The Babylonian Talmud is unparalleled in the history of the Jewish people’s spiritual and intellectual life. Its roots strike deep, nourishing the trunk and the branches of Judaism. In the garden of Jewish knowledge, it is both our Tree of Knowledge and our Tree of Life.
Jewish learning in Babylonia was based on diverse literary sources, from the Bible to the legal and aggadic statements of Tannaim and Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael and those of the sages of Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud is multifaceted. It is a resource that delves into the diverse realms of religion, culture, and values, thus connecting Jews of all sorts to their common roots. It would be fitting, then, for the Talmud to appear in an edition that could serve all parts of the Jewish public, one that would offer to everyone the insights of scholarly research in many related fields while showing appreciation for the rich heritage of centuries of Talmudic commentary. Hopefully, this would open up access to the treasures of Jewish law and lore, literature and history, and the panoply of aspects of Judaism and of culture that the Talmud touches upon, in a way that brings disparate groups of Jews together around a Jewish classic that they all share. Emphasizing the dispassionate scholarly approach and highlighting the cultural content of the Talmud are also intended to encourage access by anyone who might approach that work as a classic within in any cultural or literary framework.
It is a commonplace of Jewish tradition that the Babylonian Talmud provides the living embodiment and the practical application of the written Torah, the books of the prophets, and the rest of sacred scripture. As such, the Talmud became the subject of continuous tradition of rich and comprehensive interpretation, which became a unique and valuable branch of the Jewish cultural heritage in its own right. From the writings of the post-Talmudic Geonim interpreting individual pericopes (sugyot), through the commentaries to full tractates among the sages of medieval Germany and Northern France, foremost among them the incomparable Rashi, and the continuation of that tradition among the Tosafists and other early commentators, to the pinpoint incisiveness of the later Spanish school of pilpul and a host of other commentators too numerous to mention, this interpretive tradition took on a life of its own. It is worthy of awe and admiration for its continuity, its variety, its fecundity, and its creativity.
It comes as no surprise, then, that a large proportion of students of Talmudic literature devote their full attention to the body of interpretive literature that now accompanies the Talmud, to the point that it may appear that the commentary overwhelms that which is being interpreted. One’s eyes become accustomed to focusing on the traditional commentaries, early or late, until the Talmud proper appears as their mere foundation or antecedent.
Top of page
Print this page