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Classic Texts of Jewish Study: Introduction Classic Jewish Texts

Introduction to classic texts of Judiaism


The Talmud
[The Talmud is the] body of Jewish civil and religious law, including commentaries on the Torah, or Pentateuch. The Talmud consists of a codification of laws, called the Mishnah, and a commentary on the Mishnah, called the Gemara. The material in the Talmud that concerns decisions by scholars on disputed legal questions is known as the Halakah; the legends, anecdotes, and sayings in the Talmud that are used to illustrate the traditional law are known as Haggada [sic., i.e. Aggada].

Two compilations of the Talmud exist: the Palestinian Talmud, sometimes called the Jerusalem Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud. Both compilations contain the same Mishnah, but each has its own Gemara. The contents of the Palestinian Talmud were written by Palestinian scholars between the 3rd century AD and the beginning of the 5th century; those of the Babylonian Talmud, by scholars who wrote between the 3rd century and the beginning of the 6th century. The Babylonian Talmud became authoritative because the rabbinic academies of Babylonia survived those in Palestine by many centuries.

The Talmud itself, the works of talmudic scholarship, and the commentaries concerning it constitute the greatest contributions to rabbinical literature in the history of Judaism. One of the most important of the works of scholarship is the Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Torah, c. 1180) by the Spanish rabbi, philosopher, and physician Maimonides; it is an abstract of all the rabbinical legal literature in existence at his time. The most widely known commentaries are those on the Babylonian Talmud by the French rabbi Rashi and by certain scholars known as tosaphists, who lived in France and Germany between the 12th and 14th centuries and included some of Rashi's grandsons.

The Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud were first printed in 1520-22 and in 1523 in Venice by the printer Daniel Bomberg. The entire Babylonian Talmud is available in an English translation (1935-52) edited by the British rabbi and scholar Isidore Epstein. Most of the Palestinian Talmud is available in a 19th-century French translation, but the rendering is defective and inaccurate. Twenty tractates of the Palestinian Talmud are found in a Latin translation, in the Thesaurus Antiquitatum Sacrarum (1744-69) of Blasio Ugolino, an 18th-century Italian historian and antiquarian.


The Mishneh Torah Hebrew: מִשְׁנֶה תּוֹרָה‎, "Repetition of the Torah") subtitled Sefer Yad HaHazaka (ספר יד החזקה "Book of the Strong Hand,") is a code of Jewish religious law (Halakha) authored by Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as RaMBaM or "Rambam"), one of history's foremost rabbis. The Mishneh Torah was compiled between 1170 and 1180 (4930-4940), while Maimonides was living in Egypt, and is regarded as Maimonides' magnum opus. Accordingly, later sources simply refer to the work as "Maimon", "Maimonides" or "RaMBaM", although Maimonides composed other works.

Mishneh Torah consists of fourteen books, subdivided into sections, chapters, and paragraphs. It is the only Medieval-era work that details all of Jewish observance, including those laws that are only applicable when the Holy Temple is in existence, and remains an important work in Judaism.

Its title is an appellation originally used for the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, and its subtitle, "Book of the Strong Hand," derives from its subdivision into fourteen books: the numerical value fourteen, when represented as the Hebrew letters Yod (10) Dalet (4), forms the word yad ("hand").

Maimonides intended to provide a complete statement of the Oral Law, so that a person who mastered first the Written Torah and then the Mishneh Torah would be in no need of any other book. Contemporary reaction was mixed, with strong and immediate opposition focusing on the absence of sources and the belief that the work appeared to be intended to supersede study of the Talmud. Maimonides responded to these criticisms, and the Mishneh Torah endures as an influential work in Jewish religious thought. According to several authorities, a decision may not be rendered in opposition to a view of Maimonides, even where he apparently militated against the sense of a Talmudic passage, for in such cases the presumption was that the words of the Talmud were incorrectly interpreted. Likewise: "One must follow Maimonides even when the latter opposed his teachers, since he surely knew their views, and if he decided against them he must have disapproved their interpretation."

Origin, sources, and language

Maimonides sought brevity and clarity in his Mishneh Torah and, as in his Commentary on the Mishnah, he refrained from detailing his sources, considering it sufficient to name his sources in the preface. He drew upon the Torah and the rest of Tanakh, both Talmuds, Tosefta, and the halachic Midrashim, principally Sifra and Sifre. Some[who?] believe that he preferred rulings in certain Midrash collections to rulings in the Talmud, which would have been a rare opinion at the time.[citation needed]

Later sources include the responsa (teshuvot) of the Geonim. The maxims and decisions of the Geonim are frequently presented with the introductory phrase "The Geonim have decided" or "There is a regulation of the Geonim", while the opinions of Isaac Alfasi and Alfasi's pupil Joseph ibn Migash are prefaced by the words "my teachers have decided" (although there is no direct source confirming ibn Migash as Maimonides' teacher). According to Maimonides, the Geonim were considered "unintelligible in our days, and there are but few who are able to comprehend them." There were even times when Maimonides disagreed with what was being taught in the name of the Geonim.

A number of laws appear to have no source in any of the works mentioned; it is thought that Maimonides deduced them through independent interpretations of the Bible or that they are based on versions of previous Talmudic texts no longer in our hands. Maimonides himself states a few times in his work that he possessed what he considered to be more accurate texts of the Talmud than what most people possessed at his time. The latter has been confirmed to a certain extent by versions of the Talmud preserved by the Yemenite Jews as to the reason for what previously were thought to be rulings without any source.

 Language and style

The Mishneh Torah is written in Hebrew in the style of the Mishnah. As he states in the preface, Maimonides was reluctant to write in Talmudic Aramaic, since it was not widely known.[3] His previous works had been written in Arabic.

The Mishneh Torah never cites sources or arguments, and confines itself to stating the final decision on the law to be followed in each situation. There is no discussion of Talmudic interpretation or methodology, and the sequence of chapters follows the factual subject matter of the laws rather than the intellectual principle involved.


Torah and Zohar

The Torah (Tanakh)
[The Torah] (Hebrew, "law" or "doctrine") [is], in Judaism, the Pentateuch, especially when in the form of a parchment scroll for reading in the synagogue. The Torah is the cornerstone of Jewish religion and law. The scrolls are considered most holy and are beloved by the pious; every synagogue maintains several scrolls, each of which may be protected by a covering of rich fabric and decorated with silver ornaments. A special holiday in honor of the Torah, known as Simhath Torah (Hebrew, "rejoicing in the Law"), is celebrated in the synagogue by singing, and marching and dancing with the scrolls.

The term Torah also is used to refer to the entire corpus of the Scriptures of the Jews together with the commentaries on them. The commentaries, which arose through the centuries out of learned discussion, are called oral Torah to distinguish them from the Pentateuch itself, the written Torah.

The Zohar (Kabalah)
I. Introduction
Kabalah (Hebrew, "received tradition") [is], generically, Jewish mysticism in all its forms; specifically, the esoteric theosophy that crystallized in 13th-century Spain and Provence, France, around Sefer ha-zohar (The Book of Splendor), referred to as the Zohar, and generated all later mystical movements in Judaism.

The earliest known form of Jewish mysticism dates from the first centuries AD and is a variant on the prevailing Hellenistic astral mysticism, in which the adept, through meditation and the use of magic formulas, journeys ecstatically through and beyond the seven astral spheres. In the Jewish version, the adept seeks an ecstatic version of God's throne, the chariot (merkava) beheld by Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 1).

II. The Medieval Period
Medieval Spanish Cabala, the most important form of Jewish mysticism, is less concerned with ecstatic experience than with esoteric knowledge about the nature of the divine world and its hidden connections with the world of creation. Medieval Cabala is a theosophical system that draws on Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and is expressed in symbolic language. The system is most fully articulated in the Zohar, written between 1280 and 1286 by the Spanish Cabalist Moses de León, but attributed to the 2nd-century rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. The Zohar depicts the Godhead as a dynamic flow of force composed of numerous aspects. Above and beyond all human contemplation is God as he is in himself, the unknowable, immutable En Sof (Infinite). Other aspects or attributes, knowable through God's relation to the created world, emanate from En Sof in a configuration of ten sefirot (realms or planes), through which the divine power further radiates to create the cosmos. Zoharic theosophy concentrates on the nature and interaction of the ten sefirot as symbols of the inner life and processes of the Godhead. Because the sefirot are also archetypes for everything in the world of creation, an understanding of their workings can illuminate the inner workings of the cosmos and of history. The Zohar thereby provides a cosmic-symbolic interpretation of Judaism and of the history of Israel in which the Torah and commandments, as well as Israel's life in exile, become symbols for events and processes in the inner life of God. Thus interpreted, the proper observance of the commandments assumes a cosmic significance.

III. Lurianic Cabala
This cosmic aspect of the Zohar is developed dramatically and with great consequence in 16th-century Lurianic Cabala (named for its formulator, Isaac ben Solomon Luria). The Lurianic system represents a response to the cataclysmic experience of Jewish exiles expelled from Iberia in the 1490s; it projects this experience onto the divine world. In this system, the En Sof withdraws into itself (tzimtzum) at the outset of creation, making room for the world, but also for evil. A cosmic catastrophe occurs during emanation when vessels of the divine light shatter and the sparks are imprisoned in the world in shards of evil (qelippot). The human task, through prayer and proper observance of the commandments, becomes nothing less than the redemption (tiqqun) of the world and the reunification of the Godhead. The Cabala was thus transformed into a popular messianic movement, which later generated Sabbatian messianism and 18th-century Polish Hasidism.


"Talmud," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 © 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Contributed By:
Saul Lieberman, M.A., D.H.L., Ph.D.
Late Distinguished Service Professor of Talmud and Rector of the Rabbinical School, Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Author of Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine.

"Torah," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 © 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

"Cabala," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 © 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Contributed By:
Richard S. Sarason, M.A., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. Contributor to Jewish Quarterly Review, Journal of Jewish Studies, and Religious Studies Review.

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Subjects: Judaic Studies