Calling something “talmudic” is a bad habit among Jewish critics. It’s a way of saying that a work has complexity and Jewish relevance, but it’s not usually clear what resemblance, specifically, a given text has to the Talmud. “Arrested Development,” on the other hand — the cult sitcom that returns on Netflix May 26 after a seven-year hiatus — really does bear the comparison, however unlikely that may seem.
This idea occurred to me last week, when NPR released an app cataloguing every repeated joke and reference within the world of the show. These repetitions (155 of them, according to NPR’s count) were planned with what seems like tremendous foresight, and they are a major part of the show’s appeal. Every time the stair car is used for an escape, a lesson is taught through trauma, or Gob plays “The Final Countdown,” there’s pleasure to be had in recognizing those tropes from previous episodes.
The Talmud works in much the same way. Because it’s a collection of laws, arguments, stories and teachings collected over a period of several hundred years, there is no linear or chronological order to it. Material is organized according to subject, but the Talmud is famously discursive, and discussions wander into areas that are only tangentially related. Thus it often deals with the same questions more than once, necessitating reference to several volumes simultaneously. (That’s one reason why Daf Yomi, the practice of learning the Talmud straight through at the pace of a page a day, is not the best way to do it.)