For a very long time, I heard the term "People of the Book," and thought it just referred to the Jewish people, "the book" referring to our Torah. Then I came to learn that the term actually originated in Islam, referring to Jews and Christians that they encountered. The term was used to indicate that we were all joined in our monotheistic beliefs. Indeed, just as the Jews, there are many Christians who use the term, "People of the Book," meaning the Holy Bible.
Though our Hebrew Bible is "the" book that defines us, there is a much larger collection of "books" that become the basis for Jewish belief and practice -- the Talmud. The word "Talmud" comes from the Hebrew root having to do with teaching and learning." In spite of the fact that most of Jewish practice comes from what is included in the Talmud, it is largely unfamiliar to most Jews. Regular worship includes passages from the Torah, Prophets and the Writings, which make up the Hebrew Bible. Talmud is something that is studied, either privately or in a small group called "chevrutah."
Essentially, the Talmud is the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law and legend. There are two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian Talmud (which dates from the 5th century CE but includes earlier material) and the earlier Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud. For many reasons, the Talmud is often misunderstood both by Jews and others who have heard reference to the name. Talmud is actually a combination of two sections that appear together on one page. The Mishnah, which first appeared around the year 200 CE, is the rabbinical explanation for the oral laws, emanating from the Torah and how they should be observed. The Gemara, which dates back to around 500 CE, is the further exposition of the laws by later generations of sages. The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is 2,711 double-sided folios. It is written in Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through to the fifth century) on a variety of subjects, including Jewish law, Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, and folklore and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law and is widely quoted in rabbinic literature.
There is a practice of those who are now studying the Talmud called Daf Yomi, or "the daily page." Recently, a new study cycle just began; those who engage in this practice will read one of the 2,711 folios or "pages" each day, for the next 71/2 years. The text can be read in its original Hebrew and Aramaic or in the many translations available. There is a website and app called Sefaria, which basically replaces a shelf of books, including the Talmud and other rabbinical commentaries. Through this remarkable modern technology, these texts are truly accessible by anyone and can be read in the original language as well as English translation.
Samuel Radwine is the cantor for Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville and cantor emeritus of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Email him at [email protected]
NAN Religion on 02/08/2020
Print Headline: Books offer religion's foundation