Introduction to Talmud
This year we will be studying the second chapter of tractate Bava Metziah. This chapter is traditionally the first chapter taught to children who are first beginning to study Talmud. One should not understand that the contents of this chapter are childish in any way. On the contrary, this chapter deals with property law, specifically the laws pertaining to lost objects. In my opinion, ‘Elu metziot’, as our chapter is called, is used as an introductory chapter for several reasons. First of all, traditionally the laws concerning monetary affairs (the laws covered in the Choshen Mishpat section of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law) are considered to be the ‘meat and potatoes’ of a Talmudic education. The breadth of understanding and depth of analysis required for these subjects surpass all others. Our chapter is not an exception to this rule, yet at the same time, the laws discussed in it can be understood through the application of relatively few principles and concepts. Thus we have an opportunity to experience authentic Talmudic reasoning without having to spend too much time filling in the background. In addition, the tradition of beginning from a chapter dealing with property law has its own educational point. Ritual law that we practice at regular intervals, like the laws of Shabbat or the laws of blessings, may seem to be a more pressing item on the Talmud curriculum. By beginning with a chapter that is on the one hand applicable to our lives but at the same time not part of its ritual aspect, we are sending a message to our students and ourselves that the Torah demands integration. HoH The holiness demanded of us cannot be achieved solely through ritual or conventional religiosity. We are commanded to pursue holiness in our interpersonal dealings, as exemplified in the commandment to return a lost object. Finally, starting with ‘Elu metziot’ sends us another message. Most of the legal discussion that we will encounter is not directly applicable to our lives, even if the general topic of returning lost objects is. By beginning with such a chapter, we train ourselves in the value of Torah Le-Shma, of Torah for it own sake. We join in the community of learning for whom the point of the learning is the fulfillment of the divine command to learn. Learning becomes an end in itself, and ultimately, one of the central ways in which a Jew worships the Creator.
This year’s course does
not require having participated in last year’s course. In fact, all that is required is the
ability to read basic Hebrew, and the willingness to exert some effort on a
regular basis in order to attain the skills needed to set sail in the
Chapter Elu Metziot
As mentioned above, the subject of our chapter is the laws pertaining to lost objects. The Talmud, in its way, does not introduce a topic in a logical order but rather dives right into a discussion of particular cases and laws. This discussion assumes the knowledge of the basic norms and concepts that underwrite the specifics being discussed. In our case, the issue at hand is the fulfillment of two commandments: The first is the positive commandment to return lost objects. The second is the prohibition to ignore a lost object so as not to be responsible for returning it. These commandments appear in the Torah in two places:
Shemot (Exodus) 23:4
“If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.”
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:1-3
1) Thou shalt not see thy brother's ox or his sheep driven away, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely bring them back unto thy brother. 2) And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, and thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it home to thy house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother require it, and thou shalt restore it to him. 3) And so shalt thou do with his ass; and so shalt thou do with his garment; and so shalt thou do with every lost thing of thy brother's, which he hath lost, and thou hast found; thou mayest not hide thyself. (JPS translation).
We can see that the Torah rejects the principle “finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers’. One is commanded to return lost objects to their rightful owner. If this is too difficult, then one must hold the lost object until it can be returned to its owner. The verses provide us with the general attitude of the Torah as related to lost objects, but much remains unsaid: Must all lost objects be kept for the owner? How is the owner to identify that the object is his or hers? How do we prevent someone from “collecting” a lost object does not really belong to him or her? What if it is impossible to identify the owner of the lost object? All of these questions and more are addressed in the Talmudic discussion of these mitzvot. At times this might not be obvious, as the Talmud generally deals with very concrete cases. As we proceed, part of what we need to learn how to do is to find how the specifics discussed in the Mishna and Gemara addresses the questions listed above. Now to work!
Open your gemara to page 21a or click here. Read the mishna. When interpreting the mishna, you should make use of the following technique: many mishnayot(plural of mishna) that have legal content (and almost all of them do) can be analyzed into component parts of a case, and the relevant law (din) as applied to that case. The case is the setting, the real world situation to addressed, while the din is the normative response to that setting. There will never be a machloket (disagreement) about a case – that would make no sense, since the case is merely the description of a situation. On the other hand, you will find disagreements (machlokot – plural) about dinim (plural of din) in nearly every mishna. The din, depending upon the context, will be described usually using words with normative or regulative content: Chayav (liable), patur (not liable), asur (forbidden), mutar (permitted). Occasionally, you will come across mishnayot that are not structured this way, either because they do not contain legal content at all (e.g. Pirkei Avot) or because they are straight descriptions of legal principles (e.g.the first two chapters of Bava Kama). As you become more familiar with the material, it will become easy to recognize which mishnayot fit this model and when this analytical technique is appropriate. It is a good idea to train yourself to automatically analyze a mishna (or other halachic statement) that is structured in this way in terms of case and din. Let us apply this technique to our mishna.
The case is the description of a person who has found certain lost objects. “One who found scattered fruit, scattered coins, small sheaves in a public area, round cakes of pressed figs, a baker’s loaves, strings of fishes, pieces of meat, fleeces of wool that have been brought from the country, bundles of flax and stripes of purple colored wool.” The din immediately follows: “all these are his (the finder’s)." This din, however, is not the consensus, as the mishna goes on “so says R. Meir”. We will come back to this list in a moment. The next part of the mishna seems to diverge from the case/din structure. R. Yehuda asserts a general legal principle: “Anything that has in it something unusual must be announced.” along with an example illustrating that principle: “How? If one finds a round [of figs] containing a potsherd or a loaf containing money.” Subsequently, we are taught, in the name of R. Shimon ben Elazar a different principle: “All klei anforia do not need to be announced. At this point I want to look more closely at the case and the din mentioned in the name of R. Meir. We will return to the opinions of R. Yehuda and R. Shimon ben Elazar in a later shiur (lesson). What are we to make of the list of items that belong to the finder? Presumably, these items are ordinary 2nd century C.E. consumer items. Why does the finder get to keep them and why does he not need to fulfill the commandment of “hashavat aveidah” (returning a lost object) that we mentioned above? Before we answer, let us take a look at the next mishna, which appears on p. 24b. As we can see, this mishna is the continuation of our own, and completes the list begun in our mishna. Here we are told “These (found objects) one is obliged to announce - If one finds fruit in a vessel, or a vessel by itself, money in a purse, or a purse by itself, piles of fruit, piles of coins, three coins one on top of another, bundles of sheaves in private premises, home made loaves, fleeces of wool from the craftsman’s workshop, jars of wine or jars of oil – these must be proclaimed” In the following table, you can see a comparison of the lists in the two mishnayot. Can you determine the defining feature(s) of the list in the first mishna, such that these items do not need to be returned while those listed in the second must be proclaimed (in order to return them)?
Mishna 1 – items that belong to the finder
Mishna 2 – items that must be proclaimed
Fruit in a vessel, piles of fruit
money in a purse, piles of coins, three coins one on top of another
vessel by itself, a purse by itself
sheaves in a public area
sheaves in private premises
round cakes of pressed figs
a baker’s loaves
strings of fishes
pieces of meat
fleeces of wool that have been brought from the country
fleeces of wool from the craftsman’s workshop
bundles of flax
stripes of purple colored wool
jars of wine or jars of oil
We will now directly address the question why the finder of the items listed in our mishna is not required to fulfill the commandment of hashavat aveidah (returning a lost object). We will do this by looking in the most essential Talmudic commentary, that of Rashi. Ideally, you have the text of Rashi in front of you, on the inside column (in this case, the right) of the page, in Rashi script. If you don’t, or have trouble reading it, scroll to the end of this shiur for Rashi on the Mishna in Hebrew and English. Read Rashi’s first comment now. Note how each comment is prefaced by a quote from the text, called a “dibur hamatchil.” We will follow the English convention and write s.v. (Latin for sub voce) to refer to the opening quote of a commentary. At the beginning of the chapter, Rashi writes the first words of the chapter, in this case, “Elu metziot”. The first comment Rashi makes directly addresses our question:
one who found scattered fruit – the owners have been mityaesh (despaired of recovering them), as it says in the gemara, and they are hefker (ownerless).
Why is the finder in our mishna not obliged to announce that he has found a lost object, and thus begin the process of its return? Rashi explains that in the case of scattered fruit, we can presume that the owners have undergone yeush; they have despaired of ever getting their object back. Once the owners have despaired, claims Rashi, a lost object becomes hefker, ownerless. Thus, there is no obligation on the part of the finder to return this object to its owner, since there is no owner.
The question remains, however, as to why there is a presumption of yeush regarding scattered fruit (and presumably the other items listed in our mishna) and not about the things listed in the next mishna. What is it about the items on our list that gives rise to the presumption that the owners’ of these objects were mityaesh? Rashi addresses this question in his next comment. Read s.v. maot mefuzarim (scattered coins) now and try to pinpoint how Rashi answers our question.
Rashi points out that the defining feature of the list in our mishna is that none of the objects therein have a siman (recognizable sign). Why does this matter?
Before we address Rashi’s answer, let us consider the alternative. How would one go about returning some standard consumer good and such like, indistinguishable from others of its type? How does the owner to identify himself to the finder? If I announce that I have found a ten dollar bill, how can I distinguish between the real owner, to whom I want to return it, and the cheat who wants to make an easy ten bucks? One could propose that in the absence of simanim, of ways to identify the lost object as his own, the owner has no way to prove that it belongs to him and thus the finder gets to keep it by default. This is not the halacha’s attitude to this question. One does not gain the right to take possession of someone else’s property merely from his inability to prove his ownership. In order for the finder to gain access, the owner must withdraw his connection to his property. We have explained, with Rashi’s help, that finder’s keepers only when there is yeush, which causes the original owner to fall out of the picture. Our problem then becomes determining whether or not yeush in fact took place.
Rashi makes the connection between simanim (plural of siman) and yeush. When one loses something that is not identifiable, that has no simanim, one despairs of getting it back and thus makes it hefker (According to Rashi). Since you have no way of proving to the finder that it is your lost object, we can presume that you have given up hope, that you were mityaesh. Thus, the finder of a lost object without simanim can presume that yeush has taken place and keep the object. Our list of items in the mishna is a list of typical lost objects that do not have simanim, and therefore, “Elu metziot shelo” – these found objects are the finder’s.
In our discussion of the mishna, we have encountered the two central concepts that are going to occupy us for the foreseeable future: yeush and simanim. We have seen that the finder can keep the lost object only when the owner has been mityaesh. We have also learnt that regarding an object that has no simanim, there is a presumption of yeush on the part of the owners. The gemara, which we will begin learning next week, will discuss these two concepts and the relationship between them at great length. For next week, we will study the gemara that begins after the mishna on p.21a until the second to last word on the page, “teiku”.
Things to think about until the next shiur:
1. If you go back to the comparison between our mishna, containing the list of things the finder can keep, and the next mishna, which lists items that must be announced and returned, you will notice that in one case, the identical object (crichot (small sheaves), appears on both lists. The difference between them is only their location: if they are found in reshut harabim (a public thoroughfare) they belong to the finder while if they are found in a reshut hayachid (private space), they must be announced. What is the explanation for this difference? See Rashi on our mishna, s.v. bereshut harabim.
Introduction to the Study of Talmud
an introductory lesson to a course entitled "Introduction to the Study of
Talmud" might seem redundant. The
answer, however, is embedded in the title of the course. This is not an introduction to the
Talmud, but an introduction to the STUDY of Talmud. If I were writing an introduction to the
Talmud, we could easily reach an entire year's worth of introductory lectures,
which I think would in fact be interesting and informative, without ever
reaching the actual learning of the text.
However, most of the important information included in those lectures
would not really be appreciated until we got down into the workings of text
itself. In fact, for nearly all of
the history of Talmud study, the only way one learned "how to learn" was by
jumping into the text, a text which for thousands of years has been called the
For this course, I am assuming no background at all, a clean slate, so to speak. Some of these points may be known to many of you, and for that I beg your forbearance.
1. A word or two on text.
Talmud consists of two distinct primary texts, the Mishna and the Gemara. Surrounding these two, there exists a huge literature, spanning 1800 years and thousands of books, of commentaries, summations, and extended discussions, which continues to this day. When we study Talmud, we are in fact addressing that entire literature, though obviously much of it must wait for advanced levels of learning. But even on the beginning level of this course we are not studying a BOOK, but rather a literature, which in fact precedes the actual Talmud, and of course extends beyond it. From a literary point of view, the Talmud is the basis and core text, most importantly because it is authoritative, and hence is the starting-point for any subsequent discussion.
The Mishna is printed as a distinct work, and often studied separately. In editions of the Talmud, the Mishna is printed together with the Gemara as a unit, and that is the way we shall be studying.
The Mishna is a halakhic code. It presents a set of rulings on all halakhic matters, in all areas of life. True to the nature of the Oral Law, it is not generally written in a monolithic manner, but rather preserves controversies and disagreements, hundreds of them, from the authorities of the Mishnaic period, roughly the first century and a half of the Common Era. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the head of Palestinian Jewry, compiled the present form of the Mishna and thereby summarized and codified the halakhic rulings of the previous centuries. This was the first code of Jewish law.
Gemara is the record of two centuries of discussion, argument, elucidation, and
controversy surrounding the text of the Mishna, first in the
The previous paragraph has illustrated, inter alia, an important technical aspect of our study. The Mishna is written in Hebrew (in a dialect that is called by the linguists, not surprisingly, Mishnaic Hebrew). The Talmud is written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Both are filled with hundreds of technical terms, both legal and logical, which are often difficult to translate. I shall of course translate or explain them as they come up, but we shall prefer the use of the original terms even in an English-language lecture. Our goal, again, is to study text, and to enter into the world of Talmudic study. Every Talmudic discussion consists of a "hava amina," literally, "I would have said," and a "maskana," a conclusion. A standard question when reading a position that is rejected by the Gemara is to ask, "what was the hava amina?"; i.e., what was the (ultimately rejected) understanding of the subject that underlay the opening position expressed in the gemara. Once you answer that question, the teacher asks the opposite question - "now tell me what is the maskana," meaning not the conclusion itself, but the change in logic that caused the change in position.
assume that Aramaic, and perhaps Mishnaic Hebrew is not a language in which most
of you are fluent. All editions of
the Talmud are accompanied by running explanatory commentaries, the most
important of which is that of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century
(The Talmud as a whole is usually printed in 20 very large volumes. The Schottenstein translation is much larger, with each normal volume of the Hebrew original divided into three translated volumes with commentary. Buying the whole set will make a significant dent in your bank account, but will enrich you immensely. For the purpose of this course, buying ONE volume will suffice. In any event, each page of Talmudic text will be posted on the web, so you can manage to get by without spending a penny.)
While I recommend a translation, and will translate myself as we continue and provide a glossary, the text we are studying will be the original. The ability to read the Hebrew words is assumed. I shall be constantly referring to the Hebrew and Aramaic text (with explanation and translation), for again, the purpose is to introduce you to the study of Talmud as all students of Talmud study it, which is the original, with the traditional commentaries (all of which are not available in translation in any event).
2. The "daf" - a page of Talmud
The Hebrew word "daf" means page. In the tradition of Talmudic learning, it means a leaf; i.e., a physical page, which of course has two sides. To distinguish the two, we use a postscript, so that the page we are beginning on is daf 114a.
[This year, we will begin from Bava Metzia, 21a. The following has been changed to reflect that fact(JA)]
Take a look at this daf. Click here to see Bava Metzia 21a. You will see up on the left-hand corner the letters kaf - alef which means 21. In all standard editions of the Talmud (but not the Schottenstein), the first side (21a) always is on the left side of the open volume. The reverse side (21b) does not have any Hebrew page number at all, but for several centuries has had an Arabic numeral, in this case "42" (Notice that the Arabic numerals refer to sides, while the Hebrew ones to full pages. Why? That's just the way it is!).
Running down the middle of the page, in block Hebrew letters, is the text of the Talmud. On the page we are examining, in large block letters, appear the words “Hadran Alach Shenayim Ochazim.” This is the conventional ending to the previous chapter, in which we say “Hadran Alach” “We shall return to you”, “Shanayim Ochazim”- the name of the first chapter of Bava Metzia, after the first two words of the first mishna. Subsequently, there is a mishna which begins with the enlarged letters spelling “Elu”. That is how the beginning of a chapter of Talmud appears. Later on, when we come across a mishna that is not in the beginning of a chapter, the mishna will be marked with the enlarged letters spelling "Matni," which is an abbreviating for "matnitin," which is the Aramaic for "our Mishna." After the few lines cited from the mishna, we find the letters "gimel-mem", which is the abbreviation for "gemara." This is where the gemara discussion of this mishna begins. Sometimes, but most often it will encompass several pages.
either side of the main text are two commentaries. On the right side is the running
commentary of Rashi, R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in
On the left side is a commentary consisting of several extended comments, each beginning with the Talmudic text to which it refers marked in bold letters. This is the "Tosafot," which simply means addenda. In true talmudic tradition, the Tosafot do not have one particular author, but record the discussion in the French (and German) schools of Rashi's disciples for the next four or five generations. Very often, the starting point for these discussions was the commentary of Rashi, and most often they will begin with a question which will give rise to an alternate explanation.
Gemara with Rashi and Tosafot is the bread-and-butter of Talmudic study. We are aiming at reaching that level.
The page contains an additional outer ring of various glosses of later authorities, citations to halakhic codes, and cross-references to other Talmudic passages. Aside from this, there are thousands of books that continue the discussion. In our study, we shall examine, occasionally, some of the more important of these additional commentaries.
An extensive and detailed account of these and other features of the talmudic daf can be found at:
which probably has even more than you might want to know at this stage. If you take a look at the daf presented on Professor Segal's webpage, you will see that it looks exactly like the one we are studying, even though it is from a completely different section of the Talmud. The page layout has been standard for nearly five hundred years, with some additions.
Now go back to the top to continue the learning of Elu Metziot.
Rashi on the misha, daf 21a
רש"י מסכת בבא מציעא דף כא עמוד א
אלו מציאות, מצא פירות מפוזרין - נתייאשו הבעלים מהן, כדאמר בגמרא, והפקר הן.
מעות מפוזרות - הואיל ואין להם סימן ניכר - איאושי מיאש, והוו להו הפקר, וזהו טעם כולם.
כריכות - עומרים קטנים, כמו מאלמים אלומים ומתרגמינן בירושלמי: מכרכן כריכן (בראשית לז).
ברשות הרבים - שהכל דשין עלייהו, ואם היה סימן נקשר עליהן - הרי הוא נשחת.
של נחתום - כל ככרות הנחתומין שוין, אבל ככרות של בעל הבית יש בהן סימן.
ממדינתן - כמות שהן גזוזות כשאר כל גיזת המדינה, לאפוקי הבאות מבית האומן כדקתני סיפא.
אניצי פשתן - רישט"א בלשון אשכנז, ובמקומינו פופי"ר.
ולשון של ארגמן - צמר סרוק ומשוך כמין לשון, וצבוע ארגמן, ומצויין הן.
מצא עיגול - של דבילה.
אנפוריא - בגמרא מפרש.
Abbreviated translation of Rashi on the mishna:
These found objects, one who found scattered fruit – the owners have given up hope of recovering them, as it says in the gemara, and they are hefker (ownerless).
Scattered coins – since they do not have a recognizable sign, (the owner) has been mityaesh (has despaired of recovering them) and they are hefker, and this is the explanation for them all (all the items in the list).
Sheaves - small sheaves …In the Reshut Harabim (public thoroughfare) – where everyone steps on them, and if there was a sign attached to them – it presumably was destroyed.
(Loaves)Of a Baker – All baker’s loaves are the same but home baked loaves have a sign. (Shearings) From the country – In their original state like all shearings of that country, as opposed to wool that has come from the craftsman’s workshop, as we are taught in the seifa (the latter part of the mishna)….
Ama, pl. amot – unit of length, about 48 cm
assur – forbidden. Opposite of mutar.
aveida – lost object
Baraita, pl. baraitot – a tannaic tradition that does not appear in the mishna.
Bavli – Babylonian Talmud. Short for Talmud Bavli.
Chayav – liable. Opposite of patur.
Devarim – Deuteronomy (last of the Five Books of Moses)
Din, pl. dinim – the law or normative rule in a specific situation.
hashavat aveida – (mitzvah of) returning a lost object.
Kav – measure of volume – about 1.4 liters.
Machloket, pl. machlokot – a (legal) disagreement.
Maskana – conclusion, the concluding inference in a line of Talmudic reasoning.
meimra – Amoraic statement in the gemara.
Mishna – Basic text of the Oral law. The Talmud is structured as a discussion of the Mishna.
Mishnayot – plural of Mishna
Mityaesh – despairs of recovering a lost object. Active form of yeush.
Mutar – permitted. Opposite of assur.
patur - not liable. Opposite of chayav.
Pesak halakha – Halakhic ruling
Reshut Harabim – public thoroughfare
Reshut Hayachid – private space.
Rishonim (pl. of Rishon) – Medieval sages, (c. 900-1500), many of whom wrote extensive commentaries on the Talmud. The most famous of these commentaries is that authored by Rashi which is printed on every page of the Talmud.
Seifa – latter part of the mishna (or other quoted precedent).
shelulito shel nahar, Zuto shel yam - items washed away by the flooding of a river or the (tides of ) the sea.
Shemot – Exodus (second of the Five Books of Moses)
Shiur – lesson
Siman, pl. simanim – recognizable sign through which the owner can identify an object to the finder.
Yerushalmi – Palestinian Talmud. Short for Talmud Yerushalmi.
Yeush – despair (of ever recovering the lost object)
Zuto shel yam, shelulito shel nahar – items washed away be the (tides of) the sea or the flooding of a river.