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Talmud

TALMUD

TALMUD . In form, the Talmud is an extended, multivolume elaboration of selected tractates of the Mishnah, but it must be emphasized that the contents of the Talmud go far beyond its ostensible base. No subject of interest to the ancient rabbis failed to find its way into this immense body of teaching, and for that reason no question arising in later centuries was deemed outside the range that Talmudic teaching might legitimately claim to resolve. A document that seemed merely to elucidate an older text eventually became the all-embracing constitution of medieval Jewish life.

The Mishnah supplied the overall format for the Talmud. Like the former, the Talmud is divided into tractates, which in turn are divided into chapters and then into paragraphs. Each phrase of the Mishnah is discussed, analyzed, and applied for as long as the editors of the Talmud have materials to supply; when such materials are exhausted (sometimes after very long and quite wide-ranging digressions), the discussion simply moves on to the next phrase or paragraph. The digressions can be such that one loses track of the Mishnaic passage under discussion for pages at a time, but the Talmud always picks up again from its base text when the next section begins.

Origins and Development

Very soon after it began to circulate, the Mishnah of Yehudah ha-Nasiʾ (compiled c. 200 ce) assumed a central place in rabbinic study. As time went on, the structure and content of the Mishnahthe meaning and the sequence of its paragraphsdetermined the manner in which the growing accumulation of rabbinic lore was organized. Non-Mishnaic legal materials (the so-called outside traditions; Aram., baraitot ) were studied primarily in connection with their Mishnaic parallels, and an entire supplementary collection (Tosefta) that followed the Mishnah's own sequence of orders, tractates, and chapters was compiled. Similarly, post-Mishnaic rabbinic teachingsof law, morality, theology, and so forthwere remembered and discussed primarily as the consecutive study of Mishnaic tractates called them to mind, so that most such teachings eventually came to be linked with one or another specific passage (or, occasionally, several) in the earlier collection.

In this way, great compilations of rabbinic teaching, each in the form of a loose exposition of the Mishnah, came into being. Evidence suggests that various centers of rabbinic study developed their own such collections, though in the end only one overall collection was redacted for the Palestinian centers and one for Babylonia. For several generations, the collections remained fluid. Materials were added, revised, or shifted. Free association led to the production of extended discourses or sets of sayings that at times had little to do with the Mishnaic passages serving as points of departure. Early materials tended to be brief explanations of the Mishnah or citations of parallel texts, but later rabbis increasingly commented as well on remarks of their predecessors or other non-Mishnaic materials. Numerous scholars have seen in the developing tradition two sorts of material: brief, apodictic statements of law and much longer dialectical explanations of the specific laws and their underlying principles. Such discussions in turn eventually gave rise to a new generation of legal dicta, and these in turn provoked new efforts at dialectical complication. Thus the Talmudic tradition grew.

The Hebrew word talmud and its Aramaic equivalent gemaraʾ both mean "study." Each term had other meanings at various times, but in the end gemaraʾ came to be the name of the vast Mishnah commentary that had taken shape, and talmud the name of the combined text (Mishnah plus gemara ʾ) that eventually emerged. The rabbis of the immediate post-Mishnaic period (third to fifth centuries ce) are called amoraʾ from the Aramaic ʾmr, "say, discuss"), because their characteristic contribution to the developing tradition was the extended discussion of the Mishnah they produced.

Through a process that can no longer be traced with certainty, the text of the gemaraʾ underwent periodic reshaping until finally the two Talmuds as we now know them came into being. It should be emphasized that early rabbinic Torah study was oral, so that the gemaraʾ was not so much a fixed text as a more-or-less accepted formulation of accumulated lore. There is therefore no reason to assume that there ever was an authorized "original text" of the Talmud, and there may have been parallel recensions of these collections from the earliest stages of their history preserved in different localities. There is still no altogether accepted standard text, and even the relatively uniform wording of recent centuries has much to do with the eventual predominance of European over Asian and North African Jewry and the standardization that inevitably followed the invention of printing.

The Jerusalem, or Palestinian, Talmud

The so-called Jerusalem Talmud (Heb., Talmud Yerushalmi ) is really the work of the rabbinic academies of the Galilee; it was substantially completed by the middle of the fifth century. The Jerusalem Talmud covers the first four orders of the Mishnah with the exception of two tractates (Avot and ʿEduyyot ); in the last two orders, only half of tractate Niddah has Palestinian gemaraʾ. The Jerusalem Talmud is characterized in general by brevity and an absence of editorial transitions and clarifications. Its discussions frequently seem laconic and elliptical and often take the form of terse remarks attributed to one or another amora with no connective phrasing at all between them. Occasionally, however, such comments are built up into a more integrated dialectical treatment, with objections raised and answered, contradictions cited and resolved, and biblical proof texts adduced as the editors see fit.

The Babylonian Talmud

According to tradition, the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud (Heb., Talmud Bavli ) was completed by the amoraim Ashi and Ravinaʾ around the year 500. It is clear, however, that the distinctive features of this Talmud in contrast to the other are the work of several generations of mostly anonymous rabbis who came after these authorities and are collectively known as the savoraim (from the Aramaic root svr, "consider, hold an opinion"), that is, those who reconsidered the Talmudic text and established its final version. Thanks to the labors of these latter revisers, the Babylonian Talmud is far more thoroughly worked out than the Palestinian. Its arguments are replete with a sophisticated technical terminology for introducing source materials, considering objections and counterobjections, offering refutations and defending against them, and so forth. In addition to their detailed contributions, the savoraim also composed entire sections of the Talmud; in particular, the extended discussion at the beginning of many tractates is attributed to them. In general, the literary superiority of the Babylonian Talmud, its far greater logical clarity, and its considerably larger bulk can be attributed to the savoraim of the sixth and seventh centuries. The Talmud in its current form did not exist until these had done their work.

While the Jerusalem Talmud treats the entire first order of the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud has gemara ʾ only for the first tractate (Berakhot ), which deals with liturgy; the rest of the order treats agricultural rules that were not considered applicable outside the Holy Land. On the other hand, and harder to explain, the great bulk of the fifth order, which regulates the long-destroyed Temple cult and is not to be found in the Jerusalem Talmud, has very substantial Babylonian gemara ʾ. Otherwise, with minor exceptions, the two Talmuds cover the same parts of the Mishnah.

Later Developments

Over the several centuries following the appearance of the two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud gradually eclipsed the other. This predominance was rationalized by the claim that the Babylonian Talmud was the more recent, so that its editors already knew the Jerusalem Talmud and could include its acceptable teachings in their own work and suppress those portions for any reason found unworthy. In retrospect, however, it is clear that such a claim was part of the propaganda of the Babylonian geonim of the last centuries of the first millennium ce in favor of their own authority and against the rival authority of the rabbis of the Land of Israel. The eventual predominance of the Babylonian Talmud throughout the Diaspora and even in the Land of Israel probably is to be explained through reference to such factors as the relatively stronger ties of the rising communities of North Africa and Spain to Babylonian Jewry and the relatively more severe decline of Palestinian Jewry, especially under the onslaught of the Crusades. Those parts of Europe, especially Italy, that retained strong ties with the community in the Land of Israel apparently maintained a tradition of study of the Jerusalem Talmud, but by the beginning of the second millennium this process had run its course. From then on, "the Talmud" always meant the Babylonian. It was taken for granted that issues of Jewish law should be resolved by reference to the Babylonian Talmud, not the Palestinian, and that the latter could provide rulings only in cases where the Babylonian Talmud was silent or ambiguous.

Once the primacy of the Babylonian Talmud was established, this primacy was continually reinforced. The Babylonian Talmud received more attention. It was studied by more scholars, it became the subject of more and of better commentaries; it was copied more often and more carefully by larger numbers of scribes. The result is that modern scholars have a more solidly established text of the Babylonian Talmud and a more fully developed exegetical tradition with which to work. Modern critical study of the Jerusalem Talmud has much more fundamental analytical and restorative work to accomplish before a reliable and comprehensible text becomes available.

It should be noted as well that the power of the medieval Christian church affected the development of the Talmud in two important ways. Periodic waves of seizure and destruction reduced the number of Talmud manuscripts available in certain parts of Europe. The most important of these waves took place in thirteenth-century France and in Italy at the time of the Counter-Reformation; the last burning of the Talmud occurred in Poland in 1757. Occasionally thousands of copies of the Talmud or of Talmudic digests and commentaries were destroyed at a time. In addition, Jewish efforts to avoid such destruction often led to voluntary or involuntary submission of the Talmud to censorship by church authorities. As a result, much early rabbinic discussion of Jesus or the Christian religion has been lost or must now be recovered from scattered manuscripts.

Talmudic Religion

Despite its vast size and scope, the Talmud is not without focus. Certain themes and certain styles of argument and discourse strongly predominate in its pages, and as a result both the religion of the Talmudic sages themselves and the forms of Judaism based on the Talmud that flourished during the Middle Ages are more compatible with certain types of spirituality than with others.

The role of law

Well more than half of the Babylonian Talmud and more than three quarters of the Jerusalem Talmud are devoted to questions of law. The Mishnah itself takes the form of a law code, and Talmudic discussions are chiefly concerned with clarifying, extending, and finding new applications for the provisions of Mishnaic law. This concentration on law is related to the ancient rabbis' role in their communities, where they usually served as judges, teachers, or public administrators. Rabbinic piety came to be organized around gratitude for the law and joy in its fulfillment. The law was understood to be a divine gift, and observance of its provisions was seen as the appropriate response to this generosity. To observe the law meant to strengthen one's link to its giver, and in developing the law into a huge accumulation of detailed regulations covering all aspects of day-to-day living, rabbinic teachers sought to multiply occasions for strengthening this link. Study of the law was both the highest intellectual activity in which a Jew might engage and also a practical activity designed to further this expansion of opportunity. Enlarging the scope of the law was not felt to be adding to an already heavy burden; on the contrary, it increased the portion of one's life that could be conducted in response to the voice of God.

The role of study and intellect

While the Mishnah looks like a law code, however, in fact it is probably something other; its numerous unresolved disputes, its sporadic use of biblical proof texts, and its occasional narratives all reflect the value of study as a religious ritual in its own right, and eventually the activity of studying God's law was as important in Talmudic religion as was the content of that study. Even before the Talmud was completed, this enhancement of study as religious rite had led to the creation of an elaborate set of legal corpora, most of which were identified by the name of the master to whom the discrete opinions in each corpus were attributed. The well-known Talmudic penchant for hair-splitting dialectics reflects the rabbis' concern that each of these sets of teachings be internally consistent on the one hand and significantly different from any other such set on the other. Hence the frequency with which the Talmud records the chains of transmission by which individual sayings were passed on. Hence the steadily growing integration of teachings from widely disparate fields of law into a single web, and the often forced effort to find unifying principles behind teachings that seem to have nothing to do with one another. Hence, as well, the relative lack of interest in the personalities of early masters, except, paradoxically, for those few who became the subject of frequently incredible legends.

This intellectual tendency had several important consequences for Talmudic religion. It gave rabbinic studiousness a scholastic tinge that continued to sharpen as later centuries wore on. It made text commentary an important genre of religious literature; a standard edition of the Talmud even today contains several classical commentaries on the page along with the text and many, many more at the back of the volume. Rabbinic intellectualism turned into disciplined argument; the interplay of proof and refutation became a holy activity. It also gave primacy to the correct formulation of sacred texts and recitations; this in turn had important effects on Talmudic and post-Talmudic conceptions of prayer, meditation, and inward spirituality.

Talmudic Learning and Religious Authority

In the ancient rabbis' view there was a connection between their emphasis on learning and the role of leadership to which they aspired. It was taken for granted that only the Torah, when properly and sufficiently studied and understood, could enable the people of Israel to become the "kingdom of priests and holy nation" (Ex. 19:6) that God intended them to be. This in turn meant that only those properly and sufficiently learned in Torah should be allowed to assume leadership over the community, since only such leaders could be trusted to guide the people in a divinely ordained direction.

Inherent in Talmudic and post-Talmudic Judaism is the assumption that Torah learning (once the Talmud was complete, this meant Talmudic learning) is the only proper criterion by which the leaders of the community should be selected. Whenever conditions permitted, rabbis sought to institutionalize their authority over the community. In the early period, this meant reaching an accommodation with the real rulers of the community (e.g., the Roman empire or, in Babylonia, the allegedly Davidic dynasty of the exilarchs). Later, it meant assuring that internal Jewish courts should be dominated by rabbis and that Talmudic law should govern those aspects of life where Jews maintained internal autonomy (marriage and divorce, religious ritual, educational institutions). Although rabbinical authority was not without challengers, it was never overthrown in principle until the breakdown of Jewish self-government, which began in the late eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth.

Talmud Study as Religious Experience

Rabbis saw their own teaching as "oral Torah." They believed the contents of the Talmud represented a part of the revelation to Moses that had been kept oral but faithfully transmitted for centuries before its inclusion in the text of the Talmud. The name Talmud, in fact, can be understood as a short form of the common phrase talmud Torah, or "Torah study." Thus to study Talmud was in fact to let oneself hear the word of God, and to add to the accumulation of commentaries, digests, codes, and the like was to make one's own contribution to the spread of divine revelation in the world. To learn Torah was thus a kind of sober mysticism, a reliving of the events at Sinai, while to add to the growing body of "oral" law was to share in a divine activity. Already in the Talmud God is depicted as studying Torah several hours per day (B. T., ʿA. Z. 3b), but the kinship between the rabbi and God was felt to be even stronger. By increasing the amount of Torah in the world, the rabbi could do what previously only God had been held able to accomplish.

Thus the text of the Talmud became the center of an activity believed to be the most Godlike available to human experience. Everyone (in practice this meant every male) could study some Torah, and no one was considered incapable of adding a few original thoughts to a study session. Talmud study became a widespread activity among later Jewish communities. The degree of commitment to this activity might vary, from the ascetic twenty-hour-per-day devotion of the secluded scholar to one-hour-per-week popular learning on Sabbath afternoons. The climax of a boy's education was the point at which he was ready to learn gemaraʾ. Such "learning" continues even in the present time, even after the functioning authority of Talmudic law has all but disappeared. It represents the most powerful and the most durable inheritance of classical Judaism.

See Also

Biblical Exegesis, article on Jewish Views; Halakhah; Mishnah and Tosefta.

Bibliography

The history and current state of critical scholarship about the two Talmuds is comprehensively reviewed in two essays in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.19.2 (Berlin and New York, 1979): Baruch M. Bokser's "An Annotated Bibliographical Guide to the Study of the Palestinian Talmud," pp. 139256, and David Goodblatt's "The Babylonian Talmud," pp. 257336. Both have been reprinted in The Study of Ancient Judaism, vol. 2, edited by Jacob Neusner (New York, 1981). Several of Neusner's students also produced longer examinations of the work of particular modern scholars; he collected these in The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud (Leiden, 1970). Readers can also consult Strack-Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (revised edition, Minneapolis, 1992).

Neusner has also investigated the religious implications of conceiving of Torah study as a holy activity and the theological implications of rabbinic intellectuality; see his concise The Glory of God Is Intelligence (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1978). A more popular effort of the same sort is Morris Adler's The World of the Talmud (New York, 1958). See also my own "Talmud," in Back to the Sources, edited by Barry W. Holtz (New York, 1984), pp. 129175.

Robert Goldenberg (1987 and 2005)

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