The Oral Torah (which contains the Mishnah and Talmud) is said to have been given to Moses at Sinai with the Written Torah. The actual process was far more complicated as David C. Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, notes in “A History of the Talmud” (Cambridge University Press). Kraemer believes that in order to understand Judaism one must understand the influence the Talmud has had on its development, especially in light of the way the ancient rabbis reconstructed the religion. He notes that “many of the observances and even beliefs of rabbinic Jews who lived just a century or two after would have been unrecognizable to Jews” who lived in biblical times. Looking at the development and influence of the Talmud from rabbinic to contemporary times, he also shows it was not inevitable that the Talmud would become what he calls “arguably the most influential text in Jewish history.”
Although Kraemer explains and offers examples from the Mishnah, the Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud in order for readers to understand what the rabbis were accomplishing, it is the history of the rabbinic process that was of most interest – particularly how a small group that originally had no power came to dominate Judaism. Kraemer notes there is little to no mention of the rabbis in documents written during the early years after the Second Temple’s destruction. At that time, there was also no Mishnah or Talmud; there were only oral teachings by different teachers who came to be known as rabbis. These teachers had no authority over even a minority of Jews. It’s only looking at what later developed as their influence grew that their teachings came to be considered important.
In fact, during what is now called the early rabbinic period, there were no large rabbinic institutions. Rather, small groups gathered – usually in urban areas – in a master-disciple circles, with the disciples learning from both the words and the actions of their teachers. There were no written texts and no true record of what was studied in individual circles. The circles were not considered to have a major political or social influence at the time. Kraemer notes that “there is no evidence that the rabbis during this period sought to promulgate their teachings beyond their immediate circle; indeed, they didn’t even seek authority in the one place where Jews commonly gathered: the synagogue.” The synagogues of the time were filled with pagan images, and it seems clear to Kraemer that most Jews of the time were influenced by the Roman culture and religion that surrounded them.
According to Kraemer, the rabbinic movement gained influence slowly. The rabbis’ ideas began to expand beyond their immediate circles as they became advisors to those who were in power. It was only during medieval period, when rabbinic study was institutionalized and Muslim conquerors accepted the rabbis as leaders of their communities. It was also during this time that the center of Jewish learning became Babylon, meaning that the Babylonian Talmud was considered the authoritative document of study, rather than the Palestinian one. However, even though rabbinical ideas began to be practiced by the larger Jewish community, the study of the Talmud was still limited to the elite. This is partly because the material is aimed at those who have a great deal of time and enough money to spend their days studying. Rabbinic authority grew, although the rabbis were still not the only Jewish group to exist. A division occurred between those who accepted only the biblical text as holy, and those who believed the teachings of the Talmud were equal in holiness to the Written Torah. The former movement, known as the Karaite Movement, also had a large number of followers.
The invention of the printing press helped change the Talmud in several ways. First, it made it less expensive for people to own copies and therefore more people were able to study. It also “fixed” the text: discrepancies between different hand-written documents were reconciled and one acceptable text printed for everyone. The printing press allowed for the addition of commentaries on the page, which made it easier for students to understand the text. Before this, each commentary was present in its own manuscript. Now, only one volume was needed. The unexpected result of this was a freezing of the tradition. New interpretations and commentary were no longer considered the equal of what appeared on the printed page.
Kraemer also discusses the different methods of studying and interpreting Talmud, which depended on the Jewish community in which one lived; how the original Zionists dismissed the Talmud, although the text was later reclaimed by religious Zionists; and how religious Jews founded new institutions, yeshivas, that sought for people to learn Talmud for the sake of study alone. Also featured are looks at the increasing number of people studying Talmud in contemporary times, including the nonobservant who are not seeking legal or religious insights. There is also an increase in the number of languages into which the Talmud has been translated, making it easier for those who can’t read the original text to still be able to understand and follow the arguments.
The material covered in “A History of the Talmud” is so vast that this review can barely touch on what it has to offer. While no previous knowledge of the Talmud is necessary, it is helpful to have some understanding of Jewish history. This is an impressive work of scholarship, but it does not make for easy reading because of the complexity of the material. However, anyone willing to make the time and effort to read “A History of the Talmud” will be rewarded with an understanding of the development not only of the Talmud, but the history of Judaism.