A History of the Talmud

Here are some highlights from this 2019 book by the librarian at JTS:

* Before the first century of the common era, Judaism was, with variations, biblical Judaism, a Judaism defined by the library of books that had been accepted as canonical not long before. Jews at this time overwhelmingly believed in the one God of Israel, whose will was recorded in the Torah (the five books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy) and other inspired scriptures, the most public worship of whom took place at the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the observances and even beliefs of rabbinic Jews who lived just a century or two later would have been unrecognizable to Jews of this period.

But after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, a small group of scholarly men, known as the rabbis, gathered and, based upon received traditions, written and unwritten, began to develop forms of interpretation and practice that would ultimately lead Jews in unforeseen directions. The earliest teachings of these men would come together in the early third century in a document called the Mishnah. Other documents that preserved their unique scriptural readings, called midrashim (singular: midrash), emerged not long thereafter. But at this early stage of affairs, these men were mostly speaking and enjoying influence among themselves. Few other Jews at this time would have given the rabbis any notice.

The Mishnah soon became the focus of study and elaboration among rabbis in Palestine (which many Jews continued to call “the Land of Israel”) and Babylonia. The laws and practices detailed in the Mishnah, joined by other early rabbinic teachings, were evaluated and further developed, in a process that lasted two centuries or more in the former locale and three centuries or more in the latter. During this period, the rabbis, educated as they were, used their skills to gain some influence in both territories, but they had no officially recognized authority, and their law and teachings continued to define the Judaism of relatively few. But this reality would soon change.

By the mid-fifth century in Palestine and before the Muslim conquest in Babylonia, communities of rabbis had formulated documents known as Talmuds (Hebrew: talmudim), perhaps as a product of the creation of new rabbinic institutions, perhaps as an outgrowth of emergent influence and authority. Whatever their source, the Talmuds represented a maturing of the rabbinic estate, making it clear that those who defined their Judaism in relationship to the Talmuds were poised to extend their influence still further.

After the Muslim conquest of the Near East in the early seventh century – and particularly after the capital of Islam moved to Baghdad in the mid-eighth century – both the western (Palestinian) and eastern (Babylonian) rabbinic communities came to be subject to the same power, and in their competition, the Babylonian center had a distinct advantage. During the next several centuries, the rabbinic academies that claimed authority for the Babylonian Talmud – the Bavli – were able to take advantage of the prosperity, power, and possibly official recognition of the authorities in the city in which they found themselves. The rabbis who were located in the backwater that was then Palestine, by contrast, enjoyed primarily the numinous authority of the sacred land with which their Talmud – the so-called Jerusalem Talmud, or Yerushalmi – was associated. Soon, the scholars whose foundation was the Bavli came to be recognized as the authorities of rabbinic Judaism – now the dominant Jewish form – and their Talmud became the Talmud. From this point forward, the Judaism of the vast majority of the world’s Jews would be defined by the deliberations and pronouncements of this document.

Judaism in the Middle Ages was characterized by broad observance of Jewish law – halakhah – and that halakhah, disputed and codified by rabbis in Iraq, North Africa, and finally, Europe, was overwhelmingly derived from and based on the Talmud. Jews broadly accepted rabbis as the arbiters and counselors for how the life of a Jew should be conducted, and they viewed the source of the rabbi’s authority as his expertise in Talmud, a document that was beyond the reach of the common person. At the same time, in Christian Europe, Jews were suspected, and even hated, for their stubborn refusal to accept the truth of Jesus, and, as the
two faiths shared a common pre-Christian biblical tradition, the Talmud was seen to be the reason for and the symbol of the error of the Jews. Leading Jews astray by taking authority away from the Bible itself, and demanding false loyalty in the face of Christian truth, the Talmud was the target of vituperative polemic, resulting, all too often, in confiscation and destruction.

The Renaissance and Reformation opened Christian eyes to a different kind of consideration of the Talmud, while the printing press made possible the study of Talmud by a far broader audience of students. A work that had been studied by hundreds at any given time was now studied by thousands. In this fertile soil grew the yeshivah culture of early modern eastern European Jewry, with its extreme privileging of Talmud study. But according to the way of the world, each action compels a reaction, and Hasidism asserted a more populist, less scholarly approach. At the same time, printed books of halakhah allowed community rabbis to neglect the more demanding study of the Talmud. Both these developments spurred a counter-reaction, leading to the founding, in the early nineteenth century, of the first genuinely modern yeshivah.

In the modern yeshivah, Talmud study was elevated above almost all else, and the scholars of the yeshivah claimed an authority above all others.

* Long before the revolt – that is, by the first century BCE at the latest – there was considerable consensus concerning what was central to Judaism and its life on the land. At the center of Judaism was the one God of all humankind, who, however, had a special relationship with Israel. The earliest and most authoritative expression of God’s will was the Torah, now recognized as the one eternal constitution of the Jews. Finally, as the Torah and related sacred writings made clear, God was to be worshipped at the one home of God’s direct presence on earth, the Temple in Jerusalem. As God could not be seen, the Torah and Temple served as powerful, unexcelled symbols of that God, expressions of the covenant God had made with His chosen people.

* there is one overall message – a system, really – that dominates throughout the biblical books: Humankind in general, and Israel in particular, are subject to a covenant according to which obedience to divine command (good deeds) will be rewarded and sin (disobedience, bad deeds) will be punished. Though the traditions or “authors” behind different biblical books (or parts of biblical books) may be different, they almost all agree on this picture. Thus, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, and Israel is exiled from her land, because of sin. The rain and crops appear at their proper time because of obedience; they fail to appear in their proper time due to disobedience. Priestly texts prescribe sacrifice to erase the stain of such sin, the prophets warn of vast punishment in the event of Israel’s failure to turn away from sin. Yes, there are biblical authors, such as the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes, who recognize that this system doesn’t always work and seek to understand why, but they are the exceptions who prove the rule.

Another way of expressing this biblical ideology is to say that these books make a claim, collectively, for divine justice. But if they make such a claim, they also provoke and seek answers to questions pertaining to that justice: if there is divine justice, why does it so often seem to be absent? If suffering, like exile, is punishment for sin, why do the more sinful so often seem to suffer less? And why is the human impulse to sin – the source of so much suffering – so persistent in the first place? If God created us, shouldn’t that creation have made us good, or at least better? These are obviously not the only questions addressed by biblical books, but they are central. As it turns out, they are also central to the majority of Jewish compositions of the late second Temple period that did not, in the end, become biblical, as are other qualities for which biblical books serve as a model. In fact, the continuity of biblical and extra-biblical, pre-rabbinic compositions – at least those in Hebrew and Aramaic – is quite stunning.

* The rabbis’ own claim for their tradition is that it went back to the revelation at Sinai or before – that it was effectively eternal. The first chapter of Mishnah tractate Avot, for example, offers a chain of tradition that connects the rabbis’ own masters with Sinai, and while the text does not actually apply the term rabbi to teachers who lived before the first century CE (nor even to those who lived before the destruction of the Temple in 70), it is clear that these earlier teachers are represented in rabbinic terms, asking us to believe that they were effectively rabbis. Furthermore, in Talmudic and related literature, Moses is often called “rabbenu” – “our master,” “our rabbi.” In the same literature, even pre-Mosaic biblical figures are assumed to have observed “rabbinic” law (that would be our term, not theirs), thus claiming that halakhah as the rabbis knew it was Jewish law at least from Sinai, and divine law, observed by at least the righteous biblical heroes of old, from the very beginning.

These claims were taken at face value throughout the ages by Jews who had little historical awareness and thus little reason to doubt them, and even early generations of modern historians granted that rabbinic Judaism represented what mainstream Judaism had always been. But more recently historians have come to reject these claims, and a new consensus has emerged.

* there is no direct evidence of any kind regarding the origins of the rabbis that may confidently be dated to the period before the destruction of the Temple, which leads Seth Schwartz to declare unambiguously, “It is overwhelmingly unlikely that anything resembling a rabbinic class existed before the destruction of the Second Temple.” For our purposes, therefore, “before the rabbis” means before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Any text or teaching or event from the prior centuries is pre-rabbinic.

* So in addition to the Tanakh itself, with the added evidence of the Apocrypha and pseudepigraphical works (many of which appear in Qumran), otherwise unknown writings from Qumran may also be taken as evidence of pre-rabbinic Judaism and its literatures. And despite differences between them (and excluding the few clear exceptions, including the sectarian texts of Qumran and Hellenistic Jewish writings), there are also certain features that unite virtually all the Jewish works written in Palestine during this period. The most powerful of these is also the most important: they were written to be scripture or to supplement it. They were written in biblical Hebrew (or, at least, in the author’s best approximation thereof ), they were attributed to biblical characters, and they supplemented and sometimes sought to supplant biblical texts. In other words, whatever was going on in the world around them, Jewish authors in Palestine were engaged in the writing of religious texts, works that focused on, emerged from, and sought to join already authoritative “biblical” writings.

* Notably, when we turn to the decades much closer to the emergence of rabbinic teachers and their forms, focusing on the earliest Christian writings, we still find that, despite differences, there are considerable continuities with the trends just described. New Testament works, coming to their final form in the mid- to late first century (and hence all before the earliest rabbinic texts), fall into three or four categories. First, there are the histories of Jesus’ life, the Gospels. Then, there is Acts, a history of the early church that is continuous with the gospel of Luke, much as Joshua and Judges (and subsequent books in the Tanakh’s Deuteronomic history) are continuous with the Torah. To varying degrees, and though they were all written in Greek (like all works of the NT), these books are “biblical” in their quality, with an omniscient narrator recounting the sacred history. They often quote or reference Hebrew scripture, claiming “roots” for the events they describe in inherited biblical teachings. And in the case of Matthew, at least, it is easy and natural to translate the narrative into biblical Hebrew, another demonstration of the “biblical” quality and connection of these compositions.

* The next large group of New Testament works are the letters (“epistles”). These works do not follow a model in Hebrew scripture, so their voices are the newest and most distinct in the New Testament corpus.

* Now, all human societies, including those that depend heavily on writing, have (oral) traditions – that is to say, either orally transmitted folk and other traditions, or simply traditional practices that are conveyed and adopted via mimesis, from one generation to the next. In the case of ancient Jewish society, Josephus references unwritten tradition as one of the foci of debate between Pharisees, who respected the inherited unwritten tradition, and Sadducees, who rejected it. The rabbis, too, later claim an unwritten tradition, which they come to call “Oral Torah” (torah she’be’al pe = “torah that is on the mouth”).

* Jewish eating laws and practices are widely attested in post-biblical, pre-rabbinic works, with references in works such as Tobit, Judith, Jubilees, and Philo, along with descriptions of Jewish table practice in the writings of Roman authors. This is by no means a silence. On the contrary, if multiple sources describe Jewish eating practices and none mentions the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy, the likely explanation is that the practice had not yet developed.

The same claim may be made for the relationship of written and unwritten traditions in general from the pre-rabbinic period. As we have already said, while there were certainly pre-rabbinic unwritten traditions of one sort or another, we can know nothing directly about their content. At the same time, there was an abundant written literature produced in the same period, one that includes Apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, histories, and more. This literature is so abundant, in fact, that it is unlikely that there was anything significant in unwritten traditions that wasn’t also attested in the written record.

* The first major rabbinic composition, the Mishnah, which would ultimately form the foundation and shank of both Talmudim, emerged in an age of great upheaval for Jews. Losing two wars with the Romans, seeing their magnificent Temple in Jerusalem rendered rubble, Jews cannot long have held on to the hope that the world they knew only a
few years before would quickly be rebuilt. Facing defeat and ruin, there were questions they must inevitably have asked themselves: Had God abandoned them? If not, then how, in the absence of the Temple, could their relationship with God be maintained? Were its functions to be replaced? How were other Jewish institutions, practices, and holy days, many of which were deeply tied to the Temple, to be shaped for the new world?

Against this background, and in response to the conditions just described, a new cadre of self-fashioned religious experts – the rabbis – began to forge new approaches and new teachings, going a long way toward redefining Judaism for the post-Temple era. Their enterprise cannot be understood without first understanding the world in which
they lived – its political, social, and religious realities; its upheavals and losses…

Jews did not lose bona fide independence as a result of their defeat, even if the autonomy they had enjoyed disappeared. Similarly, except as a product of battle, Jews did not, by and large, lose their homes. Unlike biblical Babylonia, Rome had no policy of exiling defeated populations, so the only Jews who were “exiled” were refugees who fled the violence and prisoners of war, constituting a clear minority of the population as a whole.

* “many Jews responded [to the destruction of the Temple] by loosening their attachment to Judaism and heightening their participation in the Roman system.”

* Our only meaningful record of the rabbis from the period between the two major wars with Rome, and even from the period after the Bar Kokhba war, is the documents produced by the rabbis themselves. Outside of their own production, there is barely a word about the rabbis to be found in any non-rabbinic source. The only reasonable interpretation of this reality is that the rabbis were, in fact, entirely insignificant to anyone beyond themselves.

* The Mishnah’s language is overwhelmingly Hebrew, but, notably, a Hebrew without literary precedent.

* Seth Schwartz judges that Hebrew was a “sociolect” used by rabbis as a language to distinguish themselves from others, and Hayim Lapin adds that the “Rabbis’ Hebrew… may have been incomprehensible to those without rabbinic training.”

* “the framers of the Mishnah expected to be understood by remarkably keen ears and active minds … they manifest confidence that the listener will put many things together and draw the important conclusions for himself… the Mishnah assumes an active intellect, capable of perceiving inferred convention, and vividly participating audience.”

The Mishnah’s assumption, in other words, is that its students will be actively, critically involved in making sense of its teachings and judging its regulations. The student will be highly intelligent and intellectually
ambitious. His capacities will already be evident, as the Mishnah demands a considerable degree of prior accomplishment: mastery not only of scripture but also of other fundamentals of Jewish tradition and practice.

* the Mishnah adapts neither the forms of biblical books nor their language. It is written in an entirely new form of Hebrew (as compared with any scriptural precedent) and its form is similarly unlike any scriptural model. The Mishnah does quote scripture here and there, but with the exception of a few unusual tractates (sections of Sotah and Sanhedrin, for example), such quotation is relatively rare, and it is possible to review chapters of Mishnaic teachings with barely a quotation of the “source” upon which the Mishnaic law may (or may not) be based. (This means that the common popular characterization of the Mishnah as a kind of “commentary on the Torah” is certainly wrong)…

* Neusner writes, “superficially, the Mishnah is totally indifferent to Scripture. That impression, moreover, is reinforced by the traits of the language of the Mishnah… Formally, redactionally, and linguistically the Mishnah
stands in splendid isolation from Scripture.” But this is only true at the superficial level, as Neusner makes clear. At a deeper level, much – though far from all – of the Mishnah elaborates categories, and even details, that
originate in scripture. But this is rarely on scripture’s own terms. On the contrary, as Neusner suggests, “the Mishnah brings to its subject a conception of the law which is unknown to the earlier document.”

How can this be so, given the fact that, for the rabbis, scripture is purportedly the ultimate authority? The solution, again, is suggested by Neusner: “all of Scripture is authoritative. But only some of Scripture is relevant.”

Needless to say, it is the rabbis behind the Mishnah alone who determine what parts of scripture are relevant and what not. It is also they who read and interpret scripture, in their own way and as they see fit. This is hardly “traditional” in the conventional sense of the word. But whatever its actual relationship to scripture, the Mishnah does claim to be rooted in the scriptural tradition, particularly to those – its assumed students – who are familiar with that tradition. Nevertheless, this rhetoric of tradition should be understood as what it truly is – that is, as “mere” rhetoric – for, as Neusner astutely and correctly writes, “The Mishnah’s Scriptural literalism [where it exists] is a response to the opening of an abyss: a bridge to the past… There is nothing traditional in leaping over so long a span of time. So the Mishnah’s self-evident literalism… is an act of reform… anything
but traditional… the trivialization of the past (emphasis added).”

The Mishnah stands in aggressive, even “arrogant” relationship to Israel’s sacred scripture, but it ignores completely the living tradition of Israel that is, historically speaking, the rabbis’ bridge to the past. The Mishnah never quotes any of the many Jewish writings of the late Second Temple period that is not part of the sacred canon. As a result, it quotes no voice that is not, in the understanding of its students, at least four centuries old. Nor does it, on more than isolated occasions, explicitly reference “oral” traditions or practices from the same period, despite the fact that many such traditions surely existed, defining, as they would have, the life of Jews in the centuries before the destruction. Add to this the fact that the Mishnah resembles none of those earlier documents, and the assertion of the Mishnah of its independence – not its traditionalism – will be

* Neusner: Mishnah is “a sustained philosophical treatise in the guise of an episodic exercise in ad hoc problem solving.

* “The principal message of the Mishnah is that the will of man affects the material reality of the world and governs the working of those forces… which express and effect the sanctification of creation and of Israel alike.” Needless to say, philosophy privileges human reason, while religion traditionally privileges revelation. By empowering human will, therefore, the Mishnah is asserting its philosophical quality.

* most Jews during this [200-350 CE in Palestine] period “were to all intents and purposes standard Greco-Roman pagans.”

After the Bar Kokhba war (132–135), it would have been difficult for the common Jew (as opposed to a rabbi) to maintain his or her confidence that the God of Israel still preferred and protected the Chosen People. Evidence showed, in fact, that the God of Israel had not protected Israel, despite the fact that Jews were no less pious than their enemies, and were overall, at least relatively speaking, far more righteous (where righteousness is measured by adherence to the laws of the Torah). The natural conclusion was one of three choices: either that
God had abandoned Israel, that the God of Israel had been defeated by Roman gods, or that the God of Israel was a fiction all along. Whichever conclusion one preferred (if one was inclined to think theologically at all), the reasons to remain loyal to the Torah of Israel in the latter part of the second and into the third century were weak, and a realignment of loyalties with the ways of one’s non-Jewish Roman neighbors only to be expected.

* far from having been the leaders of the synagogues, the rabbis had little involvement with them until well after the Late Roman period.

* It was only at the beginning of the fifth century that the rabbis became at all notable, that is, noticeable by a broader swathe of Palestinian Jewry, along with others. It is only at this time that they are first mentioned in
inscriptions, and only now that their teachings are referenced by church fathers.

* One of the earliest modern observers of the Yerushalmi, Zechariah Frankel, offered a description of the Yerushalmi that remains valuable. Among Frankel’s observations are these: the Yerushalmi limits objections and deliberations. It prefers simple, straightforward logic and doesn’t always seek solutions to logical difficulties. The Yerushalmi doesn’t always read the Mishnah closely, nor is it troubled by redundancies in Mishnaic teachings. When there is a Tannaitic dispute, the Yerushalmi doesn’t seek to explain that dispute, nor to explore justifications of the differing opinions. On the contrary, where possible, it seeks to show that tannaim who seemingly differ in fact agree. Finally, as a general observation, Frankel remarks that the Yerushalmi seeks to establish halakhah more than it seeks to pursue logical deliberations. To these observations may be added many, including the fact that the Yerushalmi rarely suggests alternative formulations for scripture, and almost never pursues alternative explanations or reasons beyond the barest few. Considered as a whole, then, what is the Talmud Yerushalmi trying to do? In Neusner’s reading, The Yerushalmi’s qualities and characteristics constitute a considered, strategic – one might even say “philosophical” – response to the challenges Jews faced in Palestine in the period during which it came to formation.

The Talmud stresses the themes of certainty, consensus, and authority. These points of insistence also express a general concern to overcome doubt, confusion, diversity, and civil chaos. The Talmud’s paramount points of insistence constitute a point-by-point program in defiance of the age: certainty over doubt, authority over disintegration, salvation over chaos, above all, hope and confidence in age of despair. In the period and circumstance represented by the Talmud of the Land of Israel, people believed that decisions had to come forth, arguments had to reach solution, doubt had to be resolved. In context, we see that this was the Talmud’s response: triumph over despair.

The early fifth century (more or less) was, as we saw, a period in Palestine when Jews would have found themselves in severe doubt, their assumptions profoundly challenged. Theologically rejected subjects in a more and more Christian empire, Jews could only have found comfort and security in clear, definitive answers and the rejection of questions and chaos, whatever their source.

Harmonizing differing opinions, rather than supporting them by justifying each of two sides, yields certainty and avoids dispute. Imagining alternative formulations of scripture makes it easier to avoid questioning scripture, while the avoidance or limitation of alternative explanations allows conclusions to stand with greater confidence. Logic and its play are disruptive, while halakhah is definitive and secure.

The Talmud Yerushalmi, then, is a traditionalist text, one that sought to create a world of relative certainty and stability in the face of a world that for Jews in Palestine (and elsewhere) had to be uncertain and unstable,
perhaps in the extreme. But it did this in an entirely innovative way – for the first time ever, in the way of a Talmud. “Talmud” – characterized by the citation of opinions, the record of disputes, the working out of differences, and engaged interpretation and extension of a received canonical text – was unprecedented, both within the Jewish world and without. It was and remained a uniquely rabbinic form. It was the Yerushalmi that first
gave expression to this form, offering one model of what Talmud could be. The later Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud (the Talmud), would resemble it in significant respects. But the latter would differ from the former in what are, arguably, even more significant respects. Talmud is a genre (with only two instantiations) but not a single form.

* if the Yerushalmi limits objections and deliberations, the Bavli rejoices in them. If the Yerushalmi prefers
simple, straightforward logic, the Bavli thrives on complex, logical operations. If the Yerushalmi reads the Mishnah according to its simple meaning, the Bavli reads it as scripture, demanding that every word have significance.

* Jews in Babylon lived in close proximity to their neighbors, speaking the same language (Aramaic), enjoying mundane interactions in the marketplace and even, possibly, in their homes. The centers of Jewish life included cities such as Mahoza, part of the metropolis that served as the Sassanian winter capital. This was a city with a large and diverse population, and there is no evidence that Jews segregated themselves from the population at large. If the testimony of the Talmud is to be believed (and I know of no reason not to believe the Talmud’s representation of this reality), Jews and their neighbors even occupied homes in the same courtyards. Palestinian rabbinic enactments, the purpose of which was to separate Jews from their neighbors, were relaxed in the Babylonian setting, allowing even pious followers of rabbinic law to intermingle with their neighbors. The consequences of this daily interaction are amply evident even in a particularist document such as the Talmud, suggesting an even
greater impact on Babylonian Jewry more generally.

* By the middle of the fourth century, this attention developed into an ideology, according to which debate and deliberation regarding matters of rabbinic Torah were asserted to have their own worth. Soon, argumentation would be studied for its own sake.

Exemplifying this shift is teachings in which sages justify their own stated opinion, by saying, for example, “on what basis do I say this?” and quoting a Mishnah or related text to back themselves up. Alternatively, their justification might reference the “logic” of the matter, as they declare: “it makes sense according to my opinion!” Sages of this period even engage in what might be called “textual criticism” of the Mishnah. More developed or elaborate examples of these moves, which begin to emerge in the third decade of the fourth century, include cases such as that of Rava at Eruvin b, where he offers justification of both his own opinion and that of his opponent. This “balanced” comment reflects growing interest in the value of argumentation – and its different sides – in general, as comments of these amoraim focusing on argumentation as such become far more common. Examples include both affirming (“the one who objects objects well”) and challenging (“what is Rav Hamnuna objecting to Rav Sheshet?”) observations relating to the argumentation of others.

* there are two types of material in the Bavli – teachings attributed to named sages (amoraim) who can be associated with specific generations and often places, and extensive analytical material in the Aramaic language that is associated with no name or place.

* the Bavli’s anonymous voice is overwhelmingly post-Amoraic.

* The Bavli is a carefully composed, elaborately constructed document. Its pages are evidence of an extended period of deliberate composition in an untroubled atmosphere (persecution or hardship does not allow for the kind of work that is necessary to produce a document such as this).

* as far as the Talmud is concerned, it is better to save all stated opinions even by means of a forced solution than it is to reject one opinion in favor of another.

* One outstanding type of operation, unique to the Bavli and of exceptional importance as a sign of the Bavli’s relationship to scripture, is cases in which the Bavli comments, “if you wish I will say that it is reasoning and if you wish I will say it is scripture.” This formula, which is articulated fourteen times in the Talmud, is typically offered as an explanation of differences of opinion, and particularly in response to the question: “In what do they differ?” The answer, then, is in effect, “I can explain their difference of opinion both logically and with reference to different interpretations of scripture.”

* Before seeking to understand what the Talmud is, it is crucial to say a word about what it is not. The first notion we must reject is the old, uncritical view that the Talmud is somehow a kind of transcript of deliberations that took place in the Babylonian rabbinic academies. Even without the technical problems with this description (were there academies at all? How could such transcriptions have been done?), the notion that our Talmud simply presents us with a record of live rabbinic discussions is indefensible. Oral deliberations are characterized by their spontaneous non-structure; by interruptions, fits and starts, even a degree of chaos. Yet, as we saw in our study of the lengthy deliberation from Baba Batra earlier in this chapter, the Talmud is characterized by careful, considered formulation. Its discussions develop logically (employing rabbinic logic, to be sure). What we find in the Talmud is not the product of some spontaneous argument. Someone “wrote” the Talmud.

* An even more problematic characterization of the Talmud that must be rejected is that it is a kind of discursive halakhic code. …the Talmud is primarily interested in theoretical inquiry, being perfectly comfortable, on many occasions, with offering no decision at all.

* Another characterization we must reject is the proposition, which has recently gained some currency, that the Talmud is a kind of anthology. Even if such an analogy (for that is what it is) works for other rabbinic works (such as the midrashim), it simply doesn’t work for the Bavli. Anthologies are collections in which different, individual authors speak in their own voice or a single author’s writings speak in his or her own voice. An anthology may be organized around a theme or an author or a genre. In the Bavli, by contrast, the voice of the document (briefly quoting earlier voices, to be sure) speaks essentially uniformly through all units, according to the rules of a single genre (Talmud). Unlike editors of anthologies, those who formulated the Bavli were aggressive with the sources they assembled, reshaping, reformulating, and recontextualizing at will. They didn’t merely collect and annotate pre-existing compositions. They created something new.

* If you had been a common Jew living in Palestine or Iraq (Babylonia) in the third through six centuries, you would have known little if anything at all about the developments described in the preceding chapters. This is because, as historians now understand the evidence, the rabbis did not emerge as leaders of a significant portion of the Jewish community until at least the sixth century. In fact, rabbis were barely even noticed, at least by non-Jewish observers, until the fifth century. Their tradition – meaning, in this case, the Mishnah – is mentioned for the first time only in the sixth century. And with respect to significant rabbinic influence among Jews, the first clear (in this case) physical evidence of such a development is a mosaic containing a rabbinic text in the floor of a synagogue at Rehov, dated to the sixth or seventh century. Even in the sixth century, an observer of Jewish affairs would have been hard-pressed to predict that the rabbis would emerge as the leaders of Jewish communities and architects of Jewish practice and belief, let alone that the elite, esoteric document they produced would be the blueprint for all of this.

* Already knowing the Yerushalmi, the rabbis behind the Bavli could account for its rulings, evaluate them, and accept or reject
them as they, in their expertise, saw fit. Accordingly, whenever there was a disagreement between the two, the later was to be preferred.

* And one must be careful before using Maimonides as proof of accepted forms or authorities, for he is notorious for his independence of spirit when it comes to rendering halakhic decisions (and in all other matters!).

* Though a relatively larger portion of the population would have been able to keep simple business records or write their names on documents, the ability to read a literary text, particularly one that was not copied by a professional scribe (as was
sometimes the case with the Talmud), would have been very rare.

* “that first-hand knowledge of the Talmud was confined to a relatively narrow stratum of the rabbinic cultural elite,” and whatever authority it had over the masses, therefore, was channeled through that same elite.

* The first step in this development was the gargantuan project of Rashi in writing the first comprehensive commentary on the Talmud (only small sections are missing or preliminary). Rashi’s commentary is almost always as concise as could be, illuminating virtually all difficulties and essentially taking the place of the teacher for the student struggling to make sense of the Talmudic text.

* Rashi’s comment on the Talmud’s teaching (Pesachim 112a–b) that “one should not cook in a pot in which his fellow [already] cooked.” The Talmud itself explains that this teaching is speaking about “one who married a divorcee in her [former] husband’s lifetime,” or, alternatively, about marrying a widow, for, the text goes on to suggest, “not all fingers are the same” (or
“equal”). What does this mean? Rashi explains that “finger” is a euphemistic way of saying “the sexual organ” = penis, and then adds, “for this sexual intercourse may not be as good for her as the first [meaning, as with the first husband] and she might belittle him.”

* The readings of the Tosafot were, among other things, intended to derive halakhah; Jews did need to know, after all, how to conduct themselves. But many of their comments were also directed (or exclusively directed) toward theoretical, critical explorations of Talmudic dialect, with no immediate concern for halakhic implications. In this, the comments of the Tosafot
often resemble (as already noted) the deliberations of the Talmud itself.

* “Torah scholars who lived in Christian lands tended to expand the contours of rabbinic literature to include the study of tractates beyond the three central orders of the Babylonian Talmud, and to delve into lesser travelled and more esoteric realms of Talmudic and midrashic study and texts. In comparison, Jewish who lived in Muslim lands, from the geonim through the subsequent rabbinic commentators and scholars of Spain and North Africa, took a narrower view.”

* “the single most important factor that limited what Jews could receive from their Christian surroundings is a linguistic one. Ashkenazic Jewry as a whole (12–13th cent.) did not read Latin, the lingua franca of Christian Scholarship and culture.” By contrast, Jews in Muslim-dominated lands (Andalusia, Egypt, etc.) spoke Arabic, which was the language not only of the street but also of the court and the madrasa. This means that the Jewish elite in those lands had access to and were attracted by the lettered culture of their neighbors. This led to a more expansive interest in matters of the mind (philosophy, theology) and heart (poetry). By contrast, without direct access to the writings of their Christian counterparts, Ashkenazi scholars remained more insularly focused on the Talmud.

* [After WWII] A group of rabbis, including survivors, approached the American military governor of occupied Germany to seek publication of a new set of the Talmud, which was then unavailable in the war-ravaged territories… “This edition of the Talmud is dedicated to the United States Army. The Army played a major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation, and their defeat of Hitler bore the major burden of sustaining the DPs of the Jewish faith. This special edition of the Talmud, published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah. The Jewish DPs will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American Forces, to whom they owe so much.”

* Revolutionizing the academic study of the Talmud and other rabbinic texts was the work of Jacob Neusner. Neusner challenged historical studies by asking why we should believe the “historical” testimony of rabbinic documents, knowing, as we do, that all traditions make claims that, more than anything else, serve their interests, and they should therefore be read skeptically; why should the Talmud be any different? He also challenged source criticism by pointing to its subjectivity and observing how completely the oral preservation and transmission of rabbinic teachings must have transformed what was ultimately recorded in the Talmud. For Neusner, the only level of the developing tradition we could trust with any degree of confidence was the final document (whatever we mean by “final”). Because of the relative inaccessibility of evidence for conventional histories in rabbinic documents, Neusner read the works of rabbinic Judaism, including the Talmud, as sequential statements of rabbinic religion
(or philosophy).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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