An Introduction to the Talmud - Part 1 History
“Where does the Talmud start?” she asked.
“What?” I responded, asking her to clarify the question. “Are you talking about the historical context, geographical, temporal, etc?”
“No”, she answered - seemingly confused at my confusion. “I want to start reading the Talmud, which book is first?”
I often bemoan the level of knowledge and Jewish literacy throughout the non-Orthodox world. How could it be, I wonder, that so many American Jews are proud to be Jewish, dedicated to the Jewish community both in terms of time and money, and even run social justice, political, or social gatherings around the idea of Judaism - with little to no knowledge of Judaism’s foundational texts.
But there is another angle to this question. The Talmud, as a corpus of books, has no beginning or end. There is no intuitive place to begin. To my student’s question above, the Talmud has no start or finish, chronological ordering, or even a table of contents.
The reality is that every page of the Talmud assumes its readers have a vast array and background of knowledge and that can lead the most motivated of students to feel lost. Put bluntly, the Talmud is fundamentally perplexing, confusing, and frustrating and even the most seasoned of Talmudists have, at times, felt lost attempting to navigate its sea of pages.
It is for this reason that I wanted to write a series of articles introducing and delineating a plan of sorts to aid any budding Talmudist on their journey.
This article will focus on the background and history of the Talmud, explaining how this monumental Jewish work came into existence.
During the late Second Temple period Judaism was at a crossroads.
The expanding Roman Empire had conquered Israel in 63 BCE ending an era of Jewish political autonomy in their homeland. As Roman hegemony became increasing intrusive into daily Jewish life, multiple factions arose within the Jewish community vying for leadership, each with their own prescribed solutions.
I jokingly remarked in a previous article that if you think that the current divisions in the Jewish community are worse than ever, I recommend stepping into a time machine and going back about 2,000 years. There, in the generations leading up to the Temple’s eventual destruction in 70 CE, different Jewish factions had staunch disagreements on religious, political, and social issues even, in some extreme occasions, resorting to killing one another over these disagreements (see article linked above).
Opinions amongst these groups, in reaction to the loss of Jewish political autonomy, went in a couple of different directions. There were people who became ascetics, arguing that any form of religious centralization or political governance was superfluous to their spiritual potential. This group, known as the Essenes, moved out into the desert, essentially leaving this communal conversation.
Others, mostly made up of the upper class, unsurprisingly attempted to retain their positions of privilege even while they were stripped of political autonomy. Many of these people attempted to slowly integrate their Judaism into the wider Greco-Roman culture, subsequently ensuring that the Roman hegemony would give them a privileged status and power. For instance, it was this group, known as the Sadducees, that was in charge of the running of the Jerusalem Temple (with Roman allowance) until its later destruction. Then there were, of course, radicals who wanted nothing to do with the Romans. These Zealots (as they were named) would stop at nothing to fight for political autonomy, even preferring death to existing under Roman control.
But the largest of these sectarian groups, the Pharisees, were slowly developing a new iteration of Judaism - one that would be steeped in tradition while simultaneously adaptable to the changing social, political, and moral realities of the time. They were fine with taking the moral innovations of Roman (and later Persian) culture, infusing it into their Jewish Weltanschauung, while also maintaining strict separation to ensure no assimilation.
The early Pharisees, scholars such as Hillel and Shamai, had fierce internal disagreements surrounding all of the same questions that separated the sectarian groups above. They too disagreed on religious outlooks, biblical interpretation, issues of Jewish law, philosophical questions, moral quandaries, and political direction. With, however, one major difference:
Hillel and Shamai, along with the other early Pharisees began to see debate and disagreement as a uniting factor within the Jewish community - as opposed to a reason for sectarian split. While they were strong in their conviction and strongly defended it, they also saw each other’s opinions as reasonable and honest forms of Jewish practice and belief. In reaction to 100 years of sectarian ideological divide threatening to tear the Jewish community apart, in the early first century the Pharisees began to lay the foundation for a new iteration of Judaism, one that could weather the storm of political change and internal ideological disagreement.
When the Romans eventually destroyed the temple in 70 CE it came as a terrible tragedy to the Jewish community. However, from a historical point of view, we need to be honest about the extent of the damage. At this point Jews had already lost political autonomy, and the transition of religious practice from one revolving around a temple to communal synagogues had already been occurring for centuries (see here for more on this shift). Furthermore, the Pharisaic tradition, centered around intellectual debate and innovation, allowed for an easy transition once the Temple was a relic of the past.
So the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and, after a massive, failed anti-Roman revolt in 135 CE, the Jewish community was split and spread all throughout the ancient world. With no geographical connectivity or central authority, Jewish leaders took these oral arguments of the Pharisees, which at this point were passed down for generations, and began to compile them into a book called the Mishna. The Mishna, the first major work of rabbinic literature, is a compilation of rabbinic opinions about Jewish law, philosophy, ethics, and biblical commentary. In line with the early Pharisees, it codified debate within its pages, often not even specifying which opinion is normative or correct.
As the Mishna spread throughout the Jewish world in the third century local communities began to discuss the debates contained in its pages. They came up with rationales as to why one opinion in the Mishna should be authoritative over another and subsequently challenged the opinions of their neighbors who may have felt otherwise. Furthermore, as Judaism became increasingly established throughout Babylonia, many of the communities attempted to square their views of Judaism, as codified in the Mishna, with the cultures in which they were embedded. As new sociological realities occurred, Jews continuously attempted to finely balance their tradition with new lines of thinking.
These discussions, the ones that took place for several centuries following the Mishna, were eventually codified into a book called the Gemara. The Gemara, much longer than the Mishna, is a commentary on the Mishna and the true cornerstone of rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud is simply the combination of the Mishna and Gemara together.
For the past 1,500 years the Talmud has been the most important Jewish work in virtually all categories. No respectable Jewish thinker can write a book about Jewish thought, law, philosophy, or history without extensively quoting its pages. It consists of thousands of debates on every subject related to Judaism, the bulk of which have been and are still being discussed today by Jewish scholars worldwide. Simply put, the Talmud is the key to understanding Jewish practice, discussion, and really the entirety of Judaism itself.
In the next article I will begin by delving into more detail about the contents of the Talmud, allowing someone who wants to begin their Talmudic journey to have a true understanding of what they are about to learn. Then, I will delineate what I feel is the most effective way for someone unfamiliar with the Talmud to approach Judaism's magnum opus.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
Why is there not more modern resistance to the idea that the Talmud, written by rabbis, carries the same authority as the Torah, given by God at Mt. Sinai?
See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search our repository of over 800 questions and answers about Jewish values.