The Talmud - The Jewish Home in Exile

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Talmud – The Jewish Home in Exile


   Suppose we had in our possession all the lectures and discussions developed at Harvard University by the professors during the 350 years of Harvard’s existence. The publication of books including the material from so many scholars on so many subjects over so many years would seem an impossible task. Yet, this has been done, not by us but by the one hundred forty eight scholars who compiled the “second law” or Mishna. The word Mishna means “repetition” and refers to the collection and editing of the oral traditions of the Jews. These traditions were transmitted from generation to generation until finally completed after 550 years by Judah the Prince in the third century C.E. The Mishna seeks to elucidate the Torah or the “doctrine”. The Torah consists not only of the 5 Books of Moses but also of the Prophets, or Neviim, the Psalms and a number of books called the “writings” or “Chesuvim”, leading to the abbreviation “Tenach”, for the entire Torah as promulgated in 444 B.C.E. by the Great Assembly.

   Shortly after the completion of the Mishna it appeared that it too included a number of obscure passages and discussions which needed further explanation. Therefore, those whose studied the Mishna commented on its contents and gradually wrote the Gemara or “complement”. The Gemara consists of many books as does the Mishna. All of  these works are together called the Talmud or “studies.”

   The Talmud is therefore the product of several centuries. Now there are two Talmuds. One was created in Judah after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The other Talmud, called the Babylonian Talmud, was created in that country, which had a Jewish population of nearly two million in the sixth century B.C.E. Today, the Babylonian Talmud is studied more often than the Talmud developed in Judah and called the Jerusalem Talmud. It was competed in 370 C.E., one hundred and fifty years before the closing of the Babylonian Talmud.

   There are among us some men who have devoted their entire lives to the study of the Talmud. These men are sometimes called charedim or “shakers” because of the body motion that accompanies their prayers and their studies. Some of those who devote themselves to the study of these texts may be recognized by the black clothes and large brimmed hats they wear on the Sabbath and other occasions. Of course, it is evident that not everyone who wears such clothes is therefore a Talmud scholar. Furthermore, there are many others, both among Conservative and Reform Jews, who also study the Talmud.

   There are many editions of the Talmud published in various countries where Jews have lived. In Europe the Talmud was called “the portable homeland” because the European Jews immersed themselves in the Talmud if they could and thereby shut out the ugly, hate filled world in which they were forced to live.

   In Europe, as in this country and in Israel today, there were men whose intellect permitted them to study the Talmud full time. These men were supported by their families or the families of their wives. Some of the poor Talmud scholars lived on the earnings of their wives who believed, as do some today, that the study of the sacred texts is more important than any other occupation and that the support of a Talmud scholar is a most righteous enterprise.

   If you have the opportunity, visit any university library or any Jewish library and take a look at the Talmud. It is vast. It includes the comments and discussions of innumerable scholars and it tells us how these scholars perceived each issue under discussion. The Talmud tells us both the majority opinion and the minority opinion concerning each matter discussed. This permits the student to make up his own mind as to how he wishes to view the matter at hand.

   We should add that today, in 2000, here in America there are further discussions of Jewish law and custom. These are published by our rabbis and are called “The Responsa”. Furthermore, we have books written by Jewish scholars over the years which attempt to accommodate current Jewish life. The best known of these is “The Set Table” or Shulchan Aruch, published by Joseph Karo in 1567. That code is the basis of Torah true (orthodox) Judaism today.

    In this country we have the work of Rabbi Isaac Klein, of blessed memory. Rabbi Klein published A Guide to Jewish Practice posthumously, thereby making it possible for observant Jews in the English speaking world to  live within Jewish tradition in a modern context. That is exactly what Joseph Karo had done for the Jews of his day and that is what we can expect will be done by Jews in all the years yet to come. Bimhayro v’yomenu.

Shalom uvracha.   


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