The Talmud - The Jewish Home in Exile
The Talmud – The Jewish Home in Exile
Suppose we had in our possession all the
lectures and discussions developed at Harvard University by the professors
during the 350 years of Harvard’s existence. The publication of books
including the material from so many scholars on so many subjects over so many
years would seem an impossible task. Yet, this has been done, not by us but by
the one hundred forty eight scholars who compiled the “second law” or Mishna.
The word Mishna means “repetition” and refers to the collection and
editing of the oral traditions of the Jews. These traditions were transmitted
from generation to generation until finally completed after 550 years by Judah
the Prince in the third century C.E. The Mishna
seeks to elucidate the Torah or
the “doctrine”. The Torah consists
not only of the 5 Books of Moses but also of the Prophets, or Neviim, the Psalms
and a number of books called the
“writings” or “Chesuvim”, leading to the abbreviation “Tenach”, for
the entire Torah as promulgated in 444 B.C.E. by the Great Assembly.
Shortly after the completion of the Mishna
it appeared that it too included a number of obscure passages and
discussions which needed further explanation. Therefore, those whose studied the
Mishna commented on its contents and
gradually wrote the Gemara or “complement”. The Gemara
consists of many books as does the Mishna.
All of these works are together
called the Talmud or “studies.”
is therefore the product of several centuries. Now there are two Talmuds.
One was created in Judah after the destruction of Jerusalem by the
Babylonians. The other Talmud, called the Babylonian Talmud, was created in that
country, which had a Jewish population of nearly two million in the sixth
century B.C.E. Today, the Babylonian Talmud is studied more often than the
Talmud developed in Judah and called the Jerusalem Talmud. It was competed in
370 C.E., one hundred and fifty years before the closing of the Babylonian
There are among us some men who have
devoted their entire lives to the study of the Talmud. These men are sometimes
called charedim or “shakers”
because of the body motion that accompanies their prayers and their studies.
Some of those who devote themselves to the study of these texts may be
recognized by the black clothes and large brimmed hats they wear on the Sabbath
and other occasions. Of course, it is evident that not everyone who wears such
clothes is therefore a Talmud scholar. Furthermore, there are many others, both
among Conservative and Reform Jews, who also study the Talmud.
There are many editions of the Talmud
published in various countries where Jews have lived. In Europe the Talmud was
called “the portable homeland” because the European Jews immersed themselves
in the Talmud if they could and thereby shut out the ugly, hate filled world in
which they were forced to live.
In Europe, as in this country and in
Israel today, there were men whose intellect permitted them to study the Talmud
full time. These men were supported by their families or the families of their
wives. Some of the poor Talmud scholars lived on the earnings of their wives who
believed, as do some today, that the study of the sacred texts is more important
than any other occupation and that the support of a Talmud scholar is a most
If you have the opportunity, visit any
university library or any Jewish library and take a look at the Talmud. It is
vast. It includes the comments and discussions of innumerable scholars and it
tells us how these scholars perceived each issue under discussion. The Talmud
tells us both the majority opinion and the minority opinion concerning each
matter discussed. This permits the student to make up his own mind as to how he
wishes to view the matter at hand.
We should add that today, in 2000,
here in America there are further discussions of Jewish law and custom. These
are published by our rabbis and are called “The Responsa”. Furthermore, we
have books written by Jewish scholars over the years which attempt to
accommodate current Jewish life. The best known of these is “The Set Table”
or Shulchan Aruch,
published by Joseph Karo in 1567. That code is the basis of Torah true
(orthodox) Judaism today.
In this country we have the work of
Rabbi Isaac Klein, of blessed memory. Rabbi Klein published A Guide to Jewish Practice posthumously, thereby making it possible
for observant Jews in the English speaking world to live within Jewish tradition in a modern context. That is
exactly what Joseph Karo had done for the Jews of his day and that is what we
can expect will be done by Jews in all the years yet to come. Bimhayro