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Six Memos from the Last Millennium

Six Memos from the Last Millennium
A Novelist Reads the Talmud

The critically acclaimed author of A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and A Curable Romantic explores stories from the Talmud, one of the most sacred Jewish texts, to discover the modern wisdom in these ancient tales

Series: Exploring Jewish Arts and Culture, Robert H. Abzug, Series Editor, Director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies

April 2016
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264 pages | 6 x 9 |

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 metacommentary 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.

  • A Note on the Title
  • Acknowledgments
  • A Novelist Reads the Talmud: An Introduction
  • Timeline of Relevant Events, According to Rabbinic Tradition
  • Memo One. Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish
  • Chapter 1. Eros and Alchemy in the Waters of the Jordan
  • Memo Two. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai
  • Chapter 2. Turning the Hearts of Fathers
  • Memo Three A, B, and C. Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair, and Rabbi Judah ben Gerim
  • Chapter 3. Towards the Hearts of Sons
  • Memo Four. Rabban Gamliel II of Yavneh, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus
  • Chapter 4. The Gate of a Broken Heart
  • Memo Five. Rabbi Akiva, Shimon ben Azzai, Shimon ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Avuyah
  • Chapter 5. Revelation, Retribution, Perdition, Ecstasy, and Bliss: An Epic Canvas
  • Endnotes
  • Glossary

“Skibell's work is lucid and erudite, and he does honor to his subject matter...A fresh look at an ancient source.”

“. . . highly readable, and deeply thought-provoking...he presents the Talmud’s treatment of its own authors as both role models and warnings, a remarkably self-reflective approach that is needed today perhaps more than ever.”
Jewish Book Council

“Creative, learned, and playful, Six Memos From the Last Millennium illuminates Talmudic tales and personalities with clarity and wisdom.”
Rabbi David Wolpe, Temple Sinai, and author of David: The Divided Heart

“In Six Memos, a master storyteller, who has authored extraordinary works of fiction, applies his storytelling skills to tales from the Talmud, unpacking them with rare sensitivity and artistry. We learn with Skibell to pay close attention to what is said and what is unsaid. Written with color and wit, this book is an exercise in the pleasures of reading.”
Jacob L. Wright, Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Emory University, and author of David, King of Israel, in Biblical Memory

“In Six Memos from the Last Millennium, a master storyteller takes on stories of the masters, bringing to modern life the millennia-old stories of the Talmud. Skibell discerns in those stories motifs and strands of thought that join the apparently disjointed, propelling the mini-narratives into our modern mindset with clarity and depth. I finished Six Memos reading and thinking—maybe even living—more deliberately and intelligently.”
W. Mark Lanier, founder, Lanier Theological Library, and author of Christianity on Trial: A Lawyer Examines the Christian Faith


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca