There is a reason that the Jewish tradition likens the Talmud to a sea; it is vast, at times choppy, and overwhelming. In Come and Hear, Adam Kirsch has written a book that demystifies this ancient work, highlighting each of its tractates and introducing us to the most interesting characters, stories, philosophies, and law that appear in its pages. In this way, it acts as a guide through the Talmud’s waters.
In 2012, Kirsch decided to join the Daf Yomi Cycle, a schedule of study — in which hundreds of thousands around the world participate — requiring one to read a page of Talmud each day. The goal is to read the whole Talmud at a blistering pace in seven-and-a-half years. Kirsch took on the challenge but added another feature; he would write a column for Tablet about what he learned.
Come and Hear reads like a distillation of these columns. Since the Talmud tends to be associative in it’s writing, Kirsch jumps around in his chapters from topic to topic. His chapter on tractate Rosh Hashanah, for example, delves into the Talmud’s discussion of the different New Years in the Jewish calendar, to how the new month is assessed, to questions of the afterlife, to how the shofar should be blown.
The challenge that Kirsch faces in writing his book is that the Talmud is difficult. Its arguments can run for pages, and it requires a good deal of background to understand some of the thornier legal concepts. Kirsch is a masterful teacher, able to boil many of the ideas down to simple paragraphs that are clear and accessible to even the most novice learner.
One thing that is clear when reading Come and Hear is that Kirsch has been transformed through his journey through the Talmud. He is much more knowledgeable and way more passionate about rabbinic literature than when he first started writing his column. He has somehow mastered the subject without losing touch with what it means to encounter the Talmud anew.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.