Unit II. Visualizing Values - Lesson 11: The Visual Talmud

Time: 50 minutes
Materials: All of the photographs by Zion Ozeri
A Guide to the Layout of a Talmud Page
Worksheet S: A Talmudic Debate (if desired)
Zion Ozeri’s Photo Captions and the Sample texts
Preparation: If you plan to show the Guide to the Layout of a Talmud Page, set up a laptop and LCD projector before class, or make photocopies to distribute. You may also want to make photocopies of the “Sample Texts” for student reference.
Overview: In this lesson, students begin to create their own “visual Talmud pages,” linking images and values with a variety of textual and visual commentaries.
Big Idea: Text study and interpretation, which is central to Jewish tradition, can be expanded to include visual texts as well.

Introduction (20 minutes):

Recall for students the story about Hillel (see Worksheet J), in which the great scholar boils all of Judaism down to one short sentence and claims that “everything else is commentary.”

  1. Point out to students (if they haven’t already gotten the point) that in this course they’re looking at photographs as a kind of text that can be read and interpreted. Students may have also noticed that the values worksheets (Worksheets K–Q) are laid out like a page of Talmud.
  2. Explain that text study and interpretations are fundamental to Judaism and are typified by the Talmud.
  3. If your students are not familiar with the Talmud, show or distribute the color-coded diagram of a Talmud page from the “Resources” section of this guide.
  4. Help students understand that a page of the Talmud includes commentaries and responses all around the primary text in the middle. The primary texts are discussions by rabbis in ancient Israel and Babylonia about Jewish law and practice. You can liken it to a web page: Each bit of text around the sides is like a hyperlink to a different interpretation or commentary on the main text. You don’t read a page of theTalmud like other books, from top to bottom. You read the central text and consult the secondary “hyperlinks” as necessary to better understand it.
  5. If you have the time, distribute Worksheet S and have students work on it in pairs. (Paired study, or hevruta, is the traditional way to learn the Talmud.) The worksheet will give students a better feel for the nature of Talmudic debate and interpretation.

There are actually two Talmuds—the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud of the Land of Israel—although when we say Talmud, we generally refer to the Babylonian one.
It’s important that students also understand that the Talmud isn’t a unified code of law—it records ongoing disagreements about the proper way to practice Jewish life and Jewish values. In addition to midrashim (narrative interpretations), the pages of the Talmud record debates over Jewish law and practice.
Unlike most books, the Talmud wasn’t written all at once. As the color-coded diagram shows, a single page of the Talmud might have texts that date to the 1st century, texts that date to the 19th century, and texts from almost any century in between. A page of the Talmud might include a selection from the Mishnah (the first collection of rabbinic discussions and interpretations of Jewish law and biblical tradition), as well as the Gemara (discussions of the Mishnah by the rabbis of Babylonia), and subsequent interpretations by rabbis from Spain, North Africa, France, Germany, and elsewhere. The Talmud is a discussion of Jewish life and practice that’s taken place over the course of 2,000 years and continues today.
An introduction to the Talmud is an opportunity to help students make important connections to the work they’re doing. For example, the multiple perspectives and opinions in the Talmud remind us that any document—whether it’s a text or a photograph—can be interpreted in many different ways. The Talmud also reinforces the notion that the world Jewish community is connected across time and space by certain core ideas and ideals. And even though we might sometimes disagree on how to accomplish these ideals, we still constitute a single unified community. Finally, because of its emphasis on practical, case-based application, the Talmud reminds us that even if we have a clear sense of values, it’s not always obvious how to apply those values to real-life situations.
See the Further Reading section of this site for books and websites that offer additional information about the history, structure, and significance of the Talmud.


Creating the Visual Talmud (30 minutes):

  1. Next, explain that each student will be creating a Talmud page of sorts—a “visual” Talmud page. The primary text will be a photograph by Zion Ozeri that relates to whichever value the student selects. Students will photocopy the photographs, glue them to the center of a sheet of poster board, and then add various “commentaries” around the central image. The commentaries will be written or visual texts that interpret, explain, or enhance the central text and the Jewish value or values it reflects.
  2. Have each student select a value to focus on.
  3. Make all of the Zion Ozeri photographs available to the class. Give students some time to sift through the images and find one that relates to the value he or she has selected.
  4. Once students have chosen their central texts (that is, the photographs by Zion Ozeri they plan to use), you might want to have them begin with a close-looking exercise (such as the objective/subjective exercise in Unit 1, Lesson 1 “Reading a Photograph,” or one of the creative response activities described at the end of Unit 1 in “For Further Exploration.”
  5. Then have students begin to develop their commentaries. Have them finish the work and assemble their pages at home (and/or during additional class periods).

You should determine exactly what kinds of “commentary” students will be required to include, and make sure to communicate that clearly to students. Four or five different types of commentary are probably plenty. Here are some possibilities:

  • A description of the Jewish value (or values) reflected in the photograph
  • A traditional text that illustrates or resonates with the photograph and the value
  • A contemporary text (e.g., song lyrics or other quote) that relates to the photograph and the value
  • A photograph taken by the student—or an image from a magazine, website, etc.—that relates to the main photo and the value (and an explanation of how it relates). If students will be taking photos, encourage them to think about ways to capture similar values, ideas, or emotions in their photographs without simply copying Ozeri’s work.
  • A piece of creative writing based on the photograph.
  • A student drawing.
  • A soundtrack or “musical collage”.
  • An analysis of the photographic composition and an explanation of the way the composition enhances the picture’s meaning.



 For Homework:

Students will need additional time to complete their commentaries and lay out their Talmud pages. You can assign this for homework and/or devote additional sessions to completing the work.