Books: Telling Talmud Stories, Or So Long And Thanks For All The Mishnah

September 27, 2014



One of the remarkable things about the Talmud is that it came from nowhere, entering a national-religious culture that was already strong and thriving and nevertheless became that culture’s dominant text.

The Bible and the subsequent, vast corpus of Jewish literature is self-confident in its religious identity and highly prescriptive in terms of belief, practice and behaviour. It doesn’t seem to be lacking a great deal of further illumination. There is certainly no suggestion that this whole corpus will one day be eclipsed by a text that will become the cornerstone of Jewish religion. The emergence of the Talmud as a written summary of centuries of academic debate is unexpected. The dominance of the Talmud in the Jewish world today could not have been anticipated, even in the first centuries of the common era.

Of course the topics the Talmud deals with were debated long before the Talmud itself was compiled. The process of clarifying and defining Jewish practice and belief begins even within the Bible – one only has to look at the Book of Psalms to see how earlier biblical concepts and narratives are expanded and explained. The process continues, each generation adding its own particular style and mark. Eventually the Mishnah is compiled, the first attempt to codify an already weighty body of regulation and doctrine. But the Mishnah is not remarkable in the same way that the Talmud is, it is merely a writing down of things that were previously transmitted orally. It is a natural development.

The Talmud is, in essence, a commentary on the Mishnah. And if that is all it had remained, it too would be considered a natural development. Commentary it may be, but it has overshadowed the work on which it comments. The Talmud has become Judaism. This is not to diminish the importance of the Bible, which plays the role of foundation document and constitution, but we rarely, if ever, look in the Bible for answers. Instead we cite it as the proof for the case we are making (or more commonly, we rely on the Talmud to do it for us).

As for the Mishnah, it has become the neglected text of the trinity, little more than a link between the Bible and Talmud. Yet without it we would neither have the Talmud nor fully appreciate the Bible. The Mishnah is far more than a code of Jewish law waiting to be explained by the Talmud. It is the culmination of centuries of codification. Its dense, terse detail gave rise to the Talmud. The Talmud represents a wave of exegesis by scholars keen to identify why the Mishnah codified in the way it did.

The relationship between the three texts is summed up by the Talmud’s exhortation to divide one’s study equally between them (Kiddushin 30a, Avodah Zarah 19b). But this is no longer the norm. Most people follow the dictum of Rabbenu Tam, who in the twelfth century declared that the study of Talmud alone suffices because Mishna and Bible are ‘mingled’ within it (Tosefot to AZ 19b). By declaring this Rabbenu Tam, amongst the greatest of Talmud commentators, gives the Talmud licence to leapfrog Bible and Mishnah into its current position of dominance.

The Talmud’s rise was unforeseen and unexpected. But nobody who is familiar with it would challenge the view that it is an essential text, challenging and compelling. Its emergence is just the beginning of its astonishing story.

You can read chapter 1 of The Talmud: A Biography here.

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