Book: The Wisdom of the Talmud
Author: Ben Zion Bokser

The Wisdom of the Talmud By Ben Zion Bokser

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 153
Publication Date: 1951

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This is a fairly up-to-date and highly readable introduction to the Talmud, the age-old storehouse of Jewish wisdom. Bokser covers the long history of the Talmud, from its origin in the Babylonian exile, its growth through the five centuries after the Roman destruction of the Temple, and the later persecution of the Talmud. Chapters include: The Talmud as Literature; The Forerunners of the Talmud; The Talmud In Its Historical Setting; The Theological Elements in the Talmud; Social Ethics in the Talmud; Personal Morality in the Talmud; The Jurisprudence of the Talmud; and, Human Wisdom in the Talmud.

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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.