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The Babylonian Talmud in Selection, by Leo Auerbach, [1944], at

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THE word Talmud means study. The Talmud is a record of about a thousand years of accumulated Jewish learning and wisdom in all fields of endeavor: Law, religion, ethics, history, science and folklore.

This lore is called Oral Law, in contra-distinction to the Bible, which is the Written Law. Tradition has it that this Oral Law was indicated to Moses and handed down by him to future generations; in each generation the great teachers of the period in turn handed it down, amplified but still in oral form, to the next generation.

Early in the history of the Jewish people it was found necessary to expound and interpret the laws as given by Moses; this law-giver himself appointed judges throughout Israel for this very purpose. Particularly true was this after the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, when, through the effort of Ezra, the Torah became the law and the guiding spirit of all the people. Its reading in public three times a week, with explanations and translations into Aramaic (the vernacular of the people), was at this time made mandatory.

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The transgression of the laws was severely punished by the court or by "death at the hands of the Lord". However, life in this new Jewish society was more complex than in the olden days. Some of the laws became obsolete, while others had to be reinterpreted to conform to new conditions.

The Torah, however, was the Law, which could not be altered. Therefore the scribes and the members of the Great Assembly busied themselves in probing and searching every sentence and every word of the Scriptures, to find solutions to the vexing problems by interpretations of each law. This method of analysis and exposition was called from the Hebrew word darash, to search, to probe, Midrash.

The Midrashim are of two kinds. Some are concerned with the strict and terse interpretation of the laws and statutes as found in the Scriptures, mainly in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. These are called Halachoth. The others, called Haggadoth, are homiletic in style; they took as their topic the narrative parts of the Bible and used them as vehicles for the expounding of ethical precepts, proverbs, parables, and history.

It was the custom to recite a passage of the Scriptures, which served as a thread upon which the expounder could string all sorts of interpretations, and by skillful and often dialectic argumentation, make the law serve new essential purposes. Thus the Law was kept effective in the life of the community, its scope widened as society grew complex.

Particularly popular with the people were the Haggadic Midrashim. These were especially adaptable to preaching in the Synagogues or the great open-air gatherings.

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[paragraph continues] On several occasions, however, the sages voiced opposition to the Haggadah, particularly to those parts that are given to exaggeration and triviality; nonetheless, they also recognized its charm for the masses and its great moral force, and accorded it to the same importance as the Halachah.

The great teachers of antiquity among the Hebrews were the scribes, to whom many of the earlier Midrashic interpretations could probably be traced. They flourished for some two centuries after 500 B.C. and were followed by the Pharisees who headed the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were more lenient and liberal in their interpretations of the laws than the Saducees, the aristocrats who adhered to a more literal and strict interpretation of the Scriptures, and therefore the Pharisees were more popular with the people and exerted a greater influence as the dominating force in the life of Jewry. Their influence became even greater as the government and the degenerating aristocracy became corrupt and oppressed the people.

The first chapter of the tractate Aboth, Fathers of the Mishnah, traces the chronological order of these great teachers. The most prominent of them was Hillel, the Prince. He headed the contingent of the Sages who were known as the House of Hillel. These were opposed by Shamai and his colleagues. Their strife evoked a great interest in the contemporary Jewish world, but, as the rivalry was purely intellectual, it spurred them on to greater activity, and fostered learning.

Hillel, who advocated a wider and more liberal application of laws, was invariably successful in having his laws adopted. He was the author of the law known as

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[paragraph continues] Prosbul (before the court). According to the "Law of the Seventh year" Deuteronomy XV, all indebtedness became automatically cancelled in the sabbatical year. Because of this law, the rich refused to lend money to the traders and that brought stagnation to business. By a very ingenious interpretation of the passages in the Scriptures referring to this law, Hillel was able to devise the enactment of the Prosbul, by which a document was executed transferring the debt to the court, thus making the law of the seventh year not applicable to the specified loan. In a similar manner he enacted a law by which a man who sold his house in a walled city could redeem it from the buyer before one year was over, by depositing its value with the court.

Hillel also inaugurated the seven standard methods of scriptural analysis, which were later, by Rabbi Ishmael, increased to thirteen. These methods served as a scientific basis for the study and analysis of the Torah. Hillel is also credited with being the first one to make an attempt to collect and arrange the laws in a systematic order.

With the domination of foreign powers and the consequent decline of the government, the Jews rallied more and more around the Sages and their academies. It was with Hillel that the presidency of the Sanhendrin was made hereditary.

Toward the end of the 1st Century B.C. the country was in a deplorable condition, under a weak and decadent government. The puppet kings were tools of the Roman leaders, who through them manipulated the election and controlled the office of the high priests.

The population was torn by the strife of many warring parties within and an enemy from without. The Jews

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fought bravely, many of their illustrious Sages and the flower of their youth fell on the fields of battle, but they were no match for the powerful and well organized Roman armies. The great Master of this period was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai. Foreseeing the tragic end of the struggle against the Romans, he counselled submission, but his advice was unheeded.

One night, smuggled out of the city by his disciples, he presented himself before the Roman commander to ask for permission to establish his academy in Yabneh, and to plead for the safety of its disciples. Upon the fall of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yohanan re-established the Sanhedrin in Yabneh, to which city and its academy the center of Jewish law and thought was transferred.

The Sages realized that with the Temple gone and the Hebrews leaving the world stage as a politically independent nation, it was encumbent upon them to find some standard around which to rally and bind the People of Israel. There were the Scriptures, which long ago Ezra and the scribes had made popular among the people, and the study and worship of which the Pharisees had endeared. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai and his followers made it their concern to emphasize the paramount importance of the Bible and its study in the life of the Jews. Rabban Gamaliel II, the legitimate heir to the presidency of the Sanhedrin, succeeded Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai. With his accession, its authority was soon recognized by the Romans and accepted by Jewry within Palestine and without. Rabban Gamaliel II is remembered also for discarding the custom of lavish and excessively ceremonious and costly funerals; he inaugurated the use of the simple pine coffin and plain shroud that still predominate today.

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[paragraph continues] Turbulent conditions forced the seat of the Sanhedrin to move from place to place many times, but it survived as an institution until 425 A.D.

This was the most fruitful and far-reaching period in the post-Biblical history of the Jews. The Rabbis succeeded in moulding a unified and homogeneous people out of the remnants of scattered Jewry. They enacted laws, and fostered ideas and ideals. They compiled, arranged, and systematized their many laws, and bequeathed them to future generations in such a manner that most of them have survived and are valid to this day among the Jews throughout the world. Through the Romans and the early Christians these ideas, laws and customs likewise penetrated other cultures. Many of the laws inaugurated in those days form the basis of the laws by which we are guided today.


All the interpretations and commentaries on the Law were retained in oral form. Many of the scholars, however, in order to refresh their memories, privately made notes and jotted down some of these laws. There are many collections of the midrashim, attributed to different scholars whose names appear in the Talmud. The most important of these collections are:

1. The Mekilta, a commentary on the book of Exodus, beginning with chapter 12 and ending with the Sabbatical laws in Chapter 35. This is attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, who lived during the first century A.D. There is also a Mekilta attributed to Rabbi Yohai.

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2. Sifra, a midrashic interpretation of Leviticus. This was probably compiled in the school of Rabbi Akiba, the great sage who was born about 50 A.D. and died as a martyr in 136, during the rebellion of Bar Kochba.

3. Sifreh: Two commentaries, one on Numbers and one on Deuteronomy. These two books were not composed in the same school, but are found linked together from the earliest days. The commentary on Numbers is composed almost exclusively of Halachic Midrashim, and betrays the method and style of Rabbi Ishmael, while that on Deuteronomy is full of Haggadic Midrashim and is probably the product of the school of Rabbi Akiba.

As these commentaries grew and multiplied, attempts were made to collect, then to arrange them systematically so that they could be retained in the memory. The pioneer in this work was Rabbi Akiba, who divided the Halachoth according to subject: laws dealing with women; civil laws; etc. He also classified them into categories, such as the four primary causes of damage.

Many of the followers and disciples of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael made compilations of their own, the circulation of which brought on confusion.

The great work of compiling and arranging the laws was finally undertaken and accomplished by Rabbi Yehuda, the Prince, often referred to simply as Rabbi. Through his authority as the President of the Sanhedrin, he reduced them to writing, codified them and made them valid as the Mishna, which means "the repetition of the law." He visited many of the academies and gathered the collections and private notes that were circulated among the teachers of his day, and with the aid of a committee of his academy, established a definitive text.

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The Mishna was divided into six orders:

1. ZERAIM, dealing with agriculture.

2. MOED, dealing with festivals.

3. NASHIM, pertaining to women.

4. NEZIKIN, dealing with civil and criminal law.

5. KODASHIM, dealing with sacrifices.

6. TOHAROTH, dealing with cleanliness and purifications.

[paragraph continues] The orders were divided into tractates, sixty-three in all.

The codification of the Mishna did not preclude the further study of the Law. There were the Halachoth compiled by other Rabbis, which were not included in the Mishna. Many of these are cited in the Talmud, however, as Baraithoth "external."

Many of the disciples of Rabbi, some with his approbation, emulated him in compiling Mishnas of their own. One such compilation, ascribed to various of his followers, is the Thosafta, which means addenda, but is really an independent work arranged in six orders in the manner of the Mishna, containing new and different material.


Ever since the destruction of the First Temple and, even for some time preceding it, there was a large Jewish population in Babylonia (modern Iraq). It was concentrated in a few large cities, where they continued to live and prosper as a homogeneous community. Here developed some of the greatest lights of ancient Israel. The prophet Ezekiel lived in Babylonia; Ezra, Nehemiah, and

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the early scribes all came up from there to rebuild their country and the House of God. Hillel the Prince, together with some of the Sages, was also a Babylonian.

With the Roman conquest in 70 A.D., and later with the suppression of the rebellion of 135 A.D., many scholars were among those who fled thither from Palestine and the sword of the Romans.

Babylon was not despoiled by the Roman warriors. Remote from the war, the Jews remained there in comparative security as a recognized minority headed by the Exiliarch, a descendant of the house of David, empowered by the Babylonian government to decree laws and appoint judges.

The prosperity and liberty enjoyed by the Jews in Babylonia was conducive to intellectual growth; thus the academies established in Babylonia were renowned for their scholarship, and their learning was held in a higher esteem in the fourth and fifth centuries than that of the Palestinian Rabbis.

The most prominent of the Babylonian scholars was Abba Areka, commonly referred to as Rab. He studied under Rabbi Yehuda in Palestine for many years. Upon his return to Babylonia he founded the academy at Sura. Rab and his contemporary Mar Samuel, the head of the academy at Nehadrea, raised the scholarship and reputation of the Babylonian academies to the highest level. Though the supreme authority was vested in the Sanhedrin in Palestine, the Babylonian rulings and decisions were invariably accepted and followed. For the sake of national unity, however, the Jews of Babylonia elected to submit to the authority of the Prince and the rulings of the Palestinian Sanhedrin.

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With the abolition of the Office of the Prince, the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, and the disintegration of the Jewish community in Palestine in the 5th century, leadership and authority passed into the hands of the Babylonian Sages.

Towards the end of the fourth century Rab Ashi, the head of the academy in Sura, proceeded to collect the accumulated literature and learning of the post-Mishnaic period. Seminaries called Kalla were held at the academy twice a year; a tractate was selected and announced in advance for each Kalla. When the scholars and their disciples gathered at the academy, a passage from the Mishna tractate was read and discussed. These discussions, recorded, constitute the Gemara.

Rab Ashi began the Gemara as a literary undertaking for its own sake. Soon, however, Jews in Babylonia were subjected to religious persecution by the Sassanian Kings, who wished to introduce the teachings of Zoroaster. Rabina, the successor of Rab Ashi, concerned over the possible disappearance of the great rabbinic literature, hurriedly edited and codified the Gemara, giving it the form it has retained to this day.

In its narrower sense of the term, the word Talmud is applied to the Mishna and the Gemara. In its wider connotation it includes also the Midrashim, the Mekilta, the Sifra, the Sifreh, the Tosefta and several less important works, already referred to.

The Babylonian Talmud, as it has come down to us, is usually printed in its original languages, in Hebrew script, in 22 folio volumes.

The Palestinian, or Jerusalem Talmud, as it is often

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called, is printed in the same manner in from four to eight volumes.

There were very cordial relations and frequent interchange of teachers between the Palestinian and Babylonian academies, so that the names of the same teachers appear in both Talmuds. The Palestinian Talmud, however, smaller in scope, has exerted little influence on Jewish life as a whole. The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, has been a constant and basic force in world Jewry, down to this very day. So potent has its influence been, that Jewry has had to guard against a tendency to accept all its statements as law. As the noted Christian Talmudic scholar, Herman L. Strack points out: * "The Talmud is not a law book, not a code, in which every sentence is unconditionally valid. In the Mishna itself diverging opinions are, very frequently, placed in juxtaposition, and the Gemara almost throughout takes on the nature of a lecture hall or a collection of minutes of the discussions, in which the Amoraim cleared up that which had been said of the Tannaim. Direct statements as to what is Halacha, valid law, are rare in the Mishna. Accordingly it is highly preposterous to cause all the utterances of a single rabbi found in the Talmud to stand without further ado as teaching of the Talmud, or to hold Judaism responsible for such utterances."

The Mishna was written in what was then Modern Hebrew, quite unlike that of the Bible. It is not so flowery and picturesque, but rather terse, concise and clear, suited to the legal matters with which it mainly deals.

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The Gemara is written in the main in the vernacular, a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew, with a sprinkling of Greek, Roman and Persian words. It is marked by a disregard of grammar, and is often awkward in its lack of style, retaining always the flavor of vernacular speech. The discussions sometimes seem lengthy and pointless; occasionally they indulge in hair splitting. They may jump from subject to subject. The records appear like informal discussions, interpolated with beautiful legends, anecdotes, parables, and ethical maxims. These were often cited for the purpose of illustration, of bringing out a point, or of proving the antiquity and ancient tradition of the law discussed. Often as not, however, they had no relation to the subject under discussion, but were brought in for the sole purpose of breaking up the monotony of the lengthy discourse, and as it were, to ease the tedious study of the dry subject by something sweet and palatable. Thus the Talmud served as a storehouse of folklore, history, ancient custom, and wisdom, which, undoubtedly, would have otherwise disappeared, and which, next to the Bible itself, have preserved and helped to shape the culture and spirit and life-ways of the Jew.

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In preparing this anthology the editor has endeavored to present the material for a first-hand acquaintance with the monumental and much discussed work, the Babylonian Talmud. He has thus made, as it were, a cross-section of its copious volumes.

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The form and arrangement of the anthology adhere to the pattern of the Talmud. First the Mishna is cited, then follows its discussion, here kept within representative limits. The legends, stories and parables appear in the same places as in the Talmud, so that its character is here preserved. The tractates follow the original order, with one exception, that of the tractate Aboth (Fathers of the Mishna), here given in its entirety at the start. In the Talmud it is included within the order of Nezikin, which deals with raw and legal procedure.

As much as possible, the style and the linguistic mannerism of the original have been preserved. The King James version is followed for all Biblical quotations, save a few where that version alters the meaning of what is being discussed in the Talmud.


Thanks are due to Samuel K. Mirsky, professor of Rabbinics at the Yeshiva College of New York, who read the manuscript, for his helpful counsel and advice; to Dr. Joseph T. Shipley for his stylistic suggestions; to Sylvia Loeb, who assisted in preparing the typescript, and to Ruth Busch for the checking of the proofs.

Leo Auerbach.           


17:* Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (English translation), Jewish Publication Society, 1931, p. 89.

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