14 January 2019


Barry Scott Wimpfheimer. The Talmud: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Until fairly recently, most non-Jews had either never heard of the Talmud, or else were under the impression that it gave instructions upon how to sacrifice Christian children. It is actually a massive compendium of early Jewish thought. The core of it, termed the Mishnah, is a systematic law code.
The bulk of the work is a discursive commentary on this known as Gemara. Analysts divide the contents in halakhah (law) and aggadah (non-law, mostly legend). For a representative example of halakah, Wimpfheimer takes a basic legal decision from the Mishnah: ‘A dog who took a cake [baking on top of hot coals] and went to a haystack, it ate the cake and set fire to the haystack: on account of the cake [an owner] pays full damages, but on the haystack [an owner pays] half-damages.’

This passage produced endless commentaries by later writers, for instance Maimonides (twelfth century), whose Mishnah Torah was an attempt to produce a more systematic codification of Jewish law. But Rabad, ‘the established leading rabbi of Provence’ disagreed so strongly that he wrote a sharp gloss on it while he was on his death bed: he said that the dog’s owner should be liable for the whole haystack, not only one half.

For aggadah, he picks out one of the most implausible legends: that when the Children of Israel reached Mount Sinai, ‘the Holy One Blessed Be He overturned the mountain like a barrel over them and said to them, “It is good if you all accept the Torah, but if not . . . there will be your burial site”.’ This was deduced from a single word in the Book of Exodus (19:17), betahtit, “at the foot of”; the prefix be- is unnecessary, so it was interpreted as meaning that they were not at the base of the mountain, but literally underneath it.

In many places the Talmud gives various rival opinions without adjudicating between them. Ezekiel (37:1-14) had a vision of dead bones coming back to life. ‘One early rabbi asserts that the bones were brought to life for a moment, they sang a song and they expired. This occasions a reaction from a colleague who thinks that this is too literal a rendering: the dry bones, in his view, are a hypothetical parable. A group of later rabbis disagrees with both ideas. The dry bones’ corpses, says one rabbi, got married and had children and grandchildren in the land of Israel. Another rabbi adds to this claim by asserting that one of his ancestors was one of these dry bones people and the rabbi possesses his ancestor’s phylacteries.’

In 1240, at the behest of Louis IX of France, the Talmud was put on trial. It was found guilty and sentenced to be burnt. Some twenty carloads of handwritten Talmuds went up in smoke, at a site normally used for executing humans, but fortunately this was not the end.

The first printed editions were incunabula, that is, from before 1500. These were only of single tractates. The first complete edition was produced at Venice by Daniel Bomberg between 1520 and 1523. In this, the text was framed by the commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), and Tosafist commentary. This was successful enough to establish a fixed pagination for the body of the entire Talmud (though this must have created headaches for the typesetters of all subsequent editions).

It became more widely distributed than ever before. The first volume of the 1880-1886 edition produced at Vilnius by the Romm Press sold more than 22,000 copies in its first year. One interesting edition was the 'Survivor’s Talmud'. In 1946 a delegation of rabbis approached the United States military about the unavailability of the Talmud for the many Jews displaced by the Nazis. So they requisitioned a printing house in Heidelberg and brought out a 'beautiful' photo-offset edition.

The Vilna edition has become absolutely standard, so that, for instance, among Orthodox Jews, it is a standard practice for a bride’s family to present the groom with a full set of the Talmud as a wedding present, but it has to be the Vilna edition. Most curiously, among ultra-Orthodox circles in Israel, it is absolutely forbidden for females to study the Talmud, but this is, again, only applied to the Vilna edition, so that women and girls ‘are permitted to study from worksheets onto which the Talmud’s digital text has been pasted.’

It is unfortunate that limitations of size mean that many things have had to be left out. He mentions that the original Venice printing of the Talmud was purchased by, among others Henry VIII of England. Space, I suppose, did not permit him to describe how Henry VIII later engaged a Talmudic scholar as part of his (unsuccessful) campaign to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

I think that a glossary and list of abbreviations would have been useful. More than once in his notes he references “two JTS manuscripts”. I think this may stand for 'Jewish Theological Seminary', but he does not say so. – Gareth J. Medway

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