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Literature / The Talmud

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A collection of rabbinical discussions of Jewish customs and theology. It is divided into the Mishnah (written about 200 CE), which is the first written collection of Jewish laws; and the Gemara (about 500 CE), which is a discussion of the Mishnah and Jewish works, including what Christians know as the Old Testament. Intellectual study and discussion of the Talmud has an important role among the customs and history of many Jews. If you have a story in which one of the characters is a rabbi, you can be fairly sure that they know a lot about the Talmud. And if you wish to debate them or hear them expound, you will get what you ask for.

The Mishnah is written in Hebrew, while the Gemara is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. The Talmud is about 2,800 pages long and is composed of six "orders", each of which is further comprised of several "tractates". The orders are:

  • Zeraim (Seeds), relating to laws regarding growing things, like tithes and harvesting, or blessings in general.
  • Moed (Appointed Times), relating to various holidays like Sabbath, Rosh Hashana, Purim, Passover, etc. Chanukah is almost completely unmentioned in the Talmud, getting only a few pages' worth of material in Tractate Shabbat.
  • Nashim (Women), relating to things like marriage and divorce as well as laws about vows (or, for lawyers: it's about family law, plus some other stuff).
  • Nezikin (Damages), relating to monetary laws and court procedures (for those versed in The Common Law, it sets out tort law, most contract law, property law, civil procedure, much of inheritance/wills and estates law, some criminal law, criminal procedure, and some of the law of evidence, especially as relates to oaths). This is the most popular order to learn in Orthodox yeshivas, as it provides a wealth of depth and logic.
  • Kodshim (Holy Things), which deals mainly with the laws of Temple sacrifices, although one tractate (Hullin) relates to kosher slaughter for non-sacrificial purposes.
  • Taharos/Tohorot (Purities), which deals with the incredibly obscure laws of purity and impurity.

Nezikin, Moed, and Nashim, being the three most practical of the bunch, are the most commonly studied. Kodshim is virtually useless, as there is no temple in Jerusalem right now (though Tractate Hullin gets some attention, as kosher butchery is big business). Much of Zeraim is considered to apply only to Eretz Yisrael and as such non-Israeli rabbis don't have much use for it (Israeli rabbis, on the other hand, do have some use, particularly since religious Jews started taking up farming as part of the Religious Zionist movement...although not that much use, since modern mechanized farming reduces the number of people needed to run a farm). Some parts of Zeraim do have wider use, however (e.g. the first tractate Berakhot, dealing with when and how to say prayers and blessingsnote ). As for Tohorot...

Although there is only one Mishnah, there are technically two Gemaras: The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) and Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). Almost universally, whenever anyone talks about the Talmud, they are referring to the Talmud Bavli. Most of the Jewish scholars of the time were in Babylonia, and the vast majority of commentaries and places of study revolve around the Babylonian Talmud. The main exception (perhaps unsurprisingly) is in discussions of Zeraim, as the Talmud Bavli says nothing about that order outside Tractate Berakhot, while the Talmud Yerushalmi expounds at length on the agricultural laws as well.

The Talmud is not simply a list of laws. It has an entirely unique style, being culled from notes and conversations spanning decades, and is an attempt at codifying the Oral Torah. There are plenty of arguments (most unresolved), much back-and-forth (you will probably need charts to keep track of some of it), many detours and anecdotes, a smattering of mysticism and a whole lot of stories that make practically no immediate sense, and to which commentators have devoted volumes to deciphering the deeper meaning. To give a secular comparison, the written Torah is like written statute law, while the Talmud is more like a collection of case law and law review articles; the comparison to The Common Law is apt, as the Oral Torah operates much like the American legal system in that precedent is usually followed unless there is a reason in the Torah to arrive at a different conclusion.

Oh, and did we mention that there are no vowels or punctuation in the classic text? (In fairness, that's a lot easier with Semitic languages; to this day, Arabs get by on just the long vowels and very sparse punctuation). New versions, like those printed by ArtScroll, provide them along with translations, though that's sometimes considered cheating by serious studiers.

While much of the text can be dry, every so often one will find unusually entertaining pieces where Talmudic rabbis creatively insult one another or tell wild stories. Even the basic text is practically built on irony and sarcasm, with some of the challenge being figuring out what's meant seriously ("b'nichusa") and what's being sarcastic ("bitmiya").

There are literally entire libraries dedicated to commenting on the Talmud, commenting on other commentators, etc. Some places of study can literally spend an entire semester studying a single page of Talmud. For those who want a broader perspective, the "Daf Yomi" movement is built to spend an hour a day studying two pages (an "amud" is what we call a page, while a "daf" means both sides of a page, i.e. two pages). Under this program, the entire Talmud is finished once every seven and a half years.

The existence of an "oral" Torah was a hotly contested issue before the Roman conquest of Judah; the Sadducees (an extinct political/religious entity tied to the priesthood and Hasamonean kings of Judah) vigorously denied any oral law. Their opponents, the Pharisees (the ancestors of modern-day rabbinical Judaism) accepted the oral law. Today, there are still groups of Jews (Karaites, and the dwindling Samaritan community) that reject the validity of the Talmud.note 

The Talmud was a frequent target of antisemitic pogroms in the European Middle Ages, due to its denial of Jesus' divinity and a possible claim that he was an illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. Sort of. The figure assumed to be Jesus is mentioned as being alive at the turn of the first century BC, and his step-father is mentioned as being among those martyred by the Romans in 135 CE, making the connection particularly hard to swallow. It's actually unclear if the Talmud ever mentions Jesus or just several people that were named Jesus (or "Yeshu") but regardless, this was the assumption that many used to persecute Jewish populations.

Tropes in the Talmud include:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The Talmud contains annotations from thousands of Rabbis about various subjects in parts of The Bible.
  • Anachronic Order: Although Berachos is usually shown as the first tractate, every single tractate cross-references others. Often you will see tractate A assuming you are familiar with tractate B and vice versa. Even within single tractates (e.g. Makkot), sometimes the first part of a chapter will discuss minutiae of a law, while the law itself is not actually given until later on. Some say this is why the first page of each tractate is page 2 (bet) rather than page 1 (alef). They say that the Talmud really has no beginning or end, so you need to keep that in mind before going in. Others simply say that page 1 is the cover page.
  • Beard of Evil: Sanhedrin 100 says, "[The book of Ben Sira says...] he whose beard is parted will be defeated by none.{because he is constantly scheming, running his fingers through his beard}"
  • Bullying a Dragon: The second half of the Oven of Akhnai. The other rabbis decide against Rabbi Eliezer on the matter of the titular oven, after they've seen him perform multiple miracles and prove that God Himself is on his side. Okay, but then they further decide to have him formally shunned for his dissenting opinion. His student volunteers to break him to it gently in hopes that he won't end up destroying the world in his grief. As it is, he only trashes a third of the world's crops. He later ends up killing their leader, his own brother-in-law, with a particularly fervent bout of prayer (his brother-in-law had previously been spared from a storm at sea while all the crop-destruction was going on by telling God he acted for the greater good, not for his own benefit, but then Eliezer "pressed charges" with the anguish of his prayer and that was it for him).
  • Create Your Own Villain: The patriarchs turned away a prospective convert named Timna. She settled for marrying into Esau's family and gave birth to a son named Amalek, the progenitor of the perennial enemy the Amalekites.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Jerusalem Talmud as compared to the Babylonian Talmud. Comparable stories are often more intense and explicit. Technically the Jerusalem Talmud predates the Babylonian Talmud, making the latter Lighter and Softer, but most people start studying with the Babylonian, and many never come to the Jerusalem.
  • Death of the Author: In-Universe. Moses gets the opportunity to travel forward in time to sit in on one of Rabbi Akiva's classes and has no idea what's going on. He's actually relieved to find, once he himself is cited, that somehow Akiva managed to extrapolate all of this from his own work.
  • Died on Their Birthday: The Talmud teaches that Moses was both born and died on the 7th of Adar. The three patriarchs and King David are also believed to have passed away on their birthdays. Rosh Hashana 11a claims that the reason for this is that God sits and "completes the years of the righteous from day to day and from month to month," based on a Biblical verse, "The number of your days I will fulfill" (Exodus 23:26). In other words, dying on one's own birthday is considered a sign that a righteous soul had completed their God-given Earthly mission.
  • Doorstopper: Some editions can fill an entire bookcase. No, not a bookshelf. An entire case.
  • Eldritch Location: The Rabbis enter Heaven and encounter a palace made of marble so pure that it looks like water. Those who did not understand what they saw went mad.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: God desires this in Tractate Sanhedrin. Averted when He catches sight of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah — the three righteous men from the Book of Daniel.
  • Fake-Out Make-Out: One of the claims of how Rabbi Meir escaped the authorities after rescuing his sister-in-law from a brothel is that the prophet Elijah came to earth disguised as a prostitute and embraced him; his pursuers thought whoever was in such a compromising position in public couldn't be the respectable rabbi.
  • Famous Ancestor: Rabbi Meir is said to be descended from Nero (though Nero seems to be portrayed as a Roman general on the level of Vespasian, not the emperor himself).
  • The Golden Rule: In one story, Hillel the Elder, is challenged by a Gentile to teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel replies with this: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation — go and learn."
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Rabbi Akiva, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Avuyah travel to Heaven. Ben Azzai dies, Ben Zoma goes insane, and Elisha ben Avuyah does a Face–Heel Turn. Only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.
  • Heavenly Concentric Circles: Taken together, several vesicles describe the Shamayim as both the place where heavenly beings inhabit and the seven-ringed, upper region of the universe. The number is seven because, for the Abrahamic religions, that's God's number. They go as follows:
    • Vilon: The first and lowest ring is Adam and Eve's home (after expulsion), ruled by Archangel Gabriel.
    • Raqia: The second ring is governed by Archangels Zachariel and Raphael. Planets, angels, and fallen angels can also be found there, although the latter ones are imprisoned.
    • Shehaqim: The third ring is the Garden of Eden and, according to the Book of Enoch, where Hell is located. It's also where angels' food, the manna, is produced. Archangel Hanniel is the chief here.
    • Maon: The fourth ring is Archangel Michael's domain, who guards the heavenly counterpart of Jerusalem (Temple and Alter included).
    • Makon: The fifth ring is reigned by Archangels Samel or Hammuel. It houses the lowest-ranking angels, the Ishim, as well as the angelic choir.
    • Zebul: The sixth ring is under Archangel Zadkiel's administration. This is the least-described heaven.
    • Araboth: The last and outermost ring houses God's throne and the highest-ranking Celestial Paragons and Archangels. It's, understandably, a huge Mind Screw.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Known as "measure against measure", this crops up all over the place. A famous example is in Avot 2:7:
    (Hillel) also saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it, "Because you drowned someone you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned."
  • It Makes Sense in Context: A claim often made by scholars about some of the parts modern readers would find more outlandish, Squick-inducing, or outright morally abhorrent. Problem is, there is a LOT of context.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Averted and inverted...maybe. It's very controversial whether any passages refers to Jesus at all, as the term Yeshu, while very similar to Jesus' Hebrew name Yeshua, was a very common given name during the first century BCE. There are also a great number of major discrepancies between the life of Jesus and the life of Yeshu as described in the Talmud, ranging from being killed differently on different days in different cities, and only having a disciple with the same name in common. Since there is historical context given for many of the stories which include the Talmudic Yeshu, some of which make Yeshu himself and his step-father out to have been alive during events that occurred in 104 BCE and 135 CE respectively, it seems pretty darn unlikely for the Yeshu mention to have been Jesus. In modern times the argument is mainly used by antisemites to imply that the Talmud is inherently anti-Christian. Regardless of who Yeshu is, none of the Talmud editions have much good to say about him, and some specifically say (in Gittin 57) that he's being punished in Hell for being an apostate.
  • Jewish Smartass: The Talmud frequently engages in scathing wit and sarcasm, such as when the Rabbis poke fun at each other, or occasionally making facetious statements.
  • Jews Love to Argue: The Talmud is the Trope Maker. A page of the Talmud is like a layer cake of Jewish arguments, with the original Torah verse at the center, the original criticisms written around it, and centuries of further criticisms going around that in a crazed spiral.note 
  • Loophole Abuse:
    • Defied. Some Talmudic arguments get into laws relating to cases which could never actually happen, in order to deduce the exact criteria and details of a particular ruling. However, as Technology Marches On, some of these rulings may actually become relevant later — the Talmud contains laws concerning situations which could be compared to in vitro fertilization and even artificial intelligence.
    • Played straight with one sage's argument that King David didn't commit adultery because Bathsheba was technically divorced at the time (it's said to be the standard practice that soldiers divorced their wives before going to war so a woman wouldn't be stuck in limbo if her husband went missing in action).
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Before destroying the Temple, the future Emperor Titus goes into the inner sanctum with a prostitute and has sex with her on top of a spread-out Torah scroll.
  • Maternal Impression:
    • The Talmud gives various explanations as to why the first-century sage, Elisha ben Avuya, became a heretic. Among these is that when his mother was pregnant with him, she used to pass by pagan temples and enjoy the scent of their incense.
    • Another story tells of how Rabbi Akiva explained a Chocolate Baby to a dark-skinned king by theorizing that the queen must have been looking at white marble statues when she conceived, making the baby white.
  • "Not Wearing Pants" Dream: Berachot 56-57 includes a Long List of interpretations for dreams. Among them: dreaming that you're naked in Babylonia is a sign that God has forgiven your sins—i.e., you're "bare" of any—but dreaming that you're naked in the Land of Israel means that you're lacking in good deeds instead.
  • Old Master: Enforced: When Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah is appointed as leader of all the Rabbis of Israel, he explains that he doesn't want the job because all of the other Rabbis will mock him for his young age. God steps in and makes him look like a seventy year old man.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. Because the Talmud includes rabbis from several generations, there are several rabbis who share names (like the various Rabbi Yose's and Rabbi Yehuda's) while others (like Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar) differ only by one letter. Often they are described as "Rabbi X son of Y"; sometimes they are given adjectives, like "Rabbi Yochanan the Shoemaker" (though that one might actually translate as "Yochanan of Alexandria" — like we said, complicated).
  • The Power of Language: Several accounts explore the amount of damage that hurtful words can do. Hence there are prohibitions against drawing attention to converts' non-Jewish pasts, speaking negatively to no constructive purpose, etc.
  • Revenge: A man invited his friend Kamtza to a feast, but his servant accidentally invited Bar Kamtza, a mortal enemy. Bar Kamtza thought that the other man wanted to make peace, and so came to the party, where he was ordered away. Trying to save himself from humiliation, he offered to pay, first for his own portion, then for two, and eventually for the entire party, but the host refused to listen and kicked Bar Kamtza out. Bar Kamtza therefore hatched a plot which ended in the enemy king coming to Jerusalem, the Temple being destroyed, and the Jews being sent into exile.
  • RevengeSVP: See the parable of Kamtza.
  • Rip Van Winkle: The story of the ancient rabbi and scholar Honi ha-M'agel, who slept for 70 years, and awakened to find his teachings misinterpreted and all of his friends dead. The text probably dates from the early 3rd century CE. It also includes a parable of him seeing an old man planting a carob tree, which won't bear fruit until long after he's dead. The man points out that he's not planting the tree for himself but for his children and grandchildren.
  • Ron the Death Eater: In The Bible, Esau was a rival to his brother Jacob, but nowhere near an outright villain (and remember, Jacob tricked him out of his birthright). He even forgives Jacob when they meet again as adults.note  However, since he was considered to be the ancestor of the Edomites, enemies of the Israelites,note  he was given a Historical Villain Upgrade. According to the Talmud, he was a rapist, murderer, and he denied God. He also tried to prevent Jacob being buried with Abraham and Isaac in the Cave of the Patriarchs, claiming that as firstborn he had the right to be buried there.
  • Sadistic Choice: Bar Kamtza sets up a choice between sacrificing an unsuitably blemished animal or offending the emperor who sent it as a test of loyalty.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Nero comes to the realization that if he acts to destroy Jerusalem, he won't have much of a future afterward, so he runs away and converts to Judaism.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: When God appears to threaten him at sea, presumably for his actions in the conquest of Jerusalem, the scripturally knowledgeable Titus recalls incidents in the Bible where he showed his wrath by drowning people (i.e. the un-parting of the Red Sea) and challenges "The God of Israel" to try and fight him on dry land. God takes him up on it and sends a gnat to eat his brain.
  • The Storyteller: There are several parables contained inside.
  • Trickster Archetype: Yehudit. In b. Yemavot 65b, she doesn't wish to have any more children after a difficult birth, but knows that her husband, Rabbi Hiyya, is not thrilled with the idea. So she disguises herself and comes before Hiyya seeking legal advice. She asks if women are commanded in procreation. Hiyya answers that they are not, and so having received legal approval from her husband of all people, she drinks a sterilizing drug. Rabbi Hiyya is not amused.
  • Watering Down: It claims that in ancient Israel and Babylonia, wine was made so strong that it was actually undrinkable unless mixed with water in a ratio of about 2 parts water to 1 part wine. This is backed by historical evidence from other Mediterranean civilizations: the Greeks and Romans both reported that their wine was meant to be mixed with water, with the Greeks in particular regarding it a sign of barbarism or alcoholism that someone would drink wine that wasn't watered down.
  • When You Snatch the Pebble: this book has often been used as a collection of pebbles to be snatched as in The Chosen. That is after all how young scholars are trained.
  • Wiki Walk: Due to the rather unusual set-up, these happen quite frequently. For example, Tractate Shabbos includes a discussion that starts with asking whether it is permissible to perform a circumcision on the Sabbath, and ends up discussing what to do if a baby is born with no anus.
  • World of Snark: To the point where being able to tell the snark from the sincerity is considered a sign of mastery.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Four of them — Sarah, Rahab, Abigail, and Esther (or possibly Vashti). Distinct from the world's sexiest women (Rahab, Jael, Abigail, and Michal). One sage cited claimed that any man who'd met Rahab would ejaculate if they said her name twice.

Alternative Title(s): Talmud