Monday, December 21, 2009

What is the Talmud? (Do you know?)

If someone had turned to me after class one day in high school or college and asked me, "What is the Talmud?" I probably wouldn't have been able to give more than a vague answer--something along the lines of "traditional Jewish commentaries on the Bible."

Now technically that answer's not wrong, but if you came from a Christian (or even Messianic) upbringing, you might expect that, as a Bible commentary, the Talmud would have the following basic characteristics:
  • Exposition and background information on the books of the Bible
  • Commentary, ordered according to books/passages of the Bible
  • Verse references backing up statements that are made
  • (What other characteristics do you readers think someone might expect?)
If you've read any of the Talmud (60+ tractates!), you know that these don't adequately describe it. Rabbi Joshua from Yinon gives us a better definition of the Talmud in a recent post:
The Talmud is really just volumes of case law, setting prior precedents for understanding, interpreting, and establishing halachah. Attorneys, and those familiar with legal codes really get this. One of the major aspects that separates Judaism from other religions like Protestant Christianity is this notion of halachah (of Jewish law). Jewish life and practice is established on prior communal precedent. One cannot just do what one sees fit. There are accepted previous understandings and interpretations that determine Jewish life and observance. And proper innovation and creativity should be established based on communal understanding of these prior precedents. [Emphases mine]

Thus, anyone who opens the Talmud expecting something like the Jewish version of Matthew Henry's commentary on the Bible or Calvin's Institutes is in for a surprise. (In fact, they might be tempted to chuck the whole thing and conclude that, since the Talmud is full of "traditions of men," it would be useless--or even dangerous!--to allow it to influence the way we think about Scripture. Hopefully that person would think twice, and choose to learn more about what the Talmud is before rushing to judgment.)

Rabbi Joshua's post has reminded me that I have several introductory books on the Talmud on my shelf which I've been meaning to read. If you want to join me, the books are Adin Steinsaltz's The Essential Talmud and Abraham Cohen's Everyman's Talmud. (If you have others to recommend, do chime in!)

Even if you don't have time to read a whole book, you at least owe it to yourself to read a little bit (or a bissel, as they say in Yiddish). I recommend checking out Derek Leman's articles over at Messianic Jewish Musings:
I'll close with a teaser from Derek's Talmud, Messianic Judaism, and Imperfect Truth (in fact, I may have subconsciously stolen the idea for this post from him!):
Talmud is not what you think it is.
I say that because Talmud is not what I thought it was. I had done a fair amount of reading in Talmud and about Talmud before taking a class, which I am half-way through, at the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (
Wow, was I ever wrong. So I will just assume that you are wrong as well about what is in Talmud and what it’s purpose is.
I don’t intend to go in depth here and give you examples. I intend only to open your mind to something and perhaps create a desire for further study (guided study, by a qualified instructor — it is foolish to think you can learn Talmud on your own or by reading a few books).
Duly noted, Rabbi Derek. However, for now, "a few books" will have to do!

1 comment:

Rabbi Joshua said...

Great post, Yahnatan! I hope it inspires others into in-depth study of the Talmud and other Jewish texts.