Category: Talmud

While most Amoraim were familiar with the mishnayot of the sedarim which formed the curriculum of Amoraim study, such familiarity was not universal. … Even when a relevant mishnah is cited, it is not always verbatim. …

The difference between the Bavli’s citation of mishnayot and those of Toseftan baraitot is that the text of the Mishnah has been transmitted along with that of the Bavli from the earliest times.

Yaakov Elman, Authority and Tradition: Toseftan Baraitot in Talmudic Babylonian (New York: The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of the Yeshiva University Press; Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1994), 48.


…I contained — a void. I did not know how to fill that void, but when I first encountered the Talmud and became completely enamored with it — its language, its humor, its profound thinking, its modes of discussion, and the practicality, humanity and maturity that emerge from its lines — I sensed that I had found the love of my life, what I had been lacking.

Ruth Calderon, “‘The Time Has Come To Re-appropriate What Is Ours’”, Israel Now: A Special Supplement to the Jewish Week, trans. Elli Fischer (31 May 2013), 13.

I think that חז”ל saw the questions. One of the things I find interesting about studying Biblical critics nine times out of ten, or even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the questions that Biblical critics are asking are typically anticipated by מדרשים.

חז”ל’s answers are very different from the answers that modern Biblical scholars give, but the fact that Jews have been aware of these questions for two thousand years is something that I find very comforting, that, somehow, they were able to go on.

Rabbi Jeff Fox, “Joshua’s Farewell Speech“, YCT Yom Iyun (New York City: 13 January 2014).

God proclaims, “I will utterly annihilate Amalek from under heaven.” We meet Amalek again later in the Torah, where God commands the Jewish people to kill the entire tribe of Amalek: “When the Lord your God grants you safety from your enemies around you… completely destroy the memory of Amalek from under heaven” [Deut. 25:19]. And the imperative to annihilate Amalek refers not only to the tribe’s male combatants, but also to innocent Amalekite women and children: “Attack Amalek and destroy all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and assess alike!” [I Samuel 15:3].

This biblical imperative became codified Jewish law, as did the commandment to exterminate all members of the seven Canaanite nations: “You shall not let a soul remain alive” [Deut. 20:16]. Not relegated to ancient history, these commandments apply in principle forever — even today.

The call to kill all members of the Amalekite and Canaanite nations violates the norms of a moral, just war, which dictate that innocent civilians cannot be legitimate targets. And as a people, we know tragic horror of genocide that seeks to exterminate all people of a group or the same genetic background.

Could the Jewish people ever become “a holy people” when obeying the commandments to commit genocide against the Amalekites and Canaanites?

This troubles us moderns, but it also vexed the Talmudic and medieval rabbinic authorities. None of them could live with the Torah commanding Jews to act immorally, and they showed remarkable creativity in shaping the correct way for us to understand these imperatives.

These rabbis believed that the entire Torah text was Divine, but they did not hesitate to engage in bold interpretation. Because they had keen moral sensitivities, the rabbis of the Talmud solved the problem of Jews killing innocent Amalekites or Canaanites by declaring that the ancient Assyrian ruler Sennacherib “co-mingled the nations that he vanquished” [Yadayim 4:4/Berachot 28a]. If so, it is impossible to identify anyone positively as a Canaanite or Amalekite. This effectively rendered the problematic commandments inoperative, telling Jews not to act according to their plain meaning.

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, “The Angst Over Annihilating Amalek”, The Jewish Week (10 January 2014), 45.

A devout non-believer, Edgar said his favorite book was the Babylonian Talmud, whose hero is not God but the argumentative and cunning human scholar. The paradigm of the Talmudic scholar requires a rigorous knowledge of foundational texts and a sharp wit, mixed with a healthy dose of competitiveness, a thirst for justice, an appreciation of one’s own fallibility… and a great sense of humor.

Rabbi Mishael Zion and Rebecca Voorwinde, “Edgar M. Bronfman: A Modern Talmudic Jew”, The Jewish Week (10 January 2014), 29.

Rabbis would, of course, also occasionally address the public, whether on the street, in the market or synagogue. But it is unlikely that they did so by using the literary forms which are transmitted in the written documents. Neither the brief exegetical comment nor the longer midrashic proem are imaginable as actual sermons delivered in synagogues. Even the parables usually presuppose a certain amount of Biblical knowledge which the ordinary person is unlikely to have possessed. They may have served rabbis to clarify certain aspects of biblical verses during the oral instruction of their student rather than providing moral and theological instruction to the populace. Apophthegmata or pronouncement stories memorialized rabbis’ wit and wisdom. Again, later generations of students would have been most interested in transmitting and preserving such stories about their teachers to make these teachers immortal and to maintain the reputation of their “schools”.

Catherine Hezser, “Form-Criticism of Rabbinic Literature”, in The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martinez, Didier Pollefeyt and Peter J. Tomson (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010), 108.

…text editing is a necessary hermeneutic tool for students and scholars of Jewish studies. Every student should be introduced to the world of text-critical analysis and avoid considering any edition as a revelation from Sinai. Or rather, he or she should consider the text as written revelation, as Torah she-bikhtav, and apply to it the same rules applicable to the written tradition, i.e., that the text can become meaningful only by the intervention of a reader/interpreter. As the Midrash Sifra states it with an ironic dictum of R. Yishmael, quoting Rabbi Eliezer:

R. Yishmael said to him: You say to the text (katuv): be silent until I explain you!
א”ל רבי ישמעאל: הרי את אומר לכתוב שתוק עד שאדרוש

The silence of the text is the indispensable premise for revelation to happen through the commentary.

Giuseppe Veltri, “From The Best Text To The Pragmatic Edition: On Editing Rabbinic Texts”, in The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, Peter Tomson (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010), 77-78.

The decisions underlying halakhic teachings and case stories may have once been applied to specific legal situations. But the abbreviated and stylized versions which we find in rabbinic documents will have been devised for the specific purpose of transmission within rabbinic circles. In this form, they would not have been recited before the general public. In their concise form, they are often only understandable within a specific halakhic context and require a large amount of biblical and halakhic knowledge in order to be intelligible. They clearly point to a scholarly context with regard to their formulation and circulation.

Catherine Hezser, “Form-Criticism of Rabbinic Literature”, in The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martinez, Dider Pollefeyt and Peter J. Tomson (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010), 108.

A first conclusion is that the principle of the oral Torah let the rabbis have full control over the transmission and actualization of texts considered important for the community. If the rabbis were not afraid to change the text of the written Torah, if possible, that did not deter them either from expurgating every other text not in agreement with their teaching. Yet, rabbinic Judaism lacked a central authority and an orthodoxy capable of suppressing other opinions. We are facing a most diverse approach by the rabbis to the written and oral Torah, which also explains the ocean of variant readings in the manuscripts and of tractates being interlaced with the most divergent literary forms of transmission down to the period of authored literature in the Middle Ages. The edition of these texts is therefore a truly titanic task for scholars who intend to establish the pure, original text. For the word “origin” is not identical with the idea of a tradition born in the world of authority, and authority can also be a plural attribute of a tradition over the course of the time. And that is, likewise, the premise to understand the contemporary discussion on text redaction.

Giuseppe Veltri, “From The Best Text To The Pragmatic Edition: On Editing Rabbinic Texts”, in The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, Peter Tomson (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010), 71.

Today’s liberal Jewish communities, in which rigorous observance of the ritual commandments is no longer part of the fabric of daily Jewish life, insist that a genuine desire to join the Jewish people and share in its fate ought to be a sufficient standard for conversion. Many Orthodox communities, alarmed by what they see as the dilution of Jewish content in liberal Judaism, in general, and liberal conversations, in particular, have responded by adhering ever more rigidly to classic conversion standards. Valid conversions must be accompanied by a genuine commitment to observe the commandments — “for the sake of heaven” (Geirim 1:3) — they insist, and conversions that lack that are simply null and void.

Daniel Gordis, “What, Not Who, Is a Jew?”, Sh’ma (March 2011), 12.