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Hermann Strack: Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Foreword to the Fourth Edition

Even at the present moment [1908-06-02], certain ignorant agitators (most of them are at the same time malevolent) seek to make the Christian-German people believe that the Jews "are solicitous, with every possible means at their hands, to keep the Talmud a secret book," for fear lest its contents should become known, indeed, that they consider it a crime worthy of death for any Jew to make its contents known. (*Let me show by one example at least how utterly ridiculous this accusation is. When, in 1912, I proceeded to publish in photo-typic reproduction, the only complete Babylonian Talmud in existence, almost all the individual persons who made it possible by subscriptions in advance were Jews.) ...

The Talmud (I repeat a statement which I have been solemnly making for many years) contains no report or utterance which, assuming, of course, that it is to be found there, any Christian scholar, who is at home in the language and the subject matter, is not able to find. As to the gaps, due to censorship in particular, there are scarcely ten rabbis in Germany who possess all the four publications ... which I possess in my own library. Among the entirebody of Jews there is not a single piece of literature or an oral tradition which is inaccessible to learned Christians. The Jews make no efforts whatsoever to conceal anything from the Christians, nor could they if they would. The Talmud, the Shulhan Aruk, and other Jewish literary works are secret books only or those -- Jews no less than Christians -- who have not acquired the necessary studies for a reading of the original texts nor know anything about the translations that are in existence. For such people, Caesar's Bellum Gallicum would be equally a secret book. May this Introduction to the Talmud, also in its fourth issue to the public, help to further a knowledge of the truth and thereby also a just judgment. Strack, p x

Chapter II - Sketch of History of Talmud

§ 1. The Beginnings of Traditional Lore

The Babylonian exile marks a turning point of the greatest significance in the history of the Jews. Not only was the native country lost together with political independence, but also, in consequence of the destruction of the Temple, the sole place of sacrificial worship, the center of the entire cult of Jahveh. Nevertheless the hope of the restoration was kept alive, resting as it did on God's word by the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah that the dominion of the Chaldees would last seventy years and that after the expiration of this period God would be fold of His people and bring them back to their own land. The sole condition named by God was: "when ye shall search for Me with all your heart." How was the people to search for God? The pious were able to express their devotion to God neither by sacrifices nor by solemn worship in thronging assemblies. Naturally they would shun all manner of idolatry and the contact with idolaters; they would furthermore cultivate a scrupulous conduct which manifested itself likewise in works of love towards their neighbors. Then piety was exemplified on the one hand by keeping the Sabbath holy, and on the other by taking heed to the Word of God. The Word of God was at hand firstly in the prophetic message, whether in writing by the older prophets or in the spoken admonitions of the prophets of the exile; secondly, and this is of utmost moment for our present purposes, in the will of God deposited in the pentateuchal Law. Two considerations led the people to pay particular attention specifically to the Law. In the first place, they pondered over the reasons which brought down all the evil upon the nation, God's own elect people; and then again, there was the hope for the restoration of the whole cult and of political independence. Thus in the Babylonian exile the learning which had the Scripture for its basis arose. A contributor favorable cause in its development was the cessation of prophecy and the gradual suppression of the Hebrew speech, the language of the Law and the other monuments of God's revelation aforetimes. Already Ezra is expressly named sofer mahir be-Torath Moshe. Not only had Ezra set his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances, but he also took with him to Jerusalem teachers, mebinim. On the occasion of the solemn reading of the Law by Ezra mention is made of the Levites as teachers of the people, mebinim 'eth ha-'am, who were in need of a presentation of the sense.

The written, i. e. the pentateuchal, law had been completed at the very least since the times of Ezra (earlier periods do not enter into consideration for our present purposes): nothing could be added and nothing could be taken away or in any other wise [sic] altered. Yet the constantly changing conditions of life required new regulations, and some sort of an organization must have been in operation from the times of Ezra on to make the Law effective in the life of the community, to preserve it, and to widen its scope. We need not, of course, accept the Jewish traditional opinion that there existed in those early days a body of 120 men called the 'Great Synagogue,' since it is held by modern scholars quite plausibly that the notion is a pure invention resting on the account in Neh. 8-10.

The orthodox Jewish conception of the manner in which the statues were gradually enlarged and developed, may be studied in the works listed below. We read in the Talmud, that takkanoth were instituted by Moses, Joshua, David, [and] Solomon. Ten or eleven Takkanoth are attributed to Ezra, nine to Johanan ben Zaccai.

Such statutes, if it was thought that they had been in immemorial usage, were termed halakah le-moshe missinai 'statutes given by God on Sinai.' We meet with this expression three times in the Mishna, but frequently in the Gemara. Maimonides, in his introduction to the Mishna, enumerates thirty-one statues of this kind.

In addition, in all probability as far back as the times of Ezra or the period immediately succeeding, the law was maintained or enlarged by the scholars in a manner suitable to the post-exilic conditions through the operation of scriptural exposition, midrash. It seems, however, that this procedure had in the course of time fallen into disuse until it once more gained ascendancy through Hillel and his successors. The grounding of a statute in Scripture by means of subtle interpretation served, in the first place, to widen the written Law so as to meet new conditions. Secondly, it imparted to the oral Law the requisite authority. We find Johanan ben Zaccai giving expression to the fear that the statue concerning impurity in the third degree will be abrogated by future generations for want of scriptural foundation; then came Akiba and supplied the proof. As a simple statement of fact and with no thought whatsoever of calling into question the validity of the statutes referred to, it is observed: "The dissolution of vows hangs in the air and has no ground (in Scripture) to rest on. The Halakoth concerning the Sabbath (especially the kinds of labor forbidden thereon), the festal (private) offering (hagigah) and the mal-appropriation of sacred property (me-ilah) are as mountains suspended by a hair: little of Scripture and many Halakoth. Judicial cases and the Temple service, the Statues concerning purity and impurity as well as forbidden marriages have much to rest on. However, since it was insisted on that all these statutes possessed equal validity, an impetus was given to the endeavor to secure for them all an equal or at least a similar foundation in Scripture.

In many cases it is quite certain that the Halakah antedates the scriptural proof by which it is propped up, for example the definition of 'the fruit of a goodly tree' (Lev. 23.40) or of 'eye for eye' (Exod. 21.24), shehita min ha-sawwar (Hul. 1.4), 'isha nikneth be-kesef (Kid. 1.1), basar be-halab 'asur ba-'akilah u'ba-hana'ah. So also the regulation concerning the number of stripes (39 instead of 40). Strack, p 8 - 12

Strack asserts that Jews codified traditional law simultaneously with and in view of the New Testament canonization.

§ 2 The 'Interdict on Writing down'.

Strange that the down would not be capitalized.

In the schools of the Amoraim the discussions went on with no written copy in evidence to serve as a basis. Rather, the Amoraim availed themselves of the services of scholars who business was to carry mentally the tannaitic teachings (often they were likewise called Tannaim). Because it was disallowed to write down for public use the recitations of the teachers, it became a duty to name the communicant with every statement heard. Frequently we meet with the inculcation: hayyab 'adam lomar bilshon rabbo [For example Ber 47a, Shab 15a, Bekor 5a, Eduy 1.3]. Whenever possible, the names of older authorities for a given statement should be specified: if you are able to lead back the chain of tradition up to Moses, do so [Pal Kid 1.61aγ]. Strack, p 17

The circumstance that the oral law remained unwritten was a trait which distinguished Israel from the other nations. Judah b Shalom [a Palestinian Amora of the fifth generation] said: "Moses was desirous that the Mishna should be written down likewise. God, however, foresaw tha the nations would in time translate the Torah into Greek and read it in Greek and then say: 'We are Israel.' Therefore God said to him (Hosea 8.12): 'Were I to write for them (the Israelites) the whole abundance of My law, they would be accounted as the strangers.' Now, however, the Mishna is the secret of God, and the Lord makes His secret known only to them that fear Him (Ps. 25.14) [Tanhuma 9a, 41 cγ; compare Pesiktha Rabb 5]." Or: "God gave them the oral law, that by this they might be distinguished (mesuyyanin) from the other nations. Hence it was not given in writing, or else the other nations woulds falsify it, as they have dealt with the written Torah, and then say that they were Israel [Num R on 7.72 (Par 14). Similarly Abin Pal Pe'a 17a, Pal Hag 76d]." On the other hand, the formation of the New Testament and its growing recognition acted as a spur for the Jews by codifying the oral law to create an authoritative supplementary continuation of the Old Testament. Strack, p 17 - 18

It is quite true that written Haggadoth and especially written Halakoth are in earlier times far less frequently alluded to than we are disposed to expect. But it must be remembered that in antiquity people did not take to writing as readily as we do now, and because of the high cost of parchment much writing was indeed out of the question. On traveling in 'asia, Meir found not so much as one copy of the Scroll of Esther and was compelled to write one from memory [Meg 18b]. Even Rabbi found himself in the delicate situation that, when after an illness he had forgotten thirteen classes of Halakoth [אפיהילכחא] which he had previously taught himself, he had to learn them afresh partly from Hiyya and partly from a certain fuller [Ned 41a]. Of course, this does not mean that it was not customary then to write anything at all nor, specifically, that Rabbi wrote nothing. Strack, p 18

§ 3 The traditional law up to the codification of the Mishna by Rabbi.

The first business of the textual criticism of the Mishna is to collect the variants of all importnat manuscripts of the Mishna. The next step is to collate the Mishna texts in the two Talmuds. The Mishna which is printed in front of the Palestinian Gemara is by no means the Palestinian recension [does this mean that later printings do not include the same Mishna as that upon which the Gemara is based?]. [This follows from the very opening of the Mishna, Ber 1.1; the words ואכילח פסחים are wanting, but this plus is expressly designated in the Gemara as the Palestinian reading.] A third piece of work is to ascertain the text presupposed in the discussions of the Babylonian and Palestinian Amoraim. Lastly, a study must be made of ancient citations (in the works of Geonim, Isaac Alfasi, Rashi, etc.). [According to B M 44a, Rabbi taught in his youth: Gold is acquired by means of silver, meaning that gold (as the more precious metal) is specie, while while silver represents merchandise, and specie is acquired by means of merchandise. The reverse was taught by Rabbi in his old age. The current text of the Mishna 4.1 and the Babylonian Talmud read according to the latter formulation; on the other hand, the Camridge, Parma, Budapest codices (according to the Sepher Ha-'ittur, ed Venice, I, 6a, also other accurate codices) and the Palestinian Talmud follow the former. Similarly A Z 4.4 the manuscripts just named as well as other codices, likewise the Palestinian Talmud abide by the earlier formulation ושל ישראל, while the later is found almost alone in the Munich Ms. 95 and the first Bomberg edition; see Babylonian Talmud 52 B.] Strack, p 20

Extracting statements of authority and norm from an assortment.

The purport of Rabbi's Mishna was not to serve as a storehouse of halakic material, but soleley, as Maiminides [sic] has recognized, to teach the authoritative norm (Halakah). It is held that when an opinion is delivered anonymously, that [it] is the recognized norm [הלכה כסתם משנה Yeb 42b].Then again the rule is that "we follow the first authority," [הלכחא כחגא קמא] but this rule has usually force only when the first opinion is cited anonymously. When it is added: "But the sages say," [ותכמים אומדיס] their authority prevails as a rule [except Pes 3.6; however, the closing opinion is not always normative, as in B M 4.4]. When opinions which are disapproved of are suffered to remain, it is accounted for in part by considerations of deference; at the same time it becomes possible to attach further discussion. Strack, p 21

L Rosenthal [in Entstehung] believes that identical or similar phraseology in mishnic statements justifies the inference that they were composed at one and the same time. He then seeks to show that in the older parts a polemical attitude to Sadducee teaching is recognizable, and he goes so far as to maintain that we are in a position to distinguish two strata: of these the one, which he calls the primitive anti-Sadducaean Mishna, deals with general manifestations, while the other goes into more detail. So soon as this polemic recedes, order according to subject-matter becomes gradually the rule in the scholastic lectures. This process may be seen in the source S, which contains the pronouncements of the Shammaiites and Hillelites. A further source is JE, consisting of teachings which with certainty or at least probability go back to the Shammaiite, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and the Hillelite, Joshua ben Hananiah. Strack, p 22 - 23

Chapter XIII - The More Important Teachers

Oldest era and the five pairs Strack, p 107 - 108

The oldest bearers of Tradition, whose names we know, are those named in Aboth 1.2f -- Simeon the Just and Antiogonus of Socoh.

EzraEzra and the Men of the Great Synagogue.
Simeon the JustApparently the high priest Simeon I, ca. 300 BC (mentioned in Aboth 1.2f).
Antigonus of SocohIn addition to Aboth 1.2f, Antigonus is mentioned just once more in Aboth deRabbi Nathan 5, where it is said that the Sadducees and the Boethusians derived from Zadok and Boethus, reputed disciples of Antigonus.
Five Pairs

Right after Antigonus, but in a manner that the phrase suggests a gap in the chain of tradition (Kibbelu mehem instead of Kibbelu mimmennu), five pairs (zug, plural zugoth) of teachers are named Aboth 1.4-15; of these teachers accordingly two in each case must be regarded as contemporaries. It is, however, an error when the tradition Hag. 2.2 (where the same ten names recur) claims that of each pair the first was the president (nasi) and the second the vice-president (ab beth din) of the great Sanhedrin. In reality the high priest presided over this body. Strack, p 107

Jose ben Joezer of Zereda
Jose ben Johanan
The first is designated Hag. 2.7 as a saint among the priesthood.
Joshua ben Perahiah
Mattai of Arbel.
Anachronistically the first is said in Sanh. 107b, Sota 47a to have been a teacher of Jesus. Mattai of Arbelis from Irbid, north-west of Tiberias.
Judah ben Tabai
Simeon ben Shatah
The statement of Mishna Sanh. 4.6 that the latter caused eighty women to be hanged in Ashkelon is erroneous, since the city had been an independent municipality from 104 B.C.E. on. During the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.) and particularly of Salome Alexandra (76-67) it was through him that the Pharisaic party carried off the victory.
Josephus names Σαμαίας [Samaias] in the year 47 B.C.E [Antiq 14, 9, 4]. But in the other two passages [Antiq 15, 1, 1; Antiq 15, 10, 4] in which Josephus couples Σαμαίας [Samaias] and Πωλλίων [Pollion] in the year 37 it is safe to assume that he referred to Abtalion and Shammai, and the identification of the Σαμαίας [Samaias] in 15.1 with the one in 14.9 seems to be an error perpetrated by Josephus.
Bene BathyraThe Bene Bathyra [Pes 66a] or zikne Bathyra [Pal Pes 6. 33a] had risen to prominence when Hillel arrived from Babylonia. Their name seems to be derived from the colony which Herod permitted to be established in Batanea by Jews who had come from Babylonia.
HillelHillel, הזקן ha-zaken, the Elder, also named 'the Babylonian', because he was descended from a family of Babylonian exiles, as teacher of great prominence, at the same time celebrated for his patience and humanity. His chief activity, it seems, is to be placed in the times of Herod I, and immediately after. E. Renan was the first to suggest that Hillel taught Jesus, but though the opinion has been often repeated by Jews it has no foundation to rest on and is extremely improbable. Neither was Hillel a reformer. [Hillel is mentioned in the Mishna: Shebiith 10.3; Hag. 2.2; Git 4.3; B. M. 5.9; Eduy. 1. 1-4; Aboth 1.12-14, 2.4-7, 4.5, 5.17; Arak. 9.4; Nidda 1.1. In the Midrsahim: Siphra Shemini Par. 9.5; Tazri'a Neg. 9.16; Behar Par. 4.8. Siphre Num. 19.1 (§ 123); Siphre Deut. 15.3 (§ 113), 34.7 (§ 357). Several times as הלל הזקן Hillel ha-zaken, Hillel the Elder.]
ShammaiShammai [with a shortened name in I Chr 2.28] sometimes with the epithet הזקן ha-Zaken the Elder. [Mentioned in the Mishna: M. Sh. 2.4, 9; Orla 2.5; Sukka 2.8; Hag. 2.2; Eduy 1.1-4, 10, 11; Aboth 1.12, 15; 5.17; Kelim 22.4; Nidda 1.1. In the Midrashim: Mekil. on Exod 13.10; Siphre on Deut. 20.19 (§ 203).] Jerome [on Isaiah, Book 3 Chapter 8]: Sammai igitur et Hellel non multum priusquam dominus nasceretur orti sunt in Judaea, quorum prior dissipator interpretatur, sequens profanus [!]; eo quod per traditiones et δεντερωσεις suas legis praecepta dissipaveri t atque maculaveri t. In all likelihood Jerome misunderstood the saying of Hillel concerning the scattering (pizzar, Aram. baddar), i. e. spreading of the Torah [Tos Ber 7.24, Bab Ber 63a, Pal Ber 9.13d].
First generation of Tannaim Strack, p 109 -