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SIDIC Periodical VI - 1973/3
The Talmud (Pages 20 - 24)

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Some Notions on The Talmud and Its Content
Soeur Marie Despina


The Hebrew root of the word « Talmud » is lamad which means « teaching ». This teaching was given in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, languages which few Christians are able to read and understand. Moreover, « the Talmud » does not consist of one volume but of a collection of large folios without vowel points. It is not therefore to be wondered at that the « Sea of Talmud » remains even today a mystery for Christians in general, a fact which has enabled anti-Semites throughout the centuries to attribute to the Talmud all the horrors of which they wished to accuse Jews. It is not possible in the present article to make a detailed analysis of the Talmud; our aim is rather to give some useful indications on its nature and origin.


Judaism, based on the Covenant of Sinai, asks of Israel filial obedience to the will of God as expressed in the Torah. It has always stressed the duty of studying Torah and of observing it. The rabbis have found 613 commandments in the Pentateuch but it is not always indicated how these are to be applied, and such indications are necessary. From the time of Ezra the Doctors of the Law strove not only to teach Scripture to the people but to see that it was put into practice. To prevent violation of the biblical commandments they surrounded them with a « hedge », gader, of rules, prescriptions and prohibitions so as to ensure that the entire life of the faithful Jew should be in conformity with the divine Law. This « hedge » came to be called halakhah, « route » or « course to be followed », from the verb halakh, « to walk ». To make it more easily understood they frequently used parables, proverbs, fables, legends, instructive anecdotes, etc. This kind of teaching was called aggadah, from the hifil form of the verb nagad, «to say or to recount ». Halakhah and aggadah together correspond to what Christians call Tradition, and their role is an essential one. They were transmitted orally from master to disciple, and because Judaism has always looked on them as the authentic, divinely-inspired interpretation of Holy Scripture, together they were named Torah she-be-al-peh or « Oral Torah » to distinguish them from Holy Scripture, Torah she-bi-Jehtav or « Written Torah ». The following quotation refers both to the Oral Torah and to the scriptural text: « Moses received the Torah on Sinai and transmitted it to Josue; Josue transmitted it to the Ancients, the Ancients to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Members of the Great Assembly [a more or less legendary assembly of Doctors of the Law which is supposed to have met about 180 B.C.] » (Avot I, 1).

Tradition was at first taught orally in the schools which already existed before our era in all the ;important communities. The pupils chanted in unison and repeated it until they knew it by heart, a process that was assisted by different kinds of mnemonics. From the first century B.C. to the end of the second century A.D., most of the masters were Pharisees; later on they were called tannaim, from the Aramaic tana (Hebrew shana), « to repeat ».


From the time preceding the destruction of the Second Temple most Jewish children in the towns learned both Written and Oral Torah « at the feet of » a master. The most fervent among them continued this study until they reached manhood, under the direction of such famous Doctors of the Law as Hillel and Shammai, contemporaries of the Emperor Augustus, Gamaliel the Elder, grandson of Hillel, and other Pharisees.

During the siege of Jerusalem Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, president of the Sanhedrin, realizing that the Romans would be victorious, managed to escape from the city and to obtain from Vespasian the permission to found a religious school in the little town of Jabneh in Judea. It was here that, after the defeat, he assembled the surviving Doctors of the Law and trained others so that towards the end of the first century Rabbi Gamaliel II, grandson of the first, presided over a reconstructed Sanhedrin that was acknowledged by the Jewish people in general. It was there that, in the absence of the Temple, Jewish worship was « provisionally » reorganized. In all the towns of Israel that had escaped the disaster, the study of Written and Oral Torah was intensified. The Oral Torah grew to such an extent that Rabbi Akiva, the most influential Jewish leader during the first part of the secondcentury, felt it necessary to classify the mishnayot or traditional legal teachings which form part of it. Many new details were added by him, by his colleagues and by his disciples.

In 135 A.D., during the period of repression which followed the revolt of Bar Kokhba, the Romans executed R. Akiva and most of the Doctors of the Law as they were considered responsible for the rebellion. However, some of their disciples survived, and after the storm had blown over they laboriously reorganized the teaching of the Torah. R. Shimon bar Yohai and R. Meir made new disciples, particularly the latter who continued the work of systematization begun by R. Akiva. However, the Oral Torah had assumed such vast proportions that it was reasonable to fear that, should some new catastrophe arise, its transmission would be jeopardized. During the second half of the second century the head of the Sanhedrin, which had been reconstructed in Galilee, was R. Judah the Prince (ha-Nasi), the grandson of R. Gamaliel II. Did there exist already at that time written collections of rabbinical teachings on the practice of Torah, arranged according to subject matter? This is possible, but it is certain that none was officially recognized. R. Judah the Prince ordered one to be compiled containing the essential teachings of R. Akiva, R. Meir and the most celebrated masters or tannaim. This was the Mishnah, a collection of the principal mishnayot attributed to them. The work is divided into six « orders »: « Seeds » (harvest and tithes in particular); « Feasts » (subjects connected with worship); « Women »; « Damages » (questions of civil and criminal law, with the addition of a collection of aphorisms entitled Avot, « Fathers », which gives precise information on the spirit of rabbinic Judaism); « Holy things » (rules for the sacrifices of the Temple no longer in existence); and « Pure things » (rules for maintaining or recovering ritual purity).

Each order is divided into several tractates (there are sixty-three in all). Each tractate has several chapters which are divided into mishnayot or articles, and each teaching is under the name of the Doctor of the Law to whom it is attributed. Where two authorities do not agree on a given subject, both points of view are quoted and the sources named. Sometimes there is an indication of which has become law, and where this indication is missing it is the duty of the Doctors of posterity to establish the halakha or rabbinic law. The language used is a beautiful clear Hebrew with a slightly simplified grammar and a vocabulary enriched with some Aramaic and Greek words. The work was finished by about the year 215.

Although the Mishnah comprised those teachings judged by its compilers to be the most important, it by no means contained all the traditions handed down by the tannaim: a second collection with an identical index dates from about the same period. This collection is called the Tosefta or « supplement », and in addition to those Doctors already known through the Mishnah, it quotes many mishnayot attributed to less-known rabbis. Numerous other mishnayot continued to be taught orally in the original Hebrew and are to be found in Talmud texts under the name baraitot.


During the third and fourth centuries there was intensive study of both Written and Oral Torah in the Holy Land. Those cities where a considerable part of the Jewish population had survived naturally became the centres of this study, chief among them being Sepphoris, Caesarea and above all, Tiberias, home of the son of Judah the Prince. He and his successors were henceforth known as « Patriarchs », a title recognized both by the Jewish people a a whole and by the Roman authorities. In the academies of these cities, and later in those that developed between the Tigris and the Euphrates, study was centred on the Mishnah, but it was no longer merely learnt by heart, it was studied in such a way that a rule of life might be deduced from it. Each one of its mishnayot was analysed; all the choices it offered were confronted with those offered by other Doctors. When two opinions were contradictory a third was sought to reconcile them, either in the Mishnah itself or, if necessary, in the Tosefta or a baraita. Each teaching still bears the names of those who compiled it. New masters, henceforth called amoraim (from the verb amar, « to talk »), amplified the ancient traditions with new developments, often considerable. The Mishnah and the ancient teachings continued to be transmitted in the original language, Hebrew, but the new discussions and teachings were henceforth recorded in an Aramaic dialect, the Palestinian form differing slightly from the Babylonian. The name given to the whole of this work on the Mishnah was Gemara or « completion ». From the fourth century it became so massive that it could no longer be learnt by heart; it had therefore to be consigned to writing, with each paragraph of the Mishnah followed by its gemara. This huge work was called the Talmud. The fact that it was compiled simultaneously by the amoraim of Palestine and by those of Babylon accounts for the distinction between the Palestinian Talmud (incorrectly called the Jerusalem Talmud) and the Babylonian Talmud. Both are collections, like big encyclopedias, and both bear the names of the many rabbis who contributed to them.


The Jerusalem Talmud, or rather the Talmud of Palestine, begun as early as the third century by R. Johanan ben Nappaha (died in 279), received its present form in the fourth century. At this period the Jewish community of the Holy Land — and consequently the academies — was dwindling because of wars, revolts, epidemics, the impoverishment of the country and consequent emigration. The Patriarchate was abolished in 425 after the death of the last descendants of Hillel, Gamaliel and R. Judah the Prince. Hence the Palestinian Talmud was never finished. Some parts of it may have been lost during the course of centuries, but however this may be, it is a quarter of the size of the Babylonian Talmud. Although it treats of only thirty-nine out of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah, its French translation, without commentary, runs into a dozen volumes.

The influence of the schools of Galilee dropped sharply after the fourth century, while that of the Babylonian schools continued, with a few eclipses, until the twelfth. It was thus that the Babylonian and not the so-called Jerusalem Talmud became the foundation of Jewish tradition. The latter is normative only on questions not treated of by the former.

It was in the study of Holy Scriptures that the activity of the Palestinian schools was greater than that of the Babylonian academies. They produced, simultaneously with the Talmud, a whole literature of midrashim or biblical commentaries which followed the biblical texts verse by verse, phrase by phrase, in the form of analyses, explanations, illustrations by parable, historical and legendary accounts. Some collections of midrashim had already appeared in Galilee before the compilation of the Talmud, others were to come in the course of the following centuries. The best known are the Mekhilta, Sifra and Sifrei which date from before the fourth century, and the midrash Rabbah which, though completed in the sixth century, contained more ancient material. The name « midrash » is given both to a commentary that follows a biblical text phrase by phrase and to each of the elements composing the commentary. About one-sixth of the text of the Palestinian Talmud is composed of midrashim illustrating technical discussions between rabbis, while they account for nearly a third of the Babylonian Talmud. This is partly due to the fact that in the Land of Israel there existed a separate midrashic literature which did not exist in Babylon.


From the beginning of our era there was a large and flourishing Jewish community in Babylon descended from those deportees of 586 who did not return to the Holy Land. This community remained faithful to Judaism and sent its best scholars to study Torah in the Holy Land. Some of them became famous rabbis, such as Hillel, about the year 40, R. Nathan (second century), and Ray Huna (second century), former Exilarch or head of the Babylonian community who preferred the Torah to his throne. Two Babylonian disciples of R. Judah the Prince returned to their country to teach the Mishnah; they were the first of a long succession of Babylonian amoraim. One of them, Ray, founded the academy of Sura where he was a brilliant teacher, especially on matters connected with liturgy. His friend Samuel transformed the school already in existence in Nehardea into a brilliant academy which specialized in the teaching of civil and commercial law in so far as they affect the practice of Torah. These two academies rapidly acquired an influence which steadily increased until the eleventh century. After the sack of Nehardea by Odenath of Palmyra in 261, the school was reopened at Mahoza (near Baghdad), then some decades later at Pumbedita. The numerous outstanding rabbis who succeeded each other in these schools developed a Gemara adapted to Jewish life outside the Holy Land. They made an exhaustive study of those passages of the Mishnah which could be observed in the diaspora and left on one side the mitzvot (laws) that were obligatory only in the Land of Israel. The work of the academies of Babylon was furthered by the prosperity and peace which reigned almost continually, whereas the schools of Galilee fell into decadence. Thus the Babylonian Talmud grew until it became what the Jews called the « Sea of Talmud ». Thousands of disciples followed with passionate interest the learned discussions of famous rabbis such as Rava and Abbaye in the fourth century. Rav Ashi (died in 427) assembled the bulk of the material which was to form the enormous volumes of the Babylonian Talmud, and his successor, Ravina (died about 500), completed the work. The final revision of the text was carried out in the following century by scholars called savoraim; henceforward the Talmud was fixed. Since that time all Jewish schools throughout the world study it, scrutinize it, make commentaries on it, in order to discover the rule of life for the faithful Jew.

For non-Jews the study of Talmud is difficult not only on account of its languages and its unpointed text but also on account of its dialectic which differs greatly from ours. Because it is not a code of law but an account of the teaching of hundreds of rabbis who are not always in agreement, illustrated by numerous Midrashim which have never constituted an obligatory criterion of action, a solid initiation is first ofall necessary. Side by side with magnificent examples of faith, of the sensitiveness of the Jewish conscience and of love, one finds in it manifestations of the ill-feeling of this or that rabbi towards pagans, more rarely against Jewish Christians since they constituted a threat to Judaism. These outbursts have never been considered a norm of action for Judaism, nor did they ever reach the virulence or the insulting tone that so frequently characterized the anti-Jewish tirades of contemporary Fathers of the Church. The primary aim of the authors of the Talmud was never to attack non-Jews but rather to help Jews to live in conformity with the will of God. Anti-Semites in all periods of history have abused the Talmud by making of it an essentially anti-Christian work. It is much to be desired that, on the contrary, a growing number of Christians should learn to know it better, since it can help them to a deeper understanding of God's Word expressed in the two Testaments.


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