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Talmudic Thinking

The question that must be addressed by anyone who takes seriously the commandments of the Torah is, "What do they mean?" For instance, the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8-11) does not specify what "you shall not do any work" actually means. In 35:2 God says, "You shall kindle no fire in all your habitations on the sabbath day." But if the fire is already kindled, is cooking work? Or picking an orange? Or recreational gardening? Or working in the workshop in the garage? The consequences are serious: whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people (31:13) -- and in case that isn't harsh enough, the next verse states that "whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death." Some clarification is necessary.

Rabbinic tradition maintains that in the 40 days Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, he received both the written Torah (that is, the five books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy) and oral clarification from the Lord about the written Torah. Moses passed that oral clarification on to the 70 elders of Israel, who in turn passed it on to the next generation, who passed it on to the next, and so on throughout the history of the people of Israel.

But in the time following the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the concern was to gather the wosdom of the rabbis together for what was shaping up as a long diaspora. The myth places the conversation in the second century in Javneh (=Jamnia), but wherever it happened, the different views on what Moses had received and passed on were exchanged -- sometimes peaceably, sometimes with a little heated argument (cf. the story of the Many). Every law was explored, and every aspect of life addressed.

Among the rabbis who engaged in this exchange -- whose names included the likes of Yohanan ben Zakkai, Akiva, Jonathan, and Gamaliel as well as the students of Shammai and Hillel -- was Judah HaNasi (Judah the Prince). His reputation as a scholar is so great, that he is known simply as "Rabbi." Judah took the discussion of the oral instruction, and categorized it into six divisions, with a total of 63 subdivisions, called tractates (see the handout The Mishnah's Tractates.) It is a stunning work: Jacob Neusner's 1988 English translation runs to over 1000 pages, and Judah HaNasi did it without the aid of a notepad. But to make it more stunning, the work does not simply include the final decisions. It includes the names of the rabbis who spoke the arguments for the majority -- and the names of those who spoke for the minority.

The Mishnah is a work that takes the reader into the debate itself. It is turgid -- the opening lines of tractate Ketubot ("marrigae contracts") begin

A virgin is married on the fourth day, and a widow on the fifth day, for two times a week the courts sit in the cities, on the second day and on the fifth day. So if he had a complaint about virginity he was early at the seated court.

No context or explanation is given. But from there the text moves to the amount of a marriage contract, for older, younger, healthy and "flawed" women. In the 6th unit of the tractate, the question is raised of the woman's believability when she is accused of not being a virgin. The Mishnah only reports

Rabban Gamaliel and R. Eliezer say, "She is believed."

R. Joshua says, "We do not depend on her testimony."

No statement is made about who is correct.

Neusner argues that this literary form creates a need for engagement. To know the context (and hence, the meaning) requires that one be taught by one who already knows. And to know which position is correct, one must hear and enter into the arguments made on all sides, and one must consider all the ramifications, both real and imagined.

So it comes as no surprise that this is exactly what the rabbinic community did. From the moment the Mishnah was published, commentary on the Mishnah abounded. In the 600s, a collection of that commentary (called "Gemara") was published. A similar collection, with different commentators, was published in Palestine as well. The clarifications of the Gemara and the Mishnah it is clarifying make up the Talmud.

Consider a page of Talmud as published today. The center column of the page highlights a verse or two of the Mishnah text along with the initial commentary (Gemara). Immedietly adjacent to the Mishnah/Gemara is the commentary of Rashi, the most significant Talmudic writer of Jewish history. His text is always on the side closer to the middle of the book -- because it cuts to the heart of the law. On the opposite side of the Mishnah/Gemara text is the commentary of the Tosafot -- Rashi's descendants, themselves noteable rabbis. Other commentaries are included in the margins outside Rashi and the Tosafot. In the sample page, Rabbenu Hananel (of the generation immediately before Rashi), R. Joel Sirkes and R. Joshua Boav Mevorkah of the 16th century, and R. Isaiaih Berlin and R. Akiva Egar of the 18th/19th centuries are included. In short, the text is surrounded by the developing insights and applications of the rabbis.

The Talmud is never finished. Modern editions (such as that of Adin Steinsaltz) include notes to clarify setting and language issues, as well as new insights. The Talmud is a process, not a product.

Talmudic thinking is summed up in the phrase "Turn and turn the Torah." When an answer is developed, it is not the end, but only the beginning of a new question. The Talmudic way of thinking is the seeking of ever-new ways to see. It is the practice to seek ever new ways to think of Torah. In doing so, the Jews make God fully present.

Click to see how Talmudic Thinking may have impacted the Bible itself.