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In its simplest form of definition, the Talmud is the record of centuries of discussion expounding the Oral Law of Judaism as it took place in the great Torah academies of the Land of Israel and Babylonia long ago.
The Mishna, which is the basis of all talmudic discussions, was completed and edited at the beginning of the third century CE by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi in Tzipori in the Galilee.
The Talmud was developed in two separate works: Talmud Yerushalmi (the Talmud of the Land of Israel) and Talmud Bavli (the Talmud of Babylonia). The Talmud Yerushalmi was completed circa 350 CE, when the Jewish community in the Land of Israel began to suffer genocidal persecution from the newly empowered Byzantine Christians. The demise of a vibrant Jewish community in the Land of Israel forced many of the Torah scholars living there to flee to Babylonia where Christian dominance did not hold sway.
The Babylonian Talmud was not completed until the middle/end of the sixth century CE and became the definitive Talmud. Even though the Babylonian Talmud describes itself as being created in "darkness (of exile)," it remains the definitive Talmud.
Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi, the great 11th-century codifier of Jewish law, explained that we follow the opinions of the Babylonian Talmud over those of the Talmud Yerushalmi because the Babylonian Talmud, which was edited two centuries after the Talmud Yerushalmi, already took into consideration the opinions of the Talmud Yerushalmi when reaching its own stated halachic opinions and conclusions. Thus the Babylonian Talmud became and remains the main source for the definitive tradition of the Oral Law from Sinai.
Throughout Jewish history, the Jewish people, in all of their lands of dispersion, basically lived a talmudic way of life, differing little from the way of the lives of their ancestors in Babylonia during the period of the compilation and editing of the Talmud. It was the Talmud, naturally based upon the sanctity and integrity of the Torah, the Written Law, that bound world Jewry together in spite of the enormous distances of space and society that exile imposed upon it.
The names of the great men of the Talmud - Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, Rav Mar Shmuel, Rabah, Abayei, Ravah, Ravina, Rav Ashi, Mar bar Rav Ashi, etc. - were all household names and familiar "guests" in Jewish homes the world over. Even though the vast majority of Jews were hardly talmudic scholars - this field was pretty much reserved for the rabbis and judges of Israel - almost all Jews were aware of the Talmud, its values, messages, decisions and stories.
It was the guiding book in their lives, not only in matters of ritual and law, but also in terms of personal behavior, societal goals and vision of the Jewish future. It was almost as through a process of osmosis that Jews absorbed within themselves an appreciation and respect for the Talmud. Eventually it could be said that the book referred to in the phrase "people of the book" was, in fact, the Talmud.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the Talmud became the target and flash point of opposition to Judaism, its values and practices as well as its practitioners. The burning of the Talmud was a regular part of Christian persecution of Jews throughout Europe from the time of Louis IX in the 13th century to Nazi Germany in the 20th century. Again, all those dissident Jews who rejected the traditions of the Oral Law and sought to create "new" forms of Jewish life also attacked the Talmud bitterly and discredited its ideas and formulations.
From the Karaites in the seventh century to the Yevsektzia (the Jewish section of the Bolshevik party that Stalin would later purge) in the 20th century, the Talmud was vilified and its pages torn and destroyed by Jews who were bitterly opposed to its teachings and who recognized that no "new" form of Judaism could ever take hold as long as the Talmud was still studied, respected and loved within the Jewish world.
Nevertheless, the Talmud, like the Jewish people that it protects, has weathered all storms. It is the main text and topic of study in all yeshivot throughout the Jewish world. Competence in its study is the first requirement for all rabbis and teachers who maintain and defend the veracity of Jewish tradition from Sinai until today. The Talmud is old, but it remains fresh and vital. Its study is complex and challenging, but it is a labor of love. For understanding the Talmud is the way to understanding the Jewish soul - the Jew that is within us all - and thus is our true connection to our past and our destiny.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).
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