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Perusing “The Seinfeld Talmud”

A review of Jarrod Tanny’s new book “The Seinfeld Talmud: A Jewish Guide to a Show about Nothing.”
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September 21, 2023

What has the Talmud ever done for us? This is a pertinent question for those generations of Jewish schoolchildren forced to pore over its text to no discernible effect on their later secular lives. Well, now we have an answer in the form of author Jarrod Tanny’s “The Seinfeld Talmud: A Jewish Guide to a Show about Nothing”—the show “Seinfeld” as analyzed by those very same men who gave us the Talmud. Well, not exactly but I will come back to that later.

Why “Seinfeld”? Because, running between July 5, 1989 and May 14, 1998 the sitcom was Talmudic. For one thing, it was long: Forming nine seasons, it totaled 180 episodes. Billing itself as a “show about nothing,” it explored the minutiae of everyday daily life, dealing with both big (antisemitism, masturbation) and little (buttons) topics. These include, as the back cover of Tanny’s book states:

Are there degrees of coincidence?

Is it permissible to parallel park headfirst?

Is it poor hygiene to “double dip” a chip?

How long must you keep a greeting card before you can throw it out?

Why does Jerry’s new girlfriend wear the exact same dress on every date?

Is it appropriate to say “God bless you” to a woman who sneezes if her husband does not?

If you named a kid Rasputin do you think that would have a negative effect on his life?

Did they have roommates in the Middle Ages?

Who leaves a country packed with ponies to come to a non-pony country?

In its scope, “The Seinfeld Talmud” resembles its namesake, which, as Tanny puts it “depending on whom you ask, is either the most comprehensive corpus of Jewish law ever produced or thousands of pages about nothing.”

The comedy of “Seinfeld,” Tanny argues, was built “around the sort of discussions we can find in the greatest collection of texts in the Jewish religion: The Babylonian Talmud. Like the eminent Rabbis of ancient Israel and Babylon (Persia), the ‘Seinfeld’ gang spend their days poring over the excruciating minutiae of every single event imaginable. ‘Seinfeld’ is the Jewish Talmud of a new generation.” In turn, those rabbis “came to recognize their kinship with the ‘Seinfeld’ gang, four fellow sages who also lived in a fantasy world musing over the quotidian rather than working for a living.”

The similarity was so profound that Tanny was moved to set up a “‘Seinfeld’ Yomi” group devoted to discussing one episode daily in the style of the sages of the Babylonian Talmud. This involved him penning a daily commentary, in the form of a discussion, between those sages. Obviously bored, those involved in the discussion “decided to apply their wit and wisdom to painstakingly analyzing ‘Seinfeld,’ episode by episode, from Bubble Boy to Babu Bhatt, architecture to marine biology, Jujyfruits to Junior Mints.” Tanny collected and then turned these daily musings into a book.

To give you a sense of Tanny’s approach, his first explanatory note reads: “Although most foreign terms in this text translate to ‘penis,’ we have nevertheless included a comprehensive glossary at the back of the book.” Turn to the Glossary and you will read another note saying, “If a Jewish word is missing from this list, it is safe to assume it means ‘penis.’”

Turning to an entry, here’s “The Raincoats,” episodes 18 and 19, season five:

Which is worse, making out during “Schindler’s List” or “The Ten Commandments”? The Rabbis weigh in.

GEMARAH:

He was making out during “Schindler’s List”! Who does that? said Bar Kappara convening the meeting in the name of Rav Huna.

I don’t even think a philanderer like Rav Pappa would make out during “Schindler’s List”! Would you Pappa? Asked Resh Lakish.

I think he would, said Rav Sheshet. My postman caught him groping a young lady of the evening during a screening of “The Ten Commandments.”

Is that true Pappa? How could you? said Resh Lakish.

Postal Employee Nudelman said Pappa moved on her like Pharoah’s Chariots crashing into the Red Sea.

It was a four-hour movie! And the Golden Calf scene got us all hot and heavy, said Rav Pappa in his defence.

So while God was commanding Moses to not covet thy neighbour’s ass you were literally groping thy neighbour’s ass, said Resh Lakish.

In a manner of speaking, added Rav Sheshet.

Unconscionable, said Rav Kahuna.

In my defence I was not making out during The Holocaust as Seinfeld did, said Rav Pappa. This was an event of liberation; I was expressing my joy at our release from bondage.

And yada, yada, yada (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Having been asked to review “The Seinfeld Talmud,” I wondered: Can one review the Talmud itself? Has it been reviewed? Are we even allowed to? So, I turned to where every modern consumer goes when struck with such a big question: Amazon. It turns out there are customer reviews of various editions. This one caught my eye: “I heard about the Talmud from my dad. It’s like he said, the missing parts in the bible is [sic] available in the Talmud. It’s a good read. Bought this for a friend.”

Having been asked to review “The Seinfeld Talmud,” I wondered: Can one review the Talmud itself? Has it been reviewed? Are we even allowed to?

The amoraim would have been pleased with that one; I’m sure Tanny would be, too.

I do have some quibbles. I know that there weren’t any in the Talmud but a few pictures would have been nice given that “Seinfeld” was a television show. I’m also fairly certain the sages would not have been as well-versed in Yiddish, throwing about such terms as schvitz or Yid, as they seem to be in Tanny’s text. Tanny has surely exercised some artistic license in translating their words into a modern Ashenaki idiom. But like I said, I did not pay enough attention at my Jewish high school to be the judge. It’s good to know, though, that such an education has its uses.

But I have one final question: If Tanny’s book is the show “Seinfeld” as analyzed by those very same men who gave us the Talmud, how about the Talmud as analyzed by those very same people who gave us “Seinfeld”?


Nathan Abrams is a professor of film at Bangor University in Wales.

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