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In any field of study, the internal logic used in the subject and the terms (nomenclature) are of utmost importance. Anyone who wishes to understand the subject or apply it must understand the logic and the nomenclature. There are, however, certain barriers that must be overcome when studying the Talmud.
In the West, we use a system of logic developed by the Greeks. One of our principles is, "not both A and not-A." That is, two opposing statements — such as "I was born blind" and "I was not born blind" — cannot both be true.
However, the Talmud and Talmudists are not restricted by this principle of logic. Two opposing statements can both be true at one and the same time. Famed Israeli Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin "Even Yisrael" Steinsaltz gives us an example. In the following, he states that on the issues where they contradict each other, opposing schools of Talmudists are both right.
One of the great historical controversies was that between the methods of the "houses" (schools) of Shammai and Hillel, which lasted for more than a century. It was eventually resolved in the famous dictum: "Both are the words of the living God, and the decision is in accordance with the House of Hillel." The fact that one method is preferred does not mean that the other is based on a misconception. It, too, is an expression of creativity and of "the words of the living God." When one of the sages ventured to say a certain theory was not to his liking, he was scolded by his colleagues, who informed him that it was wrong to say of Torah, "This is good and this is not." Such a view analogous to the case of the scientist who is not permitted to say that a certain creature seems to him "unappealing." This does not mean to imply that evaluations (even of appeal) should never be made; they should, however, be based on consciousness of the fact that no man the right to judge or to determine that a certain object lacks beauty from the purely objective point of view.
— Rabbi Steinsaltz (1)
The following Talmud excerpt shows a disagreement between the scholars of Shammai and Hillel. Both the Shammai and Hillel schools consider whether an act of consecration is valid, even when done in error.
(In this and other excerpts, footnotes have been omitted. To view them in the Come and Hear™ hypertext, follow the link at the end of the excerpt. The uppercase text indicates that the passage is Mishnah, an authoritative statement of Talmudic law. The term Mishnah will be explained more fully below.)
MISHNAH. BETH SHAMMAI SAY THAT CONSECRATION IN ERROR IS [EFFECTIVE] CONSECRATION, BUT BETH HILLEL SAY THAT IT IS NOT EFFECTIVE. FOR EXAMPLE, IF SOMEONE SAYS, THE BLACK BULL THAT LEAVES MY HOUSE FIRST SHALL BE SACRED,' AND A WHITE ONE EMERGES, BETH SHAMMAI DECLARE IT SACRED, BUT BETH HILLEL SAY THAT IT IS NOT SACRED. [OR IF HE SAYS,] 'THE GOLD DENAR THAT COMES INTO MY HAND FIRST SHALL BE SACRED, AND A SILVER DENAR CAME TO HIS HAND BETH SHAMMAI DECLARE IT SACRED, WHILST BETH HILLEL SAY THAT IT IS NOT SACRED. [AGAIN, IF HE SAYS,] 'THE CASK OF WINE THAT I COME ACROSS FIRST SHALL BE SACRED,' AND HE COMES ACROSS A CASK OF OIL, BETH SHAMMAI DECLARE IT SACRED, BUT BETH HILLEL SAY THAT IT IS NOT SACRED.
— Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 30b-31a
Soncino 1961 Edition, page 110
Remember, Rabbi Steinsaltz would have us understand of these two pronouncements that "both are the words of the living God." Neither Shammai nor Hillel can be wrong. Thus, the white bull is both sacred and not sacred. The silver denar is both sacred and not sacred. The cask of oil is both sacred and not sacred. We have also learned another lesson: the "words of the living God" are, in this case, synonymous with the words of the rabbis of the Shammai and Hillel schools. (11)
In order to understand the union of opposites being espoused by Rabbi Steinsaltz, it is necessary to glimpse the doctrines of Judaic mysticism (the Kabbalah). Sandford L. Drob, Ph.D., Director of Psychological Assessment and Senior Forensic Psychologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, will help us understand. In 1987, Dr. Drob cofounded the New York Jewish Review, which featured interviews and debates among leading rabbis, including Adin Steinsaltz, Moshe Tendler, David Bleich, and Norman Lamm.
Dr. Drob writes prolifically on Kabbalism and can explain the union of opposites. He begins with a description of the Kabbalist Ein-Sof (sometimes spelled Ein-sof or En-Sof).
Ein-Sof, the Infinite God, has no static, definable form. Instead, the Kabbalists conceive God, the world and humanity as evolving together through, and thus embodying, a number of distinct stages and aspects, with later stages opposing, but at the same time encompassing, earlier ones. The Kabbalist's God is both perfectly simple and infinitely complex, nothing and everything, hidden and revealed, reality and illusion, creator of man and created by man. As Ein-Sof evolves it is progressively revealed as "nothing whatsoever" (Ayin), the totality of being, the Infinite Will (Ratzon) , Thought and Wisdom, the embodiment of all value and significance (the Sefirot), the wedding of male and female, and ultimately the union of all contradictions. Ein-Sof is both the totality of this dialectic and each of the points along the way. Ein-Sof must be constantly redefined, as by its very nature, it is in a constant process of self-creation and redefinition. This self-creation is actually embodied and perfected in the creativity of humanity, who through practical, ethical, intellectual and spiritual activities, strives to redeem and perfect a chaotic, contradictory and imperfect world.
— Sanford L. Drob (11) (emphasis added)
Certainly, this is a different view of God and logic that not many can understand. The Creator and the created are evolving together; statements can be true and false at the same time, as Rabbi Steinsaltz says. Thank you, Dr. Drob, for clarifying.
For background on the Kabbalistic approach to Old Testament interpretation (based on numerology and ciphers), see excerpts from Professor E.M. Butler's Ritual Magic in Israel's "One Indigenous Science" Appendix: Practical Kabbalah, "A Veritable Storehouse for Magicians …"
Aside from this non-Western approach to logic, another barrier to studying the Talmud is the nomenclature. The definitions of key terms can vary with the context and the speaker, and sometimes with the speaker's intent. "Torah" is sometimes the first five books of the Old Testament, or the Talmud, or the first five books of the Old Testament and the Talmud, or the entire body of Jewish religious literature. Other key terms can have varying meanings, too, as we shall see.
Key words can be spelled differently, too, depending on the transliteration from the Hebrew or Aramaic. We recommend liberal use of the Soncino Talmud Glossary, of course, but some terms warrant special attention. Usage of these terms reveals some surprising information:
The terms to be discussed are these: Exegesis, Pharisee, Pentateuch, Midrash, Torah, Divine Law, Oral Law, Mishnah (sometimes spelled Mishna, plural form is Mishnayoth), Talmud, Halachah (sometimes spelled "halackah" or "halakhah," plural form is "halakot" or "halakoth," etc.), Haggadah (sometimes spelled "hagada" or "aggadah"), and Gemara.
The word exegesis is often used when discussing the Talmud. An exegesis is an inference, an explanation, or interpretation. The word is derived from Greek:
ex, out of + hegeisthai, lead. (14)
The Talmud has its own method of exegesis, as explained in the Method and Scope section of the "Introduction by the Editor" to each of the Seders of the Soncino Babylonian Talmud:
No particular English version of the Bible is followed, as the Talmud has its own method of exegesis and its own way of understanding Biblical verses which it cites. Where, however, there is a radical departure from the English versions, the rendering of a recognised English version is indicated in the Notes. References to chapter and verse are those of the Massoretic Hebrew text.
— Rabbi Dr. Epstein (13)
The Jewish Encyclopedia calls exegesis Israel's "one indigenous science." A more lengthy and detailed analysis of the science of exegesis is available in Israel's "One Indigenous Science", which, if the reader is following these studies in sequence, appears as #5 in The Roadmap series.
As you read the Talmud, you will have the opportunity to consult Biblical cites to review the process of Talmudic exegesis. Please note that each page of the Talmud here presented contains a link to an on-line Bible text service that includes many of the standard translations.
The Pharisees were a school of learned men in ancient Israel. They were also a ruling political party. Their rivals were the Sadducees, another school of learned men. It was the Pharisees who developed and passed down Oral Law and eventually committed it to writing. For the early history of the Pharisees and their relationship to Oral Law, see Introduction to Seder Nezikin by the Very Reverend the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, the late Jacob H. Hertz, "Origins," Section I.
Rabbi Dr. Finkelstein, who for 30 years was president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, puts it this way:
Pharisaism became Talmudism, Talmudism became Medieval Rabbinism, and Medieval Rabbinism became Modern Rabbinism. But throughout these changes of name, inevitable adaptation of custom, and adjustment of Law, the spirit of the ancient Pharisee survives unaltered. When the Jew reads his prayers, he is reciting formulae prepared by pre-Maccabean scholars; when he dons the cloak prescribed for the Day of Atonement and Passover Eve, he is wearing the festival garment of ancient Jerusalem; when he studies the Talmud, he is actually repeating the arguments used in the Palestinian academies.
— Rabbi Dr. Finkelstein (31)
A Pharisee, then, was a person who was learned in the Oral Law, and who subscribed to a particular world view, largely contained in the Talmud. In fact, contemporary rabbis are directly attuned with the Pharisees of Jesus' time through long and intensive study of the Pharisaic teachings in the Talmud; those teachings down to Jews through synagogues, Temples, community educational activities, and to children through Jewish day schools. Contemporary rabbis do not call themselves Pharisees, however. To call a contemporary rabbi a Pharisee is taking poetic license, though surely there is much truth in the statement.
The Jewish religion as it is today traces its descent, without a break, through all the centuries, from the Pharisees.
— Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (32)
The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes called the books of Moses. Those books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Christians sometimes call the Pentateuch "Mosaic law" because, according to their faith, God dictated those books to Moses to be a law for the Hebrews in their new land of Israel.
The Jews call the Pentateuch "Written Law" to distinguish it from the Oral Law contained in the Talmud.
The word Midrash appears often in Jewish religious literature, and in the Soncino Talmud, though it is not defined in the Soncino Talmud Glossary. Here is a workable definition:
"A verse by verse interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures [Old Testament] …" (2)
The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia tells us that:
The earliest Hebrew term for exegesis is Midrash, literally "seeking." When it deals with interpretation of law, it is called Midrash Halachah; when it deals with non-legal matters, it is called Midrash Haggadah.
— Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (30)
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, a rabbi of a Reform Judaism congregation in Baltimore, considers the art of Midrash is alive and vital today:
Midrash is the art of extending and interpreting Torah by commenting on the text, answering unanswered questions in the text, or deducing laws and traditions from the text. From the time the Torah was closed and canonized, Jews have been interpreting and reinterpreting the sacred writings of the Torah. Many of these interpretations are expressed through Midrash. There are two basic types of midrashim: Halakhic midrashim deal with legal matters; Aggadic midrashim deal with moral and spiritual issues and tend to read like stories. The sages of old wrote midrashim to teach and inspire, explain esoteric legal matters, and interpret the meaning of events of their day. We, today, do the same. The art of midrash is alive and vital today, and you can participate.
Would you like to read the midrashim of my students?
— Rabbi Scheinerman (15)
Jews and Christians generally agree that the Torah is God's word. Christians usually understand Torah to consist of the Old Testament. However, when rabbinical scholars use the term, Torah may consist of:
First, let us examine the Soncino Press definition of Torah:
TORAH (Lit., 'teaching', 'learning', 'instruction'); (a) the Pentateuch (Written Law); (b) the Mishnah (Oral Law); (c) the whole body of Jewish religious literature.
— Soncino Talmud Glossary
The reason for multiple definitions is explained by the Very Reverend the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire (1913-1946), the late Rabbi Dr. Hertz:
The knowledge of the contents of that revelation, they [the scribes] held, was to be found in the first Instance in the Written Text of the Pentateuch; but the revelation, the real Torah, was the meaning of that Written Text, the Divine thought therein disclosed, as unfolded in ever greater richness of detail by successive generations of devoted teachers …
— Rabbi Dr. Hertz (3)
So Torah is not just Scripture. Torah is also the interpretation of Scripture, and the interpretation of interpretations. In its extensive definition, Torah is the entire body of Jewish religious literature, and Jewish religious literature is whatever the rabbis accept as such. It is an ever-expanding library that may contain contradictory teachings, and often does. See Logic of the Talmud, above.
Thus in Judaism, divine revelation is not dependent on messiahs, prophets, or saints, as in some other religions; for the Jews, divine revelation comes about through rabbis passing down the teachings from one generation to the next, each adding his own interpretations and ideas to the material. Indeed, some Jewish scholars assert that the Jewish people as a whole constitute the Messiah. (24)
Let us have a look at some other authoritative statements about the relationship between Torah and Talmud.
Rabbi Dr. Hertz continues. In the following, he borrows another's words to make his point that the Torah is the book of the Pharisees. The Old Testament was not the book of the Pharisees, of course. The Talmud is the record of Pharisaic teachings (see What Is the Talmud?). That is, Hertz states that the Talmud is the supreme document of religious revelation.
'Apart from the direct intercourse of prayer, the study of Torah was the way of closest approach to God; it might be called the Pharisaic form of the Beatific Vision. To study Torah was to think God's thought after Him …'
— Rabbi Dr. Hertz, quoting Kepler (3)
Even in the days of the Talmud Sages, the word "Torah" meant Talmud, as shown by the following excerpt from the Soncino Talmud.
MISHNAH. … THE TIMES FOR CONJUGAL DUTY PRESCRIBED IN THE TORAH ARE: FOR MEN OF INDEPENDENCE, EVERY DAY; FOR LABOURERS, TWICE A WEEK; FOR ASS-DRIVERS, ONCE A WEEK; FOR CAMEL-DRIVERS, ONCE IN THIRTY DAYS; FOR SAILORS, ONCE IN SIX MONTHS. THESE ARE THE RULINGS OF R. ELIEZER.
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kethuboth 61b
Soncino 1961 Edition, page 369
So strong is the Jewish faith in the Pharisaic ideas contained in the Talmud, that Jews who reject the Talmud have been labeled idolaters. In his History of the Talmud, Rabbi Michael Rodkinson writes of the conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees interpreted the Old Testament literally, while the Pharisees interpreted it figuratively. (4) Eventually the Pharisees triumphed, and the Sadducees ceased as a religious sect. As can be seen in the following Mishnah regarding the laws of menstruation, Sadducees and Samaritans are not regarded as Israelites.
MISHNAH. THE DAUGHTERS OF THE SADDUCEES, SO LONG AS THEY ARE IN THE HABIT OF WALKING IN THE PATHS OF THEIR FATHERS, ARE TO BE REGARDED AS SAMARITAN WOMEN. IF THEY LEFT THOSE PATHS TO WALK IN THE PATHS OF ISRAEL, THEY ARE TO BE REGARDED AS ISRAELITISH WOMEN. R. JOSE RULED: THEY ARE ALWAYS REGARDED AS ISRAELITISH WOMEN UNLESS THEY LEAVE THE PATHS OF ISRAEL TO WALK IN THE PATHS OF THEIR FATHERS.
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Niddah 33b
Soncino 1961 Edition, pages 232-233
The translator of Soncino Tractate Niddah, Rev. Dr. Israel W. Slotki, confirms this exclusive definition of "Jew" as Pharisee in his introduction:
CHAPTER IV is concerned with the condition of uncleanness of non-Jewish women, such as Samaritans, Sadduceans and idolaters, and of women in protracted labour.
— Rev. Dr. Slotki (9)
Rabbi Rodkinson writes of another group of Jews called the Karaites who oppose the Pharisees. The Karaites base their faith on the written law contained in the Pentateuch.
The toleration of the Pharisees and of their teachings is well known. The disciples of the Beth Hillel have done all that lay in their power to bring them [Karaites] into the House of Israel: they credited them in regard to purification; they permitted them to be counted in the number of three for the benediction over the meal [Hebr. characters]; and in fact, wanted to consider them as Israelites for all purposes, but their animosity and trickery increased to such an extent that they could no more be tolerated, and therefore, the leaders of Israel were compelled to regard them in all respects as idolaters, and prohibited their bread, wine, and oil. Rabbanism endeavored, with all their might, to draw near them and debate with them, until they convinced themselves that their hatred toward Israel is so great that they said "[Hebr. characters]" (the rents will never be sewed together), "the Karaites will never make up with us," and they are up to date regarded as idolaters.
— Rabbi Rodkinson (16)
Note that Rabbi Rodkinson states that "to date" the Karaites are regarded as idolaters. Rabbi Rodkinson wrote those words in 1903. The designation is unchanged since ancient times.
In December, 1999, leading Orthodox Jewish advocacy groups filed an amicus curiae brief with the US Supreme Court concerning capital punishment. The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) and the American Section International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists IAJLJ) were represented by Nathan and Alyza Lewin. Nathan Lewin is on the Board of Governors of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America ("Orthodox Union"), an organization that speaks on behalf of 1,000 Orthodox synagogues.
The brief states clearly that the Jewish religion rejects and condemns Old Testament methods of capital punishment. The methods described in the Talmud are considered religiously correct. For further information, see Capital Punishment 1.
In the following, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz tells us that the Talmud, not the Old Testament, is the governing book of Judaism.
Even before the Talmud was completed, it was evident that this work was to become the basic text and primary source for Jewish law. It is actually the last book of source material in Jewish literature, since the works that followed were to a large extent based on it, derived their authority from it, and consulted it whenever necessary for elucidation of theoretical and practical problems.
— Rabbi Steinsaltz (17)
This view confirmed by the Talmud. However, before we read the relevant excerpt, it would be useful to define another key term.
Halachah (Lit., 'step', guidance'), (a) the final decision of the Rabbis, whether based on tradition or argument, on disputed rules of conduct, (b) those sections of Rabbinic literature which dealt with legal questions, as opposed to the Aggadah [Haggadah.]
— Soncino Talmud Glossary
Soncino 1961 Edition, pages 734-735
Rabbi Rodkinson defines Halachah (Halakha) thus:
Halakha means custom, usage, practice; then, an adopted rule, a traditional law. In a more extended meaning, the term applies to matters bearing upon that law.
— Rabbi Rodkinson (18)
In Tractate Hagigah 10a, Rab quotes from Zechariah 8:10 to support his statement on the seniority of the Talmud:
GEMARA. … Neither was there any peace to him that went out or came in, Rab said: As soon as a man goes forth from Halachic to Scripture study he no longer has peace.(1)
— Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 10a
Soncino 1961 Edition, pages 49-50
The translator, Rabbi Prof. I. Abrahams, amplifies the text with this footnote:
- Because the Halachah provides the ultimate ruling for conduct; cf. Hershon, Talmudic Miscellany, Ch. XI, No. 33, and the lines in Longfellow's 'Golden Legend' beginning: The Kavvala and Talmud lore, etc. (quoted in Streane's Chagigah).
— Rabbi Prof. Abrahams
Rab Judah is one of the most frequently quoted Sages in the Talmud. Note that Rab Judah did not advise studying the Old Testament. Instead, he advised fulfilling the laws of Seder Nezikin of the Talmud.
GEMARA. … Rab Judah said: He who wishes to be pious must [in the first instance particularly] fulfil the laws of [Seder] Nezikin.
— Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kamma 30a
Soncino 1961 Edition, page 161
With the passing of Rabbi Dr. Hertz, Israel Brodie became the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. Here are the words of the Very Rev. the Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie concerning the relationship between Talmud and Torah.
Bible, Mishnah and Talmud have formed the three main basic categories of the Torah discipline.
— Rabbi Brodie (19)
Famed Israeli Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin "Even Yisrael" Steinsaltz says that the Talmud is part of the Torah.
In order to understand and appreciate the unique nature of the Talmud, one must first have a clear understanding of the unique Jewish concept of Torah study, of which studying the Talmud is a distinctive and characteristic part.
— Rabbi Steinsaltz (5)
Recall that Rabbi Steinsaltz explained to us earlier that even opposing statements within that Talmud are all "words of the living God." Rabbi Steinsaltz is obviously a brilliant and well-supported individual. According to his web page, he is currently translating the Talmud into English, French, and Russian. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, and has enjoyed the backing of Israeli presidents and prime ministers; he is a recipient of Israel's highest honor, the Israel Prize. (6)
Talmud scholar Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner states that the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) AND the Talmud make up the Torah of the Jews, and that the Talmud is received as God's word.
The Koran … is received by Muslims as God's word, as is the Bible by Christians and the Torah — comprising the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament and the oral traditions ultimately preserved in the Talmud — by the faithful of Judaism.
— Rabbi Dr. Neusner (7)
Now let us hear from Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, editor of the Soncino Talmud, and later, the president of Jews College of London.
The civil and criminal law was regarded by the Jews as a part of the Divine Revelation — the Torah.
— Rabbi Dr. Epstein (21)
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman (introduced above), writing now for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, says that the Talmud and its Mishnah (see below) have virtually the same status as the Old Testament:
For Orthodox Jews, the Hebrew Scriptures are a divinely authored text and therefore every commandment contained therein must be obeyed. The Mishnah and Talmud are considered to have virtually the same status and are called Oral Torah.
Rabbi Scheinerman (10)
Let us revisit our earlier quote from Rabbi Scheinerman. In that quote, the rabbi states that "Midrash is the art of extending and interpreting Torah," (15) and that her students are actively engaged in the activity today. We could interpret her words to mean that the Torah is a living entity, growing continuously as students produce commentary on what has been written before. This sense of Rabbi Scheinerman's remark is in agreement with Chief Rabbi Dr. Hertz, who wrote (quoted above) that "the real Torah, was the meaning of that Written Text, the Divine thought therein disclosed, as unfolded in ever greater richness of detail by successive generations of devoted teachers …" (3)
The new student of the Talmud may find the usage of the term "Divine Law" confusing. Rabbinical scholars may use that term to denote law made by Gentiles.
Samuel of Nehardea … was an epoch-maker in Judaism. He laid down the principle, based on an utterance of Jeremiah the Prophet, that has enabled Jews to live and serve in non-Jewish countries. Dina d'malchutha dina, he ruled; i.e., 'In all civil matters, the law of the land is to us Divine Law.'
— Rabbi Dr. Hertz (8)
In this passage, Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, editor of the Soncino Talmud, states the Talmudic legal system is tantamount to the very law of God. The sequence is clear: Once the laws are tested and pass the test, they become the law of God:
Thus the object of the legal system was not to preserve a particular dynasty or a certain form of government, but to establish social righteousness, and to maintain thereby a constant, close, inseparable connection between ethics and law, both flowing from the same Divine source … All laws, regulations and enactments had authority only in so far as they were able to stand the ethical test of the Torah.
Once they passed this test, they were no longer regarded as man-made, but became identified with the very law of God.
— Rabbi Dr. Epstein. (20)
Thank you for your consideration of the above,
Carol A. Valentine, Ear at come-and-hear dot com
July 14, 2003 ( This article is on line at http://www.come-and-hear.com/editor/critwords_1.html )
Full specifics for each of the printed sources are provided in the Bibliography. Outside URLs were valid at the time this article was written. However, be mindful that URLs do change.
© Copyright Carol A. Valentine, 2003. See copyright statement at http://www.come-and-hear.com/copyright.html
Title: Critical Words of Talmud Study|
Version: July 30, 2003
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