Tracing the Talmud’s journey

The story of how the Talmud—a body of Jewish law and a guide to Jewish life—evolved from a strictly oral tradition to a set of written scholarly works is one of preferences in composition, preservation of traditions, and cultural and geographic necessity.


Composed by Jewish scholars of the 3rd through 6th centuries C.E., the Talmud consists of 63 tractates in Hebrew and Aramaic. For generations, the laws and customs of the Talmud were authorized to be transmitted only orally in face-to-face encounters between theological masters and students.

In her book, “Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures,” Talya Fishman, an associate professor of religious studies at Penn, reconstructs the process of cultural transformation that occurred once medieval Jews encountered the Babylonian Talmud as a written text.

The story begins centuries ago. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. during the Roman Empire’s Siege of Jerusalem, Jewish sages became “alarmed by manifestations of cultural decline” and feared that “oral matters” might be forgotten or lost.

To “staunch the loss of knowledge,” Rabbi Judah the Patriarch created the Mishnah at the turn of the third century, an official composition that standardized Jewish legal traditions.

Despite the fact that it was standardized, Rabbi Judah insisted that the Mishnah continue to be transmitted orally.

Fishman says the Talmud is a body of tradition that “explains and is stimulated by” the Mishnah.

Though passages of written Talmud did exist in the rabbinic academies of Babylonia, students in the 11th century in the Jewish community of Qayrawan, located in modern day Tunisia, were among the first to encounter it solely as a written text. Qayrawanese scholars, writes Fishman, “created a pedagogic apparatus of written instructional aids that would make the student’s encounter with the talmudic text less confusing.”

By the late 11th and early 12th century, the Talmud had reached Jewish communities the world over.

From her office in Claudia Cohen Hall, Fishman says the Talmud was written down in spite of repeated warnings that “Oral Torah” should remain oral. She says evidence suggests that Jewish scholars overrode these warnings “with a great sense of regret” because they recognized that Jews were living in much larger areas of the world and if they lacked a common reference point, “there was no longer going to be a cohesive center to rabbinic Judaism.”

Toward the end of the Geonic Period, around 1000 C.E., the rabbinic leadership in Babylonia acknowledged the need to consult written versions, concluding that it is “better that one letter of the Torah be uprooted [than the entire Torah be forgotten].”

In “Becoming the People of the Talmud,” winner of the 2011 National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship, Fishman describes the Talmud as a “voluminous repository of conflicting legal perspectives, legends, tall tales, and accounts of sages’ behavior (some quite unflattering).”

She says that while the names of the 63 tractates designate specific topics, there is no chronological narrative, and many different ideas are discussed within a single tractate.

Rabbi Jonathan Shulman, director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Penn, says the Talmud is a complicated work that purposely creates inconsistency and confusion.

“There are all kinds of contradictions not only within one piece, but when you compare and contrast a piece from this tractate to that tractate,” he says.

only does the Talmud welcome debate, he says the Talmud is debate.

“Really it’s a puzzle,” Shulman says, “and it’s a puzzle which is partly scientific because you have to know all the variables and the rules and the way things work, but it’s also partly artistic in a sense that you’re never going to be able to get through a piece of Talmud without something not fitting quite right.” 

Like their ancestors, Jewish students at Penn study the Talmud in pairs.

Senior Tali Arbit, 22, and junior Ricki Notis, 21, meet every Monday and Wednesday for Talmudic study inside Penn Hillel.

“I think it’s easier to figure out a challenging part of the text if you have someone to bounce ideas off of,” Arbit says.

For the past two-and-a-half years, they have been studying the Sanhedrin tractate.

“What we’ve been dealing with is capital punishment cases,” Notis says. “Right now we’re discussing an idolatrous person, which is usually a case of capital punishment.”

Arbit and Notis keep references books, an Aramaic dictionary, and the Bible handy to help them with their studies.

“I also have some friends who are at other colleges who I’ll have Skype sessions with and we’ll learn it online,” Arbit says.

Notis says studying the Talmud is at times purely fun, and always “an intellectual way of engaging with religion.”

Arbit sees Talmudic study as connecting back to a tradition and text that has been studied by Jews for more than a thousand years.

“Even though a lot of it’s very technical, I think that you can really extract from that the values of the whole system of Jewish law,” she says. “It’s sometimes easy to get lost in technicalities, but I think that there’s a value that this book is trying to teach.”

The technicalities, commentaries, and contradictions can make the Talmud a challenging read. Arbit says some people can spend three hours studying just two lines.

“When I was in yeshiva, I would spend a whole day on two lines,” Shulman says. “It’s not uncommon to have that happen.”

Rabbi Mike Uram, director of Penn Hillel, says the Talmud, “a book of law and lore,” is the foundation of Judaism. He says the practice of studying Talmud is a process of “pure wisdom acquisition.”

Judaism is a living tradition that continues to grow and adapt and change well beyond the Biblical age.”

“There are legal sections of the Talmud dealing with all aspects of life, from civil law, to marriage law, to religious ritual,” he says. “There are also stories in the Talmud that elucidate other levels of the meaning of the law, the values that go into the law, in the way that pure legal discourse cannot.”

Uram says many of the rituals people think of as Jewish today were worked out not in the Bible, but in the Talmud—things like bar mitzvahs, the Jewish prayer book, and the commandment to light candles on Friday night.

“I think sometimes Christians read the Bible and think, ‘Oh, this is what Judaism is,’” he says. “Judaism is a living tradition that continues to grow and adapt and change well beyond the Biblical age.”

There is no such thing as being finished with Talmudic studies.

Shulman says the many layers of commentary built onto the Talmud make it almost impossible to get through everything that has ever been written on a given topic, “so there’s always room for more in-depth discussion or investigation into different possibilities of what’s happening in any piece.”

Talmud study, Fishman says, is a “lifetime” commitment.

Originally published on April 12, 2012