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Torah and Talmud

           Just as the Bible is the foundation of Judaism, the Talmud is the central pillar supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice of Jewish life.  The Talmud, in the broader sense of the term, is made up of two components: the Mishnah, which is the first written summary of the Oral Law, and the Gemara (called Talmud in the more restricted sense of the term), which is formally an explanation and commentary on the Mishnah.  The legal and practical value of the Talmud is obvious, but this does not explain its centrality and vital importance for Judaism.

            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.

            Specifically, the study of Torah (the Written and Oral Law) can be viewed as a means to an end.  The Torah consists primarily of laws and commandments, not all of them easily understandable.  They require elaboration, commentary, and explanations as to how to fulfill them.  According to this perspective, Torah study provides the means for learning the principles and details necessary to fulfill the commandments.

            In reality, however, this view of Torah fails to convey its true purpose and leaves many things totally unexplained.  In particular, it does not explain why Judaism developed such great veneration for the study of Torah, a veneration expressed throughout Rabbinic literature:

            “’All things that may be desired are not to be compared to it [the study of Torah]’ (Proverbs 8:11).  This means that even the desires of heaven [the commandments] cannot be compared to it.” (Babylonian Talmud: Moed Katan 9b.)

            “These are the things, the fruits of which man enjoys in this world, while the reward remains for him in the World to Come: honoring one’s father and mother, performing deeds of kindness, making peace between man and his fellowman.  And the study of Torah is equal to all of them.” (Mishnah: Pe’ah 1:1.)

            To say that “the study of Torah is equal to all of them” implies that Torah study is on a higher level than performing the commandments.  It shows that the importance of Torah study transcends that of an aid to the fulfillment of the commandments.  Otherwise, we would be faced with a strange contradiction: If the study of Torah is merely an aid, a guide to fulfilling the commandments, how can it be more important than actual performance of the commandments themselves?

            In reality Torah and its study must be in an entirely different light.

            Torah, as its Hebrew root implies, is a form of הוראה – teaching.  It teaches man the path he should follow, and is indeed a guide to fulfilling the commandments.  Yet it is also far more than that.  It is a comprehensive guide, the expression of Judaism’s conception of everything in the world.  Every subject lies within the compass of Torah, and Torah tells us how every subject is to be understood, how we should relate to it and act toward it.  Hence, whether the subject is concrete and practical or abstract and spiritual, whether it expresses an immediate and living need or is entirely theoretical and without practical application, since it is related to Judaism’s world view it is related to Torah, and Torah does indeed deal with it.

            Establishing Halakhah (practical law) and providing guidance in fulfilling the commandments are only part of Torah.  Torah seeks the essence of all things, in every area of life.  It embraces the entire world and what lies beyond it.  The ultimate purpose of Torah is not, then, only to scrutinize the commandments and reach   practical conclusions regarding them; it is, rather, to provide a comprehensive world view, bringing out both the essential relationship of Torah to every subject and also the subjects’ connection with each other.

            If we understand the overall nature and purpose of the Torah, we can then understand and appreciate the special nature of that portion of it known as the Talmud.

Next: The Mishnah and Talmud


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Rav Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz