Many Christians assume that modern Judaism is a religion of the Bible. For Jews, the Bible is the Tanach – what Christians call the Old Testament. And while religious Jews would claim allegiance to the Tanach, it is not a stretch to say that Talmud commands their attention. It is the primary focus of study and meditation. Here is how Adin Steinsaltz puts it:
If the Bible is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is the central pillar, soaring up from the foundations and supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice. In many ways the Talmud is the most important book in Jewish culture, the backbone of creativity and of national life. No other work has had a comparable influence on the theory and practice of Jewish life, shaping spiritual content and serving as a guide to conduct. [The Essential Talmud, p.3]
Few will dispute the remarkable achievement of Jewish people in virtually all walks life. But we might well ask how it is that a people who have been hounded and harassed throughout history can excel in so many pursuits. Rabbi Abraham Hirsch Rabinowitz believes that much of Jewish success is related to the benefits of Talmud study.
The versatility and achievement of the Jewish mind is proverbial. There is hardly a field of human contemplation and endeavor in which Jews have failed to excel. Precocity and originality have usually marked the contribution of Jews to knowledge, as also a striking ability to improvise. Of the main factors that together created the Jewish mind, there can be little doubt that the contributon of the age-long preoccupation of the Jew with Talmud and halachah is formidable. The study of Talmud, undertaken at an early age and pursued assiduously, nurtured alertness, discernment, and acumen and cultured the ability to weigh situations and opinions. It encouraged debate and individual research, rewarded initiative, and lauded brilliance. [The Study of Talmud, Jason Aronson Inc, 1996, p.xiii]
But what is the Talmud? The Talmud is a multi-volume summary of oral law that evolved over several centuries of work by scholars who lived in Palestine and Babylonia. Jews believe that Moses received both the written law and the oral law on Mount Sinai, and that the Talmud is the codification of that oral tradition. Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), leaders in Judaism began recognizing the importance of codifying these traditions lest they be lost to Jews who were dispersed throughout the known world. It was during those four to five centuries following the Temple’s destruction that these oral teachings were recorded, edited and assembled into what we know as the Talmud.
Anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with Jewish tradition will know that mastering the Talmud is a life-long pursuit. Only those convinced that their spiritual well-being rests upon knowing Talmud will make that commitment. And yet, Christians who desire to understand their Jewish friends and neighbours might do well to seek a basic understanding of the content of Talmud, and how these traditions guide Jews in their daily lives.
Adin Steinsaltz has provided just the volume for those looking for a basic introduction to how Jewish law functions. The Essential Talmud will give readers a fascinating look at codified oral tradition – an insider’s explanation of how religious Jews tackle the big questions of life in terms of fulfilling God’s law as they understand it. Though written more than thirty years ago, I have yet to find an introductory text that does the job as well as this one.
Steinsaltz covers his subject under three major headings: History, Structure and Content, and Method.
After answering the question, “What is Talmud?”, the author follows the long, arduous history of how the Talmud was produced. In doing so, he covers the two major centres of Torah study – Jerusalem and Babylon – showing how the Babylonian Talmud came to be the most authoritative Talmud.
The second major section of the book explores the structure of the Talmud, looking briefly at the various subjects treated within the oral tradition. The major themes covered are:
- Prayers and Benedictions
- The Sabbath
- The Festivals
- Marriage and Divorce
- The Status of Women
- Civil Law
- Criminal Law
- Dietary Laws
- Ritual Purity and Impurity
- Ethics and Halakhah
- Derekh Eretz (Deportment)
- The World of Mysticism
For me, the third section provided the greatest insight into how the religious Jew thinks, for here Steinsaltz discusses Halakhic exegesis, methods of study, and how the Talmudic mind works. I suspect more than a few conservative Christians will find this section both fascinating and frustrating, because Talmudic thinking often runs counter to what would be considered clear biblical teaching. For example, there is in Talmud a debate among rabbis where one rabbi calls God as his witness. To our surprise, the rest of the rabbis discount any divine contribution on the basis that God, in giving Torah at Sinai, placed custody of Torah on earth – under the protection of Moses, and by extension, the rabbis. Not even The Almighty can speak against the rabbis!
Reading The Essential Talmud will not make you an expert in oral Torah, but it will provide insight into how religious Jews order their lives. It will also, I hope, encourage Christians to give greater attention to their own pursuit of mastering the living and enduring Word of God – in reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on the words of Holy Scripture.