Saturday, April 30, 2011

Teaching Texts to Kids: My Attempt At Making Talmud Accessible to Your Average 10-Year-Old

As many of you know, I teach a roughly bi-monthly Jewish co-op Sunday school. The kids range in age from 5-11, and in addition I do a few lessons a semester with post b'nai mitzvah kids. The classes take place in a parent's living room, usually, and the parents sit in on-- and often participate in-- the lessons.

For someone without much prior teaching experience, this was fairly daunting to start out with. I had absolutely no idea how to find lessons that would be accessible to the younger kids without boring the living daylights out of the older ones, and having the parents in the room all the time frankly terrified me.

Worst of all, everything I felt I could teach them was text-based. Here's an experiment for you: sometime, try getting your average (by which I mean not Orthodox) ten-year-old to enthusiastically read a section of Leviticus and then apply it to contemporary life.

Yeah. Good luck.

Eventually (I think) I got the hang of how to get them to appreciate the texts-- namely, make it relevant for them in concrete and often tactile way. Every time I have done a cooking project with this group, it has gone over well. So far we've made charoset (to illustrate the different practices of Jewish communities around the world), potato latkes (hannukah, obviously), hamantaschen (with the added perk that they got to boss their parents around, as a way of illustrating role reversal for Purim), and, most recently, matzah.

I had the idea that making matzah would be a good way to introduce the kids to the Talmud, since that is where the rule that matzah must be completed in 18 minutes is derived. I figured that I would ask the kids where they thought the rule came from. The Bible? Let's look-- nope, not there! Once we had discussed the basics of what Talmud was, I thought that we could then read the relevant parts of tractate Pesachim, play style. Then, we would apply what we learned in the kitchen, and end with a discussion of whether they thought rules like this made sense for them in everyday life.

Of course, then I cracked open tractate Pesachim and realized that the language was way too complicated, and that the discussions would appear so tangential to the kids that they would become hopelessly confused. So, here's what I wrote for them instead:

The Case of the Malicious Matzah: A Talmudic Legal Thriller!

©Rebecca Levi, 2011
This scene is adapted from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Pesachim, 42a, 45 a-b, and 46a

Setting: A courtroom. Miriam the baker has been accused of selling Passover Matzah that is chametz!

Characters (in order of appearance):
Judge Mishna
Yankel the Gossip
Miriam the Baker
Rabbi Huna
Rabbi Isaac Bar Ashi
Rabbi Simeon Bar Lakish

Baliff: Hear ye, hear ye! All rise for Judge Mishna!

Judge Mishna: Be seated! The court will come to order! Today, we will rule on the matter of The People versus Miriam the Baker. Miriam is accused of selling leavened matzah. As we know, besides matzah, “Whatever is made of any kind of grain is removed on Passover.” Serving chametz on Passover is a grave offense, for the Torah says, “whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel”. Will the prosecution present its case?

Prosecution: Thank you, your honor. The prosecution will prove that Miriam the Baker has been cheating this community for many years by serving them matzah that has started to rise! As we all know, Miriam’s matzah is the best in town, so much so that all the other bakers have gone out of business! We will show that this is because she is cheating by letting the matzah rise.

Judge Mishna: The court thanks the prosecution. Will the defense respond?

Defense: Thank you, your honor. The accusations against my client are no more than gossip. Anyone in this town knows that Miriam strictly observes all of the law, both in her business and in her personal life. No one but the Sages knows the law better than she does. We will prove that Miriam’s business cannot be faulted.

Judge Mishna: The court thanks the defense. The prosecution may call its first witness.

Prosecution: The prosecution wishes to call Yankel the Gossip to the stand.

Yankel: I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so ANYWAY—can you believe that Miriam has been cheating us? Oy, what a shonde!

Prosecution: Thank you, Yankel. Can you tell us when you first became suspicious about Miriam’s matzah?

Yankel: WELL—I had bought her matzah for my family as usual, because of course it’s so good, isn’t it? And then I thought, this is so good it’s almost like it’s leavened! And then, as I was eating, I realized it was so much lighter and taster than what we had as a kid, and I realized, well it tastes like that because it is!
Naturally after that I had to file a complaint, and I told everyone else not to buy from her.

And that’s when my friend Shlomo told me that his sister told him that she doesn’t clean her bowl, so that there’s always a little leavened dough in the bottom to mix in with the rest. It’s a wood bowl and has cracks in it, so the dough hides in the cracks. And she leaves it out for as long as she walks to the oven, so it rises more.

Prosecution: No more questions, your honor.

Judge Mishna: I trust that the court understands what the witness is talking about. If there is an olive’s bulk or more of dough in one place in the cracks of one’s bowl, it makes one’s dough chametz. But if there is less, it doesn’t matter.
Does the defense wish to call a witness?

Defense: The defense calls Miriam the Baker to the stand.

Defense: Miriam, how do you respond to Yankel’s accusation?

Miriam: I was shocked! I’ve always kept my bowls perfectly clean! And the minute that it takes me to walk to the oven and open it can’t be enough time for the dough to rise! It’s true that my bowls are old, and leak sometimes, so I stop them with flour and water paste. But the Sages have said that that doesn’t make the dough chametz! They say, “if the dough is in a place that stops up the bowl, it doesn’t break Passover!”

Defense: No more questions, your honor.

Judge Mishna: Does the prosecution wish to call a witness?

Prosecution: The people call Rabbi Huna to the stand.

Rabbi Huna: Miriam doesn’t mention that other Sages say the opposite—that even dough that stops a bowl makes it chametz! And in such cases we should follow the stricter rule. This has always been our tradition.

Miriam: I know that tradition as well! So I take special care on Pesach to plaster it over with clay!

Rabbi Huna: Ah, but the chametz is still there! Better to get new bowls. We must always uphold the strictest meaning of the law.

Judge Mishna: Order in the court! Miriam, Rabbi Huna, you will speak only when addressed by me or by a lawyer! The prosecution may continue with its questions.

Prosecution: No further questions, your honor. The Prosecution rests its case.

Defense: The defense calls Rabbi Isaac bar Ashi.

Rabbi Isaac bar Ashi: The Sage Rab has said that if the surface of the dough used to seal the bowl is covered in clay, the dough has no effect as chametz. The law is with Miriam the Baker.

Judge Mishna: I can’t find a problem with Rabbi Isaac bar Ashi’s reasoning.

Prosecution: Objection! The defense has not answered Yankel’s claim about how long Miriam leaves her dough!

Judge Mishna: Objection sustained. Will the defense answer the claim?

Defense: The defense calls Rabbi Simeon bar Lakish.

Rabbi Simeon bar Lakish: The prosecution says that Miriam leaves her dough the time it takes her to walk from her table to her oven, is that correct?

Judge Mishna: Correct, that was Yankel’s testimony.

Rabbi Simeon bar Lakish: If that is as long as Miriam the Baker leaves her dough, then the law is with her. Dough begins to ferment only after the time it takes to walk a mile. Unless, of course, there is a mile between Miriam’s table and her oven, in which case I would suggest she speak to whomever built her bakery!

Defense: No further questions, your honor.

Prosecution: Not so fast! The people call Miriam the Baker to the stand! Miriam, how do you know you don’t leave your dough so long?!

Miriam: I have learned this tradition, and I once was able to test this very thing. Before I made some matzah I told my son to go from our bakery to the store, half a mile exactly. He came back just as I took the matzahs from the oven, for the store was closed and so he turned around and came right home.

Defense: The defense rests its case, your honor.

Judge Mishna: I’ve heard enough! Miriam knows the law well, and has been falsely accused. Yankel, you should know better than to spread such lashon hara!

Baliff: Miriam, you may go free! Make us good matzah this year!

Obviously this is a greatly simplified version of the discourse that actually goes on in the Talmud. Obviously, this is also not how a contemporary courtroom works. But I think I got the main gist of the discourse, and I tried to do a few things with the way I set it up.

First, by having a trial and a real person as a defendant, I wanted to demonstrate that halakha is, essentially, case law-- a process of constant evaluation as laws come up against real-world situations. I tried to underscore this point by then having us go and make matzah, so we could use the ruling!

Second, I tried to get across the general format of the Talmudic discussion. As the name indicates, the Judge functions here mainly in the role the Mishna plays in the actual Bavli text: quoting the relevant law to be debated and setting the boundaries of discussion. Though I didn't name the defense and prosecution after individual Sages, I easily could have; they bring the initial case up to test the law in question. Then, other Sages offer arguments-- coming, as it were, to the witness stand.

Finally, in setting it in a courtroom and having the kids participate in the action themselves as a play, I wanted to demonstrate that a.) the Talmud deals with law, and b.) it's an ongoing conversation that all Jews play a live role in.

(Also, the astute will notice the nod to Monty Python in Yankel the Gossip's testimony: This sketch, at about 1:20)

Most importantly, the kids liked it. I think.


  1. You did a great job on this! It looks like you put a lot of effort into trying to make the class appeal to everyone. That's the sign of a good teacher.

  2. Aww, thanks! I do try. The effort comes as a result of having more than one class full of blank stares early in the year. ;)