Why should Christians feel interested in the Talmud?
M. ERNEST RENAN has achieved one of the greatest literary successes of our age in publishing a life of Jesus. It is not a work of profound research or scholarship,—it is written in a clear and limpid style, with a touch of the picturesque and the poetic. But neither its scholarship, nor its mode of handling, nor the graces of its style, are sufficient to account for its selling by the thousands and the million, —for its being as it was, a leading subject for a time, in the thoughts and interests of the whole civilized world.
The leading French critic, SainteBeuve, in his article on the book, has graphically described the immense sensation with which it was received in the thoughtless and sceptical circles of Paris, — the rush to his apartment of people who were so excited by the reading that they could talk of nothing else, and who, each one, felt impelled to overwhelm him with their rush of new ideas, called up by this topic, as if he were responsible for the author’s.
Mr. Renan’s book was neither scoffing nor unsympathetic in its spirit. It was, so far as appears, the honest attempt of an unbeliever in any miraculous intercourse between man and God to reconstruct the admitted facts of the life of Jesus so as to leave out of it everything miraculous.
The great miracle of all, the wonder that Renan has only made clearer by his book, and for which he has not a word of explanation, is, that a Judœan peasant has revolutionized the religions of the world.
A Judœan peasant is at this moment receiving divine honors, not in dark and uncivilized regions, but in the most enlightened countries ot the world. The progress of science, the growth of the ages through eighteen centuries, does not seem in the least to have diminished the hold and the power of this Galilean upon mankind.
In order to realize fully the phenomenon, let us suppose that Renan had undertaken to reconstruct the biography of Socrates or Plato or of Mahomet. With equal learning, equal graces of style, would the results have been the same ? Would a million copies have been sold ? and would people have quivered and palpitated through all the civilized world, as if somebody had touched the apple of their eye ?
Why this interlacing of the human heartstrings with the name of Jesus ? Why this strange, imperishable sympathy ?
Renan leaves out the only hypothesis that could possibly account for it, and leaves the mystery unsolved !
The question now becomes intense : Who was this Jadman peasant ? Whence came he ? What laws and literature formed his mind ? Of what education was he the outgrowth ?
Jesus was a Jew. Henceforward, therefore, Jewish literature must be looked to as the human education of this mind that has governed and still governs the civilized world.
Renan gives an account of the early education of Jesus, reconstructed from his present observation of what the life of a peasant boy in Nazareth is, but on this subject the Evangelists are silent. We have but one anecdote of his boyhood. At twelve years of age he was taken for the first time to Jerusalem to share in the yearly festival of the Passover. The boy was missed by the party after a day’s journey homeward ; and the parents, returning, found him in one of the numerous apartments of the temple, at the feet of the learned doctors who instructed in the law,— “both hearing them and asking them questions.”
This shows what the mind of Jesus was upon at this early period, and by whom his early inquiries were directed.
In view of either theory of the life of Jesus, — whether we look on him as the incarnate God developing into a human experience as a Jew, or as the man whose unassisted human genius revolutionized the world, and by the mere force of moral loveliness led all the leading nations of the world to adore him as a divine being, — whichever of these theories we take, the question becomes intensely interesting, What were the educational influences, what the literature, of a nation which produced this wonderful and gifted son ?
Is the literature that Jesus was familiar with in his early years yet in existence in the world ? Is it possible for us to get at it ? Can we ourselves review the ideas, the statements, the modes of reasoning and thinking, on moral and religious subjects, which were current in his time, and must have been revolved by him during those silent thirty years, when he was pondering his future public mission ? To such inquiries the learned class of Jewish Rabbis answer by holding up the Talmud. Here, say they, is the source from whence Jesus of Nazareth drew the teachings which enabled him to revolutionize the world; and the question becomes, therefore, an interesting one to every Christian, What is the Talmud ?
In order to get an exact and clear idea, we must first Orientalize our minds, and carry ourselves back to the peculiarities of a past age and nation, and familiarize ourselves with the idea of a vast and various literature existing from generation to generation in a strictly unwritten form in the minds and teachings of a certain body of learned men whom our Saviour speaks of as the Elders. Jesus could read no books of theirs; for at that time their teachings not only were not collected in writing, but were strictly forbidden to be written. They existed in the minds and hearts of the living teachers alone. The work of reducing them to writing was not attempted till two centuries after the Christian era, as we shall show in the proper place hereafter. The Talmud, then, is the written form of that which, in the time of Jesus, was called the Traditions of the Elders, and to which he makes frequent allusions. What sort of a book is it ?
The answer is at first sight discouraging to flesh and spirit. The Talmud appears to view in the form of fourteen heavy folio volumes of thick, solid Hebrew and Aramaic consonants, without a vowel to be seen from the first word of the first volume to the last word of the last. Such is the Jewish Talmud, including both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian. Who can read it? It can be read, for it has been read; though, to be sure, it is not so easy to get on with as a modem novel. No one yet ever learned to read it fluently without having condemned himself to what Mr. Mantilini would call “one demd horrid grind,” and accordingly a good Rabbinical doctor is seldom good for anything else. There are learned Jews who never do anything else all their lives long but study the Talmud. The learned Dr. Lightfoot, whose ponderous tomes gave comfort and courage to Mr. Andrew Fairservice, when frightened by a bogle, completely mastered the Talmud without being mastered by it; and he, in his lumbering, clumsy, honest way, thus complains of its authors : —
“ The almost unconquerable difficulty of their style, the frightful roughness of their language, and the amazing emptiness and sophistry of the matters handled, do torture, vex, and tire him that reads them. They do everywhere abound with trifles in that manner as though they had no mind to be read ; with obscurities and difficulties as though they had no mind to be understood ; so that the reader hath need of patience all along to enable him to bear both trifling in sense and roughness in expression.”
The good Doctor had been a little wearied with his self-imposed herculean task, and judges the Talmudists with rather too great severity; for there is in them truth as well as trash, wisdom as well as folly, sense as well as nonsense, sound instruction as well as ludicrous absurdity, and a great deal of all.
The learned Jews, for many ages persecuted beyond all endurance, not allowed to speak, or even to think without incurring the risk of most hideous tortures ; vagabonds and outcasts wherever their lot might be fixed, yet with minds trained and cultivated, and informed far beyond any contemporary standard, with a pride of race stronger and more justifiable than any other people ever had or can have, — often relieved their overburdened souls by clothing mournful truths in preposterous and laughable guise, and sometimes played the mountebank, when they were well capable of acting the philosopher. Some of their most absurd legends are but the masks of unwelcome and dangerous sentiments. Our old nursery myths of the “House that Jack built ” and the “ Kid that would n’t go ” are in their origin but Rabbinic legends, under cover of which important instruction was conveyed to kindred minds of the Jewish race, who by their sympathies and a community in suffering had learned to understand in sober earnest what their teachers could venture to utter only with a ludicrous grimace.
The Talmud is the great repository of the mental products of a most vigorous and vivid race of thinkers, through long ages of degradation, persecution, oppression, and sorrow ; and, as such, few human works are more worthy of, or will better repay, the student of human nature.
Some words which are often found in connection with the Talmud should here be explained, to wit : —
1. Midrasch : this is always used in reference to direct exposition.
2. Halachah : that which refers principally to legal enactments, and the law, especially in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
3. Haggadah : that which includes maxims and myths, proverbs and legends, in which the Talmud is rich, and intensely interesting. These portions of the Talmud the Jews in their dispersions, oppressions, and afflictions very appropriately styled a comfort and a blessing. It should be borne in mind, that these words designate the kind of writing, and not any particular sections or portions of the book, just as we speak of the poetry and prose of a work.
The word Talmud signifies learning. The Talmud professes to be an expansion and exposition of the Mosaic law ; and an application of its precepts to every possible exigency and event of human life. It consists of two parts, to wit: —
1. The MISHNA (the word means second or repetition).
This is said by the Rabbins to be the traditionary law as delivered by Moses to the seventy elders of the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, by word of mouth, and thus handed down orally by the scribes from generation to generation, without ever being committed to writing.
a. The GEMARA (meaning completion), the amplification or exposition of the Mishna by a succession of learned Rabbins, and put in written form between the third and the sixth centuries of the Christian era.
The Hebrews themselves had a most extravagant estimate of the value of their Talmud, even preferring the Talmud without the written law to the written law without the Talmud. Our Saviour boldly censures them as often “ making the word of God of none effect through their traditions.” They were accustomed to say, “ The written law is water, the Mishna is wine, the Gemara is spiced wine.” “The written law is salt, the Mishna is pepper, the Gemara is all sorts of most precious spices.”
There are two Talmuds, — the Jerusalem in two folio volumes, and the Babylonian in twelve folio volumes. The Mishna is the same in both, but the two Geraaras are quite different.
The origin of these two Talmuds is historically as follows : Soon after the overthrow of the Jewish commonwealth by the destruction of Jerusalem under the Roman Emperors Vespasian and Titus, Jewish schools were established for the study of the law at Jamnia and Tiberias, — the former a town in Northwestern Palestine, situated near the Mediterranean ; and the latter a wellknown village on the lake of Genesareth.
But the Jews having become objects of intense hatred and suspicion to the Romans, especially after the second revolt in the reign of Hadrian, the Jewish literature could nowhere within the Roman Empire have a free and full development. Hence the Jerusalem Talmud was circumscribed in its contents and unsatisfactory in its teachings. But Babylonia was at this time a part of the Parthian Empire, and independent of the Romans ; and here, therefore, the Rabbins established their most famous schools at Sura, at Nehardea, and at Pumbeditha, and pursued their studies with comparatively little molestation, and the result was the more copious and satisfactory Babylonian Talmud.
There is something wild and romantic in the idea of this immense body of literature existing in the world from generation to generation in the aerial cloud-like form of tradition, like that pillar of cloud and fire which of old guided the wandering steps of the sacred nation. A superstitious reverence prevented these traditions from being written, lest, by being once fixed in writing, they should cease to grow and receive accessions from warm and vivid human thought.
But lest the definite and positive Anglo-Saxon mind should incline to conceive that nothing of any real permanent worth could have existed so long in a traditionary form, we will venture to remind our readers that we have a very similar instance in the common law of England, “the origin of which,” says Lord Chief Justice Hale, ”is as undiscoverable as the sources of the Nile,” and which for generations existed mainly in unwritten traditions and customs.
The work of reducing the Talmud to writing was never attempted till the third century of the Christian era. Even then, at first, great opposition was made to this innovation. It was said that to write the Gemara would fix it and make it unalterable, whereas it ought to be left open to improvements from the developments of successive generations.
We can see in this notice of the growth of the Talmud how it could he quite possible that Gamaliel, at whose feet Paul was instructed, and others like him, could have improved the Gemara by a judicious use of the instructions of Christ and the apostles. Though the oral traditions of the Mishna and portions of the Gemara were some of them doubtless antecedent to the time of Christ by many generations, yet it cannot be proved in a single instance where there is identity of sentiment between the Talmud and the New Testament, that the Talmud did not borrow from the New Testament rather than the New Testament from the Talmud. It is not likely that an utterance as clear, condensed, and cutting as the Sermon on the Mount, as given by the Evangelists, was passed over with inattention by the learned senate of Jewish Rabbins. These teachings passed into the community, and became an animating and forming force in society ; and they must, in the very nature of the case, have acted powerfully on all the existing schools of ethical and intellectual science. We find in Christ’s discourses frequent allusions to the teachings of these men, searching reviews and criticisms of their doctrines. Much of the Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the errors in their teaching and the establishment of a higher code of morals. “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, &c. ; but I say unto you,” is. as we all know, a frequent form of summary in that discourse.
We shall now endeavor to give our readers some general idea of the
Contents of the Talmud.
The whole Talmud, both in the Jerusalem and the Babylonian editions, is divided into six SEDARIM, or ORDERS, or, as we might call them, books ; and each seder or book is subdivided into MASICHTOTH, or treatises ; into PERAKIM, or chapters ; and each perak, or chapter, into MISHNAIOTH, or sections.
In the Babylonian Talmud there are sixty-three masichtoth, five hundred and twenty-five perakim, and four thousand one hundred and eighty-seven mishnaioth.
The Sedarim or books of the Talmud are the following, to wit:-
1. Seder Zeraim. “ Order of Seeds,” — treating of the products of agriculture, and other matters therewith connected in the Jewish law.
2. Seder Moed. “ Order of Festivals,” — treating of the times and manner of celebrating the Jewish feasts.
3. Seder Nashim. “ Order of Women,” — treating of marriage, divorce, women’s rights and wrongs, &c.
4. Seder Nerikim. “ Order of Damages,” — crimes against property, &c.
5. Seder Kodashim. “ Order of Holy Things,” — sacrifices, ablutions, and such like.
6. Seder Taharoth. “ Order of Purification,” — the ceremonial purity or impurity of houses, furniture, household utensils, &c.
We subjoin, as a specimen of the whole work, a few of the subjects discussed in several of the treatises.
Treatise I. of Order I. “ Of the Blessings.” Relates to prayer, and thanksgivings for the fruits of the earth.
Treatise II. of same Order. “ Of the Corner.” Respecting the corners of the harvest-fields, which are to be left for the poor, &c.
Treatise VII. of Order II. “ Of the Egg.” What one should do and not do on feast-days, — and whether it be lawful, on a feast-day, to eat the egg which a hen lays on that day; the mode of treatment of this important point is somewhat obscure, and the result apparently not certainly determined.
Treatise VIII. of Order IV. “ The Sayings of the Fathers,” or the ethics of the Talmud, abounding in acute sayings, striking proverbs, and curious legends.
Treatise VII. of Order V. The cutting off of a soul from the future life, and the sins which deserve such punishment; and the condition of the condemned souls in Gehenna.
A single cursory glance at this part of the Talmud at once dissipates a very superficial statement, which has often been made, that the Jews had no doctrine of future rewards and punishments, previous to the time of Christ, and that it was a distinguishing part of his mission to reveal such a futurity.
The representations of Heaven and Hell in the Talmud are as vivid as in the poetry of Dante or the sermons of Jonathan Edwards; and show conclusively that, in regard to the general fact of a future life of retribution, the Saviour was not under the necessity of making new announcements, but spoke to a community in whose mind that basis of thought was already firmly established.
Still further to illustrate the nature of the Talmud, we will here give a brief analysis of the first treatise of the first book, which book is subdivided, as we said before, into eleven treatises, seventy-five chapters, and six hundred and fifty-four sections.
The general title of this first chapter of the first book is Massecheth Berachoth, or “Treatise of the Blessings”; and it is subdivided as follows.
For the sake of perspicuity, however, we must premise, before we proceed further, that the Shema spoken of in this treatise is the passage in Deuteronomy vi. 4, “Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God is one Lord.”
This declaration, which in the Hebrew has a wonderfully solemn, plaintive, and majestic sound, has in all ages been considered among the Jews as of a peculiar sacredness.
SHEMA, ISRAEL! ADONAI ELOHAENU ADONAI AHAD, is that sublime affirmation of the absolute unity of the Divine Nature, in opposition to the polytheism and idolatry of the pagan world, the frequent repetition of which, in a distinct, loud, and peculiar chant, forms a conspicuous part of every religious service of the Hebrews.
The “ SHEMONE ESRAE, or the eighteen,” is the name of a sort of Hebrew Te Deum, so called because it originally consisted of eighteen sentences, and was composed, as the Rabbins say, by Oueen Esther, and delivered to them to be daily repeated in their devotions, for their consolation, till the restoration of their temple at Jerusalem shall enable them to renew the daily sacrifices which are of necessity suspended while the temple is in ruins.
The chapters (Perakim) of this treatise are as follows : —
1. On the daily blessing and the prayers thereto belonging, particularly on the time for saying the Shema, evening and morning, on the posture of the body, and the prayers belonging thereto. (This occupies five sections or Mishnaioth.)
2. On the pauses and the order of the Shema, on the tones in the chanting of it, on the special occasions for it. (Eight sections.)
3. On the exceptions in the saying of the Shema, mourners, women at certain periods, servants, minors, bathers, the unclean. (Six sections.)
4. How long the time may be for those prayers, and whether one may say the Shemone Esrae by extracts only : that a prayer should not be an opus Operatum; on prayer in dangerous places, and on the Musaph, or additional prayer on special occasions. (Seven sections.)
5. On the outward and inward posture in prayer; on prayer for rain, &c. ; on leading in prayer for others, on wandering in prayer. (Five sections.)
6. On the different ways of pronouncing a blessing on fruit-trees and the fruits of the ground ; on bread and wine ; on the changing of the blessings; on the blessing of that which does not spring out of the earth ; also respecting miscellaneous subjects, on the wine, and the dessert before and after the meal; on sitting and reclining at table ; on incense; on the chief dishes and the side dishes; on the threefold blessing and the short blessing; on the water. (Eight sections.)
7. On the common blessing in which many may join in common, its forms according to the number of the persons, and on separating into distinct companies. (Five sections,)
8. On the difference between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai in respect to the washing of hands and asking the blessing at table. (Eight sections.)
9. On a blessing in miracles and all kinds of natural phenomena; on entering a new house; on unprofitable prayers; on prayer in entering and leaving a city ; on praising God for the evil as well as the good ; on reverence toward the temple ; on naming the Divine name in salutations, and our duty of regulating ourselves according to the tradition of the elders. (Five sections.)
Style of the Talmud.
As a specimen of the style of the Talmud, or its method of communicating instruction, we translate a few paragraphs from the very first sentence of the Mishna, the beginning of the treatise on blessings.
MISHNA. “ At what time in the evening should one chant the Shema ? — From the time that the priests go in to eat of their oblation till the end of the first night watch. These are the words of the Rabbi Eliezer. But the wise men say until midnight. Rabban1 Gamaliel says, till the morning dawn ariseth. It came to pass that his sons were returning from a feast; they said unto him, ‘ We have not yet recited the Shema.’ He answered and said unto them, ‘If the morning dawn be not yet arisen ye are under obligation to recite it.' And not this alone have they said, but everywhere, where the wise have said ‘ until midnight,’ the command is binding till the morning dawn ariseth; and the steaming of the fat and of the joints is lawful until the morning dawn ariseth ; and so everything which may be eaten on the same day it is allowed to eat, until the morning dawn ariseth. If this is so, why do the wise say 'till midnight’? In order that men may be held far away from sin.”
All this long sentence, the first one in the Mishna, the opening words of the Talmud, is just for the purpose of teaching that the most proper time for chanting the evening Shema is when the priests go in to their supper, that is, about 5 P. M.; or, if it is not said then, at any time before midnight; and if not then, at any time before the next dawn of the morning; and the time is protracted to prevent the sin of not reciting it at all.
This is a characteristic specimen of the style of a considerable portion of the Talmud, and of the mode of teaching, especially in the Halachah, — a style and method wholly unlike anything else in the world, unless it be some modern systems of metaphysical philosophy.
The style of the Gemara is substantially the same, only still more strange, grotesque, and obscure. In illustration of this we will give a very small part of the amplification of the Gemara on this very sentence of the Mishna.
It would seem as if the Mishna here needed no amplification, but the Gemara is very copious. It says : “ The Thanna ” (that is, Rabbi Judah the Holy), “what is his authority that he teaches, from what time onward ? And, beside that, why does he teach on the evening first, and might he teach on the morning first ?
“The Thanna rests on the Scripture, for it is written, When thou liest down and when thou risest up, and so he teaches, the time of reciting the Shema, when thou liest down, when is it ?
“From the time when the priests go in to eat of their oblation. But if thou wilt, say I, he hath taken it out of the creation of the world ; for it is said, it was evening and it was morning, one day. If this is so, it might be the last Mishna which teaches, In the morning are said two blessings before and one after, and in the evening, two before and two after, and yet they teach in the evening first. The Thanna begins in the evening, then he teaches in the morning; as he treats of the morning so he explains the things of the morning, and then he explains the things of the evening.”
This is less than one fourth part of the comment in the Gemara on that passage in the Mishna, and the remainder is equally lucid and interesting.
I have never seen anything equal to this, except some passages in the writings of Hegel, which it seems to me they considerably resemble. I have translated literally; and for the sake of comparison let us take a literal translation of the first sentence of Hegel’s great work on the “ Phenomenology of the Spirit.” The section is entitled “ The sensuous Certainty of the This, and the My,”
“The knowledge which is the first, or immediately our subject, can be no other than that which is itself immediate knowledge, — the knowledge of the immediate or the existing. We have to restrain ourselves even so, immediately or receptively, and to change nothing in it as it offers itself, and to keep off the comprehending from the noticing.”
The admirers of Hegel say, that he is a most powerful and suggestive writer, and that he fairly exhausts the truths of philosophy ; and the Hebrew lovers of the Talmud say much the same thing of their admired national work. Are they not both equally right, or equally wrong ?
The Talmud, however, is not all like the specimens I have given; and we hope soon to show that there is much in it which is intelligible and beautiful ; exhibiting even the strong commonsense of Benjamin Franklin, and the poetical genius of the Old Testament.
The Talmud has a great number of authors, and, as a natural consequence, a great variety of styles ; and where the different authors can be ascertained, we find that each has his own peculiar and characteristic manner.
Rabbi Simon Ben Jochai is designedly obscure, paradoxical, and bizarre in the extreme, while Rabbi Joshua is neat, witty, and sharp; Rabbi Ashe is enormously diffuse, while Rabbi Judah the Holy is concise, definite, and positive.
Authors of the Talmud.
The principal authors of the Talmud, according to its own statement, we will briefly mention.
It must be understood, that the earlier authors did not themselves commit their works to writing; they were handed down by tradition only, till the time of Rabbi Judah the Holy, who first attempted the preservation of them on the written page, about A. D. 220. The Talmudists arrange these authors in classes.
1st Class. The Elder Sages. Of these there is the following list: —
B. C. 180. Simeon the Just, the last of the great synagogue, and the founder of the Rabbinic schools.
Antigonus of Soho, the disciple and friend of Simeon, and the master of the first Rabbinic school.
Zadok and Boethus, two disciples of Antigonus, the founders of the school which diverged from the standard of Hebrew Orthodoxy, and laid the foundation for the sect of the Sadducees.
B. C. 70. Jose Ben Joezer and Jose Ben Johanna, the first pair of the distinctively Pharisaic heads of schools.
Joshua Ben Perachiah and Nathai of Arbela, the second pair of the same school.
Simon Ben Shetah, the disciple of the preceding, and Jehudah Ben Tabai, the third pair.
B. C. 97. Shemaijah and Abtalion, the fourth pair.
At the time of Christ’s birth we have Hillel the Great, who died A. D. 14. He, after Ezra, was regarded as the great restorer of the law.
Menahem and Shammai formed a fifth pair of teachers.
2d Class. The Thanaim, who in the composition of the Mishna followed the lead of Hillel the Great.
Among these were, A. D. 33, Gamaliel the Great, surnamed the son of the law, a grandson of Hillel, and the teacher of the Apostle Paul.
A. D. 70, Simeon, the son of the preceding, who perished in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
From A. D. 70 to 140 we have Johannan Ben Saccai, the collector of the scattered remnants of the Rabbins, after the overthrow of Jerusalem. and the founder of the Rabbinic school at Jamnia. Gamaliel Second, the son of Simeon and the disciple of Johannan, the first Nasi or Prince of the Jews, and the head of the learned school at Jamnia. His associates were Rabbi Joshua, the sharp and witty writer of the Talmud, and Rabbi Akiba, the learned, active, and enthusiastic counsellor of Bar Cochba in his rebellion against the Emperor Hadrian.
When that rebellion was crushed, this Rabbi was put to death with the most exquisite and lingering tortures ; he all the while chanting in a loud, clear voice the great Hebrew Shema, “ Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One ” ; thus with his last breath bidding defiance to the polytheism of his brutal conquerors, and glorying even in a lost cause.
At the same period we have Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah, an independent and self-reliant teacher, who fell under the ban of the Pharisees and Rabbi Simon Ben Jochai, a fanatical mystic, and a most obscure and provoking Writer.
From A. D. 160 to 220. At this period there was in Palestine Rabbi Simeon Ben Gamaliel, the Nasi, or Prince, who removed the school from Jamnia to Tiberias, and had for his associates Rabbi Jose, Rabbi Jehudah Ben Ilai, Rabbi Nathan, Rabbi Meier and Rabbi Simon Ben Jahijah.
In Babylonia at this time were Rabbi Jehudah Ben Bethira at Nisibis, and Rabbi Hananiah, at Nehardea, a nephew of Rabbi Josua in Jamnia. Rabbi Jehudah attempted to make the school at Babylonia independent of that of Tiberias, but without success.
From A. D. 220 to 250. In Palestine we see Judah the Holy, a disciple of Meyer, and Nasi, or Prince, after the death of his father Simeon, the most learned and the most venerated of the teachers at Tiberias, and the last of the Thanaim. He was the first editor of the Mishna. With him was his friend Rabbi Haja of Babylon, and opposed to him was the Christian convert, Symachus, the author of a translation of the Old Testament into Greek, and also Rabbi Ishmael Ben Elisha and Rabbi Anshajah.
In Babylon, Rabbi Hona. He bore the title of Resh Glutha (Head of the Dispersion), — a title of superiority used in the Babylonian school, and of the same force as Nasi in Jerusalem. There were, besides, Rabbi Samuel at Nahardea, Rabbi Abba Ariche, the founder of the school at Sura. He brought the Mishna to the Babylonian schools, and acquired such distinction that, like his teacher Rabbi Judah the Holy, he was referred to in Jewish books by the talismanic title of RAB, or the Great.
3d Class. The Amoraim. Among these in Palestine, from A. D. 250 to 270, were Rabbi Gamaliel III., son of Judah the Holy, who bore the title of Nasi, and his colleagues, Rabbi Haniyah at Sepphoris, Rabbi Johannan, editor of the Jerusalem Talmud, and Rabbi Simon Ben Lakes at Tiberias.
In Babylonia, Rabbi Naliman Bar Jacob at Nehardea, Rabbi Hona at Sura, and Rabbi Jehudah Ben Jeheskiel, founder of the school at Pumbeditha.
From A. D. 270 to 310 we have in Palestine Rabbi Jehudah II., son of Gamaliel, and Nasi by title, with his colleagues, Rabbi Ame, and Rabbi Ase at Tiberias.
In Babylonia, Rabbi Nehemiah the Resh Glutha, Rabbi Haida at Sura, and Rabbi Aliba-Bar Nahmeni at Pumbeditha.
From A. D. 310 to 370 we have in Palestine Rabbi Hillel, son of Jehuda, with the title of Nasi. He constructed and fixed the Jewish Calendar, and his colleagues were Rabbi Abuhu at Cæsarea, and Rabbi Jehuda III., son of Hillel, and Nasi.
In Babylonia we have Rabbi Demi at Nehardea, Rabbi Abba Bar Hona at Sura, Rabbi Joseph, Rabbi Abaje, and Rabbi Raba at Pumbeditha.
From A. D. 370. In Palestine we find Rabbi Gamaliel IV., son of Jehuda, the last Nasi or Patriarch at Tiberias. Here was the end of Hebrew learning in Palestine.
In Babylonia we find Rabbi Peka, Rabbi Nahman, Rabbi Isaac, and others at Pumbeditha. There were Rabbi Marsutra (the Resh Glutha), Rabbi Asche at Sura, from 350 to 430, the editor of the Babylonian Talmud, and his friend and assistant in the revision, Rabbi Abima.
A. D. 500 we have the Rabbi Jose at Pumbeditha. He was the last of the Talmudic writers. The names of all these, as well as of many others less noteworthy, occur in the Talmud.
We have thus attempted to show what the Talmud is, who composed it, when and where it was composed.
We shall proceed to add some characteristic specimens of its literature in selections from the Haggadah portions of the Talmud, or, in other words, its sacred myths and proverbs.
Haggadah of the Talmud.
Let us now turn to the better portions of the Talmud, and give a few samples of its maxims and legends. There are many of these, and of the best quality, especially the book entitled Pirke A both. Sections (or Sayings) of the Fathers, of which a considerable portion is incorporated with the Hebrew prayer-books, under the title of the Ethics, is rich in valuable instruction. A very few examples only can find a place here. Leopold Dukes has published a volume of the Proverbs with a German translation ; and Herder has transferred some of the legends to his Blumenlese from the Oriental poets ; but for the most part they are still inaccessible to the general reader.
The legends of the Talmud, as well as the proverbs, have a great variety in style and character, including the grave and the gay, the satirical and the humorous. Some of them have very quaint titles, and as appropriate as they are quaint; as, for example, Concerning the Rabbi who married the Devil’s daughter, and what came of it.
Proverbs of the Talmud.
Woe to them who see without knowing what they sec, and who stand without knowing on what they stand !
To the wasp men say, Neither thy honey nor thy sting.
Rabbi Eliezer says, The book and the sword are given to men by God tied in one bundle. If the book is obeyed, the sword is at rest; if the book is disobeyed, the sword rages.
Never leave the door open even to an honest man, much less to a thief.
The hole, not the rat, is the thief.
The world is kept in health only by the breath of children at school.
At Pumbeditha (a school famous for its subtle logic) they can drive an elephant through the eye of a needle.
In the same pot in which you cook, you will yourself be cooked.
With the same measure with which you measure to others, it will be measured to you again.
Solid wood burns with little noise ; but thorns make a great crackling, saying, We too are wood.
If you speak in the night, speak softly ; if you speak in the daytime, look around you before you speak.
Little or much, if only your heart is fixed on heaven.
What concern is it of yours to penetrate into the mysteries of God?
A melon is known even in its blossom.
Hypocrites steal leather, and make shoes for the poor.
Yesterday, says the bird, I was free and joyous among the green boughs ; to-day they are the bars of my cage.
He who enjoys too much in this world is in danger of losing the next.
Him who humbles himself, God exalts ; him who exalts himself, God humbles.
Is the lamb rash who is feeding in the midst of wolves? Not if he trusts the good shepherd.
Great is the value of labor. It honors him who devotes himself to it.
The camel aspired after horns, and the Lord took away his ears.
He whose head is made of butter should never try to be a baker.
The Devil comes five coals to blow.
A hundred guilders invested in trade give a man meat and wine ; the same invested in farming gives him only cabbage and salt.
The speculator puts his money on the horns of a stag.
Woe to him who builds a big door, and has no house behind it!
While the Rabbi is fasting, the dogs eat up his dinner.
One must stand as well with the public sentiment as with God himself.
Rabbi Mair was in the school as if he tore up mountains and trod them to powder by his logic.
Of a field which is prematurely reaped, even the straw is good for nothing.
Weep not with the joyous, nor laugh with the sad; wake not with the sleeping, nor sleep with the waking.
Legends of the Talmud.
A certain Gentile came to Rabbi Sammai, a man passionate and irascible, and said, Rabbi, make me a proselyte while I am standing on one foot; and Sammai beat him off with a ten-foot pole which he was holding in his hand. He then went to Rabbi Hillel, a mild and patient man, with the same request; and Hillel said, What is hateful to yourself, that do not to another; this is the whole law; the rest is but the exposition of it. Go away a perfect man.
A Rabbi reached a city late in the evening ; the gates were shut, and he must sleep outside in the open air. What God does is the best for me, said the Rabbi, and laid himself down to rest.
In the night a storm arose which extinguished the light of his lantern, and a lion came and devoured the ass on which he rode. Still the Rabbi said, What God does is best for me.
At daylight, he found that a band of robbers had plundered the city in the night, and murdered the inhabitants. Said I not, continued the Rabbi, what God does is best for me ?
We sometimes learn in the morning why God put us to inconvenience the night before.
Noah and his Vineyard.
While Noah was planting his vineyard, the Devil comes to him and says, What are you doing here, Noah ? Planting a vineyard, says Noah. What is the use of a vineyard ? says the Devil. Its fruit, says Noah, whether fresh or dry, is sweet and good, and its wine gladdens the heart. Let us work it on shares, says the Devil. Agreed, says Noah. Now, what does the Devil do ? He brings a lamb and a lion, a hog and a monkey, sacrifices them on the spot, and mingles their blood with the soil. Wherefore, if a man only eats the fruit of the vineyard, he is mild and gentle as a lamb ; if he drinks the wine, he imagines himself a lion, and falls into mischief; if he drinks habitually, he becomes unmannerly and disgusting as a hog; if he gets drunk, he jabbers and jumps, and is silly and nasty as a monkey.
The Childhood of Abraham.
Abraham was brought up in a cave, for the tyrant Nimrod sought to destroy him. But even in this dark retreat the light of God was within him, and he thought by himself. Who is my Creator ? At the age of sixteen he came out of his cave, and, looking for the first time upon the heavens and the earth, he was astonished and delighted, and he asked of all the creatures he met, Who is your Creator ?
The sun arose ; Abraham fell on his face, exclaiming, Ah, this is the Creator ! how glorious he is ! But the sun went down, and it was dark; and he said that disappearing light could not be the Creator. But the moon arose, and Abraham thought perhaps this lesser light, attended by this glorious retinue of stars, is the Creator. But the moon and stars went down, and Abraham stood alone.
He went to his father, and said, Who is the God of heaven and earth ? and Terah directed him to his idols. I will prove them, thought Abraham ; and when he was alone he laid before them the most delicious viands, saying, If ye are living gods, accept these offerings. But they stood immovable.
And these, said Abraham, are what my father worships as gods. Perhaps I can teach him better. He took his staff and broke the idols in pieces, except one, and into the hands of this one he placed his staff, and said to his father, O father, this god has killed all his brothers. Terah was angry, and said, You are insulting me, boy ; how could he ? for I made him with my own hands. Be not angry, father, said Abraham ; let thine own ear take in what thine own lips have spoken. Dost thou not believe that thy god could do what my own childhood has done ? How then can this be the god who created me and thee, and the earth and the heavens ? Terah stood confounded and struck dumb before his child.
The Wonder-staff of the Prophet.
Gird up thy loins, said Elisha to his servant Gehazi (when the Shunammite woman implored him to raise her son to life), and take my staff in thine hand. If any one meet thee, salute him not; if any one salute thee, answer him not; but lay this my staff on the boy’s face, and his soul will return to him again.
So Gehazi took the prophet’s staff with joy, for he had long been wishing to get hold of it, that he too might work a miracle. As he was joyously hurrying along, Jehu, the son of Nimshi, called out to him, Whither away so fast, Gehazi? To raise one from the dead, says Gehazi, and here is the staff of the prophet.
Jehu and a curious crowd from all the towns and villages on the way hurried after to see one rise from the dead. Gehazi with great alacrity hurried on, the mob with him, and, entering the Shunammite’s house, he laid the staff on the face of the dead child ; but there was neither voice nor movement. He turned the staff about, placed it in different positions, to the right and to the left, above, below ; but the child awoke not. Gehazi was confounded, and the mob hooted at him. Ashamed he returned to the prophet, and said, The boy does not wake up.
The prophet took his staff, hastened to Shunem, entered the house, and closed the door against all spectators. He prayed to the Lord, and then went to the corpse, placed himself on the child, his mouth to the child’s mouth. his eyes to the child’s eyes, till the child’s body became warm. With what did he warm the dead to life ? With that silent, humble prayer, and with the breathing of an unselfish, disinterested love. Here, take thy son again, said the prophet to the mother ; and the self-seeking, vain Gehazi stood confounded and ashamed.
Biography of Jesus of Nazareth according to the Talmud.
The Talmud makes frequent mention, of Jesus of Nazareth, so much so that a biography of him from the Jewish point of view might be collected from it.
These accounts recognize Jesus as a youth of great beauty, eloquence, and promise, who, being educated at the Jerusalem college of the Rabbins, was led by ambition to set up opposing doctrines, and to assert his authority in opposition to them. They admit that he performed stupendous miracles, in general such as are recorded in the New Testament, and account for it by stating that he secretly entered the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple, and thence stole the Ineffable name of Jehovah, which he hid in a gash in the flesh of his arm, and by this he was able to perform these wonders ; that, this name being taken away from him while he was asleep, he lost all miraculous power, and so fell an easy prey to his enemies, and was publicly executed ; that his disciples stole away his body, and pretended that he had risen from the dead.
A narrative from these tomes has recently been published in New York, by Isaac Goldstein ; but I am warned by a note from a worthy and learned Rabbi, that this account must not by any means be taken as representing the opinions of the more enlightened and reputable Israelites of the present day.
What an interesting world of thought this Judæan literature opens to the mind!
What light it may shed on the words of Jesus and Paul to know the modes of thought which were such a perfect world in their time ! When Paul speaks of his studies at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the principal authors of the Talmud, of his profiting in the matters of the law above many of his equals, we see him, an ardent young enthusiast, on the way to become an accomplished Rabbi perhaps even a Nasi, in some future day, and we understand what he means, when he says, “But what things were gain to me, these I counted loss for Christ!” It was a whole education and a whole life’s work that he threw at the feet of his new Master.
Looking at the Talmud in contrast with any other ancient sacred writings extant in the world, except the Bible, we must be struck with its immense superiority.
The Hindoo sacred books are so offensively obscene that they never can be rendered into the language of any Christian nation. The Zendavesta, which is the sacred record of the old Zoroastrian and of the modern Parsee faith, with much dignified sentiment and pure morality, is far more diffuse and tedious than the Talmud; and the same may be said of the Koran. All of them are inferior as a whole to the Talmud, as the Talmud as a whole is inferior to the Bible.
The intense condensation of the Bible, especially of the New Testament, is a marked characteristic which distinguishes it from all other sacred books. Compare, for instance, the twelve or fourteen folio volumes of the Talmud with a Tract Society edition of the Bible, where the Old and New Testament form two neat little volumes, which can be carried in one’s vest pocket.
How small a volume in bulk, considering what it professes and what it teaches, is the Bible. Other sacred books are, like the firmament, full of rolling clouds ; the Bible is the sharp and luminous lightning flash, piercing to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
I desire, in conclusion, to express my obligations to the ponderous erudition of the two older standard authors on this subject, Lightfoot and Eisenmenger ; to a learned, copious, and most satisfactory article on the Talmud by Pastor Pressel, published in Herzog’s German Theological Encyclopædia in 1862; and to the brief and lively delineations of Leopold Dukes and J. G. Herder. The writings of Dukes, an author of our own day, are especially rich in regard to the Rabbinic proverbs and apologues ; and in one of his prefaces he expresses the hope that they may be of some use even to that rather numerous body of Christians, who give little other evidence of being Christians at all, except that of hating the Jews.
- A term of distinction, the same as Rabboni in the Gospel of John.↩