Many people have heard about the Talmud, but aren’t too sure what is is, exactly. To have a better understanding of modern Judaism, it’s very helpful to have some grasp of this important collection of writings – where they came from, what sort of things they say, and the influence that they have had.
The Oral Law
You may be aware that the word Torah means ‘Law’, and is used to refer to the first five books of the Bible. What you may not have heard of is the Torah she b’al-pay (תורה שבעל פה) literally, the Torah which is via the mouth. It is also known as the Mishna, from the Hebrew verb to say again, to recite or teach, because until the third century, it was only ever passed on verbally. This Mishna, or Oral Torah, is the basic core of the Talmud. It is a Jewish belief that the Oral Torah was given by God to Moses along with the written Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) on Mount Sinai.
It is held that the Oral Torah gives more detailed instructions on exactly how to carry out all the laws in the written Torah, and that it was passed on orally from generation to generation.
The Oral Torah then, is seen as an accompiniament to the written Torah (which is considered by many Jewish people to be too hard to understand and too vague in its instructions without the Oral Torah). For many years, it was forbidden to ever write down the Oral Law, but instead people had it memorised, and would recite it to each other. However, after the second temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the people of Israel were expelled from Jerusalem and scattered to other nations. There was much concern that the essence, traditions and teachings of Judaism would be lost, and it was this concern that led Rabbi Yehuda haNasi to break with tradition and get it all down in writing, in order to preserve it. He had finished in 220 AD. Yehuda Ha Nasi organised all the teaching into six subject areas, called orders. Each order dealt with an area of God’s law – laws to do with agriculture, with the temple and holy things, purification, with women, dealing with personal damages, and holy festivals. These were then subdivided into 60 tractates, which were subdivided into chapters, which contained individual mishnas. In this sense, all of the Mishna is built around God’s Law given to Moses, and seeks to explain how to properly fulfill all of the Biblical commandments as thoroughly as possible.
Commentaries, additions and refinements
So then, the six orders (the shisha sederim, or “shas” for short) of the Mishna form the basis of the Talmud. The rest, as they say, is commentary. After the first codification of the Mishna, several respected rabbis and sages would add explanations, clarifications and additions over the years. The first stage of this process led to the “Gemara” which is like an exposition of the Mishna. Then other explanations, discussions and additons were later included. Whilst the first stages of Mishna and Gemara are written in a central column on the page of the Talmud, the later commentaries are printed in thinner columns around the edges. One such famous commenator from the Middle Ages is Rashi, who devised a slightly different script (font) of the Hebrew letters. Much of the later commentary surrounding the Mishna and Gemara is written in this Rashi script. All of these writings together – the Mishna and Gemara in the middle column and the rabbinic commentary around it, is known as the Talmud. The Talmud was developed in two different places and so has two different versions. The Jerusalem Talmud was developed by the rabbis still living in Israel, but the more widely used and loved Talmud was developed by the strong Jewish community which had moved back to Babylon after the destruction of the second temple. Babylon became the most influential centre of Judaism for the first ten or so centuries after Jesus. By this time, the Talmud as we have it today was pretty much completed.
But where did it all come from in the first place?
We can see in Mark chapter 7 that many additional laws had been well established by the time Yeshua came in the flesh:
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
So that is Yeshua’s take on all the extra laws that had developed. They are just human rules and traditions. There are some wise, helpful and even beautiful writings in the Talmud, but ultimately, they are just the thoughts and writings of human beings. Whilst we can be pretty sure that the Mishna was not delivered to Moses by God, we can see that it was fully operational and established tradition at the time of Yeshua. Although we cannot be certain when or how it started, I would speculate that this form of additional law making may have begun during the first exile in Babylon, when they were far away from the temple and were unable to fulfill God’s requirements in the Torah regarding sacrifices and so on, but we don’t know for sure. Certainly, there is much writing concerned with how to follow the law in the absence of the temple, with the general suggestion being that set morning, noon, and evening prayers should replace morning and evening sacrifices. The fact that Daniel prayed three times a day towards Jerusalem indicates that this prayer-instead-of-sacrifice swap might have been made while they were in Babylon.
We can know that the Oral Law certainly did not come via Moses at Sinai because there were times in Israel’s history when the entire law was completely abandoned – like in 2 Kings 22, when young King Josiah finds the Written Torah and realises to his grief that they had been ignorant of it for generations. In verse 13 he says;
“Go, inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us because our fathers have not listened and obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”
It only takes one generation to forget, and the chain of oral tradition is broken. It is clear that for more than one generation, Israel had entirely forgotten about obeying the Law of God. If anything was passed down verbally from Sinai, it would have stopped there. No, we can be sure that the Oral Torah came into being later than the time of King Josiah, possibly during the seventy years in Babylon. This was also a time when Jewish people were able to reflect, grieve and repent about how they had failed to keep God’s law, and from that time onwards, they often erred on the side of being over zealous about keeping the law, at the expense of a real relationship with the One who gave them the law in the first place.
The first century was a time of crisis for Judaism – on the one hand, the Roman occupation was intent on crushing Jewish rebellion out of all existence, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and on the other hand, a man called Yeshua claiming to be the Messiah had led thousands astray from the traditions of Judaism. The very existence of Judaism itself seemed to be under threat. Within a couple of centuries these two enemies (the Roman Empire and the Church) had combined forces, and the results for Jewish people were increasingly unbearable. Much quicker than most would dare to believe, anti-semitism crept into the church and hostility towards the Jewish people became more violent and intolerant of their unwillingness to accept Yeshua as Messiah.
The Talmud then, tries to preserve Jewish practice and tradition – which is the perceived essence of Judaism – as a matter of cultural survival. It can be seen as a rallying cry of unity, developed in a time of great threat, and reflects a determination to carve out an identity that is fundamentally distinct from Yeshua and his teachings.
Although much of the anti-Christian text was purged and expunged during the Inquisition era (dangerous writing to have in your house at that time) there is a clear theme throughout rabbinic writings which strongly rejects the possibility of Yeshua as Messiah – or even the possibility that the Messiah might be divine. Indeed, the set prayers that are said each morning, noon, and evening (the eighteen blessings) added a curse upon those “traitors” who decided to follow Yeshua, and suspicion and hatred have characterised religious Jewish opinion of Messianic Jews to this day. No one bats an eyelid if a Jewish person does not believe in God – or practices Eastern religion, but if a Jewish person chooses to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah, the weight of centuries of anti-Christian tradition refuses to accept that they can possibly remain a true Jew.
The Talmud has sought to define and crystalise the nature of Judaism in a time of dispersion, threat and flux by emphasising religious practice… and Yeshua, who stood against empty religious works, is seen as part of the threat to the existence of Judaism itself.
God is mighty to save
What a challenge for those growing up in religious Judaism! They are taught to read and rely on the Talmud more than the Bible itself, and that Yeshua is an enemy of the people of Israel, not a saviour… what a web of lies and chains Satan has built around them, making it even harder for them to see the truth. We know that it is part of God’s will that for a time there would be a ‘veil’ over their eyes, preventing the people of Israel from seeing their Messiah, but in the last few decades more and more have been streaming into the kingdom. Do not be discouraged by the thick walls Satan has built around them – our God is stronger! He is mighty to save! Please call on the God of Israel now, to break through all the walls of deception and bring the light of truth and salvation into their precious lives.