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Babylonian Talmud, c. 500 CE

talmudFunction in Judaism.

To gain a comprehensive view of the Talmud it must be considered as a historical factor in Judaism as well as a literary production. In the latter aspect it is unique among the great masterpieces of the literatures of the world. In form a commentary, it became an encyclopedia of Jewish faith and scholarship, comprising whatsoever the greatest representatives of Judaism in Palestine and in Babylon had regarded as objects of study and investigation and of teaching and learning, during the three centuries which elapsed from the conclusion of the Mishnah to the completion of the Talmud itself. When the Mishnah, with the many ancient traditions to which it had given rise since the latter centuries of the Second Temple, was incorporated into the Talmud as its text-book, the Talmud became a record of the entire epoch which was represented by the Jewish schools of Palestine and Babylon, and which served as a stage of transition from the Biblical period to the later aspect of Judaism. Although the Talmud is an academic product and may be characterized in the main as a report (frequently with the accuracy of minutes) of the discussions of the schools, it also sheds a flood of light on the culture of the people outside the academies. The interrelation between the schools and daily life, and the fact that neither teachers nor pupils stood aloof from that life, but took part in it as judges, instructors, and expounders of the Law, caused the Talmud to represent even non-scholastic affairs with an abundance of minute details, and made it an important source for the history of civilization. Since, moreover, the religious law of the Jews dealt with all the circumstances of life, the Talmud discusses the most varied branches of human knowledge—astronomy and medicine, mathematics and law, anatomy and botany—thus furnishing valuable data for the history of science also.

The Talmud, furthermore, is unique from the point of view of literary history as being a product of literature based on oral tradition and yet summarizing the literature of an entire epoch. Aside from it, those to whose united efforts it may be ascribed have left no trace of intellectual activity. Though anonymous itself, the Talmud, like other products of tannaitic and amoraic literature, cites the names of many authors of sayings because it was a universal practise to memorize the name of the author together with the saying. Many of these scholars are credited with only a few sentences or with even but one, while to others are ascribed many hundreds of aphorisms, teachings, questions, and answers; and the representatives of Jewish tradition of those centuries, the Tannaim and the Amoraim, received an abundant compensation for their renunciation of the fame of authorship when tradition preserved their names together with their various expositions, and thus rescued even the least of them from oblivion. The peculiar form of the Talmud is due to the fact that it is composed almost entirely of individual sayings and discussions on them, this circumstance being a result of its origin- the fact that it sought especially to preserve the oral tradition and the transactions of the academies allowed the introduction only of the single sentences which represented the contributions of the teachers and scholars to the discussions. The preservation of the names of the authors of these apothegms, and of those who took part in the discussions, transactions, and disputations renders the Talmud the most important, and in many respects the only, source for the period of which it is the product. The sequence of generations which constitute the framework of the history of the Tannaim and Amoraim may be determined from the allusions contained in the Talmud, from the anecdotes and stories of the academies, and from other valuable literary material, which exhibit the historical conditions, events, and personages of the time, not excepting cases in which the facts have been clothed in the garb of legend or myth. Although it was undertaken with no distinctly literary purpose, it contains, especially in its haggadic portions, many passages which are noteworthy as literature, and which for many centuries were the sole repositories of Jewish poetry.

Its Authority.

After the completion of the Talmud as a work of literature, it exercised a twofold influence as a historical factor in the history of Judaism and its followers, not only in regard to the guidance and formulation of religious life and thought, but also with respect to the awakening and development of intellectual activity. As a document of religion the Talmud acquired that authority which was due to it as the written embodiment of the ancient tradition, and it fulfilled the task which the men of the Great Assembly set for the representatives of the tradition when they said, “Make a hedge for the Torah” (Ab. i. 2). Those who professed Judaism felt no doubt that the Talmud was equal to the Bible as a source of instruction and decision in problems of religion, and every effort to set forth religious teachings and duties was based on it; so that even the great systematic treatise of Maimonides, which was intended to supersede the Talmud, only led to a more thorough study of it. In like manner, the Shulḥan ‘Aruk of Joseph Caro, which achieved greater practical results than the Mishneh Torah, of Maimonides, owed its authority to the fact that it was recognized as the most convenient codification of the teachings of the Talmud; while the treatises on the philosophy of religion which strove as early as the time of Saadia to harmonize the truths of Judaism with the results of independent thinking referred in all possible cases to the authority of the Talmud, upon which they could easily draw for a confirmation of their theses and arguments. The wealth of moral instruction contained in the Talmud exercised a profound influence upon the ethics and ideals of Judaism. Despite all this, however, the authority enjoyed by it did not lessen the authority of the Bible, which continued to exercise its influence as the primal source of religious and ethical instruction and edification even while the Talmud ruled supreme over religious practise, preserving and fostering in the Diaspora, for many centuries and under most unfavorable external conditions, the spirit of deep religion and strict morality.

The history of Jewish literature since the completion of the Talmud has been a witness to its importance in awakening and stimulating intellectual activity among the Jews. The Talmud has been made the subject or the starting-point of a large portion of this widely ramified literature, which has been the product of the intellectual activity induced by its study, and to which both scholars in the technical sense of the word and also a large number of the studious Jewish laity have contributed. The same faculties which had been exercised in the composition of the Talmud were requisite also for the study of it; the Talmud therefore had an exceedingly stimulating influence upon the intellectual powers of the Jewish people, which were then directed toward other departments of knowledge. It is a noteworthy fact that the study of the Talmud gradually became a religious duty, and thus developed into an intellectual activity having no ulterior object in view. Consequently it formed a model of study for the sake of study.

The Talmud has not yet entirely lost its twofold importance as a historical factor within Judaism, despite the changes which have taken place during the last century. For the majority of Jews it is still the supreme authority in religion; and, as noted above, although it is rarely an object of study on the part of those who have assimilated modern culture, it is still a subject of investigation for Jewish learning, as a product of Judaism which yet exerts an influence second in importance only to the Bible.


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