The Spirits Behind the Law

the-spirits-behind-the-lawThe Spirits Behind the Law: The Talmudic Scholars
Rabbi Jonathan Duker
Urim Publications, 2007
ISBN: 978-965-7108-97-0

I provide pastoral leadership at Grace Baptist Church of Richmond Hill (Ontario) and our property is directly across the street from a major Jewish campus development – a very large cultural center, elementary and high schools and a synagogue – with vacant land waiting to be developed.

Because of my location, I am as likely to hear Hebrew and Russian as English in the local stores, restaurants and coffee shops. The proximity of a growing Jewish community coupled with my lifelong study and teaching of the Bible, has created an interest in understanding contemporary Judaism in its many expressions.

Rabbinic Judaism came into its own following the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (C.E. 70). Without that focal point of religious expression, coupled with a growing diaspora, the rabbis recognized the critical need to codify the oral traditions that had been handed down through the generations.

Out of that codification came the Talmud – a multi-volume text considered second only to the Torah itself. There are two editions – the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, though the Jerusalem Talmud was not prepared in Jerusalem. Wikipedia states that the Jerusalem Talmud “has more accurately been called ‘The Talmud of the Land of Israel.’” [Unless otherwise noted, all quotations and facts related to the Talmud are taken from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talmud]

While the Jerusalem Talmud is “an indispensable source of knowledge of the development of Jewish Law in Israel,” the Babylonian Talmud has garnered the preferred position among Talmudic scholars today. It is generally believed that the work was compiled during the 3rd to 5th centuries C.E. in centers at Nehardea, Nisibis, Mahoza (near Baghdad), Pumbeditha (known today as Fallujah), and the Sura Academy – all located in modern-day Iraq.

The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and runs more than 6,200 pages in standard font.

“The Talmud contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis on a variety of subjects, including law, ethics, philosophy, customs, history, theology, lore and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of rabbinic law and is much quoted in other rabbinic literature.”

In The Essential Talmud (Basic Books, 1976), Adin Steinsaltz says in his opening words:

“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 the spiritual content and serving as a guide to conduct.”

Given its central importance to the Jewish community in general, and to observant Jewish people specifically, knowing something of the background of Talmud can only be a good thing.

the-babylonian-talmud-neusnerI own The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Jacob Neusner (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005, ISBN: 1-56563-707-0), a 22-volume work in English. With no formal introduction to Talmudic study, I often find myself lost in a maze of views and counter-views coming from scores of names I do not recognize. Books focused on providing an overview of this massive work, including introductions to some of the more significant rabbis quoted, are very helpful to someone like myself.

Because of that, I was delighted to discover Rabbi Duker’s little volume, The Spirits Behind the Law: The Talmudic Scholars. If, as it has been said, the “pathway to Talmudic thought is to understand the lives of Talmudic scholars” (Rabbi Avraham Weiss), then Duker’s little book is a useful beginning.

Rabbi Duker, drawing from Talmudic and midrashic traditions, highlights fifteen figures from the pages of Talmud, painting vignettes which provide context for their contributions to Talmudic discussion. The scholars presented are:

Rabbi Akiva
Bar Kappara
Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus
Elisha ben Avuyah
Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh
Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa and His Wife
Hillel the Elder
Rabbi Meir
Rav Papa
Rava and Abaye
Resh Lakish
Shmuel
Rav Zeira

Each vignette is copiously footnoted, enabling readers to follow-up on any of the stories presented. Duker says:

“I have used several primary sources that span much of aggadic literature, with guidance from the traditional commentators. Though most of the narratives are from the two Talmuds and the Midrash, on one occasion I have used a tradition cited in Rashi that was accepted by the later commentaries. Where there were contradictions between primary sources, the criteria that I used for selection were literary rather than academic.”

I appreciated Rabbi Duker’s transparency in describing his approach in handling discrepancies, but it did leave me wondering if the vignettes would be historically accurate. Perhaps anticipating that kind of question, Duker speaks about the role of historical accuracy in his closing chapter.

“Although this work contains descriptions of figures from the past, it is not a history book in the proper sense. This is true to the methodology and spirit of aggadic (non-halakhic) literature, which pays little attention to historical detail.
….
Clearly, the purpose of aggadic literature is theological and moral rather than historical. This is not to say that Hazal (e.g. the Talmudic scholars) did not value the study of history. Rather, they did not wish to limit the application of their literature to something so temporal as their own biographies and local politics.
….
Hazal are concerned with the eternal rather than the temporal, the moral rather than the historical.

That said, the long-standing scholarly debate regarding the historical accuracy of the tales and the attribution of quotes to specific scholars has little bearing on the intrinsic meaning of the text” (pp.115-116).

For my part, I would side with those concerned with historical accuracy, but that is a question for another day. Duker has supplied ample information on his sources and those so inclined can easily follow up the stories in the sources themselves.

This is a great introduction to some of Talmud’s more significant personalities. Knowing something of the lives and personalities of the major movers behind the Talmud will help bring its pages alive. Any help in deciphering the meaning and intent of the Talmudic scholars is to be welcomed. This is a great little volume for all who seek to enter the world of Talmud.

[This book was purchased by the reviewer. No remuneration was received for this review.]

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About David Daniels

Evangelical Baptist Pastor. Reformed Soteriology. Enjoy freelance writing & reviewing.
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