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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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TALMUD (‘learning’)

1. Origin and character . The Jews have always drawn a distinction between the ‘Oral Law,’ which was handed down for centuries by word of mouth, and the ‘Written Law,’ i.e. the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses. Both, according to Rabbinical teaching, trace their origin to Moses himself. It has been a fundamental principle of all times that by the side of the ‘Written Law,’ regarded as a summary of the principles and general laws of the Hebrew people, there was this ‘Oral Law’ to complete and explain the ‘Written Law.’ It was an article of faith that in the Pentateuch there was no precept and no regulation, ceremonial, doctrinal, or legal, of which God had not given to Moses all explanations necessary for their application, together with the order to transmit them by word of mouth. The classical passage on this subject runs: ‘Moses received the (oral) law from Sinai, and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue’ ( Pirqe Aboth , l. 1). This has long been known to be nothing more than a myth; the ‘Oral Law,’ although it no doubt contains elements which are of great antiquity e.g. details of folklore really dates from the time that the ‘Written Law’ was read and expounded in the synagogues. Thus we are told that Ezra introduced the custom of having the Torah (‘Law’) read in the synagogues at the morning service on Mondays and Thursdays ( i.e. the days corresponding to these); for on these days the country people flocked to the towns from the neighbouring districts, as they were the market days. The people had thus an opportunity, which would otherwise have been lacking to them, of hearing the Law read and explained. These explanations of the Law, together with the results of the discussions of them on the part of the sôpherîm (‘scribes’), formed the actual ‘Oral Law.’ The first explanatory term applied by the Jews to the ‘Oral Law’ was midrash (‘investigation’), and the Bible itself witnesses to the way in which such investigations were made and expounded to the people: ‘Also Jeshua and Bani … and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law; and the people stood in their place. And they read in the book, in the law of God, with an interpretation; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading’ ( Nehemiah 8:7-8 ). But it is clear that the ‘investigations’ must have led to different explanations; so that in order to fix authoritatively what in later days were considered the correct explanations, and thus to ensure continuity of teaching, it became necessary to reduce these to writing; there arose thus (soon after the time of Shammai and Hillel) the ‘Former Mishna’ ( Mishna Rishonah ), Mishna meaning ‘Second’ Law. This earliest Mishna, which, it is probable, owed its origin to pupils of Shammai and Hillel, was therefore compiled for the purpose of affording teachers both a norm for their decisions and a kind of book of reference for the explanation of difficult passages. But the immense amount of floating material could not be incorporated into one work, and when great teachers arose they sometimes found it necessary to compile their own Mishna; they excluded much which the official Mishna contained, and added other matter which they considered important. This was done by Rabbi Aqiba, Rabbi Meir, and others. But it was not long before the confusion created by this state of affairs again necessitated some authoritative, officially recognized action. It was then that Jehudah ha-Nasi undertook his great redaction of the Mishna, which has survived substantially to the present day. Jehudah ha-Nasi was born about a.d. 135 and died about a.d. 220; he was the first of Hillel’s successors to whose name was added the title ha-Nasi (‘the Prince’); this is the way in which he is usually referred to in Rabbinical writings; he is also spoken of as ‘Rabbi,’ i.e. master par excellence , and occasionally as ha-Qadosh , ‘the Holy,’ on account of his singularly pure and moral life. Owing to his authority and dignity, the Mishna of Jehudah ha-Nasi soon superseded all other collections, and became the only one used in the schools; the object that Jehudah had had in view, that, namely, of restoring uniform teaching, was thus achieved. The Mishna as we now have it is not, however, quite as it was when it left Jehudah’s hands; it has undergone modifications of various kinds: additions, emendations, and the like having been made even in Jehudah’s life-time, with his acquiescence, by some of his pupils. The language of the Mishna approximates to that of some of the latest books of the OT, and is known by the name of ‘Neo-Hebraic’; this was the language spoken in Palestine during the second century a.d.; It has a considerable intermixture of foreign elements, especially Greek words Hebraized.

The Mishna is divided into six Sedarim (Aram. [Note: Aramaic.] for ‘Orders’), and each Seder contains a number of treatises; each treatise is divided into chapters, and these again into paragraphs. The names of the six ‘Orders,’ which to some extent indicate their contents, are: Zera‘im (‘Seeds’), containing eleven treatises; Mo‘ed (‘Festival’), containing twelve treatises; Nashim (‘Women’), containing seven treatises; Nezikin (‘Injuries’), containing ten treatises [this ‘Order’ is called also Yeshu’oth (‘Deeds of help’)]; Qodashim (‘Holy things’), containing eleven treatises; and Tohâroth (‘Purifications’), containing twelve treatises.

Now the Mishna forms the basis of the Talmud; for just as the Mishna is a compilation of expositions, comments, etc., of the Written Law, and embodies in itself the Oral Law, so the Talmud is an expansion, by means of comment and explanation, of the Mishna; as the Mishna contains the Pentateuch, with all the additional explanatory matter, so the Talmud contains the Mishna with a great deal more additional matter. ‘The Talmud is practically a mere amplification of the Mishna by manifold comments and additions; so that even those portions of the Mishna which have no Talmud are regarded as component parts of it.… The history of the origin of the Talmud is the same as that of the Mishna a tradition, transmitted orally for centuries, was finally cast into definite literary form, although from the moment in which the Talmud became the chief subject of study in the academies it had a double existence (see below), and was accordingly, in its final stage, redacted in two different forms’ (Bacher in JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] xii. 3 b ). Before coming to speak of the actual Talmud itself, it may be well to explain some terms without an understanding of which our whole subject would be very inadequately understood:

Halakhah . Under this term the entire legal body of Jewish oral tradition is included; it comes from a verb meaning ‘to go,’ and expresses the way ‘of going’ or ‘acting,’ i.e. custom, usage, which ultimately issues in law . Originally it was used in the plural form Halakhoth , which had reference to the multifarious civil and ritual laws, customs, decrees etc., as handed down by tradition, which were not, however, of Scriptural authority. It was these Halakboth which were codified by Jehudah ha-Nasi, and to which the term Mishna became applied. Sometimes the word Halakhah is used for ‘tradition,’ which is binding, in contradistinction to Dîn , ‘argument’ (lit. ‘judgment’), which is not necessarily binding.

Haggadah (from the root meaning ‘to narrate’). This includes the whole of the non-legal matter of Rabbinical literature, such as homilies, stories about Biblical saints and heroes; besides this it touches upon such subjects as astronomy, astrology, medicine, magic, philosophy, and all that would come under the term ‘folklore.’ This word, too, was originally used in the plural Haggadoth . Haggadah is also used in a special sense of the ritual for Passover Eve.

Gemara . This is an Aramaic word from the root meaning ‘to learn,’ and has the signification of ‘that which has been learned,’ i.e. learning that has been handed down by tradition (Bacher in JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] , art. ‘Talmud’); it has also the meaning ‘completion’; in this sense it came to be used as a synonym of Talmud .

Baraitha . This is an apocryphal Halakhah . When Jehudah ha-Nasi compiled his Mishna, there was a great deal of the Oral Tradition which he excluded from it (see above); other teachers, however, the most important of whom was Rabbi Chijja, gathered these excluded portions into a special collection; these Halakhoth , which are known as Baraithoth , were incorporated into the Talmud; the discussions on them in the Talmud occupy many folios.

Tannaim (‘Teachers’). This was the technical name applied to the teachers of the Mishna; after the close of the Mishna period those who explained it were no more called ‘Teachers,’ but only ‘Commentators’ ( Amoraïm ); the dicta of the Tannaim could not be questioned excepting by a Tannaite, but an exception was made in the case of Jehudah ha-Nasi, who was permitted to question the truth of Tannaite pronouncements.

There are two Talmuds, the ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Talmud of Palestine’ and the ‘Babylonian,’ known respectively by their abbreviated forms ‘ Yerushalmi ’ and ‘ Babli .’ The material which went to make up the Yerushalmi had been preparing in the academies, the centres of Jewish learning, of Palestine, chief among which was Tiberias; it was from here that Rabbi Jochanan issued the Yerushalmi , in its earliest form, during the middle of the 3rd cent. a.d. The first editor, or at all events the first compiler, of the Babli was Rabbi Ashi ( d . a.d. 430), who presided over the academy of Sura. Both these Talmuds were constantly being added to, and the Yerushalmi was not finally closed until the end of the 4th cent., the Babli not until the beginning of the 6th. The characteristics which differentiated the academies of Palestine from those of Babylonia have left their marks upon the two Talmuds: in Palestine the tendency was to preserve and stereotype tradition, without permitting it to develop itself along natural channels; the result was that the Yerushalmi became choked with traditionalism, circumscribed in its horizon, and in consequence was regarded with less veneration than the Babli , and has always occupied a position of subordinate importance in comparison with this latter. In the Babylonian academies, on the other band, there was a wider outlook, a freer mental atmosphere, and, while tradition was venerated, it was not permitted to impede development in all directions; the Babli therefore absorbed the thought and learning of all Israel’s teachers, and is richer in material, and of more importance generally, than the Yerushalmi . In order to give some idea of what the Talmud is, and of the enormous masses of material gathered together there, the following example may be cited, abbreviated from Bacher ( op. cit. xii. 5). It will be remembered that the Talmud is a commentary on the Mishna. In the beginning of the latter occurs this paragraph: ‘During what time in the evening is the reading of the Shema‘ begun? From the time when the priests go in to eat their leaven ( Leviticus 22:7 ) until the end of the first watch of the night, such being the words of R. Eliezer. The sages, however, say until midnight, though R. Gamaliel says until the coming of the dawn.’ This is the text upon which the Yerushalmi then comments in three sections; the first section contains the following: a citation from a bariatha with two sayings from R. Jose to elucidate it; remarks on the position of one who is in doubt whether he has read the Shema‘; another passage from a baraitha , designating the appearance of the stars as an indication of the time in question; further explanations and passages on the appearance of the stars as bearing on the ritual; other Rabbinical sayings; a baraitha on the division between day and night, and other passages bearing on the same subject; discussion of other baraithas , and further quotations from important Rabbis; a sentence of Tannaitic origin in no way related to the preceding matters, namely, ‘One who prays standing must bold his feet straight,’ and the controversy on this subject between Rabbis Levi and Simon, the one adding, ‘like the angels,’ the other, ‘like the priests’; comments on these two comparisons; further discussion concerning the beginning of the day; Haggadic statements concerning the dawn; a conversation between two Rabbis; cosmological comments; dimensions of the firmament, and more Haggadic comments in abundance; a discussion on the night-watches; Haggadic material concerning David and his harp. Then comes the second section, namely, a Rabbinical quotation; a baraitha on the reading of the Shema‘ in the synagogue; other Rabbinical and Haggadic matter; further Haggadic sayings; lastly, section 3 gives R. Gamaliel’s view compared with that of another Rabbi, together with a question which remains unanswered.

This is, of course, the merest skeleton of an example of the mass of commentary which is devoted to the Mishna, section by section. Although the Haggadic element plays a much less Important rôle than the Halakhic, still the former is well represented, and is often employed for purposes of edification and rebuke, as well as for instruction. The following outline of a Haggadic passage from the Yerushalmi will serve as an example; It is intended as a rebuke to ‘Scandal-mongers,’ and a text ( Deuteronomy 1:12 ) is taken as a starting-point, namely, ‘ How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance and your burden and your strife? ’ It then continues: ‘How did our forefathers worry Moses with their cumbrances? In that they were constantly slandering him, and imputing evil intentions to him in everything that he did. If he happened to come out of his house rather earlier than usual, it was said: “Why has he gone out so early to-day? There has no doubt been some quarrelling at home!” If, on the other hand, he went out a little later than usual, it was said: “What has been occupying him so long indoors? Assuredly he has been concocting plans to oppress the people yet morel” ’ (Bernfeld, Der Talmud , p. 46). Or, to give one other example: in pointing out the evils which come from a father’s favouring one son above the others, it is said: ‘This should not be done, for because of the coat of many colours which the patriarch Jacob gave his favourite son Joseph ( Genesis 37:1 ff.), all Israel went down into Egypt’ ( ib. p. 47).

Haggadoth flourish, as regards quality, more in the Yerushalmi than in the Babli; for in the Babylonian schools intellectual acumen reigned supreme: there was but little room for the play of the emotions or for the development of poetical imagination: these were rather the property of Palestinian soil. Therefore, although the Haggadic element is, so far as quantity is concerned, much fuller in the Babli than in the Yerushalmi , it is, generally speaking, of a far less attractive character in the former than in the latter. ‘The fact that the Haggadah is much more prominent in Babli , of which it forms, according to Weiss, more than one-third, while it constitutes only one-sixth of Yerushalmi , was due, in a sense, to the course of the development of Hebrew literature. No independent mass of Haggadoth developed in Babylon, as was the case in Palestine; and the Haggadic writings were accordingly collected in the Talmud’ ( JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] xii. 12). But the Haggadah , whether in the Yerushalmi or in the Babli , occupies in reality a subordinate place, for in its origin, as we have seen, the Talmud was a commentary on the Mishna, which was a collection of Halakhoth; and although the Haggadic portions are of much greater human interest, it is the Halakhic portions that form the bulk of the Talmud, and that constitute its importance as the fountain-head of Jewish belief and theology.

2. Authority of the Talmud . Inasmuch as the Oral Law, which with its comments and explanations is what constitutes the Talmud, is regarded as of equal authority with the Written Law, it will be clear that the Talmud is regarded, at all events by orthodox Jews, as the highest and final authority on all matters of faith. It is true that in the Talmud itself the letter of Scripture is always clearly differentiated from the rest; but, in the first place, the comments and explanations declare what Scripture means, and without this official explanation the Scriptural passage would lose much of its practical value for the Jew; and, in the second place, it is firmly believed that the oral laws preserved in the Talmud were delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the Talmud is of equal authority with Scripture. The eighth principle of the Jewish creed runs: ‘I firmly believe that the Law which we possess now is the same which has been given to Moses on Mount Sinai.’ In commenting on this in what may not unjustly be described as the official handbook for the orthodox Jewish Religion, the writer says: ‘Many explanations and details of the laws were supplemented by oral teaching; they were handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, and only after the destruction of the second temple were they committed to writing. The latter are, nevertheless, called Oral Law, as distinguished from the Torah or Written Law, which from the first was committed to writing. Those oral laws which were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai are called “Laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai” ’ (M. Friedländer, The Jewish Religion [revised and enlarged ed., 1900], p. 136). It is clear from this that the Written Law of the Bible, and the Oral Law as contained in the Talmud, are of equal authority. The Talmud is again referred to as ‘the final authority in Judaism’ by the writer of a later exposition of the Jewish faith (M. Joseph, Judaism as Creed and Life , 1903, p. vii.). One other authoritative teacher may be quoted: ‘As a document of religion the Talmud acquired that authority which was due to it as the written embodiment of the ancient tradition, and it fulfilled the task which the men of the Great Assembly set for the representatives of the tradition when they said, “Make a hedge for the Torah” ( Aboth , i. 2). Those who professed Judaism felt no doubt that the Talmud was equal to the Bible as a source of instruction and decision in problems of religion, and every effort to set forth religious teachings and duties was based on it.’ And speaking of the present day, the same writer says: ‘For the majority of Jews it is still the supreme authority in religion’ (Bacher in JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] xii. 26).

3. The Talmud and Christianity . Much that is written in the Talmud was originally spoken by men who were contemporaries of Christ; men who must have seen and heard Him. It is, moreover, well known what a conflict was waged in the infant Church regarding that question of the admittance of Gentiles, the result of which was an irreconcilable breach between Jew and Gentile, and an ever-increasing antagonism between Judaism and Christianity. These facts lead to the supposition that references to Christ and Christianity should be found in the Talmud. The question as to whether such references are to be found or not is one which cannot yet be said to have been decided one way or the other. The frequent mention of the Minim is held by many to refer to Christians; others maintain that by these are meant philosophizing Jews, who were regarded as heretics. This is not the place to discuss the question; we can only refer to two works, which approach it from different points of view, and which deal very adequately with it: Christianity in Talmud and Midrash , by R. T. Herford (London, 1903), and Die religiösen Bewegungen innerhalb des Judenthums im Zeitatter Jesu , by M. Friedländer (Berlin, 1905).

W. O. E. Oesterley.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Talmud'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​t/talmud.html. 1909.
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