Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

The Talmud.

The times were becoming so uncertain in Babylonia as well as in Palestine that the Jews felt it necessary now to collect and write down their varied traditions and laws to insure their preservation. The sages could no longer trust the transmission by word of mouth; they could no longer rely on their memories, marvelous though these were. So they were reluctantly compelled to overcome their sentimental objection to writing down these traditions—which, as the very title, Oral Law showed, should be transmitted from mouth to mouth, inscribed, as it were, only on the tablets of the mind. Perhaps, too, they felt that writing would crystallize the Halachoth at the point where they were transcribed, into unchangeable decisions and prevent their further development. For while unwritten, they were fluid and could be modified from age to age. As a matter of fact, the writing down of the laws did tend to crystallize them, and thus retarded the progressive growth of Jewish Law.

The Gemara.

The work of codifying and writing down the Oral Law was commenced by Rabbana Ashi about the year 400. Placed at the head of the declining Academy of Sora, he breathed new life into it. His knowledge won him both esteem and authority such as had been granted to Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, compiler of the Mishna in Palestine about two hundred years earlier. But Rabbana Ashi's was a vaster task—the compiling of all supplementary laws that had grown out of the Mishna proper and from all the Mishna collections in the course of two hundred years. It included, too, the discussion and incidental material that developed from every legal or moral problem, together with all the logical steps that led to the final deduction. This vast after-growth or commentary was called Gemara, which means completion. Together with the Mishna, which formed the text, it was called the Talmud. This commentary, Gemara, is far bulkier than the Mishna. Sometimes a few lines of Mishna would call for pages and pages of Gemara.

For about half a century Rabbana Ashi and his disciples, particularly Rabina, labored on this gigantic task. The completed work was called the Talmud Babli (Babylonian), as it was not only written in Babylonia, but contained largely the decisions attained in the Babylonian schools. Though do not forget that its Mishna text was written in Palestine. The final touches were made about the year 500. It contains twelve folio volumes or 2,947 leaves.

A similar work had been done in Palestine about the year 400. This Mishna commentary was called the Palestinian Talmud. Whether it originally contained commentary on all the Mishna we cannot say; but in the copies now extant there is only commentary to the first four of the six sections of the Mishna and to a few additional chapters. For this reason it is a less important work than the Babylonian Talmud and but a quarter of its size. Indeed, when we speak of the Talmud, we usually mean the Talmud Babli.

The Contents.

The two great divisions of Halacha and Agadd have already been explained in the chapter on the Mishna (xxxi). These same two classes of material, the legal and the narrative, characterize the Gemara. It will be understood at once then that the Talmud is not merely a code of laws for Jewish guidance, though primarily that is its purpose. It gives us also, though incidentally, an insight into the manners and customs of the Jews, their theological views and general reflections on life; their hopes and their sufferings for a period of some six hundred years—"A work in which a whole people had deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul." We have fragments of biography of Jewish scholars, bits of inner history under Roman and Persian rule, homely philosophy of the sages; glimpses too of their weaknesses and occasionally of their superstitions—all the more reliable because unconsciously portrayed. Interspersed between their legal discussions will be found an anecdote, an abstract thought of the rabbi whose decision is quoted, a bit of humor, a picture of Oriental civilization. As direct outgrowth of many of their ritual arguments, we are introduced to their science; astronomy and mathematics in the drawing up of their calendar; botany in their agricultural laws; hygiene, anatomy and physiology in the shechita laws (slaughtering animals for food); and natural history and medicine in various laws. There is, of course, very unequal value in their data, and naturally they shared some of the errors of their age.

The legal discussions in themselves reveal keen mental acumen, subtle logic, "deductive reasoning raised to the highest power;" they display a vivid sense of justice and philanthropy; and, touches of harshness too—wrung from a patient and forgiving people in the hour of agony.

The study of the Talmud was to become the chief occupation of the Jews for many centuries. It was a world in itself in which they lived, and in which they could forget the cruel world without. Its study reacted on their character. First the Jew made the Talmud, then the Talmud made the Jew.

Talmudic Literature.

Like the Bible, the Talmud produced a literature still vaster than itself. While the Gemara is a commentary, it needed later commentaries to explain it to the student—for although so diffuse in treatment, its language is terse. Frequently a letter stands for a word and a word for a sentence. Therefore in editions of the Talmud to-day, Mishna and Gemara together form the text and are printed in the centre of each page, while commentaries in smaller type are grouped around it. Since the days of printing all editions are paged alike.


After the completion of the Talmud, the work of the Academies became preservative rather than creative. While not adding to the laws now gathered in the Talmud, the rabbis reviewed them and formulated from them complete codes for practical application. This tended to give a finality to the laws so far evolved, which had both its good and bad side. This undertaking gave to this next school of commentators the name of Saboraim—revisers or critics—the third group of law expounders. They edited the Talmud and amplified it with agadistic material and finally brought it down into the form in which we have it to-day.


Language of the Talmud:—The Mishna is written in Hebrew, and so too are some of the older quotations in the Gemara. Many Greek words are adopted, of which Sanhedrin is one; some Latin words too. But the bulk of both Gemaras is written in a dialect of Aramaic—we might say Judisch-Aramaic just as we speak of Judisch-Deutsch to-day.

A knowledge of grammar was brought to Persia (Babylonia) from Greece, which resulted in the important service of introducing vowel points and accents. This tended to simplify the study of Hebrew Scriptures and made the text more certain.

Ethics of Talmud:—The ethics of the Talmud have been touched upon incidentally in preceding chapters, and at length in the two following. For a systematic treatment, read Part iv., Outlines of Talmudic Ethics, in Mielziner's Introduction to the Talmud. See also Ethics of Judaism, Lazarus (translation), J. P. S. A.

Read "On the Study of the Talmud," Studies in Judaism, S. Schechter, J. P. S. A. 1908, for rabbinic parallels with New Testament teachings.

The Law of the Talmud:—In a note on the Mishna it was pointed out that it was free from some defects of Roman law. This does not exclude the fact that the rabbinic halacha was largely indebted to Roman law. On this Darmesteter says:

"Certain departments of legislation, such as the laws on slavery and prescription ... are almost entirely inspired by Roman legislation. But all they borrow takes on modifications under the manipulation of the rabbis. The Jewish mind transformed the alien elements by impressing upon them its peculiar character. And from this vast crucible in which three centuries had melted down materials of diverse origin gathered by the schools, was to emerge the essentially uniform and homogeneous work of Talmudic legislation."—The Talmud, translated by Henrietta Szold, J. P. S. A.

Themes for Discussion:—(a) Compare Bible and Talmud as literatures. (b) In what sense can it be said that "the Talmud made the Jew?"