What Is the Talmud?
“The Talmud is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable literary productions of all times.”—The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia.
“[The Talmud is] one of the great intellectual accomplishments of humankind, a document so dense, so rich, so subtle that it has kept superb minds busy for more than a millennium and a half.”—Jacob Neusner, Jewish scholar and author.
“The Talmud is the central pillar [of Judaism] supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice of Jewish life.”—Adin Steinsaltz, Talmudic scholar and rabbi.
THE Talmud has unquestionably had a tremendous influence on the Jewish people for centuries. In contrast with the above-quoted accolades, however, the Talmud has been denigrated and called “a sea of obscurity and mud.” It has been denounced as a blasphemous work of the Devil. By papal decree, it was repeatedly censored, confiscated, and even burned in large numbers in the public squares of Europe.
Exactly what is this work that has stirred so much controversy? What makes the Talmud unique among Jewish writings? Why was it written? How has it come to have such an impact on Judaism? Does it have meaning for the non-Jewish world?
During the 150 years following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., academies of rabbinic sages throughout Israel urgently sought a new basis for maintaining Jewish practice. They debated and consolidated various traditions of their oral law. Building on this foundation, they set new limits and requirements for Judaism, giving direction for a day-to-day life of holiness without a temple. This new spiritual framework was outlined in the Mishnah, compiled by Judah ha-Nasi by the beginning of the third century C.E.a
The Mishnah stood on its own, not seeking justification on the basis of Biblical references. Its method of discussion and even the style of its Hebrew were unique, distinct from the Bible text. The decisions of the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah would affect the day-to-day lives of Jews everywhere. Indeed, Jacob Neusner comments: “The Mishnah provided Israel’s constitution. . . . It demanded assent and conformity to its rules.”
But what if some questioned whether the authority of the sages quoted in the Mishnah was really equal to revealed Scripture? The rabbis would have to show that teachings of the Tannaim (teachers of the oral law) found in the Mishnah were in perfect harmony with the Hebrew Scriptures. Further commentary became a necessity. They felt the need to explain and justify the Mishnah and prove that it originated with the Law given to Moses at Sinai. The rabbis felt compelled to prove that the oral and written law are of one spirit and purpose. Rather than being the final word on Judaism, then, the Mishnah became a new foundation for religious discussion and debate.
The Talmud in the Making
The rabbis who took up this new challenge were known as Amoraim—“interpreters,” or “explainers,” of the Mishnah. Each academy centered around a prominent rabbi. A small circle of scholars and students held discussions all year. But the most important sessions were held biannually, during the months of Adar and Elul, when agricultural work was slack and hundreds or even thousands more could attend.
Adin Steinsaltz explains: “The academy head presided, seated on a chair or on special mats. In the front rows opposite him sat the important scholars, including his colleagues or outstanding pupils, and behind them all the other scholars. . . . The order of seating was based on a precisely defined hierarchy [according to importance].” A portion of the Mishnah would be recited. This would then be compared with parallel or supplementary material gathered by the Tannaim but not included in the Mishnah. The process of analysis would begin. Questions were posed, and contradictions were analyzed to find internal harmony between teachings. Proof texts from the Hebrew Scriptures were sought to support rabbinic teachings.
Although carefully structured, these discussions were intense, sometimes turbulent. One sage quoted in the Talmud spoke of “sparks of fire” leaping between the mouths of the rabbis during a debate. (Hullin 137b, Babylonian Talmud) Steinsaltz says this of the proceedings: “The academy head, or the sage delivering the lecture, would give his own interpretation of problems. The scholars in the audience would often bombard him with questions on the basis of other sources, the views of other commentators, or their own logical conclusions. Sometimes the debate was very brief and restricted to an unequivocal and conclusive response to a given question. In other cases other scholars would offer alternative solutions and a large-scale debate would ensue.” All in attendance were free to take part. Issues clarified at the sessions would be transmitted to other academies for other scholars to review.
Yet, these sessions were not just endless legalistic debates. Legal matters dealing with rules and regulations of Jewish religious life are called Halakah. This term comes from the Hebrew root “to go” and indicates the ‘way of life one should go by.’ All other matters—stories about rabbis and Bible characters, wise sayings, concepts of belief and philosophy—are called Haggadah, from the Hebrew root “to tell.” Halakah and Haggadah were intermingled during rabbinic debate.
In his book The World of the Talmud, Morris Adler comments: “A wise teacher would interrupt a lengthy and difficult legal argument with a digression of a less taxing and more edifying nature. . . . Thus we find legend and history, contemporary science and folklore, Biblical exegesis and biography, homily and theology woven together into what, to one unfamiliar with the ways of the academies, would seem to be a curious medley of unorganized data.” To the scholars at the academies, all such digressions were for a purpose and were related to the point under discussion. Halakah and Haggadah were the building blocks of a new structure under construction in the rabbinic academies.
The Making of Two Talmuds
Eventually, the main rabbinic center in Palestine moved to Tiberias. Other important academies were located at Sepphoris, Caesarea, and Lydda. But the deteriorating economic situation, constant political instability, and finally the pressure and persecution from apostate Christianity led to large-scale immigration to another major Jewish population center to the East—Babylonia.
For centuries, students had flocked from Babylonia to Palestine to study under the great rabbis at the academies. One such student was Abba ben Ibo, also called Abba Arika—Abba the tall one—but later known simply as Rab. He returned to Babylonia about 219 C.E. after studying under Judah ha-Nasi, and this marked a turning point for the spiritual importance of the Babylonian Jewish community. Rab set up an academy at Sura, an area with many Jews but little scholarship. His reputation drew 1,200 regular students to his academy, with thousands more in attendance during the Jewish months of Adar and Elul. Rab’s prominent contemporary, Samuel, set up an academy in Nehardea. Other important academies sprang up at Pumbeditha and Mehoza.
Now there was no necessity to travel to Palestine, for one could study under the great scholars in Babylonia. The formulation of the Mishnah as a separate text paved the way for the complete independence of the Babylonian academies. Although different styles and methods of study now developed in Palestine and Babylonia, frequent communication and interchange of teachers preserved the unity of the academies.
Toward the end of the fourth and in the beginning of the fifth centuries C.E., the situation became particularly difficult for the Jews in Palestine. Waves of restrictions and persecution under the rising authority of apostate Christendom led to the final blow of abolishing both the Sanhedrin and the position of Nasi (patriarch) by about 425 C.E. So the Palestinian Amoraim began consolidating in a single coherent work the summaries of the debates in the academies to ensure their preservation. This work, compiled in haste in the latter part of the fourth century C.E., became known as the Palestinian Talmud.b
While the academies in Palestine were on the decline, the Babylonian Amoraim were reaching the peak of their abilities. Abaye and Raba took the level of debate into intricate and subtle argumentation that later became the model of Talmudic analysis. Next, Ashi, the head of the academy at Sura (371-427 C.E.), began compiling and editing the summations of debates. According to Steinsaltz, he did so “fearing that, disorganized as it was, the vast bulk of oral material was in danger of sinking into oblivion.”
This great mass of material was more than one man or even one generation could organize. The period of the Amoraim ended in Babylonia in the fifth century C.E., but the work of final editing of the Babylonian Talmud was continued into the sixth century C.E. by a group called the Saboraim, an Aramaic term meaning “the expositors,” or “holders of opinion.” These final editors pulled together the thousands of loose ends and the centuries of rabbinic debate, imparting a style and structure to the Babylonian Talmud that set it apart from all previous Jewish writings.
What Did the Talmud Accomplish?
The rabbis of the Talmud set out to prove that the Mishnah was from the same source as the Hebrew Scriptures. But why? Jacob Neusner comments: “The stated issue was the standing of the Mishnah. But the heart of the matter turns out to have been the authority of the sage himself.” To reinforce this authority, each line of the Mishnah, sometimes every word, was examined, challenged, explained, and harmonized in a fashion. Neusner observes that in this way the rabbis “shifted the orbit of the Mishnah from one path to another.” Although created as a work complete in itself, the Mishnah had now been dissected. During this process, it had been recreated, redefined.
This new work—the Talmud—served the rabbis’ purpose. They set the rules of analysis, and it therefore taught people to think like rabbis. The rabbis believed that their method of study and analysis reflected the mind of God. Talmudic study itself became the object, a form of worship—the use of the mind supposedly in imitation of God. For generations to come, the Talmud itself would be analyzed by this same method. The result? Historian Cecil Roth writes: “The Talmud . . . gave [Jews] the characteristic imprint which distinguished them from others, as well as their remarkable power of resistance and cohesion. Its dialectic sharpened their wits, and conferred upon them . . . mental acuteness. . . . The Talmud gave the persecuted Jew of the Middle Ages another world into which he could escape . . . It gave him a fatherland, which he could carry about with him when his own land was lost.”
By teaching others the thinking of the rabbis, the Talmud certainly has had power. But the question for all—Jews and non-Jews alike—is this, Does the Talmud truly reflect the mind of God?—1 Corinthians 2:11-16.
a For more information on the development and content of the Mishnah, see the article “The Mishnah and God’s Law to Moses” in The Watchtower of November 15, 1997.
b The Palestinian Talmud is popularly known as the Jerusalem Talmud. However, this term is a misnomer, since Jerusalem was off limits to the Jews during most of the Amoraic period.
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The Two Talmuds—How Do They Compare?
The Hebrew word “Talmud” means “study” or “learning.” The Amoraim of Palestine and Babylonia had set out to study, or analyze, the Mishnah. Both Talmuds (Palestinian and Babylonian) do this, but how do they compare? Jacob Neusner writes: “The first Talmud analyzes evidence, the second investigates premises; the first remains wholly within the limits of its case, the second vastly transcends them.”
The more intensive and thorough editing given to the Babylonian Talmud made it not only much larger but also deeper and more penetrating in its mode of thought and analysis. When the word “Talmud” is mentioned, it is usually the Babylonian Talmud that is meant. This is the Talmud that has been most studied and commented on throughout the centuries. In the opinion of Neusner, the Palestinian Talmud “is a work of competence,” and the Babylonian Talmud “is a work of genius.”