to making “the masses” aware of an ambiguity like this in such a key halakhic area.

I just think it’s very, very strange and I wonder if on some level it’s about creating artificial boundaries and setting a high entrance bar, initially to ensure only the best students could study, but now to force a high standard on all men (perhaps to separate them from women?).


Last night I had a very slight headache before I skyped E. I took some tablets anyway, in case it got worse. Over the course of our conversation, it got a lot worse and I had to leave a bit abruptly when it got too much, although it was probably time to end the call anyway, as it was getting late. I don’t know why it got so much worse after taking meds. It did eventually go after I started using a “kool ‘n’ soothe” strip, but, as is often the case after bad headaches, when it went, I was not feeling at all sleepy — even though by this stage it was 1am! I went to bed very late, although I did fall asleep quickly once I got to bed despite the heat.

I ate some ice cream late at night which seems to be becoming a regular Thursday treat, at least while the heatwaves last. I feel like I can go through the week without junk a bit easier knowing I can have this at the end (I also eat less healthily on Shabbat, although better than in the past). The overall trend for me at the moment is to lose weight, though, which is good. It is a struggle to cut back, even though I actually wasn’t eating that much junk objectively, but clomipramine made all the calories go straight to my belly. It is hard sometimes to get to the end of a hard day and not even allow myself one biscuit.

I woke up again struggling to breathe this morning, lying on my stomach. I go to sleep on my side, but apparently turned over in my sleep. Lying flat is worse for sleep apnoea. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t been looking for signs of sleep apnoea, as I would have thought I just woke with a start from a dream and that was why I was gasping. This explains to me why I never noticed signs of breathing issues before the doctor suggested it as a reason for disturbed and unrefreshing sleep.

Otherwise it’s the usual end of the week exhaustion/autistic exhaustion/poor sleep exhaustion/whatever exhaustion, worsened by heatwave exhaustion. I did do some novel writing, although I’m a bit ashamed that I had to disconnect the internet to focus. Putting some music on very quietly helped too. Loud music stops me concentrating, but quiet music was neutral or even beneficial for concentrating, which is interesting. I will have to experiment some more with it. I’ve written over 26,000 words now, which is basically a quarter of a novel. I have mixed feelings about it, but I think most authors do.

I’m a bit daunted by the thought of sorting out the wedding paperwork (partly worried I’m going to forget something or leave something out and delay the wedding further), but it’s exciting that E and I will hopefully be married before Pesach (Passover), albeit that that timeline really depends on the Home Office.


9 thoughts on “Why D W Stdy Tlmd Wtht Vwls r Pncttn

  1. I do think there is something about pushing to force ones self to do the most challenging (and thus BEST) study. But I think that study is study and we should embrace it all, even if that study is reading only in one’s native language. When we set that bar so high does it discourage folks who feel they can’t or don’t want to push through so much difficulty? Why should I try to study Talmud? I never have and I don’t have enough Hebrew. But why should that stand in my way?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about pushing oneself, and also that people should do what they can. I guess it’s slightly different in the Haredi world where there’s an assumption that all men can and should be able to study this way, with the goal of becoming independent learners eventually. Unfortunately, this means some people never get there, and often get turned off Judaism entirely in the process.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t imagine no vowels or punctuation but does adding them also add the interpretation of what that passage means, like whether it’s a statement or question. Although I’m not Catholic, I’m old enough to remember when Masses were in Latin which the people didn’t understand, only the priests. It seems like religious beliefs and stories should be accessible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Punctuation marks are relatively recent even in English. Reading without vowels and punctuation definitely does make interpretation of meaning harder.

      In terms of accessibility, (a) there are translations even if they’re looked down on and (b) the corpus of Jewish texts is just so vast after 3,000 years that there’s just no way to translate everything. The Talmud is mostly legal discussion rather than beliefs or stories anyway. The assumption is that Talmud is high-level material and that people reading it should be able to learn to read the original. This is somewhat undercut in the Haredi world by the assumption that all men should learn to study it. See what I said in my comment to Angela above.


  3. Clever post title!

    Among the many things that turn me off about Talmud study is the fact that there seems to be a lot of status symbol posturing around it. Granted, anything can become a ridiculous status symbol and religion is hardly immune to this, but it feels unfortunate that even tools for helping to further Talmud study are seen as “lesser”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m reading The Choice, by Maggie Anton and she highlights in the story another problem with letting someone else punctuate the text. They don’t always get it right. There is one citation in Brachot where its talking about whether women are allowed to blow shofar. If you punctuate it one way, it’s a question that gets answered in the affirmative. Yes, women are allowed to blow shofar. If you punctuate it another way, it’s an assertion that works out to women are not allowed to blow shofar. When someone else adds the punctuation, they can skew the text the way they want it to read. When it’s not punctuated, you have a greater freedom to explore and arrive at what you thought the intended meaning was. Or at least it gives you insight into what various ways you can understand it differently.

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