The Talmud – Part II

Unlike Rabbi Steinsaltz’s compendium, the Talmud is more than just a single book. It is volume upon volume. More than 6,200 pages consisting of at least 63 “tractates” (or treatises). It is not authored by one or two people. It has been penned by hundreds of hands and collective minds.  The Talmud is divided into two parts: the Mishnah (circa 200 A.D.) which is a discussion of the oral Torah; and the Gemara (500 A.D. to present) which delves into a wide variety of social and cultural issues.

Originally, Jewish scholarship was passed down from generation to generation in oral narration.  Then – with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., there was a move to memorialize this oral tradition.  And so it began.  The Talmud is written in Hebrew script but the language is Aramaic — the language of Jesus.  Arguably the Talmud is no longer open for further edits.  However it continues to be open to discussion, commentary and footnote.  Thus, in a way, the Talmud will never be completed.

What are the topics discussed?  Apart from the social and cultural matters referenced in my previous post, the Torah plays a large role.  For example, when the Commandment says “Remember the Sabbath Day to make it holy,” just what does “Remember” mean?  That admonition (along with so many others in the Old Testament) has prompted extensive discussion and debate about the meaning of certain words, statements and commands.   

I may never become a Talmudic scholar but I am glad I took the time to read Rabbi Steinsaltz’s book.  And further investigate this important chapter of our Judeo-Christian heritage.       

The Old Testament

I just finished reading the Old Testament (also called the Tanakh).  Took me about 15 months (between other books).  Wow!  What a journey.   Some of it was powerful.  Some inscrutable.  Some scary and much was encouraging.  I did not come upon any Old Testament comedians though the word “laugh” does appear 96 times in 93 verses. . . .

There was a lot to like in this literary endeavor.  I came across verses that spoke to me or just educated me:

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.”   Ecclesiastes 9:10.  I keep this on a 3″ x 5″ card.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying ‘who shall I send?  Who will go for us?’ and I said ‘here am I.  Send me.‘”  Isaiah 6:8.  This too. . . .

Isaiah 9:5 and 6 provides the refrain from Handel’s “Messiah.”   And Isaiah 40:1 and 2 gives the opening lines of Handel’s masterpiece.   

Isaiah 40:4 and 5 offer famous lines from Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

There is Psalm 17:8 which I quoted in my Father of the Bride speech at my daughter’s wedding:  “She will always be the apple of my eye and in the shadow of my wings.” 

And of course there’s Proverbs 17:28 — “Even a fool when he holdeth his peace is counted wise.  And he that shutteth his lips is deemed a man of understanding.”   This passage tracks my father’s frequent though not-entirely-Biblical counsel when I was young “better for you to keep your mouth shut and have people think you are a fool, than to open your mouth and have them know you are one.”