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"Creative, learned, and playful" —Rabbi David Wolpe

Six Memos from the Last Millennium

A Novelist Reads The Talmud

A thief-turned-saint, killed by an insult. A rabbi burning down his world in order to save it. A man who lost his sanity while trying to fathom the origin of the universe. A beautiful woman battling her brother’s and her husband’s egos to preserve their family. Stories such as these enliven the pages of the Talmud, the great repository of ancient wisdom that is one of the sacred texts of the Jewish people.


Comprised of the Mishnah, the oral law of the Torah, and the Gemara, a multigenerational meta-commentary on the Mishnah dating from between 3950 and 4235 (190 and 475 CE), the Talmud presents a formidable challenge to understand without scholarly training and study. But what if one approaches it as a collection of tales with surprising relevance for contemporary readers?


In Six Memos from the Last Millennium, critically acclaimed novelist Joseph Skibell reads some of the Talmud’s tales with a storyteller’s insight, concentrating on the lives of the legendary rabbis depicted in its pages to uncover the wisdom they can still impart to our modern age. He unifies strands of stories that are scattered throughout the Talmud into coherent narratives or “memos,” which he then analyzes and interprets from his perspective as a novelist. In Skibell’s imaginative and personal readings, this sacred literature frequently defies our conventional notions of piety. Sometimes wild, rude, and even bawdy, these memos from the last millennium pursue a livable transcendence, a way of fusing the mundane hours of earthly life with a cosmic sense of holiness and wonder.


From the Introduction

One evening, I went to my Talmud class. It wasn't a large class, maybe four or five men, but that night, for whatever reason, I was the only student there. I'd come to the study of Talmud relatively late in life, beginning in my mid-30s. The Judaism I'd been served up as a kid had been a pretty thin gruel, and I spent most of my young adult life looking for wisdom elsewhere: in literature and art, in rock 'n' roll, in Eastern and Western philosophy, in mythology, in depth psychology.


Despite the richness I found in each of these disciplines, my hunger for meaning persisted and -- naively perhaps -- I approached the Talmud, the repository of thousand of years of ancient wisdom, as a seeker might, crossing into its sacred precincts with the hope of finding a kind of livable transcendence there, a way of fusing the mundane hours of earthly life with a cosmic sense of holiness and wonder.


I was particularly interested in the stories -- the anecdotes, allegories, fables, legends and tall tales -- in the Talmud's five thousand-plus pages. As a novelist, I spend my days stepped in stories. Stories are the dooway into meaning for me, the royal road into consciousness. Sacred stories even more so, I thought. My teachers, however, either skipped over these tales or sprinted past them quickly, and certainly they received none of the time and attention, the almost scientific dissection, we gave as a class to the Talmud's legal arguments.


I didn't share my teachers' reluctance to linger in these parts of the text, and I devised my own plan to study them ...


“Written with color and wit, this book is an exercise in the pleasures of reading.” —Jacob L. Wright, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Emory University

“I finished Six Memos reading and thinking—maybe even living—more deliberately and intelligently.” —W. Mark Lanier, founder, Lanier Theological Library