Whether it’s about deadly rabbinical feuds or training animals to follow biblical commandments, the Talmud is full of fascinating (and sometimes surprising) stories.
Compiled between the third and eighth centuries, this textual record of generations of rabbinic debate covers law, philosophy, and interpretations of biblical verses. And while it’s structured by topic — into six orders with 63 sub-sections called tractates — the Talmud is known for its weaving conversations and associative tangents. This text is a foundational part of Jewish thought, but it’s rarely as straightforward as an encyclopedia or a how-to article.
That's where commentaries come in. (Ready to jump right into the stories themselves? Scroll down to see our top 10 list!)
The Power of Commentary
Commentaries offer helpful context and food for thought while learning the Talmud, which can be difficult to understand. In fact, commentaries are so important that some people regard a sugya — a discussion of a specific issue in the Talmud — as comprising both the talmudic text and its main commentaries. Plus, when it comes to the more bizarre or unexpected stories of the Talmud, commentaries can add even more interest
Commentaries are such a valuable part of the learning experience that we wanted to make more of them freely available in English — and, in turn, make the stories of the Talmud more accessible and enjoyable. We’re grateful to have a full English translation of the Talmud on Sefaria (the William Davidson Talmud, a digitized version of Adin Steinsaltz’s renowned translation and commentary). And now you can also access key commentaries on 10 of the Talmud’s wildest tales in newly-translated English:
- Rashi, one of the most influential commentators of all time from the medieval period
- Tosafot, a school of Torah and talmudic interpretation in 12th-13th century France and Germany
- Chiddushei Aggadot by Maharsha, an important Polish rabbi and talmudist of the 17th century
(To find commentaries on Sefaria, just click on any passage of text to open the resource panel and select ‘Commentaries.’ Those available in English will appear with “EN” next to the commentator’s name.)
Below we’ll introduce you to these ten stories with direct links that include the relevant commentaries. Many of them deal with key figures of the talmudic period and reveal the ideals, quirks, and life experiences of great heroes in the Jewish tradition. But even when not character-driven, all of these narratives present situations and dialogues that will likely surprise and possibly even confound.
10 Wild Stories of the Talmud
Now let’s get to the good stuff. Whether you’re an experienced learner or first-time dabbler in the world of Talmud, these stories provide fun and accessible entryways into the ethical and theological issues that the rabbis spent their lives grappling with.
1. Moses Duels With Angels
One of the most climactic moments in all of Jewish text is God giving the Torah. But a talmudic discussion suggests that angels tried to convince God not to give the Torah, at which point God instructs Moses to argue back. One of the rabbis in this passage questions whether the Torah was forced upon its recipients — and if so, is it fair to treat it as binding?
2. Four Went In, One Came Out: On the Dangers of Mysticism
In this story, four rabbis enter an orchard and encounter divine secrets. But these secrets lead one rabbi to insanity and another to become a wild heretic, prompting the latter’s student to move heaven and earth to hold on to his teacher.
3. A Deadly Partnership: The Tragedy of Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan
The relationship between Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan has an unusual origin story. One was the greatest rabbi of the time, the other an outlaw. After being attacked by Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan managed to turn him into his study partner and prime disciple, only to later turn on him, repudiate him, and cause his death. It didn’t end well for Rabbi Yochanan, either…
4. The Rainmaker Who Slept for 70 Years
Critiqued for acting like “a spoiled child” in his demands to God, Choni HaMa’agel was tragically wizened by a long slumber. The encounter made him better understand the difference between man and God, and how time changes nothing yet also changes everything.
5. The Destitute Rabbi Who Threw Away a Fortune
While he performed miracles to help others at will, Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa understood the price he would have to pay if he used miracle-working to improve his desperate financial situation. However, it took his wife a more dramatic, supernatural experience to finally see the wisdom in his choice to stay poor.
6. Rabbi-Baiting: Hillel and Shammai
The Talmud recalls an incident in which Hillel’s patience led one insolent man to curse him and another to convert to Judaism. In contrast, the impatient Shammai had a less pleasant response to the requests of the convert.
7. Talking With Rivers and Training Animals to Do Mitzvot
Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was not the only rabbi to perform miracles. Yet there was a special aura around his activities that bespoke a highly unusual character, even among miracle-workers.
8. A Prostitute, a Penitent, and a Rabbi’s Tears: Elazar ben Dordaya’s Heavenly Ordination
Perhaps the least likely man to ever receive ordination, Elazar ben Dordaya was known for having slept with every sex worker alive. Just as he reaches the last one on the list, she prompts him to reflect on his life and engage in a desperate campaign to repent. He is successful, but only at the cost of his own life.
9. When the Yeshiva Was Shut Down Due to Bad Breath: When and How to Prevent Embarrassment
Various rabbis show how they were willing to shut down the academy and risk getting bad reputations in order to prevent embarrassment of those who were actually guilty. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since the Talmud reaches the conclusion that they learned this from no less a figure than God.
10. Rabbi Acha ben Yaakov Slays the Beit Midrash Monster, One Head at a Time
In order to get rid of a monster, the local rabbis lure Rabbi Acha into their study hall without telling him what to expect. Though he does not disappoint, he is less than pleased with the trick.
As you explore these iconic stories, we hope you’ll find helpful information and deeper meaning in the translated commentaries in the resource panel. Happy learning!