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The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, [1876], at

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THE "Talmud" is a collection of early Biblical discussions, with the comments of generations of teachers who devoted their lives to the study of the Scriptures. It is an encyclopædia of law, civil and penal, human and divine. It is more, however, than a mere book of laws. It records the thoughts, rather than the events, of a thousand years of the national life of the Jewish people; all their oral traditions, carefully gathered and preserved with a love devout in its trust and simplicity. Accepted as a standard study, it became endeared to the people, who, as they were forbidden to add to or diminish from the law of Moses, would not suffer this work of their Rabbis to be tampered with in any manner. As it was originally compiled it has been transmitted to us. It is a literary wilderness. At the first view, everything style, method, and language, seems tangled and confused. The student, however, will soon observe two motives or currents in the work; at times harmonious, at times diverse. One displaying the logical mind, which compares, investigates, developes, and instructs; the other, imaginative and poetical. The first is called "Halachah" (Rule), and finds a vast field in the Levitical and ceremonial laws; the other

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takes possession of the ethical and historical portions of Holy Writ. It is called "Hagadah," or Legend, not so much in our present acceptance of the term, as in the wider sense of a saying without positive authority, an allegory, a parable, a tale.

The Talmud is divided into two parts, Mishna and Gemarah. They are the continued works of successive Rabbis, chiefs or principals of the colleges in which they devoted their lives to study. Most of the redacteurs of the Mishna were dead, however, long before the Gemarah was commenced. The time consumed in the completion of the entire Talmud is stated to have been three hundred and eleven years. In its present form it consists of twelve folio volumes, containing the precepts of the Pentateuch with extended commentaries upon them; amplified Biblical incidents; occurrences affecting the religious life of those who prepared it; philosophical treatises; stories, traditions, and parables. It was called the oral or unwritten law, in contradistinction to the Pentateuch, which remained under all circumstances, the immutable code, the divinely given constitution, the written law.

The guardianship of the laws and traditions was vested in the chiefs of the colleges, known as "Scribes," "Men of the Great Synod," "Princes and Fathers of the House of Judgment." They instructed the people, preached in the synagogues, and taught in the schools. Nothing was allowed to seriously interrupt their duties. Palestine was ruled by various dynasties; the masters were martyred; the academies were destroyed; to study the law was made a crime against the state; yet the chain of living tradition remained intact. The dying masters appointed their successors, and for one academy destroyed, three new ones sprang up in another quarter.

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These masters were superior men, mentally and physically, and the scope of their learning was almost unlimited. To be eligible to the position, they were required to be men of well-balanced mind, neither too young nor too old, that their judgment might be neither hasty nor enfeebled. They were required to be thorough linguists, to be masters of the sciences of mathematics, botany, and natural history, and familiar with the arts as well as the sciences.

The highest rank in the estimation of the people belonged to these Chachamim, wise men. Many of them were humble tradesmen, yet they were considered greater than priest or noble. Idleness was particularly abhorred by them, and piety and learning were considered deserving of their full meed of homage only when joined to active, bodily work,

Among the common sayings of the time, we find these:

"It is well to add a trade to your studies if you would remain free from sin."

"The tradesman at his work is the equal of the most learned doctor."

"He who derives his livelihood from the labour of his hands is as great as he who fears God."

The laws, traditions, and ordinances, during many hundred years, grew to such immense proportions, that some better method of their preservation than their scattered and chiefly unwritten form, became a necessity. Three different attempts were made to reduce them into system and order. The third alone was successful.

The progress of these laws, &c., from their revelation and conception till their final rest in the Talmud, is thus traced in the writings of Maimonides.

During the last forty years of the life of Moses, the Lord gave to him six hundred and thirteen precepts, including the Decalogue, with full explanation of their meaning and intent,

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that he might be able to properly instruct the people. The manner in which Moses imparted these precepts to the chosen race is thus recorded in the treatise Erubim. First, he called his brother Aaron into his tent and spoke to him alone, all the words which God had commanded; the sons of Aaron were then admitted and the same words repeated to them; the seventy elders of the people were then called before Moses, and from his lips received the commandments and ordinances of their God, and then any of the people who so desired were allowed to enter the tent, and to them Moses spoke again the same words. Thus Aaron heard these precepts four times, his sons thrice, the elders twice, and the people once, from the lips of Moses. After this first course of instruction, the prophet retired and Aaron repeated the precepts; then his sons spoke the words which they had heard; the elders reiterated them, and thus were the commands delivered to Moses, impressed upon the minds of the people, who were authorised in turn to teach one another. The precepts themselves were written on rolls of parchment, but the explanations thereof became the basis of the oral law, the foundation and substance of the Talmud. These six hundred and thirteen precepts were given between the years 2448 and 2488 (1312 and 1272 B. C. E.).

"And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month," that Moses called all the people together and said unto them, "My last days on earth are drawing nigh. If there be any among you who have forgotten the precepts of the Lord which I have taught to you, speak now and I will repeat them; or if there be any one among you to whom the law is not clear, and who desires an explanation of any point, behold I am here to answer his questions."

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Thus, on the first day of Shebat (February), Moses began to repeat and explain the law and its traditions, as it is written: "On this side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this law, saying" (Deut. 1: 5).

On the seventh day of Adar (March) he concluded this labour. He wrote thirteen copies of the Pentateuch upon parchment. He gave one copy into the keeping of each of the tribes, and the thirteenth he placed in the hands of the Levites, saying, "Take this book of the law and put it at the side of the ark."

At noon, "on this self-same day," the Lord said to Moses: "Go up to the Mount Nebo." The earthly pilgrimage of the great prophet was completed, the rest of Heaven and the smile of God was his for evermore, and upon his friend and servant Joshua devolved the duty to teach and to observe.

Joshua was born in the year 2406. He was eighty-two years of age when he became the leader of the people, and he died in the year 2516. After his death, the elders, chief among whom were Caleb and Pinechas, undertook the duty of preserving a general knowledge of the oral laws. They lived about seventeen years after Joshua's death, and then the charge descended to the judges and the prophets. First of these was Eli, the High Priest. He became judge in 2830, the same year in which Samuel was born, and he died in 2870, one year after Samuel had succeeded to his office. Samuel judged the people eleven years, yielding up his spirit whence it came upon the 28th of Iyar (May), 2882. The sacred guardianship fell then to David the son of Jesse, from him it descended to Achiyah the Shelomite, and from him to the pure Elijah. In the year 3047 Elijah ascended to Heaven, and, with his mantle, his duties devolved upon Elisha, his pupil. Then Yehoyada, Zecheriah, Hosea,

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[paragraph continues] Isaiah, Micah, and Joel were the successive guardians of the law and its growing "fences" and traditions. Nahum, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Baruch, the son of Neriah, succeeded these, and in the year 3413 the duty devolved upon Ezra, high priest, scribe, and prophet. Ezra was a member of the great senate, composed of one hundred and twenty members, which introduced a regular order of prayers for divine service. (Previously the people had composed their own prayers--words from their hearts, appropriate to their circumstances and conditions. They had but three set prayers, portions of the Pentateuch, recited from the moment of its existence, viz.: "Hear, O Israel" (Deut. 6: 4-10) "And it shall come to pass" (Deut. 11: 13-22); and "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying" (Numb. 20: 31 to end).

After the death of Ezra, the guardianship fell successively upon Antigonus of Socho, Jose, the son of Joazur of Serada, Jose, the son of Jochanan of Jerusalem, Judah, the son of Tabai, Shemiah, Abtalyon, and then to Hillel, the great teacher and sage in Israel. Hillel was chief of the college, and among his pupils was Shamai, a learned man, but of hasty temper and fond of argument. He seceded from Hillel's college and organised another one over which he presided. The controversies between the two were long, sharp, and exhaustive.

Hillel was called the Hillel of Babel, having been born in that place. At the age of forty years he journeyed to Jerusalem, in order that he might study with Shemiah and Abtalyon. He pursued his studies for forty years, and was chief of the college for forty years, dying when he was one hundred and twenty years old. He was a very meek man, and the many dissensions at the college of Hillel, which form a not insignificant portion of the Biblical commentaries, owe their existence to the polemical disposition of

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his friend Shamai. To Hillel the necessity of arranging, simplifying, and committing to writing the great bulk of oral law and tradition seemed first to present itself in full force. He commenced the work in the year 3728; but, though he succeeded in arranging and condensing some six hundred sections into six volumes, he died while the work was still far from completion.

The generations which followed Hillel and Shamai were even more disposed to controversies than had been their predecessors, and for a century nothing was added to Hillel's work. The guardianship of the traditions fell to his son Simon, then to Simon's son, Gamliel. Rabbi Shimnon, the son of Gamliel, was the thirty-fourth teacher into whose especial charge they were given, and from him they descended to Rabbi Judah, the successful redacteur, commonly called, by reason of his great eminence, "Rabbi."

Rabbi Judah was a man of immense learning, of a progressive mind, and thoroughly versed in the sciences of his day. The Emperor Antoninus conceived for him a respect and affection which resulted in many marks of favour and distinction. Through his influence with the Roman ruler he was enabled to do much towards the benefit of his race. His great desire was to create among the people a love for the study of the law, and a familiarity with its beauties and its moral and religious code. He saw that a complete knowledge of the law was limited to a comparatively few, who were dispersed through many countries, and he feared it might in time be entirely forgotten if the interest in its study was allowed to decrease as it had for some time been diminishing. With the aid of the sages and pupils of his college he set diligently to work, and collecting the rules, explanations, and traditions extant since the death of

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[paragraph continues] Moses, he inscribed them into six volumes, which he called the Mishna, or "Second Law." In the year 3978, one hundred and fifty years after the destruction of the second temple, the redaction was completed. Many of the laws were already obsolete, even on their first publication. Rome had long before substituted her own penal code for that belonging to the Jewish nationality; the minute injunctions regulating the sacrifices and the temple services had but an ideal value, and many of the other laws applied particularly to Palestine, where but comparatively few of the people remained. Yet the whole was received in Palestine and Babylonia, not merely as a record of the past, but as a holy work, an infallible text-book, a record of laws that, with the restoration of the commonwealth, would come into practice as in time past. All Israel gave thanks for the completion of this great undertaking.

The six sections into which the Mishna was divided may be indexed as follows:

SECTION I., Seeds: The Agrarian Laws. Tithes and Donations to Priests, Levites, and the Poor. The Sabbatical Year. Prohibited Mixtures in Plants, Animals, and Garments.

SECTION II., Feasts: Sabbaths, Festivals, and Fast Days; the Ceremonies Ordained, and the Sacrifices to be offered on them. Special chapters are given to the Passover, the New Year's Feast, the Day of Atonement, Succoth, and Purim.

SECTION III., Woman: Betrothal, Marriage, and Divorce. Vows and Obligations.

SECTION IV., Damages: This section includes the major portion of the Civil and Criminal Law. Ordinary Money Transactions. Idolatry. Witnesses. Legal Punishments, and "Sentences of the Fathers."

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SECTION V., Sacred Things: Sacrifices. First Born Children. Measurements and Details of the Temple and its Utensils.

SECTION VI., Purification: Levitical and Hygienic Laws. Impure persons and things, and the methods for their purification.

Among the Rabbis who assisted Rabbi Judah were his sons, Rabbi Simon and Rabbi Gamliel.

The Mishna being formed into a code, became in its turn what the Scriptures had been to it--a basis of development and discussion. After the death of Rabbi Judah, his successors, Rab and Samuel, began explanations of its principles. These were continued in a second generation by Rabbi Judah bar Ezekiel, principal of the college at Nehardea, and Rabbi Hunah, principal of the college at Sura. The latter died in 4056, and until the sixth generation, 4127, the oral commentaries upon the Mishna, now known as the Gemarah, were continued.

Rab Ashi inaugurated the collection of these commentaries, and it is said that from the days of Rabbi Judah the Chief, never was the study of the law so prevalent as during the life of this latter Rabbi. He died in 4180, before he had completed his undertaking; and his successors, Mar and Meremar, the latter being his son, were the last of the generations of the "Rabbis of the Talmud."

The Talmud is without doubt the most reliable record of Jewish law and tradition, yet its popularity is due more to the force of circumstances than to its general acceptance at the time of its redaction. During the bitter persecution of the Jews in Persia the schools were closed, and oral instruction being in a great measure interfered with, the book obtained a hold and authority which its authors never intended. This applies, of course, to its legal portions; the

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legendary portion, the Haggadah, was poetry, imaginative fancy. But though the Rabbis themselves considered the latter of secondary importance, and explained its character, the majority of the people clung to it, and regarded the Talmud as a complete whole, worthy of their reverence.

Condensed Chronological Table.


Promulgation of the Decalogue.


Death of Moses.


Death of Joshua.


Oral laws transmitted to various elders.


Samuel, Judge of Israel.


David, King of Israel.


Achiyah the Shelomite, guardian of the law.


Guardianship transferred to Elijah.


Elisha succeeded his teacher.


Yehoyadah, high priest.


Zechariah, the son of Yehoyadah, the next custodian of the law, killed in the Temple by order of Joash.


Guardianship transferred to Amos, his successor.


To Isaiah the son of Amoz.


To Micah the Morashtite.


To Joel the son of Pethuel.


To Nahum the Elkoshite.


To Habakuk the prophet.


To Zephaniah.


To Jeremiah.


To Ezekiel and Baruch, son of Neriya.


To Ezra, chief of the great synod of 120 members, including among its number Haggai, Malachi, Daniel, Chananyah, Michael, Azaryah, Nehemiah, Mordecai, and Zerubabel.


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To Simon "the Just," also a member of the synod, the first of the sages of the Mishna.


To Antigonus of Socho.


To Jose ben Joezer of Zeredah, and Jose ben Jochanan of Jerusalem.


To Joshua ben Parachiah and Nitai the Arbelite.


To Judah, the son of Tabbai, and Simon, the son of Shatach.


To Shemayah, Abtalyon, and other teachers in the college.


Charge received by Hillel.


Intrusted to his son Simon, and to R. Jochanan ben Zakkai. During their time the "Common Era" commenced.


Rabbi Gamliel succeeded R. Simon,--eighteen years before the destruction of the Temple.


Charge descended to Rabbi Simon the second, who died a martyr.


To Rabbi Gamliel the second,--twelve years after the destruction of the Temple.


To Rabbi Simon the third.

3948 to 3978.

Rabbi Judah, Hannasee (the chief) edited the to Mishna, the text of the "Talmud," putting the traditions and enlargements on the precepts into writing for the first time.


Rab and Samuel succeeded R. Judah, and began the commentaries on the Mishna in their college at Babel.


R. Huna, the successor of Samuel, became principal of the college at Sura.


Rabbah, the son of Nachamuni, chief Rabbi.


Death of Rabbah, who died the same day Rab Ashi the redacteur of the Gemarah was born.


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Rabbi Jochanan edited the Jerusalem Talmud.


Rabbi Ashi became principal of the college, and commenced his labours on the Gemarah.


Death of Rab Ashi before the completion of his undertaking.


The work completed as it now is, by Mar, and Meremar, the son of Rah Ashi, and their associates.


Next: Chapter I. From Cain and Abel to the Destruction of Babel's Tower