Revision 1.13 “The Mishnah and the Talmuds”

Revision 1.13 “The Mishnah and the Talmuds” July 15, 2020


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


What really interested the earliest rabbis was the collection and organization of the so-called “oral law,” the traditions that had already been gathering about the text of the Torah for centuries. This was the next layer, the next level of sediment in the mounting deposit of what would come to be modern rabbinic Judaism. It culminated in the completion of the Mishnah, around the year 200 A.D. This important text, collected and edited by the illustrious Rabbi Judah the Prince, is one of the earliest documents of what can properly be called Judaism in the modern sense. It remains one of Judaism’s greatest classics and, after the Bible itself, is the foundation of the Jewish religion. The term mishnah comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to repeat” or “to study,” which points to the way in which it was originally studied—by memorization. The Mishnah is orga­nized by topics and comprises sixty-two sections known as “tractates.” These tractates are divided into six principal parts, dealing with (1) agriculture, and also the portions of various crops that are to be set aside for the temple, the priests, and Israel’s poor; (2) sabbaths and festivals; (3) women, property, marriage, and divorce; (4) civil and criminal law, including torts and the law of witnesses; (5) conduct of the cult or sacrificial liturgy of the temple; and (6) the preservation of purity in the temple and, under certain spe­cific circumstances, in the home. Noteworthy is the continuing emphasis on the temple. At least two of the six principal parts of the Mishnah deal with that building, which isn’t surprising since much of the oral law had probably begun to take shape during the period when it was still standing. But it’s impressive that succes­sive generations of Jews have continued to study the Mishnah, including the substantial portions of it that would train them to conduct the sacrifices and other rites of the temple should it ever return. And it must be assumed that, at the early time when the Mishnah was compiled, the hope that the temple would soon be rebuilt still burned bright in the hearts of many scattered Jews. The lack of a temple, they were certain, would only be temporary.

Indeed, for a brief period in the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian (360-63)—known to Christian sources as “Julian the Apostate” but in Jewish tradition under the more neutral nickname of “Julian the Hellene”—raised hopes for the Jews of Palestine and the rest of the empire. Quite understandably unimpressed by the behavior of his supposedly Christian imperial family, which included murders and cruelties of astonishing variety, Julian had renounced Christianity. A highly intelligent man, he had accepted in its stead a philosophical version of the old Greek religion and had set out to reduce the power of the Christian church and its bishops. As part of his policy, he announced in 362 that he would sponsor the rebuilding of “Holy Jerusalem,” including its temple. By restoring the Jews to their ancient capital and by reestablishing their great shrine, Julian knew, he would score a major propaganda victory against the Christian church, which had based much of its propaganda on the destruction of Jerusalem as a sign of God’s curse upon the Jewish people and the transfer of the divine blessing to the Chris­tians.[1] He was also motivated, it seems, by genuine sympathy with Jewish doctrine and by a deep interest in religious ritual generally. The Christian reaction to Julian’s plans was, predictably, furious— and apparently violent. Thus, when Christian legends report miraculous fireballs that destroyed everything the Jews had built on the temple mount, we can probably infer from this that pious arson­ists set fire to the construction site. And when Julian was stabbed to death by a devout Christian Arab soldier among his troops, the dream of a restored Jewish temple died with him.

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.”[2]

Given the new Jewish focus on the writing of commentaries, it’s hardly surprising 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] For some interestingly similar modern views on the matter, see Thomas L. Fried­man, From Beirut to Jerusalem (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989), 430-31.

[2] Matthew 23:2.


Posted from Park City, Utah



Browse Our Archives