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The Talmud: The Talmud

In his classic History of the Printing of the Talmud (Ma'amar Al Hadpasat HaTalmud), Raphael Rabbinovicz writes:

The holy Talmud, the base and source of Jewish religious and national life-how numerous were its enemies and detractors! As was the fate of those who lived by it and devoted their lives to it, so was its fate. Already in the year 1239 Pope Gregory IX ordered the burning of the Talmud, and hundreds, nay thousands of volumes were put to the torch in France and Italy.

In June 1242, twenty-four wagon loads of Talmudic tomes were publicly burned in Paris by the official executioner. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg compared this conflagration to the burning of the Jerusalem Temple, in an elegy which has been incorporated in the Tishah B'Av (the holy day commemorating the destruction of the Temple) liturgy, Sha-ali Serufah, "Oh, inquire, thou consumed by flames . . ." Popes-Innocent IV, Alexander IV, John XXII, Alexander V-issued condemnations; monarchs-Louis IX of France and his successors Philip III and IV-ordered confiscations; and following the Council of Basle, Pope Eugenius IV issued a bull prohibiting the study of the Talmud. Fraught with danger and beset with difficulties though it was, study of the Talmud proceeded nonetheless, because without it Jews were convinced that Jewish life could not continue. But the condemnations and confiscations took their toll; very few Talmudic manuscripts have survived, and only one of the entire Talmud, the Munich manuscript of 1342.

What is the Talmud that it aroused such enmity and opposition?

The Talmud is the extraordinary compendium of law and lore of rabbinic Judaism, comprising both the Mishnah and the Gemara. Side by side with the Written Law of the Bible, over time there developed the Oral Law, which expanded upon the ordinances of the Pentateuch. This Oral Law was handed down from master to disciple, studied in Jewish academies of learning, and applied by Jewish courts of law. The period of national and spiritual crisis which followed the unsuccessful Jewish rebellions against Rome in 68 and 135 CE persuaded Judah ha Nasi, head of the Jewish community in Palestine at the turn of the third century, to compile, systematize, and reduce the Oral Law, which had come down by word of mouth, into writing. This collection of laws, legal opinions, decisions, and comments upon them is known as the Mishnah. it is less a code than a report on prevailing law and custom, and a digest of legal opinions which invite further study and discussion.

Study and discussion of the Mishnah in the centuries following were carried on in academies and applied in courts in Palestine and Babylonia. The summary and digest of this scholarly activity is called the Gemara. Not at all dry-as-dust legal argumentation, it reports on the exciting application of law to life, recording the disputations which grew out of diverse traditions and differing opinions. Here and there it is interlaced with a parable, a legend, or just a good story to make a point. The Mishnah plus the Gemara constitutes the Talmud.

The Mishnah is in Hebrew, the language of the Bible and of worship and scholarly discourse in late antiquity; the Gemara is in Aramaic, the language of common discourse of that time. There are two versions of the Talmud. The first, edited circa 325 CE, contains the discussions in Palestinian schools and courts and is called the Jerusalemite or Palestinian. The Babylonian, edited a century and half later, is the compendium of scholarly legal discussions carried on in the academies and courts of that Jewish community. Like the Mishnah, the Gemara is not a code of law (an organized body of legal decisions), but the raw material for establishing codes-the source for discussion, refinement, and application.

The spirit of the Talmudic process is expressed in a tale in tractate Baba Meziah. Rabbi Eliezer, a proponent of unchanging tradition--"a well-lined cistern that doesn't lose a drop," as his teacher characterized him--was engaged in a legal disputation with his colleagues. "He brought all the reasons in the world," but the majority would not accept his view. Said Rabbi Eliezer, "If the law is as I hold it to be, let this tree prove it," and the tree uprooted itself a hundred amma, but they said, "Proof cannot be brought from a tree." Rabbi Eliezer persisted, saying, "Let these waters determine it," and the waters began to flow backwards, but his colleagues responded that waters cannot determine the law. Once again Rabbi Eliezer tried, asking the walls of the study house to support him. They began to totter, whereupon the spokesman for the majority, Rabbi Joshua, admonished them, "when rabbis are engaged in legal discussion what right have ye to interfere!" So the walls did not fall in respect for Rabbi Joshua, nor did they return to their upright position, in respect for Rabbi Eliezer-and "they remain thus to this day!" But Rabbi Eliezer would not surrender and cried out: "Let Heaven decide." A voice was heard from Heaven saying: "Why do ye dispute with Rabbi Eliezer; the law is always as he says it to be." Whereupon Rabbi Joshua arose and proclaimed, quoting Scripture, "It is not in Heaven!" Rabbi Jeremiah explained, "The Law was given at Sinai and we no longer give heed to heavenly voices, for in that Law it is stated: 'One follows the majority."' God's truth, divine law, is not determined by miracles or heavenly voices, but by the collegium of rabbis, men learned in the law, committed to the law and expert in its application to the life of the pious community.

Such an attitude alone, negating the authority of the miraculous and heavenly voices, would have been sufficient to make the Talmud anathema to medieval churchmen, devoted as they were to the miraculous and to the divine reordering of the validity of the law But there was more, of course. The Talmud is so vast a work, containing such a variety of views and assertions, that one can find statements that are extravagant, hyperbolic, even theologically outrageous, if taken literally.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).