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Method: The Sugya

We will endeavor here to describe a few characteristics of those approaches as they guide scholars in grappling with the unique challenges posed by the Babylonian Talmud. Let’s begin with the “sugya.” The sugya is the basic unit of organization in Talmudic literature, more so than the “page” (Hebrew daf), which is merely an external trapping. Someone studying Talmud should be directed to understanding the material at the level of the sugya, with careful attention paid to its internal structure, its major sections, and the nature of its component parts, with the words of the earliest generations of sages (Tanna’im) considered in their own right, the words and reported actions of the later sages (Amora’im) too considered in their own right, and finally the words of the anonymous editorial voice of the Talmud considered as such.

Viewing the sugya in this way has several implications. The sugya is a distinctly literary creation. It is set out in a carefully planned order, far more than is implied by the common description of the sugya as a protocol of discussions in the Babylonian academies, a record of oral debate and discussion. Furthermore, the sugya’s components are separate sources, which are subject to interpretation and understanding in two ways: on their own, according to their plain and simple meaning, and as they are employed within the sugya, as understood by the author of that sugya (the anonymous editorial voice of the Talmud) in the context of that sugya’s deliberation.

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