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A quick background: I recently sat down with my step-father and brother and learned Masechet Makkot with them for a bit - this was their first time learning Talmud. Given that the masechet starts talking about capital punishments more or less from the get go (I gave them some background on the Jewish court system and how difficult it is to actually give the death penalty), they found it a bit hard to relate to, and asked: "What is the point of learning this if it isn't applied today?".

So, what is the best answer?

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    Hoestly, it may not be the best place to start learning Talmud. Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/299/… – Yishai Dec 17 '14 at 15:01
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    Deserves reading and summary: vbm-torah.org/shavuot/shv66-ral.htm – Isaac Moses Dec 17 '14 at 15:08
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    I'm not sure I follow: all parts of the Talmud are not practical. We don't paskin straight from the Talmud. – Double AA Dec 17 '14 at 15:11
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    related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/45399/759 – Double AA Dec 17 '14 at 15:11
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    @Leyzer, if you come to Talmud learning understanding why you want to do it, then picking a Misechta that is short and provides a good introduction to structure is perfectly fine. But if someone is just "giving it a try" they may relate better to a different starting point (I'm not suggesting one in particular). It all depends on the student. Rebbi taught the Mishnayos according to the order the students wanted to learn, not the order he placed them in. – Yishai Dec 17 '14 at 16:10
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The Talmud asks a very similar question, on Sanhedrin 71a:

אלא לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר [...] תניא, עיר הנדחת לא היתה ולא עתידה להיות ולמה נכתבה דרוש וקבל שכר [...]תניא בית המנוגע לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר

However, this [the Ben Sorrer Umoreh, the rebellious son of Deut. 21:18] never happened, and never will happen. If so, why was it written (in the Torah)? So we should learn the laws and accept reward for that. [...] It was taught in a braysa, "Ir haNidachas" (a city that has been devoted to idol worship, that must be destroyed) never happened, and never will happen. If so, why was it written (in the Torah)? So we should learn the laws and accept reward for that. [...] It was taught in a braysa, the (tzaraas) afflicted house never happened, and never will happen. If so, why was it written (in the Torah)? So we should learn the laws and accept reward for that.

( translation mine )

It appears that even though learning certain laws are not practically applicable, there is still cause to learn them, as part of the mitzvah of Torah learning.

  • So why learn them as opposed to learning something practical, which you would get the same amount of reward for? – 147zcbm Jan 8 '15 at 0:18
  • You raise a good point, but that wasn't the question asked, as I understood it. That said, I didn't say (nor do I think the gemara said) to only learn these things; of course you need to know the halachos that apply to you. We learn these things in addition to practical halacha, for schar. – Shokhet Jan 8 '15 at 0:35
  • I understood OP's question to mean why learn these, and not something else. – 147zcbm Jan 8 '15 at 0:37
  • That's not how I read "What is the point of learning this if it isn't applied today?" ....I didn't see a comparison to any other part of Torah studies in there, though I might have missed it. Did I misread the question? – Shokhet Jan 8 '15 at 0:39
  • It is possible that I'm putting words in their mouths. However, they singled out "this", which I understood to be referring to why not study something more practical. – 147zcbm Jan 8 '15 at 0:41
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In every tractate, there are parts that are "practical" either directly or indirectly. I'll explain by examples:

The first two tractate I learned was Bava Metzi'ah . It talks about two people holding a tallit and arguing about who gets what. OK, How often do 2 people argue about who gets a tallit, unless it's in shul (and then, the SHUL owns the tallit - it's not "found") so you can say this is impractical, but it is very practical as often two people find some lost object simultaneously and you have to determine who gets it. (Perhaps, this notion occurs with copyrights and patents where you have to decide who came up with the idea first). So what seems impractical actually does become very practical.

Other things really do not have practical applications - much of tractate Rosh Hashanna discusses witnesses testifying about the crescent moon before the Sanhedrin. That doesn't apply today. OK, but isn't knowing something about history and how things were done useful even if it may not be "practical"?

I asked my rebbe in high school the same question you did. (It's a valid question, by all means!) his answer was that studying Talmud is its own reward. Besides the great mitzvah of learning, he emphasized the importance of honing logic and derivation skills. Granted, this could be gained by learning "practical" tractates. To this, he explained that sometimes, it is better when you don't have a familiarization with the topic - i.e. it doesn't seem "practical". This way, you have no "biases" towards how things "are" or "should be", as that can sometimes interfere with your appreciation of the argumentation and logic that the Gemarah uses.

I appreciate my Rebbe's point even if, then, and now, I agree with about 60% of his thinking. See YeZ's answer - it concurs with my Rebbe's thinking.

I've also seen another answer, that you should study the "non practical" topics so that you know what to do when circumstances make them practical. (See DoubleAA's related link). I used to have trouble with this answer regarding learning, say, tractate Zevachim or most of the tractates in Kodshim. They deal with sacrifices and many laws that don't apply now. Why should I learn them?

Then, I realized, by comparison, in my English class, I was learning 20 vocabulary words each week - many of them I didn't think I would ever use. (How often would I use the word "jejune"?) Well, guess what? I've used the majority of the words that I learned, because the situations to use them occurred.

The lesson to be learned - Funny how life creates "practicality" for you.

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In some Yeshivos, they deliberately choose Masechtas that are the least practical, as they understand this to be the best manifestation of Torah Lishma - learning Torah just for the sake of learning Torah, and not for any other purpose. I believe this is one of the reasons that Brisker Yeshivos learn Kodshim.

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In Tanya Chapter 5, this question is discussed. There it's explained that Torah is Chochmas Hashem - Hashem's Wisdom, and therefor learning any Torah is an intense union/connection with Hashem. Understanding His Wisdom is valuable in its own right, regardless of whether it's relevant or not. (See the quote below for more elaboration).

דרך משל: כשאדם מבין ומשיג איזו הלכה במשנה או בגמרא לאשורה על בוריה When, for example, one understands and comprehends a particular halachah in the Mishnah or Gemara, clearly and thoroughly, through strenuous application of his mind,

הרי שכלו תופס ומקיף אותה, וגם שכלו מלובש בה באותה שעה his intellect grasps and encompasses that halachah, and his intellect is also clothed in it at that time when he strives to understand it.

והנה הלכה זו היא חכמתו ורצונו של הקדוש ברוך הוא Now, this halachah is the wisdom and Will of G-d — the rationale underlying the halachah is G-d’s wisdom, and the ruling itself is G-d’s Will, as mentioned in ch. 4.

שעלה ברצונו שכשיטעון ראובן כך וכך, דרך משל, ושמעון כך וכך, יהיה הפסק ביניהם כך וכך It so arose in His Will that if, for example, Reuven would claim thus and Shimon thus, such and such should be the verdict between them.

ואף אם לא היה ולא יהיה הדבר הזה לעולם, לבא למשפט על טענות ותביעות אלו Even if it never did nor ever will come to pass that litigation occur over these arguments and claims,

Thus, were the purpose of Torah study only to learn how to practice its laws — in this case: how to resolve this dispute — then the study of such a law would indeed serve no purpose. In fact, however, there is great value in studying even such a halachah, for thereby one knows G-d’s Will and wisdom, and attaches himself to it, as the Alter Rebbe continues:

מכל מקום, מאחר שכך עלה ברצונו וחכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאם יטעון זה כך וזה כך יהיה הפסק כך yet, since it arose thus in G-d’s Will and wisdom that if one person would claim this way and the other that way, the verdict be such and such,

הרי כשאדם יודע ומשיג בשכלו פסק זה, כהלכה הערוכה במשנה או גמרא או פוסקים therefore when one knows and comprehends this verdict as a halachah set forth in the Mishnah or Gemara or Poskim (the halachic codifiers),

If one arrives at the identical verdict on the basis of any other legal system, this verdict represents human knowledge, not Divine wisdom. If, however, he derives the ruling from Torah,

הרי זה משיג ותופס ומקיף בשכלו רצונו וחכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, דלית מחשבה תפיסא ביה ולא ברצונו וחכמתו he then actually comprehends and grasps the Will and wisdom of G-d, Whom no thought can grasp, nor [can any thought grasp] His Will and wisdom,

כי אם בהתלבשותם בהלכות הערוכות לפנינו except when they — G-d’s Will and wisdom — clothe themselves in the halachot set before us.

This is one facet of understanding Torah, namely, that thereby one’s intellect encompasses the Divine Will and wisdom. ... והוא יחוד נפלא, שאין יחוד כמוהו ולא כערכו נמצא כלל בגשמיות Now this is a most wonderful unity; in the physical realm there in no unity similar or parallel to it, i.e., of two things as disproportionate as human intellect and Torah, G-d’s intellect —

להיות לאחדים ומיוחדים ממש מכל צד ופנה that they should actually become one and united from every side and angle.

וזאת מעלה יתירה גדולה ונפלאה לאין קץ, אשר במצות ידיעת התורה והשגתה This is the distinctive, infinitely great and wonderful superiority of the mitzvah of knowing and comprehending Torah

על כל המצות מעשיות, ואפילו על מצות התלויות בדבור, ואפילו על מצות תלמוד תורה שבדיבור over all the mitzvot involving action, and even over those performed through speech; indeed, even over the mitzvah of oral Torah study.

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I'm not sure where i heard this, but part of it is in expectation and hope of when it will once again be relevant to us, bimheira b'yameinu.

Also, the Gemara deals with much more than the specific topic it's about, including tangential laws, sayings, stories (agadah), etc.

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