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The Talmud: Book of the Jews

by Rabbi Berel Wein

The Jewish people are known as the "People of the Book." In general world opinion, the phrase refers to the Bible and describes it as the text which is most prized and studied by the Jews. While that is essentially true, it is not completely accurate. The text of the book actually emphasized in day-to-day study is the Talmud. It is as much the book of the people (of Israel) as the Jews are the people of that book.

From the Talmud, one can perceive the true "inside story" of the Jewish people, and its love of Torah and its life of destiny. It represents a way of life, a description of human society and its vagaries, a conduit for the never-ending conversation between God and man.

It is also the ultimate textbook of Jewish study, for on its pages is recorded the whole sweep of biblical history, all of the details and minutiae of the legal and ritual system of Judaism as embodied in the Oral Law, as well as biographies, anecdotes and insights into the lives of the main figures of Israel, manifesting an abiding belief in the Lord's personal attention to individuals and His never-failing, if sometimes apparently long-delayed, exercise of justice, retribution and reward.

It also records psychological analyses, medical diagnoses, business and commercial practices and advice, marital counseling, humor and pathos, and an unflinching assessment of God's demands upon Jews and the Jewish people.

Swimming the Sea

The Babylonian Talmud is unhurried, thorough in its review of any problem, willing to allow matters to remain in doubt if the clear, logical and correct solution is not ultimately present. Above all, it is analytical to the nth degree.

Because of this, the Babylonian Talmud can be deceiving to those who approach it with a superficial, even if scholarly based, method of study. For without concentrated effort and rigid methods of traditional analysis and study, the Talmud will not easily give up its secrets. It is finely organized, yet will, at any given moment, apparently stray far away from the original topic under discussion, only to return to it eventually with a fresh approach and a new vision.

True to its Oral Law origins, the Talmud allows associative memory to dictate much of its intricate changes of direction. When quoting the opinion of one of the rabbis on any given subject, it may leave the topic at hand and pursue other opinions of that scholar on completely unrelated topics. The entire gamut of all Torah subjects is up for discussion and reconciliation at any one time, and the student of the Talmud is somehow presumed to be knowledgeable of all the issues of the entire Talmud even before he begins its study!

No wonder the rabbis referred to the Talmud as a vast sea in whose waters one must quickly become an excellent swimmer so as not to drown.

Pure Jewish Identity

The Jews are the "People of the Book of the Talmud" also in the sense that the Talmud has had such an influence over their lives for almost two millennia. For the Talmud taught Jews that no occurrence in life and no person in this world is too petty or unworthy of notice and appreciation. Thus, in the Talmud all lines between the legal codifier, the moral arbiter, the practical counselor and the social critic are blurred to disappearance. What emerges is a worldview steeped in holiness and buttressed by faith and goodness, that allows for a life of serenity and worth even under the worst physical circumstances of poverty and persecution.

The survival of the Jewish people in its long and difficult exile is really the story of the power and influence of the Talmud over Israel. The Jews, in all of their lands of dispersion, from Morocco to India, from South Africa to Finland, attempted to live a Talmudic way of life. The Jews loved the Talmud.

Herman Wouk, in his as-yet unpublished diary, 16 January, 1972, explains that he studies Talmud regularly "because by now the Talmud is in my bones. Its elegant and arcane ethical algebra, its soaked-in quintessential Jewishness, its fun, its difficulty, its accumulative virtue, all balance against the cost in time and the so-called 'remoteness from reality'... Anyway, I love it. That's reason enough. My father once said to me, 'If I had enough breath left in me for only one last word, I'd say to you, 'Study the Talmud.' I'm just beginning to understand him. I would say the same thing to my own sons. Above and beyond all its other intellectual and cultural values, the Talmud is, for people like us, 'identity,' pure and ever-springing."

The Bible was fire, divine, and after a certain level of understanding, obviously beyond true human appreciation and evaluation. The Talmud, however, was human, understanding, comforting, challenging and personal. It tolerated individual creativity and even peculiarity, encouraged mass participation in its study, provided practical advice and guidance, and demanded an attainable level of truth and morality in life.

Jews felt good at the open page of the Talmud. They sensed their eternity and worth and felt a close bond and affinity with the towns and academies. To be a Jew was and is to be a Talmudic person.

Reprinted with permission from and excerpted from "ECHOES OF GLORY" - the story of the Jews in the Classical Era 350 BCE - 750 CE. Published by Shaar Press/Mesorah.

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