The Wisdom of the Talmud, by Ben Zion Bokser, , at sacred-texts.com
The literature of the Talmud represents approximately a thousand years of Jewish thought. Its foundations were laid by the work of Ezra during the middle of the fourth century B.C.E., in the community of the returned exiles from Babylonia, who inaugurated the second Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. Its period of greatest productivity came in the centuries that followed the disastrous Jewish war against Rome in 70 C.E. The Talmud is not an independent literature however. It proceeds instead as a supplement to the Bible. The Bible remained the fundamental source of belief and practice in Judaism, but the Talmud was its authoritative exposition and implementation.
The position of the Talmud in Jewish life has been paramount. It was studied zealously by young and old alike, who found in it the authoritative word concerning the true meaning of Scripture. The lighter side of the Talmud, its parables, its ethical aphorisms, its legendary tales, delighted the common people. The more serious side, the subtle discussions of law, were a welcome outlet for the intellectual interests of the learned.
The Talmud itself became a subject for new commentaries and super-commentaries. Its study commenced in the elementary grades of the Jewish school, and it continued, in ever more subtle techniques of analysis, into the highest grades of the rabbinical academies. The love for the Talmud among the Jewish masses finally created an institution of popular adult education—the voluntary study group that met on Sabbath and holiday afternoons, and weekday evenings, to enable the busy layman to continue his interest in Talmudic literature.
The most crucial element in the discussions of the Talmud is centered in law. For law figured prominently in the Bible, and the Talmud mirrors faithfully the text on which it is based. But the Talmud is not a code. It records varying opinions on law as on life, without always offering decisions as to which was to be deemed authoritative for posterity. The legal discussions of the Talmud are, however, an invaluable source book on Jewish law, for they preserve all the varying trends in the interpretation of Biblical legislation. They likewise preserve a record of new developments in the law by which the Jewish community ordered its life.
The codification of Jewish law was to be a labor of later generations. Utilizing Talmudic discussions as their authority, a group of distinguished scholars, most of them active during the Middle Ages, endeavored to codify the rabbinic law. The most widely used of these works is the Shulhan Aruk by Joseph Karo (1488–1575). This code above all gained popular acceptance, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. But such distinguished teachers of Judaism as R. Moses Iserles, Solomon Luria, Mordecai Jaffe, Samuel Edels and Yom Tob Lippman Heller, did not hesitate to dispute the authority of the Shulhan Aruk. Even as late as the eighteenth century Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the Gaon of Wilno, though he had written a valuable commentary on the Shulhan Aruk, did not hesitate on occasion to ignore it and to decide cases on the basis of an original weighing of precedents and circumstances, in the light of the original discussions in the Talmud.
The rise of the Talmud to its dominant role in Jewish life was not without challenge. Its authority was rejected by a group of Babylonian Jews, led by a certain Anan ben David, in the middle of the eighth century. They organized a sect known as the Karaites (from Kara, the study of Scripture), which sought to center Judaism on the sole authority of the Bible. Fierce polemics developed between the Karaites and the Rabbinites, as the defenders of Talmudic authority were
called. The Karaites have persisted as a small sect, and several thousand of them still exist in scattered communities in various parts of the world. A Karaite settlement of some five hundred souls has recently been started in the State of Israel, all of them immigrants from Cairo, Egypt. They have been included in Israel's current effort to "ingather the exiles", and they have been recognized as an independent community, free to order life in accordance with its own distinctive interpretations of Judaism.
The non-Jewish world has given the Talmud a mixed reaction. In the Middle Ages, when religious disputations were popular, the Talmud became a frequent subject of controversy. The Talmud was subjected to a variety of criticisms. Because the Talmud had permitted itself to adapt old institutions that they might be more relevant to the needs of a later age, it was charged with the falsification of the Bible. Because the Talmud often speaks in parables, it was disparaged as absurd, as abounding in fairy tales. Because the Talmud reflects a healthy respect for bodily life and speaks with frankness about sex, contrary to the asceticism of the Middle Ages, it was denounced as sensuous and unspiritual.
Perhaps the most serious charge against the Talmud was that it is irreverent toward the beliefs and practices of the Church. The Talmud arose during the epoch when Christianity began its secession from Judaism, and when the Christians were looked upon as dissident Jews. Against that background there must have been extensive controversy between the adherents of traditional Judaism and the advocates of the new doctrine. The Talmud generally avoids polemics; but some echoes of that controversy survived in the Talmud, principally a prayer against sectarianism, the prayer Velamalshinim, as it is known in the present Jewish liturgy. This now became a cause of serious charges against Judaism, above all against its revered classic, the Talmud.
The animosity toward the Talmud was often instigated by renegades from Judaism who exhibited the convert's customary
zeal by a vilification of the faith they had deserted. The apostate Nicholas Donin laid before Pope Gregory IX the charge that the Talmud was a pernicious and blasphemous work. The Pope responded with an order to seize all copies of the Talmud for an inquiry into their content. In consequence of this agitation twenty-four cartloads of Hebrew books and manuscripts were publicly burned in Paris on June 17, 1242. In the sixteenth century there were six burnings of Talmudic books, in 1553, 1555, 1559, 1566, 1592 and 1599. A Christian censorship of Hebrew books was instituted in 1562. Most editions of the Talmud now extant still carry the censor's assurance that these volumes are free of "offensive" material.
There were voices in the Jewish community that spoke out in defense of the Talmud. Some defended the particular passages of the Talmud which had been attacked. Others addressed themselves to the larger issue involved—they spoke out boldly for religious freedom. One of the most courageous pleas for freedom came from Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1512–1609). After analyzing the usual charges against the Talmud in detail and refuting them, he adds: "One ought not reject the words of an opponent. It is preferable to seek them out and study them. Thus shall a person arrive at the … full truth. Such words should not be suppressed. For every man of valor who wants to wrestle with another and to show his strength is eager that his opponent shall have every opportunity to demonstrate his real powers. But what strength does he show when he forbids his opponent to defend himself and to fight against him? Therefore it is wrong to suppress anyone who wants to speak against religion and to say to him: 'Do not speak thus'. The very converse is true. This itself weakens religion. Suppose the Talmudists did speak against Christian doctrine, expressing publicly what was in their hearts. Is this an evil thing? Not at all. It is possible to reply to them … The conclusion of the matter is
that it would be most unworthy to suppress books in order to silence teachers …"1
The rise of modern anti-Semitism gave fresh impetus to the attacks against the Talmud. The father of the modern calumnies upon the Talmud was the German polemicist, John Andreas Eisenmenger (1654–1704). Eisenmenger offered to suppress his work, Entdecktes Judentum (Jewry Unmasked), for a consideration of 30,000 florins, but the Jews refused to be blackmailed into paying this sum. The book has been described as "a collection of scandals" by the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliographie, an official encyclopaedia of German bibliography published by the German Imperial Academy of Science in 1876. "Some passages," the appraisal continues, "are misinterpreted; some distorted; others are insinuations based on one-sided inferences."2
The most spectacular campaign against the Talmud was led by August Rohling (1839–1931), a professor of Hebrew Antiquities at the University of Prague. His Der Talmudjude (The Talmud Jew) went through 17 editions, reaching a circulation of 200,000 copies in Austria alone. Rohling repeatedly prefaced his slanderous material with the offer of 1,000 Taler "if Judah managed to get a verdict from the German Association of Orientalists that the quotations were fictitious and untrue." The challenge was taken up by Joseph S. Bloch, Rabbi at Florisdorf and later a member of the Austrian Parliament, who offered 3,000 Taler if Rohling could prove that he was able to read a single page of the Talmud chosen at random by Rohling himself. Accusing Rohling of ignorance and perjury, Bloch dared him to bring a libel suit. Because of his professional standing, Rohling could not evade the issue and finally charged Bloch with libel before a Vienna magistrate.
The court was anxious to make a thorough study of the subject and requested the Rector of the University of Vienna, Hofrat Zscholk, and the German Association of Orientalists, to appoint two experts. It conceded to Rohling's request that
both these experts be "full-blooded" Christians. Professor Theodor Noeldeke of the University of Strassburg and Professor August Wuensche of Dresden, were selected. From time to time additional experts were called in. After two and a half years, the report was ready. The trial was to start November 18, 1885, but before the hearings began, Rohling, afraid of an open exposure, withdrew all his charges. The court sentenced him to pay the cost of the trial and, disgraced, he was retired from his university post. The entire story of this dramatic encounter is told by Rabbi Bloch in his Israel and the Nations.
Another such Talmud "authority" was Aaron Briman, alias Dr. Justus. He was born a Jew and had aspirations for a career as a Jewish scholar. But when he lost face with the Jewish community for deserting his wife and children, he became a Protestant. Subsequently, he became a Catholic and then a Protestant again, and finally tried to return to Judaism. Toward the end of his career he once again joined the Catholic Church. His principal work, published anonymously, was Der Judenspiegel (The Mirror of the Jew), a compilation of a hundred laws taken from the Shulhan Aruk and purporting to show the Jewish animosity toward Christians. In a book about the Cabbala, which Briman subsequently wrote under his true name, he said that the whole anti-Semitic literature, including the Judenspiegel (his own work!) had been written by stupid and ignorant men. In 1885 he was sentenced by a Vienna court to a long term in prison and expulsion from Austria for forgery of documents. Professor Franz Delitzsch, the famous Protestant theologian, pronounced the Judenspiegel "a concoction of damnable lies". Following his expulsion Briman took up medical studies in Paris. These same forgeries of Justus-Briman were later published by another adventurer, Jacob Ecker, who offered them as his own work under the title The Hundred Laws of the Jewish Catechism.
Czarist Russia made its contribution to this gallery of literary swindlers in the person of the notorious Justin Pranaitis, a Catholic clergyman. His monograph, The Christian in the Jewish Talmud, was based on the works of Eisenmenger and Rohling. To create the impression of authenticity he cites many passages in the original Hebrew and Aramaic, but they are all lifted from Eisenmenger, errors and misprints included. By identifying as references to Christians and Christianity such epithets in the Talmud as am ha-aretz (literally, a peasant, but more generally, an illiterate person), akum (pagan or idol worshipper), apikoros (epicurean but applied to heretics generally) and kuthim (the Samaritans), he "proves" widespread prejudice on the part of the Talmud toward Christianity.
In spite of his office as a Catholic clergyman, Pranaitis became involved in the course of a checkered career in a series of financial scandals. A picture in a frame which he wanted gilded at the workshop of a certain Avanzo in Petersburg was accidentally damaged; whereupon he tried to extort 3,000 rubles from the owner of the shop on the alleged ground that the picture had been painted by the 17th century artist, Murillo, and that it was part of the collection of Cardinal Gintovt. Both allegations were later proved false. On another occasion he was charged by the board of a local Catholic welfare society in his home parish at Tashkent with misappropriating the sum of 1,500 rubles.
It was in 1912 during the trial of Beiliss on the ritual murder libel that Pranaitis drew world notoriety upon himself by offering his services as an expert for the prosecution. When confronted by the bulls of Popes Innocent IV and Clement XIV which denounced ritual murder charges against Jews as libels and slander and which called upon Christians to desist from the staging of ritual murder trials, Pranaitis denied the genuineness of the documents. Cardinal Merry del Val, the Papal Secretary of State, examined the originals at the Vatican and certified that they were genuine. Beiliss
was, of course, acquitted, but the prosecution remunerated the star "expert" with 500 rubles.
Pranaitis died on January 29, 1917. It took more than a month for the Czarist government to issue the permit for the removal of his body from Petersburg to Tashkent. Objections had to be overcome of local officials in Tashkent who were anxious to avoid a public demonstration at his funeral and urged an inconspicuous burial in Petersburg.3
Nazi Germany produced a flood of new material vilifying the Talmud. With the pretense of scholarly objectivity which characterized the technique of all Hitler's professors, they produced impressive volumes, but all serving the cause of their master's big lie. Walter Forstat, one of the Nazi "experts" on the Talmud, unblushingly admits in the introduction to his Die Grundlagen des Talmud (The Basic Principles of the Talmud, Breslau, 1935), that in writing his book he had really forged a political weapon. "In issuing this work," he writes, "our purpose is purely political … As a political tract it is necessarily one-sided. It therefore deals with Talmudic law only where it may prove helpful in illuminating the attitude of Germany to Jewry."
These diatribes against Talmudic literature produced a reaction, and some of the noblest works in appreciation of the Talmud were written by non-Jews. Johann von Reuchlin and his circle of Christian Hebraists carried on a staunch campaign in the sixteenth century in defense of Hebrew books. The libels of August Rohling were answered by the famous Protestant theologian, Franz Delitzsch, in his work Was D. Aug. Rohling beschworen hat and beschwoeren will (What D. Aug. Rohling Has Sworn to and Is Prepared to Swear to, Leipzig, 1883). Among the more recent statements in vindication of the Talmud is the very lucid study by Rev. A. H. Dirksen, "The Talmud and Anti-Semitism", in the January 1939 issue of the Ecclesiastical Review, a publication of the Catholic University of America, and the pamphlet, A Fact About the Jews, written by the famous Catholic
scholar, Joseph N. Moody, and distributed by the Paulist Fathers. A more elaborate study of the Talmud was written by the Polish Catholic scholar, Thadeus Zaderecki. He began his researches in the Talmud under the inspiration of anti-Semitic libels, but what he learned made him into an admirer of this great literature. His work The Talmud in the Crucible of the Centuries is a brilliant appreciation of the moral values of Talmudic literature and a refutation of the libels against it, especially those of Rohling and Pranaitis.4
Talmudic literature went through a long and varied development. The earliest layer of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a product of Palestinian scholarship and written in a clear, lucid Hebrew. The later expository supplement, known as the Gemara, which elucidates the Mishnahic text, was developed during the third, fourth and fifth centuries, when the center of Jewish population was shifting from Palestine to Babylonia. Paralleling the Palestinian Gemara there also arose a Babylonian Gemara, produced by the newer academies of Babylonia. Both Gemaras were written in the Aramaic vernaculars then current in Babylonia and Palestine.
The Talmud has survived in both traditions, the Babylonian and the Palestinian. In their essential procedures and in their underlying doctrines the two Talmuds are similar. But there are some significant differences between them, reflecting in many instances the differing conditions under which the two communities carried on their work. Thus the Palestinians felt themselves in their own country and they regarded the Roman authorities as exercising their power without moral sanction. They therefore ruled the publicans who, as tax collectors, had collaborated with the enemy, as reprobates, and they refused to extend any credence to their testimony in a court of law. The Babylonians, on the other hand, demanded scrupulous adherence to the law of the land, and the tax collector was for them only a civil servant performing his duty, who was as honorable as any other man.
It was in its Babylonian version that the Talmud became
so influential a force in Jewish life. The Palestinian Talmud. on the other hand, made but a slight impression on the Jewish world. The circumstances that led to a preference for the Babylonian Talmud have been variously defined. The Babylonian academies functioned under conditions of greater stability and peace and the discussions which emanated from them reveal a greater measure of lucidity and order. What was perhaps more decisive, however, was the fact that the Babylonian Jewish community had overshadowed the Jewish community of Palestine as a center of culture and world influence. As Dr. Louis Ginzberg puts it: "The Babylonians were more successful in establishing the authority of their Talmud in European countries. This success was largely due to the fact that Babylonia, under the rule of the Abbasids, became the center of Arabic culture, and consequently of Jewish culture, since the majority of Jews then lived in Islamic countries."5
There is a splendid English translation of the Mishnah, published in 1933, by Reverend Herbert Danby, Canon of Christ Church and Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, England. There is a German translation of the Babylonian Talmud by Lazarus Goldschmidt. The Palestinian Talmud is available in a French translation by M. Schwab. The Soncino Press in London has recently published a new translation of the Babylonian Talmud in English under the very competent editorship of Dr. I. Epstein.
Among the well-known studies of Talmudic literature in English is the Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash by Hermann Strack, prominent Protestant theologian and professor at the University of Berlin, and Talmud and Apocrypha by the well-known British scholar, the Reverend I. Travers Herford, and also the short but popularly written essay by Arsene Darmesteter, The Talmud. An accurate and exhaustive survey of the world outlook of Talmudic Judaism is available in the monumental work, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, by the eminent Protestant
scholar and Professor of Religion at Harvard University, the late George Foot Moore. A brief digest of the contents of the Talmud, with copious quotations, is available in A. Cohen's Everyman's Talmud. A short history of Talmudic times is available in the essay by Judah Goldin, The Period of the Talmud, in Volume I of The Jews, edited by Dr. Louis Finkelstein.
A splendid study of the Palestinian Talmud is offered us in Dr. Louis Ginzberg's recent work, Pirushim ve-Hidushim b’Yirushalmi (A Commentary on the Palestinian Talmud, N. Y. 1941). Its three volumes cover the first four chapters of the tractate Berakot, but its extended notes, and an introductory essay in Hebrew and English, offer invaluable insight into the general nature of the Palestinian Talmud and its relationship to the parallel literature which emanated from the Babylonian academies.
The present work attempts to clarify the relationship between the Bible and the Talmud and to trace the forces that continued to inspire the growth of the new literature and that gave it its remarkable popularity in the history of Judaism. It also endeavors to portray the culture of the Talmud through the citation of representative passages. The literature of the Talmud is vast, and the rabbis who composed it often differed in their thoughts. Our characterization of Talmudic culture cannot therefore be exhaustive, but it is hoped that the spirit of the larger work is nevertheless conveyed through these citations.
The material in this work is addressed to the general reader and not primarily to the scholar. The footnotes have therefore been reduced to a minimum. Crucial discussions are documented, but no attempt was made to subject the sources to textual criticism. Historical material which appears in standard works on the subject is drawn on freely, without the citation of the specific sources.
I am grateful to Dr. Louis Finkelstein, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who has been a
constant source of inspiration and encouragement in my studies. Dr. Louis Ginzberg, with whom I studied the Talmud at the Seminary, remained a friend and guide throughout the years, and I am grateful to him for invaluable help. I am indebted also to Rabbis Max Arzt, Michael Higger, Gershon Cohen and a number of other friends who were helpful in the solution of many individual problems in this study. I am also thankful to Mesdames Estelle Horowitt, Sara Jerome, and Bessie Katzman for typing the manuscript, and to Mr. Jesse Fuchs for help in proofreading. Finally I express my indebtedness to my wife for her suggestions, advice and criticism.