ABRAHAM’S TENT 5779 | Week #3: What is the Talmud?

*Disclaimer: In the next weeks, I begin a series covering concepts in Judaism. It is not exhaustive, but it is meant to go over in a general way what are Jewish beliefs and where they are found in the Hebrew bible (What Christians call the “Old Testament”).
These articles are for education purposes only. If you have further questions, you should ask your religious leader, or you can email me, for further information. (End of Disclaimer)*

This week we will be going into a little known and mainly misunderstood part of Judaism, the Talmud. The Talmud is the Oral tradition of Israel that was first given on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1-18, Numbers 11:16-30, Deut. 21:15-17) that was written down after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (AD). First it was just the studies or “Mishna” in Hebrew, which consisted of 6 sections called ‘orders’. These orders cover aspects of the commandments (Mitzvos) found in the Torah.
They are: 1. ZARAIM (Seeds), 2. MOED (Seasons/Festivals), 3. NASHIM (Women, Marriage and Divorce),                4. NEZIKIN (Civil Law), 5. KODASHIM (Holy Things), and, 6. TORHOROT (Purities).

These Six orders were discussed by the Rabbis and those debates, were written down, and, with the Orders, were compiled into the over 60 volumes of the Talmud.
The point of the Talmud is to observe the Commandments of the ALMIGHTY in the face of changes within modern life.
Yet there are folks outside Judaism, which feel that it maybe “Adding or Taking away from the Torah”.

I am going to approach this issue below. I will not be speaking as a Rabbi, but as a Biblical Scholar; since this issue should be best addressed from an academic, and not as a religious position.

So, here we go.

There are two arguments against the Talmud.

First, is the argument that the Talmud it is “Adding and Taking away from the Torah”.

The second is that we do not need the Talmud to understand the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

I will address the second claim, first.

There are a number of issues we see in the Torah, that we cannot get clarification on in regard to the Mitzvos, or Commandments of the Torah. Some are the difference between “You will do no work” (Ex. 34:10, Numb. 8:26, Deut.15:10, 24:19, and, “you will do no laborious work’ (Exo. 31:14, Lev. 23:7, 8, 21, 25, 35-36, Numb.28:18, 25-26, 29:12, 35).

Slaughtering of Kosher animals (Deuteronomy 12:21, 28:31), the Torah Says “(slaughter) as I have commanded you”, yet, there are no specifics.

All through the Torah there are open ended declarative statements that have no detail.

How are we to not work on Shabbat? Can we play catch? Can I turn the TV on?

How do we slaughter an animal to make it Kosher? Do I stab the bull in the neck? Cut it half way? All these questions are unanswered. You can search the Scriptures from Genesis to 2nd Chronicles and you will not find a definitive answer.

This brings us to the Oral Law/Traditions and the Talmud in this discussion before us.

Many folks that have left other religions (Noahides), and Jews who were not observant, but return as to an observant life, struggle with the aspects of this many volume tome.

The Talmud allows us to, in the case of Kosher Slaughter (Tractate Hullin), apply both the removal of blood (Lev. 17:10-12) from an animal with the mindfulness of not being cruel to the creature we are slaughtering (Genesis 9:4).

In the case of Shabbat, we see the differences of work via the 39 prohibitions found in Tractate Shabbat. They not only prevent unnecessary errors, it points to an allowance as to being excused, from observance in the case of saving a life on the Sabbath: that being greater than observing the Shabbat (Pikuach Nefesh/To save a life) (Lev. 18:5, Yoma 85b). This is to teach us that Shabbat is meant for rest, but not for allowing that observance to flout the very nature of community, care and common sense.

Orthodox Judaism refers to the Talmud/Oral Law as a “fence” around the Torah.

It is not a fence to keep people out, but to keep us in aliment with the Torah. Its purpose is not unlike the Supreme Court of the US defining aspects of the Constitution. The discussions found in the Talmud are not just “judgments” but they give insights as to how the earlier sages were approaching an aspect of a mitzvah (Commandment) that they were discussing.

Also of note; most of the Gemara (judgments) are open-ended and not final decisions.

This is because these sages were thinking to the future. You also see discussions/debates, which stretch millennia between one scholar and another.

These multi-century arguments are not unlike SCOTUS decisions that changed to suit the modernity of the time.

The fact remains that there are a number of areas that Torah does not specify, either how to do something, the difference between items or acts, or modern application of Mitzvos (Commandments).

This is not an error of G-D, but a mechanism/feature of the Torah.

Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our teacher) may not have known the advent of the Cellphone, the Airplane, Electricity, or Skype, but did know times would change in the future.

The Torah is vague so it can be relevant in the face of modernity.

To the issue of the Second part “Adding and taking away” (from the Torah), we must see those verses in context. The warnings are found in two places, Deuteronomy 4:2 and 13:1.

In Deuteronomy 4:2 Moshe is warning about Idolatry, that what happened in Baal-Peor was due to a pride that lead them to commit idolatrous acts before the Tent of Meeting. The second is a warning not to be led by a prophet to go and follow “Other gods, gods we have not known, since G-D is testing you to see that you are loyal and devout to the ALMIGHTY. The warnings are for apostasy and being led away from the G-D of Israel. It has nothing to do with the Oral law.

The issue of Oral Law is found in two other places Parshat Yitro/Jethro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) and Parshat D’Varim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22).

In the case of Yitro, the leaders, those are set to explain the Torah, preambles the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). The systems of “The Tens, Hundreds, Thousands, etc” are not unlike the appellate court system we have today.

Just as the legal system upholds the ‘framing of the Constitution’, so does the ‘fence’ of the Talmud keeps the Torah relevant, just, and, true.

Justice is not something that comes from the law alone. It comes from that which is in our hearts, mouths, and minds (Deut. 30:11-14). We are commanded to “circumcise our hearts” so that we may follow the Ordnances of the Torah (Parshat Eikev) (Deut. 7:12-11:25)

Justice is served not with a stick, or a sword, but with a soft heart and an open hand (Deut. 15:5-11).

The Talmud gives us that framework. A concise body of work, that all can access so in the face of modernity, we can address its changes. We have been called to fulfill those mitzvos of our Creator. To weigh all that our forefathers imagined, and those they could not fathom. That we approach our generation, with justice, a soft heart, and, an opened hand to “Choose Life” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Next week: The concept of Sin and Salvation in Judaism

Dir. Rel. Ed and History