Category Archives: Uncategorized

How Judaism Emerged from Hebraism

And Other Stuff About the Talmud That You Might Not Know

The “written” Torah, or TaNaK, contains the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings, or scrolls). The Oral Torah, or Mishna, was created long before the Hebrews were taken to Babylon in captivity, ca. 586 BCE. (The word mishna comes from the Hebrew root for “repeat” because it was transmitted orally from teacher to student.) The Mishna was put into writing ca. 200 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi.

Discussions about the Mishna, which include the parts of the Torah from which the Mishna is derived, are called the Gemara (from the word mara, meaning to learn or study.) The Gemara is written in Aramaic. Unlike the Mishna, which is relatively brief, the Gemara is long, convoluted, and meanders off topic – as, for example, in the rules for blessings, in which we find a lesson about why it is wrong to embarrass another person. Together, the Mishna and Gemara comprise the Talmud.

In the Gemara, the rabbis dissected the Mishna to determine what it said about Torah law. Although we find 36 ways to incur the death penalty in the Torah, and many in the Mishna, the rabbis in the Gemara gave so many rules to the courts that it became almost impossible to carry out the death sentence. They said any court handing down one death sentence in seven years is a bloody court.

The Mishna contains six sections, called orders or sederim (as in seder or siddur). These sections are:

Zeraim (seeds) – laws about agriculture and blessings over food;

Moed (times and festivals) – laws for the sabbath, holidays, and fasts;

Nashim (women) – laws about marriage, divorce, contracts, and vows;

Nezikin (damages) – civil and criminal law (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, is in this section);

Kodashim (holy things) – laws of kashrut and Temple sacrifices;

Toharot (purity) – ritual purity laws.

Each Order is divided into smaller books called Tractates. The Tractates are divided into chapters. The chapters are divided into smaller numbered sections called Mishnayot. The entire Mishna is made up of thousands of Mishnayot. Parts of the Mishna do not have a Gemara, as in Pirkei Avot, but where it appears, the commentary refers to both the Torah portion from which it is derived, and the Mishna itself.

Our rabbis lived in both Babylon and Judea, and discussed the Mishna in both places. Hence, we have two Talmuds – the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. Citations from Talmud indicate which of the two (the Bavli by default), the Tractate and folio (or daf, an Aramaic word for plank, board, or oar – because the arrangement of words on the page resembles an oar, with the Mishna at the top, the Gemara below, together forming a T-shape, with comments of later medieval rabbis to the sides.)

The Talmud is the beginning of Jewish law (the Torah describes Hebraic law). In it, the rabbis needed to determine the best way to preserve their religion once there was no longer a Temple at which to worship. The dinner table replaces the altar. Prayer replaces sacrifices. Jewish law was discussed in the Gemara over a 1000-year period, from about 586 BCE – 500 CE. The laws don’t appear in order, due to the meandering nature of the rabbis’ conversations. A rabbi from one century might argue with another from an earlier time, but their comments appear side by side as if they are together in the same room. The Gemara presents different perspectives on every issue. Some decisions remain up in the air until Elijah comes to provide a definitive answer.

12th century physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides, AKA the Rambam, compiled a summary of Jewish law in the Mishneh Torah. Joseph Caro, in 15th century Spain, put together his own separate list. Each of them chose what he liked, what made sense to him, probably, I would imagine, in the spirit of offering a concise overview much as I am attempting to do here. Both books omit the nuanced and multifaceted discussion that characterizes the Talmud, leaving us with plain legalism. When people study only the works of the Rambam and Caro, they miss the context. From these men, one might learn how to kasher a plate, but perhaps not the importance of feeding the hungry.

According to tradition, Israel was a small tribe under the Patriarchs. We lost our freedom in Egypt, sprouted a new nation under Moses and Joshua, and continued as such until the end of Solomon’s reign. Two Jewish states, Israel and Judea, emerged side by side. Israel was lost.  Judea was captured by Babylon.

The term “Sadducees” comes from the name of Zadok, the first High Priest of Solomon’s Temple (950 BCE-ish). Sadducees practiced the religion of Hebraism. Hebraism accepts only the Five Books of Moses; it discards the Prophetic texts and the Rabbinic texts, including the Talmud. The Hebrews didn’t believe in resurrection, an Afterlife, or a messiah. They did believe in a cult god who punishes in this lifetime, but this is not the universal God of Judaism. The Sadducees didn’t believe in direct prayer to God, but in the intercession of the priesthood through animal and grain sacrifices.

When the Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, and the two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, were taken to Babylon, they could no longer worship as Hebrews. Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the conditions of exile. While some of our people stayed in the Persian empire, others returned to Judea, where they lived under Greek rule and later Roman authority, with a short-lived period of independence in between, following the Bar Kochba rebellion.

During the first generation of religious teachers known as the Zugot (515 BCE – 70 CE), supporters of Hellenism gained control over the position of the High Priest, the Kohen HaGadol. Greek sympathizers were appointed to fill that role. The people elected a nasi, a chief of the courts, as an alternative to the corrupt Temple priests. Thus began a rift between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (separatists – the forerunners of modern Rabbinic Judaism). Pairs of Zugot led the Sanhedrin. One was the Nasi, and the other was called the Av Beit Din (literally “father of the court”) whose role was to oversee the judges.

Following the Hashmonian-Maccabean revolt (around 165 BCE), religious authority shifted from the priests to the courts. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Beit Din HaGadol, the High Court, ceased to exist. The Romans allowed the Sanhedrin to be re-established at Jamnia, but as the influence of Christianity grew, the Romans shut down the Sanhedrin in order to marginalize Judaism. Hillel (traditionally said to have lived from 110 BCE to 10 CE) and Shammai (b 50 BCE, d 30 CE) were the last pair of leaders of the Zugot period, and served at the time of King Herod (who lived ca. 74 BCE – 4 BCE).

The era of the Tannaim, 10-220 CE, began with the emergence of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, two schools of thought with very different perspectives on Jewish law. Disagreements between them appear throughout the Talmud. According to tradition, the Tannaim were the final transmitters of the Oral Law, which had been passed from teacher to student from the time of Moses. The Tannaim include approximately 120 sages whose views are recorded in the Mishna. The root tanna corresponds to the Aramaic word for the Hebrew shanah, which is also the root word for Mishna, meaning to repeat, or to teach. The Tannaim lived and taught from the time of the Roman occupation of Judea, through the destruction of the Second Temple, and the periods before and after the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Among them are Rabban Yohanan ben Zakki (40 BCE – 80 CE), Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Judah HaNasi.

The Amoraim (200 CE – 500 CE) taught the Oral Law in Babylonia and Israel. Their debates were codified in the Gemara. 761 Amoraim are mentioned in both Talmuds. 367 lived in Israel from around 200-350 CE, and the other 394 lived in Babylon from around 200-500 CE. Amoraim is an Aramaic word that means “those who say.”

Savora, which means “reasoner,” is a term used in Jewish law and history to signify the rabbis who are credited with having given the Talmud much of its current structure, i.e. the editors. They did this work from approximately 500 CE – 700 CE. Modern scholars also use the plural stammaim for authors of unattributed statements in the Gemara. Classical rabbinic literature holds that the Babylonian Talmud was redacted into its final form ca.  550 CE. Some statements within classical rabbinic literature and later analysis suggest that the Bavli was smoothed over by the Savora’im, although little was altered.

The Geonim, from 589 CE to 1038 CE, preserved the transmission of Torah and halakhah, Jewish law. They taught the Talmud, and made legal decisions on issues for which no prior ruling existed. Geonim is the plural of Gaon, which means “pride” or “splendor” in Biblical Hebrew, and “genius” in modern Hebrew. The rabbis of the medieval period led the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita in the Abbasid Caliphate. Their schools were the center of Jewish learning. They were consulted from abroad on matters of Jewish law. Their questions and answers were compiled to form what is known as the Responsa literature. Later Geonim consulted not only the Mishna and Talmud, but also the decisions made by their predecessors, whose opinions were generally regarded as authoritative. By the 10th century, as learning spread to other regions, Jewish communities consulted experts in their own countries.

The Rishonim lived in the 11th – 15th centuries. Rishon means “the first ones” and refers to rabbis who lived prior to the publication of The Shulkhan Aruch of Yosef Karo in 1563. The publication of the Shulkhan Aruch marks the transition from the era of Rishonim to that of the Acharonim, or “last ones” (from the 16th century to the present.)

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, the Acharonim cannot dispute the rulings of rabbis of previous periods unless they find support for their opinions in the positions of other rabbis from previous eras. The question of which prior rulings can or cannot be disputed has resulted in a need to determine exactly which rulings fall within this period. Some rabbis hold that Yosef Karo’s Beit Yosef has the halakhic status of a work of a Rishon, while the later Shulkhan Aruch has the status of a work of an Acharon.

The fervor and dedication applied to the interpretation of the Torah was a lot like a thousand-year chess tournament of International Grand Masters in which every square and every piece and every move and every conceivable arrangement of pieces carried enormous weight. The approach to the process of analysis pre-dates the Mishna. It was developed by many divergent schools of thought over an extended period.

Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, “This and also this are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). Eilu v’eilu emphasizes the incompleteness of any single opinion. The v’, which means ‘and,’ is essential, uniting and complementing the two opinions without choosing one or compromising the integrity of either. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” (Stephen Stills, 1966)

Commencing with the belief that the Torah comes directly from God, the rabbis determined that nothing in it could possibly be superfluous. They attributed significance to inflections, repetitions, forms of usage, and omissions in the language. No word, sound, verb tense, repetition of a passage, or letter was regarded as accidental. The rabbis investigated the gematria (numerological value of the words) to reveal information suggested by, but not explicit in, the Torah. For example, they infer that Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, took part in the battle at Damascus because the number of soldiers in the battle and the numerical value of the letters in his name are the same (318).

Torah was God’s blueprint for the creation of the universe. In Tractate Eruvin 13a, Rabbi Yishmael cautions his student Meir, as Meir is transcribing a new Torah scroll, “My son, be careful in your work, for your work is Heavenly. If you delete even one letter or add even one letter, you may destroy the whole world!”

What follows is a brief excerpt from a much longer discussion, which, while ostensibly about an egg, is actually, by way of analogy, about the 13 rules of Talmudic hermeneutics, which I include to give you a sense of the flavor of the process.


TRACT BETZAH (rules about YOM TOV [holidays])




An egg laid on a festival may be eaten on the same day. So says the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel, however, says it must not.  



To what kind of hen does the Mishna refer? If to a hen designed for eating, why then does the school of Hillel prohibit the eating of the egg? Is it not a part of the eatables which were prepared (for the festival)? If to a hen kept for laying eggs only, what is the reason of the school of Shammai, who permit to eat it? Is this not Muktzah [non-permitted object to even have around on shabbat or yom tov]?


If we suppose that the school of Shammai does not hold the theory of Muktzah, even then the eating of it could not be permitted, as it is a newborn thing, and even one who denies the theory of Muktzah should hold to the theory of Nolad (newborn thing). No, R’ Na’hman has declared that one who denies the theory of Muktzah denies also the theory of Nolad.


If so, then the school of Shammai will be in accordance with R’ Simeon (who denies the theory of Muktzah), and the school of Hillel will be in accordance with R’ Jehudah (who holds it); but this would not be the case, because did not R’ Na’hman state (in Tractate Sabbath) that the school of Hillel is always in accordance with R’ Simeon and the school of Shammai with R’ Jehudah?


R’ Na’hman may say: Because we found an anonymous Mishna (in Tract Sabbath, p. 375) which is in accordance with R’ Simeon, therefore he declares that concerning the Sabbath the school of Hillel holds with R’ Simeon, and concerning the festivals we found an anonymous Mishna (Sabbath, p. 375) in accordance with R’ Jehudah, therefore he declares that the school of Hillel is in accordance with R’ Jehudah, who is more rigorous.


Let us see: Who makes the Mishna anonymous? Rabbi (its editor). Why does he make it anonymous in regard to Sabbath in accordance with R’ Simeon, and in regard to festivals (makes it anonymous) according to R’ Jehudah? This is no question. Relating to Sabbath, which is so rigorous that it has a capital punishment and there is no fear that anyone will dare to disregard its rules, therefore Rabbi made an anonymous Mishna in accordance with the more lenient R’ Simeon; but relating to festivals, which have no capital punishment at all, and the rules are lenient, for fear that otherwise they may be disregarded, Rabbi made an anonymous Mishna in accordance with R’ Jehudah.


Now, then, if the Mishna means a hen which is kept for laying eggs, and the reason that the school of Hillel prohibits it is because the egg is Muktzah, why do they not differ about the hen itself? (whether it is permitted to eat it or not).


Therefore said Rabba: The Mishna refers to a hen kept for eating, and to a festival which falls after Sabbath; and the teaching of the school of Hillel is not for the reason of Muktzah, but of preparation; i.e., an egg which is laid today. Rabba is certain that it was ripe the preceding day, and it is in accordance with his theory, thus: It is written [Ex. xvi. 5]: “And it shall come to pass on the sixth day, when they prepare what they shall have brought in”; i.e., only on a week day shall anything be prepared for the Sabbath or for festivals, but nothing should be prepared on a festival for the Sabbath, and vice versa.

They go on like this for quite some time, expanding into a discussion of parallels between rules about fruit trees and fallen branches, the relative sanctity of different holidays, the time and circumstances under which the eggs were laid, and whether or not the hen crossed the road on a plank. The real topic is how to think. The rabbis always credit the source of any comment out of respect to teachers and the tradition.



The Wisdom of the Inner Life (Part 3)

“What is too exalted for you, do not seek; what is hidden from you, do not investigate. Reflect on that which is permitted you; what is hidden is no concern of yours.” (Ben Sira 3:21-22)

At the core of the Jewish philosophical approach to living is a willingness to act as if God were unconditionally loving; as if the godliness in each person mattered; as if the universe were rich with significance.

R’ Bachya Ibn Paquda says all descriptions of God in the Torah should be recognized as metaphorical.

“It is impossible to apprehend any object of sensation without the sense that is suited for it; whoever tries to apprehend it with one of the other senses will fail. For example, if a person would try to apprehend a melody with his sense of sight, or colors with his sense of hearing, or tastes with his sense of touch, he would be unable to apprehend them, even a trace of them, even when they were present, because he seeks them by means of organs other than those suited for their perception….This is also true of the mind, which perceives intellectual matters directly and by way of [indirect] evidence. That which is close to it, the mind perceives directly; that which is remote and hidden from it, the mind perceives by way of evidence which implies it. Since the Creator, may He be exalted, is – in the essence of His glory – utterly hidden and infinitely remote from us, the mind can apprehend nothing of Him except His existence. And if the mind should try to grasp the true nature of the essence of His glory or to picture Him, [even] God’s existence – which is evident – will escape it, because it attempts something beyond its ability.”

He suggests a number of reasons for failure to recognize God’s participation in the universe: materialistic pursuits, self-seeking, taking the good things in life for granted, feelings of entitlement, or not viewing misfortune as an opportunity for growth. At the core of Jewish theology is the notion that everything comes from God, for God’s purposes, not our purposes. God owns everything. We don’t even own ourselves. Acceptance of this belief is the essence of the concept of humility in Judaism. Hence, R’Paquda suggests that we attempt to envision the final outcome of events. “You will discover something astonishing: Many things happen to us against our will, and yet we applaud their end result.” He’s saying that all events are inherently meaningful.

According to Paquda, we can verify the existence of God by reflecting on the wisdom embedded in the ordering of the natural world. We are to observe, analyze, and appreciate the workings of the human body, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the movement of the planets. The changing seasons, cycles of life and death, rain, the way plants grow from tiny seeds, and the way in which what we need for our survival is available in proportion to the need. R’Paquda cites numerous examples of the complexity of nature as proof of the existence of God. It is the “intelligent design” argument, but from centuries ago. When looking at the sky, “one beholds signs of power and wisdom which stagger the mind and are beyond description by the tongue.” The Creator organized the universe in a way that points to and reflects the Creator’s nature, “as a work of craftsmanship reflects the craftsman.” Existence is made of both material and spiritual elements, blended and fused so one sustains the other. He suggests that we think of how our bodies convert the plants and animals we eat into energy and flesh. We’ve been given a body made of rather mysterious ingredients. A soul has been joined to this body – the spirit of life (ruach ha-chayim). Yet, he continues, there was a time when humanity did not yet exist. A baby grows in the protection of its mother’s womb and is nourished until it’s time to be born – according to a schedule not our own. God gives the parents love to care for the child until he or she is capable of knowledge and wisdom. Somewhat poignantly, I thought, R’ Paquda believes it is a sign of God’s wisdom that a child doesn’t know about good and bad while dependent on others for his needs, because if the child knew, s/he would die of sorrow and anxiety.

Everything that comes from God, which means everything, is viewed as a gift. To repay God’s generosity, we should devote ourselves to God’s service, using what we need while abandoning luxury and excess. We should turn to spiritual growth as our primary focus. We should study human nature, and develop our intellects. The intellect allows us to understand things we can’t perceive with our senses. We can tell the difference between true and false, good and bad, what’s necessary, possible, or impossible. We can put other creatures to work for us. We can learn math, science, and the arts – abilities which reflect qualities God possesses. God gave us speech and language with which to communicate, form relationships, share our innermost selves, share information over the course of centuries, organize our thoughts, and manage our personal affairs. At the end of the day, all the things our bodies and brains can do are, for R’ Paquda, proof of God’s love. He says we should be further impressed by our God-given “faculties of the soul,” e.g. thought, memory, forgetting, shame, reason, speech. Although we innately “have shame before other human beings” (by which he means a sense of social obligation – to show kindness, to keep promises, etc.), we need to learn to feel “shame before God.” Why? God wants us to have free will. In effect, there’s no spiritual free lunch. If we want self-esteem, we need to earn it by doing acts of kindness, love, generosity, altruism, and compassion. When we develop this sense of “shame before the Creator,” and realize He is always with us, we acquire the humility to thank God for creating us and allowing us to be part of His universe. We become able to appreciate the love and care that went into every detail.

“…we come to know that we have a Creator Who is wise, everlasting, and one; Who has existed from all eternity, is infinite in power, and transcends time and space; Who is exalted above the qualities of His creatures and beyond their conception; Who is merciful, kind, and benevolent; Who is like nothing else, and nothing is like Him. Through the intellect we comprehend the wisdom, the power, and the mercy which pervade the universe; and we recognize the obligation to serve Him – as He is worthy of this and because of His benevolence.”

The ability of living things to move is spiritually significant. Every movement is tied to the Creator’s wish, guidance and Will “with the exception that” for human beings, God “has placed in your domain the choice between good and evil.”

“When this has become clear to you, pay attention to every move that you make. Be conscious of the body by which the Creator has tied you to Him; feel abashed before Him always and be in awe of Him; surrender to His judgment and accept His decrees. And so you will attain His favor, and your future will be bright, as it says in Scripture ‘He who trusts in God will be surrounded with love’ (Tehillim 32:10)”

Spiritual Dimensions of Sukkot

If Yom Kippur is designed to heighten our awareness of mortality, Sukkot shows us the impermanence of possessions. Everything we have is a loan from God to be shared with others. The sukkah, built immediately following Yom Kippur, is a temporary structure with three walls and a roof of branches placed far enough apart that we can see the stars through them. This is to remind us we are wholly dependent on God, the only real source of security. Everyone, rich or poor, is the same in this regard. We eat meals and also sleep in the sukkah. Each night, we are visited by the ancestors, who correspond to the seven of the ten sephirot (aspects or emanations of God) having to do with corporeal reality. We put out a special chair for them, as we do for Elijah at Pesach. In order of appearance:

Abraham & Sarah = chesed, loving kindness

Isaac & Rebecca = gevurah, strength in judgment

Jacob & Rachel = tiferet, beauty

Joseph & Leah = netzach, victory

Moses & Miriam = hod, glory

Aaron & Abigail = yesod, intimacy

David & Esther = malchut, majesty

Every morning, except for on Shabbat, we wave the lulav and etrog, either inside or outside of the sukkah, to symbolize God’s universal presence. The etrog (citron) corresponds to the heart, the letter Yud in Y-H-V-H, the person who knows tradition and also does good deeds. It has both flavor and fragrance. The lulav (palm branches) correspond to the spine, the letter Vav, and the person who knows Torah but doesn’t do the mitzvot. It has flavor, but no fragrance. The myrtle corresponds to the eyes, the letter Hay, and the person who does good deeds but doesn’t know enough. It has fragrance but no flavor. The willow corresponds to the mouth, the letter Hay, and the person who neither knows enough nor does enough. It has neither flavor nor fragrance. This collection of plants is known as the four species. They may be pagan symbols originally used by Semitic tribes, before the Hebrews, as part of their harvest celebrations. The personalities they represent are said to make up a community – all are beloved by God and all are needed. When the lulav and etrog are shaken, with the etrog in one hand and the lulav in the other, they go to the East, North, West, South (over the shoulder), Up, Down, and toward ourselves.  We become centered. A human being who demonstrates civility and loving kindness becomes a Tree of Life.

On the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the verdict from the High Holy Days is sealed. In Orthodox communities, people march around with the lulav and beat it into the floor, then save the remains as a broom to sweep out chametz in preparation for Pesach. The etrog may be pierced with cloves and saved for havdalah (the ritual closing of shabbat.)

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal explains, “In Tractate Sukkoth, two rabbis,  a teacher and his student, visit an older one. He has made his sukkah in a non-kosher way. The student is about to leave and state why, but his teacher stays, as does the student who gets the hint, and [they] make beracoth with the lulav, and eat, etc. After, the teacher tells the student that if the choice is to embarrass someone versus eating in a non-kosher sukkah, then eat in the non-kosher sukkah. The Rabbis tell us that while doing one mitzvah we are excused from doing another….Chesed always wins.”

Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, or 8th Day of Assembly, includes a prayer for rain and the reading of Ecclesiastes. While we are on the topic of rain, I encourage readers to learn about rainwater harvesting. The Talmud encourages us to be careful with resources. While alternative sources of energy exist, the planet holds a limited amount of fresh water. Benefits of collecting rainwater from our rooftops include reducing the amount of storm water runoff that goes into the sewer system, and replenishing the local aquifer which supports the ecology of the region. Also, it saves money on irrigation. While it is more complicated to collect and purify rainwater for indoor use, we may need to begin to think in those terms due to increasingly poor ground water quality, corporate efforts toward privatization of the world’s fresh water supply, and a growing population. (Recommended resources: American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association and a 2009 documentary entitled “Blue Gold: World Water Wars” directed by Sam Bozzo, which is available in streaming video format on Netflix.)