Introducing the Talmuds

Introducing the Talmuds December 5, 2017


Tiberias from above
A view over Tiberias (Wikimedia Commons public domain)


Continuing with a manuscript of mine:


There still existed a large Jewish colony in Mesopotamia, in the area to which the Jews had been carried off during the so-called “Babylonian captivity.” As already mentioned, the captives had pros­pered there, and most of them had chosen to remain in comfortable exile even when the road to return was entirely open. They enjoyed a flourishing intellectual life and maintained relatively close con­tact with their fellow-believers in and around Palestine. Soon, the Mishnah reached them there. But the rabbis didn’t, at first, occupy the first rank among Babylonian Jewry. Surprisingly enough, these exiles enjoyed a kind of quasi-political autonomy later than the Jews of Palestine did. For a time, their leader, who was known as the “exilarch,” functioned as a kind of prince—he claimed to be descended from the very King Zedekiah who had been car­ried away into captivity just after Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.—and served as a high official in the Parthian state that ruled the area. However, when the fervidly Zoro­astrian Sasanian Dynasty came to power early in the third century, the privileged role and the political powers of the exilarch were cur­tailed. But as the political elite of Babylonian Jewry lost power and prestige, the influence of the rabbis expanded to fill the vacuum. Thus, eventually, just as in Palestine, the scholars took over. Jesus’ words, spo­ken more than two centuries before, were now truer than ever: “The scribes and the Pharisees,” he had said, “sit in Moses’ seat.”[1]

Given the new Jewish focus on the writing of commentaries, it’s not to be wondered at that scholars immediately began to comment upon the Mishnah. Both the rabbis of Palestine and the rabbinic academies of Mesopotamia thus produced editions of what is known as the “Talmud.” (The name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “study,” or “learning.”) This represents the third layer of Judaism as we know it. The Talmud grew out of lectures and discus­sions on the Mishnah, which was the core of the curriculum. The Jerusalem Talmud, or Talmud of the West, was complete by the end of the fourth century A.D. Most of the work on it was actually done in the city of Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It represents the thought and the decisions of the Palestinian rabbis and scholars during the two centuries that had passed since the compiling of the Mishnah. In fact, although presented in the form of a commen­tary, it actually goes beyond the Mishnah and includes material on issues the Mishnah had not touched at all. Work on the Babylonian Talmud took somewhat longer and was finished a century later. Although the Babylonian is the more detailed of the two Talmuds, both are in substantial agreement. Both are mostly in Hebrew, with passages in “western” Aramaic and a sprinkling of Greek loan words in the Jerusalem Talmud, and passages in “eastern” Aramaic and a few Persian loan words in the Babylonian Talmud. Together, they form an admirable foundation for a unified body of religious law and practice.


[1] Matthew 23:2.



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