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Book review: The Talmud – A Biography, Harry Freedman (Bloomsbury, London 2014)

Benjamin Elton
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Published: 2 August 2016

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The Talmud is much more than a book. It contains 1,800,000 words, has attracted hundreds of commentaries, is in a mixture of several languages and has been translated into numerous others. It is the indispensable base for traditional Jewish thought and life, but is also studied using academic methods by scholars both Jewish and non-Jewish. It contains large amounts of legal discussion, biblical exegesis, homiletics and folklore. If anyone, of any faith, wants to understand Judaism or Jewish practice, they must at least be aware of the Talmud and have a rough idea of its style and contents. Harry Freedman’s biography of the Talmud therefore meets an important need, and gives the general reader a well-researched and accessible introduction to the Talmud, and its reception history.

Although The Talmud - A Biographyhe Talmud is a distinctly Jewish opus, it is also a response to external influences, first and foremost, persecution and exile. The writing down of the Oral Law, beginning with the Mishna in the year 200 CE, was an emergency measure to prevent it being forgotten. However, we can also detect positive influences. Zoroastrianism, Greek and Roman thought, Persian culture all had their impact on the contents of the Talmud. Subsequently, the way it was read developed through Jews’ exposure to other religions, including Islam and Christianity. Thus, laws of finance and commerce developed in an Islamic business environment, and the French scholars of the twelfth century were affected by the intellectual milieu of medieval Christianity.

More even than the Bible, the Talmud was the Jews’ (or at least Jewish scholars’) portable home. It could travel from the Land of Israel, to different parts of Babylon, Spain in the Golden Age, Germany and the Rhineland, Poland and Lithuania and back to the State of Israel, where the Talmud is now studied regularly by more people than ever before. It experienced a life beyond the Jewish community. It was studied for anti-Christian sentiments by antagonists in the Roman Catholic Church, and was put on trial and burned. Jews still recite poems of mourning for the loss of hundreds of wagons of Talmudic manuscripts in the thirteenth century. Henry VII had his scholars mine the Talmud for evidence that he was entitled to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn. Now, extracts from the Talmud are very popular in Korea!

Freedman engages with the scholarship on the Talmud, both traditional and contemporary. The classic account of its formation by Rev Sherira Gaon appears alongside references to the most important modern scholars: Weiss Halivni, Friedman, Ellman and others. Talia Fishman’s important 2011 work on the progress of the text of the Talmud to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is referenced, although curiously not Haym Soloveitchik’s equally important critique of her work. The visual image of the Talmud (at least in the dominant Vilna edition) is very powerful, so it is strange that although it is described, the reader is not given a picture; a small selection of illustrations and maps would have been valuable. Sometimes Freedman seems to veer off the topic of the Talmud and engage in a general Jewish religious history. More information is a good thing in itself, but these asides might have been removed, to keep the book tight and focused. It is a bonus that there is an accompanying website, with examples of Talmudic passages, because reading about the Talmud can never be a substitute for reading the Talmud itself, as the text so often says, ta shma, come and hear!

This The Jewish Independent article may be republished if acknowledged thus: ‘This article first appeared on www.thejewishindependent.com.au and is reprinted with permission.’

About the author

Benjamin Elton

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton is Chief Minister and Senior Rabbi of The Great Synagogue in Sydney.

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