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The Wisdom of the Talmud, by Ben Zion Bokser, [1951], at

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Human Wisdom in the Talmud

The world outlook of the rabbis is often an elaboration of some revered utterance by a Biblical writer or some other master of tradition; occasionally it is the fruit of some new inspiration that has carried its recipient into the ranks of the creative builders of Jewish thought. There is, however, an additional force that is represented in their pronouncements—it is the common human wisdom, which men have always distilled out of the general experiences of life.


The rabbis were shrewd observers of human nature in action. They were aware of the subtle life of the mind, recognizing that conscious experience is only a phase of a larger world in which we have our being. The rabbis were of course far away from the insights of modern psychology. Yet they recognized fully that the subconscious performs its delicate operations—as in dreams for instance—out of the materials furnished by the conscious, out of the hopes and fears that agitate the mind in normal life.

The Talmud cites a variety of notions concerning the significance of dreams. Among them is the recognition that dreams are nothing but elaborations of thoughts dwelt upon in hours of consciousness. Thus R. Samuel ben Nahman on behalf of R. Jonathan said: "Dreams are representations of thoughts on which one continues to meditate in one's wakefulness." This conception of dreams is forcefully presented in a reported conversation between the Roman emperor and Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah: "'You claim to be wise men,'

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the emperor said to the rabbi. 'Tell me then what I shall see in my dream.' He replied, 'You will see the Persians (Parthians) enslaving you, despoiling you and making you pasture unclean animals with a golden staff.' The emperor continued to reflect on this all day and at night dreamed of it." The same Talmudic text records a similar experience on the part of the Parthian king, Shapur, with Samuel as the rabbi suggesting the subject of the dream.

The rabbis recognized that dreams are often pure fancy. Yet they felt that even in the seemingly incomprehensible dreams there are vital references to conscious experience. They sought a key to unravel the veiled allusions of our dreams which employ a language of symbols that need interpretation.

The interpretation of dreams was popular among the Talmudists. But they suggested that often it is the interpretation which becomes suggestive to the conscious mind of hopes or fears, which then condition the direction of our lives. The rabbis therefore cautioned people not to become unduly disturbed by dreams: "Dreams have no importance for good or ill."1


The rabbis were impressed with the profoundly important role that emotions play in life. The heart, which they looked upon as the seat of emotion, was regarded by them the principal source of control over all human actions. "All of man's bodily organs are dependent on the heart," was a Talmudic dictum. It is the heart therefore which may be said to carry responsibility for whatever we do in life. Thus one rabbinic comment offers us the sweeping generalization: "The heart sees, hears, speaks, walks, falls, stands, rejoices, hardens, softens, grieves, fears, is broken, is haughty … persuades, errs, fears, loves, hates, envies, searches, reflects. …"

The rabbis prized highly the ability of some people to control

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their emotions. To control one's emotions and to bring life under the directing voice of reason was regarded by the rabbis as the mark of true heroism. "Who is a hero?" one rabbi asked in the ethical treatise Abot. His reply was: "He who controls his passion."


The Talmud abounds with statements which clearly recognize the dominant role of habit in human conduct. Character is to a large extent a pattern of behavior formed by habit. Our conduct is always conditioned by the chain of preceding actions, which predispose us to one way of life or another. "A good deed," according to the ethical treatise Abot, "leads to another good deed, and the consequence of one transgression is another transgression."

Habit is a mighty fortification of the good life. For once we habituate ourselves to noble living, the normal bent of our character will incline us toward the right deed in the particular situation confronting us. And any attempt to deviate from what has become the norm for our life, will be met with inner resistance. But the rabbis warned that a pattern of behavior once formed, is not necessarily of permanent duration, and that the sensitivity to these deviations from the norm will gradually wane, as the act is repeated. As the Talmud puts it: "When one transgresses a commandment and repeats the offense he feels no further restraint."

The rabbis consequently urged caution in behavior, warning people against even seemingly trivial slips in conduct. These slips are grave, for they predispose man to a course from which he may find it difficult to turn back. "He who violates a seemingly trivial statute will eventually violate a weighty one." The only sound advice is thus constant vigilance: "Avoid even a minor transgression lest it lead you to a major one."2

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The Talmudists recognized that human character is often hidden beneath appearances, and that men may simulate virtues they do not really possess. But they suggested situations which will reveal what is intrinsic in man. Pretense, they explained, will disappear in situations involving money matters, in moments of anger or by the way a man takes his liquor. As R. Ilai tersely phrased it: "You can recognize a person's real character by his wine cup (koso), his purse (kiso), and his anger (kaaso)."

The discussions of the rabbis reveal the recognition of the immense power which the craving for material possessions exercises over people: "No man departs from this world with half his cravings satisfied. When he has attained a hundred, he desires two hundred."

The rabbis commented sadly on the tendency of people to cultivate well-to-do friends, and then to desert them when they suffer a reversal in fortune. "At the gate of the enterprising shop, there are many friends and brothers. At the gate of a shop in decline there are neither brothers, nor friends." Raba was even more pointed in his observation: "When the ox is fallen the knife is sharpened."3

The tendency of people to hide beneath a mask of pretense and falsification creates an element of uncertainty in every human relationship. It leads to deceit, and to the incompatible claims of litigants. The rabbis therefore sought a clue to the workings of the human mind which would enable us to probe through the false claim and to discover the true facts in a given situation. The Talmud records a number of principles which guided them in their deliberations.

It was taken for granted that a squatter's occupancy of any property would normally be challenged by its rightful owner within a three-year period of time. And if no such challenge developed in that time, the occupant may be presumed to be there by right, even though he might not have any documentary

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evidence to establish his rights. A liar was always presumed to fabricate the lie that would be to his greatest advantage. Greater credence was therefore to be placed to a plea yielding a lesser advantage than what was possible under the circumstances. It was assumed that falsification was less likely when the claimants confronted each other. Another important presumption was that a person does not normally pay his debts until they fall due. A person was assumed to be blind to his own shortcomings.

The application of these "presumptions" concerning human nature was at times challenged by the rabbis. For these are not iron-clad rules inexorably at work in all instances. Many a man may deviate from common procedure. This is clearly indicated in the following discussion: "Resh Lakish laid down the ruling: If a lender stipulates a date for the repayment of a loan, and the borrower pleads (when the date of payment arrives) that he paid the debt before it fell due, his word is not believed. It is enough if a person pay when his debts fall due. Abaye and Raba both concur in saying that it is not unusual for a man to pay a debt before it falls due; sometimes he happens to have money, and he says to himself, 'I will go and pay him, so that he may not trouble me.'"

The rabbis were fully aware of individual differences among people, and they often sought some indication of the mind of the particular parties involved in a litigation. This is well illustrated in the following case: "A certain Ronya had a field which was enclosed on all four sides by the fields of Rabina. The latter fenced them and said to him: 'Pay me toward what I have spent for fencing.' He (Ronya) refused. Then he asked, 'Pay toward the cost of a cheap fence of sticks.' But Ronya again refused. He continued, 'Then pay me toward the cost of a watchman.' Ronya still refused. Then one day Rabina saw Ronya gathering dates, and he said to his manager, 'Go and snatch a cluster of dates from him.' He went to take them, but Ronya shouted at him. Whereupon

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[paragraph continues] Rabina said, 'You show by this (shouting) that you are pleased with the fence. If it is only goats (you are afraid of), does not your field need guarding?' He replied, 'A goat can be driven off with a shout.' But he said, 'Don't you require a man to shout at it?' He appealed to Raba who said to him, 'Go and accept his last offer …'" (to pay toward the cost of a watchman).4


The Talmud quotes many proverbs that deal with the power of the sexual attractions of men and women. "No one is immune to the ravages of an illicit attraction." "There is only one real cause of jealousy among women—sex appeal." The Talmud recognized a woman's love for finery and personal adornment. "A woman is concerned principally with her appearance," one Talmudist observed. "And the greatest pleasure a man can give his wife is to clothe her in fine garments."

The love of self-adornment among women is more elaborately treated in the following passage: "These are the treatments of women—treating the eyes with kohl, curling the hair into ringlets, and rouging the face. The wife of R. Hisda used to adorn the face of her daughter-in-law. R. Huna ben Hinena once sat in the presence of Rab Hisda and, observing his wife apply the beauty treatment on her daughter-in-law, said, 'It is only permitted in the case of a young woman, not an old one.' He replied, 'By God, it is even permitted in the case of your mother and grandmother, and even if she stood on the brink of the grave; for as the proverb put it, "At sixty or at six, a woman runs after the sound of the timbrel."'"5

The rabbis record other observations on the psychology of women: "God endowed a woman with keener judgment than man"; "women are compassionate"; women are "querulous

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and garrulous"; women have an affinity for the occult and they go in "for witchcraft."6

The rabbis recognized the subtle influences of a woman in directing the life of her husband. This is told dramatically in the Midrash: "A pious man had been married to a pious woman but, being childless, they were divorced. He then went and married a wicked woman, and she made him wicked. The divorced woman proceeded and married a wicked man and she made a good man out of him. It thus follows that everything depends upon the woman."7

The same Midrash tells another tale which extols modesty as a woman's noblest virtue, at the same time alluding to common weaknesses in a woman's character. The text on which this homily is based is Gen. 2:21, where it is told that Eve was formed from one of Adam's ribs: "God deliberated from which part of man to create woman. He said, 'I must not create her from the head that she should not carry herself haughtily; nor from the eye that she should not be too inquisitive; nor from the ear, that she should not be an eavesdropper; nor from the mouth that she should not be too talkative; nor from the heart that she should not be too jealous; nor from the hand that she should not be too acquisitive; nor from the foot that she should not be a gadabout; but from a hidden part of the body that she should be modest.'"8


The psychological notions of the Talmudists had their most fruitful application in the field of education. The rabbis recognized individual differences among students, and they demanded that the educational process reckon with those differences. Some of these differences are discussed in the ethical treatise Abot: "There are four types among students. One comprehends readily but forgets readily—his advantage is nullified by his disadvantage; one is slow to comprehend

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but also slow to forget—his disadvantage is nullified by his advantage; one comprehends readily and forgets slowly—his is a good portion; one is slow to comprehend and quick to forget—this is a bad portion."

Another classification, also cited in the treatise Abot, deals with the relative reactions of students to knowledge given them: "There are four types among those who sit before the wise: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. Some are like the sponge which absorbs everything; some are like the funnel which takes in at one end and lets out at the other; some are like the strainer which allows the wine to go out and retains the dregs; some are like the sieve which lets out the bran and retains the fine flour."

A more fundamental differentiation of students, on the basis of aptitude, is given in the Midrash: "Said R. Judan ben Samuel, 'The Torah, given by the Eternal, was offered us only in relative measure … Some quality for the study of Bible; some for the Mishnah; some for the Talmud; some for Aggadah; and some for all of these.'"9

A variety of other material in educational psychology is scattered in the writings of the Talmud. The importance of motivation and interest in education is recognized in the comment of Rabbi Judah the Prince: "A person can learn only those portions of the Torah which his heart desires." A combination of teacher's aloofness with a friendly interest in his students is demanded in the aphorism: "Always push the student away with the left hand and draw him near with the right." Teachers were urged to lay great stress on repetition. Rabbi Elazar was said to repeat his lesson four times. Students were urged to study out loud and place themselves in a position where they could see their teacher, for the added impression would aid to comprehension. Teachers were urged to be concise in speech and to present their material without ambiguities, which mislead students. The Talmud recommends group study, which allows for discussion, out of which comes greater clarity and a firmer grasp of the material

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studied. Humility was regarded as a prerequisite to a growth in knowledge, while arrogance was branded as its deadliest enemy.10


The rabbis were conscious of the danger of forgetting what had been learned at great effort. Written reference works were not plentifully available in the age before printing. They therefore created a system of mnemonic devices as an aid to memory.

A common memory aid was a well-known quotation from the Bible or some other classical text. Thus the Mishnah enumerated the feasts of Roman paganism not in their 'seasonal order, as might have been expected. It mentions them in the reverse order, the later feast being cited earlier. The verse in Ps. 139:5 "Thou hast set me behind and before" is suggested as a mnemonic for this procedure: what should have been "behind" is listed "before".

A frequently used mnemonic is a word formed from the initial letters of crucial terms that figure in the theme to be remembered. Thus the Talmud, in describing the preparation of the High Priest for the solemn Day of Atonement service, at which he was to officiate, adds that he was to confine himself to a special diet for seven days. A mnemonic is suggested to help us remember the foods which were to be avoided. These foods were citron (athrog), eggs (bezim), and old wine (yayin yashan). The initial letters in the Hebrew words denoting these foods were joined, forming the word ABY. According to another opinion his diet was also to exclude fat meat (basar shamen). By the same process of joining initial letters, and now including the word for fat meat (basar shamen), the word ABBY was formed. By the simple device of remembering ABY and ABBY we are given a clue to a readier recollection of the High Priest's diet. To cite the Talmudic text: "Symachus said in the name of R. Mari: One does not feed him either Aby, and some say, neither Abby

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[paragraph continues] … Aby, i.e., Athrog (ethrog, citron), nor Bezim (eggs), nor Yayin yashan (old wine). And according to others no Abby, i.e., neither Athrog (ethrog), nor Bezim, nor Basar shamen (fat meat), nor Yayin yashan."

The mnemonic occasionally consists of a key word taken from the passage that is to be fixed in memory. A good illustration of this appears in the following passage:—"(Mnemonic: Hear, And Two, Seven, Songs, Another). There was a man who used to say: Happy is a man who hears abuse of himself and ignores it, for a hundred evils pass him by. … Again there was a man who used to say: Do not be surprised if a thief goes unhanged for two or three thefts; he will be caught in the end. … Another used to say: Seven pits lie open for the good man (but he escaped); for the evil-doers there is only one, into which he falls. … Yet another used to say: Let him who comes from a court that has taken from him his (ill-begotten) cloak sing his song (of relief) and go his way. … Another used to say: When love was strong, we could have made our bed on a sword-blade; now that our love has grown weak, a bed of sixty cubits is not large enough for us. …" The words listed in parentheses as the mnemonic are taken from each of the aphorisms in the passage. The word was to be a key to recall the text of the aphorism.11


The rabbis utilized parables to illustrate more vividly certain truths that they were eager to convey to their people. Scattered throughout rabbinic literature, these illustrations deal with a multitude of diverse themes. They clothe abstract ideas with concreteness, bringing them within greater comprehension by the human mind.

The masters of parable found many suggestions for their labors in the metaphors of the Bible. God is often spoken of in the Bible as King. He is king of the universe and more

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specifically, of Israel. This suggested many parables which explain God's ways with His creatures by reference to a king's relationship with his subjects. Israel is characterized as the Lord's first-born, and this is further clarified by stories of a king who had a dearly beloved son. The Biblical allusions to Israel as the bride of God upon whom He lavishes His love and who on occasions proves faithless to Him, inspired a series of parables about the relations of a king and the woman of his love. The story of the prophet Jonah's flight from God was further clarified by the story of the servant who sought to flee his master.12

The parables cited in the Talmud are for the most part centered in the moralistic sections of the literature. They are relatively absent in the discussions of law. By its very nature, the parable directs itself to the popular mind, which it seeks to impress by its homespun wisdom, rather than by formal analysis. Law was the field of interest of the scholarly community. The moralistic portions of the Talmud, on the other hand, spoke more directly to the common people.

Parables were occasionally employed in the current polemics of the rabbis against paganism. Thus Rabban Gamaliel had been asked why God's wrath is always spoken of as directed against idolators, rather than the idols. He replied by means of a parable: "A king had a son, who possessed a dog that he named after his royal father; and whenever he was about to take an oath he used to say 'By the life of the dog, the father.' When the king heard of it, at whom did he feel indignant? Against the dog or against his son? Surely against the son."13

Some Talmudic illustrations are fables in which animals, and occasionally plants act and speak like human beings, their experiences serving as an allegory for human life. Thus the experience of the fox in the vineyard is made to suggest the well-known truth that earthly possessions are ultimately futile since we cannot take them with us when we pass to the great beyond. The Babylonian teacher, Geniba, developed

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this fable in a comment in Ecclesiastes 5:14: "As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked, shall he return; as he came, so shall he go." On this Geniba commented: "This might be compared to a fox who found a vineyard which was fenced round on all sides, but it had one small hole in it. He sought to enter but he could not. What did he do? He fasted three days until he became thin and emaciated. Then he entered through the hole, and he ate and grew sleek. When he wished to leave, he could not get through that hole. He then fasted another three days until he again grew thin and emaciated and reduced to his former state, and then he went forth. On leaving he turned and gazed at the place, saying: 'O vineyard, vineyard, how goodly art thou, and how goodly is the fruit which thou producest; all thy produce is beautiful and praiseworthy, but what enjoyment have I had from thee? In the state in which one enters thee, one must leave thee'. Even so it is with the world."

Rabbi Meir is said to have employed three hundred fables in which the fox is offered as the instructor of wisdom. Only three of these have remained. Some of the fables of the Talmud show marked similarity to the fables of Aesop and the Indian moralist Kybises, but many are without parallel in other literatures.14

Some Talmudic illustrations are taken directly from human experience. Situations are projected in which the lesson to be taught seemed pointedly obvious, leading to its readier acceptance in the case dealt with by the rabbis.

The need for constant readiness to meet one's Maker is elaborated in a striking parable by Rabban Johanan ben Zaccai: "A king once invited his servants to a banquet without indicating the precise time when it would be given. Those who were wise remembered that things are always ready in a king's palace, and they arrayed themselves and sat by the palace gate attentive for the call to enter, while those who were foolish continued their customary occupations, saying: 'A banquet requires great preparation.' When the king suddenly

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called his servants to the banquet, those who were wise appeared in clean raiment and well adorned, while those who were foolish entered in soiled and ordinary garments. The king took pleasure at the wise, but was full of anger at those who were foolish, saying that those who had come prepared for the banquet should sit down and eat and drink, but those who had not properly arrayed themselves should remain standing and look on."15

The Talmud cites a parable which was employed by Rabbi Zera in a funeral oration, to answer the challenge of R. Abin's death, at the untimely age of twenty-eight: "A king had a vineyard in which he employed many laborers, one of whom demonstrated special aptitude and skill. What did the king do? He took this laborer from his work, and strolled through the garden conversing with him. When the laborers came for their wages in the evening, the skillful laborer also appeared among them and he received a full day's wages from the king. The other laborers were angry at this and protested: 'We have toiled the whole day, while this man has worked but two hours; why does the king give him the full wage, even as to us?' The king said to them: 'Why are you angry? Through his skill he has done in two hours more than you have done all day'. So it is with R. Abin ben Hiyya. In the twenty-eight years of his life he has attained more in the Torah than others attain in 100 years."16

The use of parable to offer consolation in bereavement is illustrated even more strikingly by the story concerning Beruria, wife of Rabbi Meir: "Their two sons died suddenly while Rabbi Meir was at the academy on a Sabbath afternoon. She put them on the bed and covered them with a sheet. In the evening Rabbi Meir returned and asked for the boys. She told him that they had gone to the academy. He protested that he had not seen them there. She gave him the cup of wine and he recited the prayers for the departure of the Sabbath. Then he asked once more: 'Where are our two sons?' She said to him: 'Perhaps they have gone out somewhere,

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but they will surely return soon.' Then she served him food and he ate. After he had eaten, she said to him: 'My master, I have a question to ask.' He said to her: 'What is your question?' She said to him: 'O my master, the other day someone came and left in my charge a treasure, but now he has come to claim it. Shall I return it or not?' He said to her: 'Is there any question about the duty of returning property left in safekeeping to its owner?' She said to him: 'I did not want to return it without your knowing it.' Then she took him by the hand and led him to the room where the boys lay, and she placed him before the bed. She removed the sheet and he beheld the two boys lying dead on the bed. He began to cry. … Then she told him: 'Did you not tell me that we must return the treasure to its owner?' So it is. 'The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken, may the name of the Lord be blessed forever.' Said Rabbi Hanina: By means of that parable she comforted him and his mind became resigned to his sorrow."17

The rabbis found an important source of illustrations in the phenomena of nature, where they often found parallels to the phenomena of human life. The man of learning but without the necessary complement of character is compared by the rabbis to a tree laden with many heavy branches but insufficiently rooted in the earth; it lacks the sturdiness to withstand the storms ravaging the world. This illustration is quoted in the Ethics of the Fathers in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarish: "He whose wisdom exceeds his works, to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are many, but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and plucks it up and overturns it upon its face. … But he whose work exceeds his wisdom, to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are few, but whose roots are many, so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow upon it, it cannot be stirred from its place, as it is said, 'And he shall be as a tree planted by the waters; and that spreadeth out its roots by the river, and shall not perceive when heat

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cometh, but his leaf shall be green; and he shall not be troubled in the year of drought, neither shall he cease from yielding fruit.'" (Jer. 17:8).

The illustrations of the Talmud are often directed to the explanation of a Biblical text even as they seek to reinforce independent comments of the rabbis. Thus in accounting for the divine command which directed Abraham to leave his kin and his native land to proceed on the fateful journey to Canaan one rabbi cites the illustration of a flask of perfume: "As a flask of perfume that is hidden away in a corner gives forth no fragrance but must be poured forth to yield its fragrance, so was Abraham at the time when the Lord commanded him 'Go thee out of thy land and out of thy kindred' (Gen. 12:1). 'Abraham, Abraham', God exhorted him, 'you are a person of many noble deeds and commandments. Wander about in the world and your name will become exalted in my world.' Thus what does the verse say after the directive to set out on the journey? 'And I shall make of thee a great nation" (Gen. 12:2).18

Another source for Talmudic illustrations were proverbs, often drawn from popular culture. In concise and pithy formulations, often ironic in tone and peppered with humor, proverbs are copiously represented throughout Talmudic literature, and they drive home their points with a finality that no formal argument could possibly attain.

We cite here some Talmudic proverbs. Their meaning is generally self-evident, and there is no need to elucidate them by a commentary. "A person prefers one measure of his own to nine measures of his neighbor"; "Tell part of a person's praise in his presence and all of it in his absence"; "Heed your physician and you will not need him"; "The walls have ears, the woods have ears"; "Words follow the promptings of the heart"; "If the sword then not the book, if the book then not the sword"; "Who is a hero? He who can curb his passions"; "Who is wise? He who learns from all men"; "Don't consider the vessel, but what is in it";

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[paragraph continues] "If your wife is short in stature, bend down and whisper to her"; "When the shepherd strays, the sheep stray after him"; "Much happens through childishness, much happens through wine"; "If Tobias sinned, shall Sigood be punished?"; "Silence becomes the wise, and surely the foolish".19

As a rule, the proverb is not stated independently. It is offered as additional support of some lesson that has been expounded. The following citations illustrate this: "Moses and Aaron once walked along, with Nadab and Abihu behind them, and all Israel following in the rear. Then Nadab said to Abihu, 'O that these old might die, so that you and I might become the leaders of our generation!' But the Holy One blessed be He said unto them, 'We shall see who will bury whom.' R. Papa said: Thus men say: 'Many an old camel is laden with the hides of the younger ones.'" The alleged conversation of Nadab and Abihu is a rabbinic suggestion as to what Scripture might have meant by the statement that those two had merited death because they had offered "strange fire before the Lord." (Lev. 10:1).

The identical procedure is involved in the following citation: "The vision of Obadiah. Thus said the Lord concerning Edom (Obadiah 1:1). Why particularly Obadiah against Edom? … Ephraim Makshaah, the disciple of Rabbi Meir, said on Rabbi Meir's authority that Obadiah was an Edomite proselyte; and thus people say, 'From the very forest itself comes the handle of the axe that fells it.'"20

The rabbis did not see themselves as pioneers in the use of parable and proverb. Both appear in the Bible, principally in the writings which have been ascribed to King Solomon. They therefore commended Solomon for his contributions to this important phase of tradition. Solomon, they said, was the perfect teacher in that by means of parables, he adapted his truth to the understanding of those whom he taught. The parable, the rabbis generalized, is to abstract truth what a thread is for a labyrinth, or a trail in a thick and dark forest, or a handle to a cask of fruit or to a demijohn

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of boiling water, or a rope and bucket to a deep well of fresh, cold water. "Disdain it not, the parable", they added. "Remember that when a pearl of great worth is lost, we search after it with a candle that costs but the smallest coin. So the lowly parable takes us home to the great teachings of the Torah."21

In the style of their utterance no less than in the doctrine which they proclaimed, the rabbis regarded themselves not as innovators, but as expositors of the Scriptural word. Thus the line of development between Bible and Talmud runs clear and unbroken. In itself a vast body of literature, the Bible was also the seed for a new process of growth. And the Talmud has remained its most impressive consummation.

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