¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Although the holy Jewish texts have their roots in preliterate, oral tradition, they have evolved over thousands of years. The Torah is only one link in this long chain and was followed by the Mishnah and Gemarah that together form the Talmud. In keeping with the respect for local traditions, the Talmud evolved in two more or less parallel but largely independent versions: the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud. This text constitutes an amazing achievement in social lawgiving. From the third to the fifth centuries, rabbinic academies in both Babylonia and Palestine compiled the Talmudic codex without constitutional sanction or structural power in a fully pluralistic manner.3 The prose of the Talmud is in the form of dialogues, disputes, and parables, surrounded by later commentaries. Over the centuries, it had been copied by hand, but in 1523 the complete Talmud was first printed in Venice, Italy. Over the subsequent 150 years it was banned, hounded, and burned by the church.4
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The Talmud makes for difficult reading. Corresponding to its historic evolution, it is written in a medley of classical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, and Aramaic. Disputes set forth in the text frequently are not resolved but rather stimulate individual reflection. Thus it serves more as an intellectual tool rather than a prescriptive law book that sets clear standards.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This deficiency in prescriptive law was recognized by Yaakov ben Asher (~ 1270–1340) and Joseph ben Ephraim Qaro (1488–1575) who wrote the Arba’ah Turim and the Shulchan Aruch respectively, authoritative compilations of the Jewish law, which served as “handbooks” facilitating an observant lifestyle.5 This process of Halachic differentiation did not end with the publication of the Shulchan Aruch; it continues to the present day in the form of Case Law (Responsa). The authority of Responsa, like that of previous rabbinic conclusions, is based not on institutional power but on the individual reputation and the argumentative strength of the scholars who formulate them. The absence of a central, institutional religious power since the destruction of the Second Temple may have largely contributed to shielding Judaism from major structural schisms.6
3Steinsalz, Adin, <“The Essential Talmud”, chap. 1 – 10
5The Arba’ah Turim became integrated into the Shulchan Aruch.
6Steinsalz, Adin, “The Essential Talmud,” chap. 37