In Our Time: The Talmud

The Talmud is one of the most significant texts in Judaism, second in importance only to the Torah. It is in part a commentary on the Torah, and in part an ongoing discussion (or argument) between various Rabbis & sages about Judaism, the Law and how to interpret the Law. The three experts who discussed the Talmud on In Our Time were Philip Alexander (University of Manchester), Rabbi Norman Solomon (Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies) and Laliv Clenman (Leo Baeck College and King’s College London).

The Talmud began to be written down sometime around the 2nd Century AD, and grew out of an oral tradition which purports to have begun with Moses. There are actually two different Talmuds, one which began to be compiled in or near Jerusalem, and one which was compiled in Babylon. The Jerusalem Talmud is much briefer than the Babylonian one – it might contain a story in a sentence where the Babylonian Talmud takes a page to say the same thing. The Jerusalem Talmud stopped being worked on around the 5th Century AD, whereas the Babylonian Talmud continued to be edited for at least another couple of centuries. Over the time since then the Jerusalem Talmud has decreased in importance, until nowadays if you say “The Talmud” you’re assumed to be referring to the Babylonian one. The experts suggested this was in part historical accident, due possibly to the ease of spread of the text within the Islamic world during the 8th and 9th Centuries – Jews living anywhere from Iraq to Spain were connected, and from Spain it could spread through European Jewish communities too. Whereas the trading and travelling links from Israel were more limited.

The Talmud is composed of two sorts of texts. The first is the Mishnah which is a compilation of the laws, taken both from the Torah and from the oral tradition. This is organised by type into 6 categories, thus making it much easier to refer to than needing to find the right place in the Torah where the subject comes up. These tend to be brief, and require interpretation – which is the purpose of the rest of the Talmud, called the Gemara. The Gemara isn’t just a straightforward linear commentary on the Mishnah, it can go off on tangents and explain contexts around an interpretation. It also contains stories about the Rabbis who taught and argued about the interpretations. These are generally, I think, matchable to historical personages (either living during the centuries the text was being compiled or before when it was an oral tradition) but the historicity of any individual story is a matter of speculation.

Once the Talmud had been compiled and edited it was not frozen in place as a definitive version. Over the subsequent centuries many people have written commentaries, and expanded and re-interpreted what is in the Talmud in the light of their own circumstances and of new technology and so on. The most famous of these, that is printed in many versions of the Talmud was written in the Middle Ages by a French Rabbi known as Rashi. A modern (relatively speaking) version of the Talmud is generally laid out with the Mishnah in the centre of the page, surrounded by the relevant passages from the Gemara. In one of the margins is Rashi’s commentary on this section, and other commentaries or glosses are in other margins.

All three experts were keen to say that the Talmud is not a book, not in the same way that Christian religious texts are. Instead it is an argument or a conversation. You aren’t expected to read the Talmud and take it as the final word, you are expected to read it and engage with it, to argue about the things you disagree with and put forward your own interpretations. This begins even when the Talmud is being taught in Jewish schools – the pupils sit in pairs reading the text and arguing about, even taking positions they don’t agree with to test each others ideas. The Talmud is supposed to evolve with the generations.

However that’s pretty unwieldy if you’re a Jew who wants to know how to follow the law in a particular circumstance – you’d pretty much have to go and consult with a Rabbi for every ruling. So there have also arisen lists of brief statements of what the law is in several common circumstances. These aren’t just distillations of what is said in the Talmud, they also reflect the compiler’s biases and interpretations – so they can be thought of as a part of the Talmud tradition in that sense. However the three experts didn’t seem very keen on them as a concept, even if they are useful – because they freeze the ongoing conversation into a bullet pointed list.

This felt like a programme that barely scratched the surface of what they were talking about. For instance they didn’t have any time to talk about specific examples, which might’ve helped elucidate what sorts of changes had taken place across the centuries since it was originally written down.