The Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, is a multi-volume work recording the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on many subjects. It covers Halakha (law), ethics, philosophy, customs, history, and a multitude of other subjects, forming the basis for virtually all decisions related to living a Jewish life.
Sages of the Talmud: The Lives, Sayings and Stories of 400 Rabbinic Masters
Urim Publications, 2009
The Talmud is organized around the Mishnah – a compilation of legal opinions and debates about how to understand and apply Torah – the law of God. The Mishnah itself was recorded by Tannaim – teachers of oral law who did their work between 10-220 C.E. Organized topically, the Mishnah provides the framework for the entire Talmud. Its six orders are Zeraim (Seeds), Moed (Festival), Nashim (Women), Nezikin (Damages), Kodashim (Holies), and Tohorot (Purities).
Under each Order are several tractates (treatises) discussing, debating, and expressing opinions as to the meaning of the corresponding Mishnah. The Amoraim, expounders of the Mishnah (220-500 C.E.), are the compilers of the 63 tractates making up the Talmud.
Now, if all of this sounds confusing, you are not alone. The Talmud is an intimidating body of literature, and particularly so for one not raised within Rabbinic Judaism. Not only is its sheer size challenging, its structure can also be very confusing – and then there are the Sages – those men whose opinions and rulings are recorded in the Talmud. Who were they? Where did they live? When did they live? What were the conditions under which they labored?
Mordechai Judovits, a Holocaust survivor, retired businessman, and long-time student of Talmud, comes from a family of distinguished rabbis and Talmudic learners. His life-long love of Talmud led to his quest to know something of the life and times of the sages. That quest led to this reader-friendly recounting of stories, anecdotes, vignettes and fascinating history of 400 Talmudic masters.
Judovits says he did not intend to provide a “complicated Talmudic pilpul” (intense textual analysis), but rather a “simple recording of stories, anecdotes and sayings of the sages as recorded in Talmud.” He hopes to provide Talmudic students a window into the world of the tannaim and amoraim – the social and political climate of their times. By opening this window, Judovits hopes to draw greater numbers into a two-thousand year journey of questioning and learning at the feet of some of Rabbinic Judaism’s greatest rabbis.
The book opens with a brief outline of how the Talmud is organized. Along with a brief historical overview of the years during which the Talmud was compiled, Judovits provides pointers for determining how one might identify the various contributors to the discussions at hand. What could easily descend into a dry recounting of names and places, finds life through the historical vignettes and anecdotes liberally sprinkled throughout the text.
The body of the book is an alphabetical listing of 400 sages mentioned in the pages of Talmud. Virtually everything Judovits tells us about individual sages can be found within the Talmud itself – he has carefully noted the sources for all he has written. Serious students of Talmud will appreciate this as it will immediately provide them with the context of all Judovits has written about each Talmudic contributor.
While many will find this a rich resource for helping to understand Talmud itself, others will simply enjoy reading the anecdotes and sayings of the sages for their own reading enjoyment.
As is true of today, so it was true in ancient times – we are influenced by our cultural surroundings. Judovits understands this and provides a valuable overview of both world and Jewish history during the Talmudic period. Beginning with the first Babylonian exile (600-550 B.C.E), and extending through 550 C.E.
My only disappointment with this historical overview is that the author chose to exclude any mention of Jesus of Nazareth or of the New Testament community of believers in Jesus. Indeed, the designations of B.C.E. and C.E (Before the Common Era and the Common Era) only exist because of the historical person, Jesus. I would argue that the push to codify Jewish Oral Torah in the multi-volume Talmud was encouraged by three things: the ongoing dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman world, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), and the growth of the Christian community which at the outset was entirely Jewish.
Sages of the Talmud as a useful introduction to the world of Talmud, and I recommend it to my Christian colleagues in ministry.