In-depth study

Prof. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer dives deep into the history of the Talmud and its multitude of interpretations

ORTHODOX JEWS study Talmud in Budapest in 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS)
ORTHODOX JEWS study Talmud in Budapest in 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is the Babylonian Talmud, what is its significance, and what accounts for the fact that more people are studying it today than at any time in history?
The answers to these and many other talmudic questions are considered in The Talmud: A Biography, by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University.
At the outset, the author posits that the Talmud can be defined in three ways: as a work of religious literature collectively produced by a group of rabbinic scholars between the first and eighth centuries CE; as the central canonical work of the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple; and as the ultimate symbolic representation of Judaism, Jewishness and Jews.
Those who study the Talmud, he writes, view it in different ways. Academic scholars of the text are primarily interested in the essential Talmud – the historically original understanding – and its correct meaning. Traditional Talmud scholars engage with the text and the numerous commentaries and interpretations that have been written. And finally, historians of all periods are interested in the emblematic Talmud – the register of the Talmud that is disconnected from its internal content and reflects its position as a cultural token.
As Wimpfheimer warms to his subject, he describes the writing of the Midrash, the Mishna and, eventually, the Talmud. The Midrash was the freestyle conversation surrounding the Bible, he writes, and the Talmud was a freestyle conversation surrounding the Mishna.
To better explain, Wimpfheimer extensively analyzes a Mishna from tractate Bava Kamma, which discusses individual liability for damage done by one’s animals or objects, and a debate in the Talmud between two third-century Palestinian rabbis, Resh Lakish and R. Yohanan, as to the reasons for this liability. The author, who in addition to his university credentials received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, uses all the tools at his disposal – both traditional and critical – in analyzing the passage.
Wimpfheimer notes that traditional students of the Talmud read passages and discussions between rabbis as if the text captures an actual historical conversation, consisting of questions, answers and debate. Critical students of the Talmud, he explains, understand many of these discussions to be a literary construct designed with the features of a conversation.
The final editors of the Talmud, writes Wimpfheimer, altered and framed the inherited traditions that are embedded in a talmudic passage. Wimpfheimer studied under both Prof. Shamma Friedman and Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, two noted pioneers in the use of source criticism – sensitivity to the different historical provenances of embedded sources – and utilizes this technique in explaining the dispute between Resh Lakish and R. Yohanan.
In addition, the author uses these tools to analyze several Aggadic tales, including the well-known talmudic account that relates how God held Mount Sinai above the Israelites like a barrel and threatened their survival to make them accept the Torah. Wimpfheimer’s conclusions and resolutions of the discussion are fascinating and thought-provoking.
The author excels in his historical explanation of the relationship of the Babylonian Talmud to other books such as the Palestinian Talmud, the Zohar, and the Codes. He discusses the Christian criticism of the Talmud, including the Paris Disputation of 1240 and the subsequent burning of the Talmud, and explains that in the eyes of the Christian authorities, “the Talmud functioned as the scapegoat for Judaism and the Jews by embodying their perceived perfidies and receiving their punishment.”
Even among the Jews, he explains, over the years there were groups that did not venerate the Talmud. The Jews of the Haskala (the Enlightenment), the Reform Movement and the Zionist movement all established themselves by separating from the traditional community, and distanced themselves from the Talmud in order to establish their groups as modern and nontraditional.
Wimpfheimer provides a fascinating account of the physical development of the Talmud, from the earliest extant Talmud scroll, dating from the 10th century, to the first printed, complete set of the Talmud, published by Daniel Bomberg, in the 16th century. There were major disputes and disagreements between two of the best-known Talmud printers in the 19th century, the Shapiro family of Slavuta, and the Romms of Vilna, but eventually, the Vilna (Romm) edition became the standard that is still in use today.
Wimpfheimer also analyzes the popularity of the Daf Yomi phenomenon, in which thousands of Jews the world over study one page per day, eventually completing the study of the Talmud – 2,711 pages – in just over seven years. He suggests that through Daf Yomi, the Talmud is transformed from an intellectual pursuit into a ritual text.
The Talmud: A Biography is a well-written, lucid and clear exposition of the history and development of the Talmud through the ages. It is not an easy read, and requires a certain amount of dedication and study on the part of the reader to grasp some of the more sophisticated parts of the talmudic discussion. Those who do put in the effort, however, will be rewarded with an increased understanding of, and appreciation for, the Talmud and the tools used for its interpretation.
ORTHODOX JEWS study Talmud in Budapest in 2012. (Reuters)