Michael Levi Rodkinson.

New edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Original text edited, corrected, formulated, and translated into English (Volume 20) online

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literature, might have been stricken from the course of your
studies. But our College has a higher aim and object. Its
object is to educate future guides and leaders of our congrega-
tions, to educate banner-bearers of Judaism, representatives
and cultivators of Jewish knowledge and literature.

' ' You can never expect to answer this purpose without a
thorough knowledge of, and familiarity with, that vast litera-
ture that offers us the means to follow and understand the
religious formation, the growth and the entire course of devel-
opment of Judaism from its beginning to the present time."



No literary monument of antiquity has ever been subject to
so different and opposite views and opinions, as the Talmud.
Its strict followers generally looked upon it as the very em-
bodiment of wisdom and sagacity, and as a work whose author-
ity was second only to that of the Bible. In the non -Jewish
literature it was often decried as "one of the most repulsive


books that exist," as "a confused medley of perverted logic,
absurd subtilities, foolish tales and fables, and full of profanity,
superstition, and even obscenity," or at the most, as "an im-
mense heap of rubbish at the bottom of which some stray pearls
of Eastern wisdom are hidden."

It is certain that many of those who thus asstmied to pass
a condemning judgment upon the gigantic work of the Talmud
never read nor were able to read a single page of the same in the
original, but were prompted by religious prejudice and antag-
onism, or they based their verdict merely on those disconnected
and often distorted passages which Eisenmenger and his con-
sorts and followers picked out from the Talmud for hostile

Christian scholars who had a deeper insight into the Tal-
mudical literature, without being blinded by religious preju-
dices, expressed themselves quite differently on the character
and the merits of that work, as may be seen from the following
few quotations.

Johann Buxtorf, in the preface to his Lexicon Chald. et
Talmudicum, says : " The Talmud contains many legal, medical,
physical, ethical, political, astronomical, and other excellent
documents of sciences, which admirably commend the history
of that nation and time ; it contains also luminous decisions of
antiquity ; excellent sayings ; deep thoughts, full of grace and
sense; and numerous expressions which make the reader not
only better, but also more wise and learned, and which, like
imto flashing jewels, grace the Hebrew speech not less than aU
those Greek and Roman phrases adorn their languages."

Other favorable opinions expressed by Christian scholars
of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries are collected in Karl
Fischer's " Gutmeinung uber den Talmud der Hebraer."
Vienna, 1883.

Of such scholars as belong to our time, the following may be
quoted here:

The late Professor Delitzsch in his "Judisclies Hattdwerker'
leben ziir Zcit Jestt," says:

"Those who have not in some degree accomplished the
extremely difficult task of reading this work for themselves, will
hardly be able to form a clear idea of this polynomical colossus.
It is an immense speaking-hall, in which thousands and tens of


thousand of voices, of at least five centuries, are heard to com-
mingle. A law, as we all know from experience, can never be
so precisely formulated that there does not remain room for
various interpretations ; and question upon question constantly
arises as to the application of it to the endless multiplicity of the
existing relations of life. Just imagine about ten thousand
decrees concerning Jewish life classified according to the spheres
of life, and in addition to these, about five hundred scribes and
lawyers, mostly from Palestine and Babylon, taking up one
after another of these decrees as the topic of examination and
debate, and, discussing with hair-splitting acuteness every
shade of meaning and practical application; and imagine,
further, that the fine-spun thread of this interpretation of
decrees is frequently lost in digressions, and that, after having
traversed long distances of such desert-sand, you find, here and
there, an oasis, consisting of sayings and accounts of more
general interest. Then you may have some slight idea of this
vast, and of its kind, unique, juridic codex, compared with
whose compass all the law-books of other nations are but
Lilliputians, and beside whose variegated, buzzing market din,
they represent but quiet study-chambers."

J. Alexander, in his book on The Jews; their Past, Present
and Future (London, 1870), says:

"The Talmud, as it now stands, is almost the whole litera-
ture of the Jews during a thousand years. Commentator fol-
lowed upon commentator, till at last the whole became an
immense bulk ; the original Babylonian Talmud alone consists
of 2,947 folio pages. Out of such literature it is easy to make
quotations which may throw an odium over the whole. But
fancy if the production of a thousand years of English literature,
say, from the "History" of the Venerable Bede to Milton's
"Paradise Lost," were thrown together into a number of imi-
form folios, and judged in like manner; if because some super-
stitious monks wrote silly "Lives of Saints," therefore the
works of John Bunyan should also be considered worthless.
The absurdity is too obvious to require another word from me.
Such, however, is the continual treatment the Talmud receives
both at the hand of its friends and of its enemies. Both will
find it easy to quote in behalf of their preconceived notions,
but the earnest student will rather t^y ir> weigh the matter im-


partially, retain the good he can find even in the Talmud, and
reject what will not stand the test of God's word."

The impartial view of the Talmud taken by modem Jewish
scholars may be seen from the following opinion expressed by
the late Professor Graetz in his "History of the Jews " (vol.
IV., 308 sq.).

"The Talmud must not be considered as an ordinary
literary work consisting of twelve folios ; it bears no,t the least
internal resemblance to a single literary production ; but forms
a world of its own which must be judged according to its own
laws. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to furnish a specific
sketch of the Talmud, seeing that a familiar standard or an-
alogy is wanting. And however thoroughly a man of consum-
mate talent may have penetrated its spirit and become con-
versant with its peculiarities, he would scarcely succeed in such
a task. It may, in some respects, be compared with the
Patristic literature, which sprang up simultaneously. But
on closer inspection, this comparison will also fail. . . .

" The Talmud has at different times been variously judged
on the most heterogeneous assumptions, it has been condemned
and consigned to the flames ; simply because it was presented
in its unfavorable aspect without taking into consideration its
actual merits. It cannot be denied that the Babylonian Tal-
mud labors under some defects, like any other mental product,
which pursues a single course with inexorable consistency and
tmdeviating dogmatism. These defects may be classified under
foiir heads: the Talmud contains some unessential and trival
subjects, which it treats with much importance and a serious
air ; it has adopted from its Persian surroundings superstitious
practices and views, which presuppose the agency of interme-
diate spiritual beings, witchcraft, exorcising formulas, magical
cures and interpretations of dreams and, hence, are in conflict
with the spirit of Judaism ; it further contains several uncharit-
able utterances and provisions against members of other na-
tions and creeds ; lastly it favors a bad interpretation of Scrip-
ture, absurd, forced and frequently false commentations. For
these faults the whole Talmud has been held responsible and
been denounced as a work devoted to trifles, as a source of im-
morality and trickery, without taking into consideration that
it is not a work of a single author who must be responsible


for every word, and if it be so, then the whole Jewish people
was its author. Over six centuries are crystallized in the Tal-
mud with animated distinctness, in their peculiar costumes,
modes of speech and of thought, so to say a literary Hercula-
neum and Pompeii, not weakened by artistic imitation, which
transfers a colossal picture to the narrow limits of a miniature.
It is, therefore, no wonder, if in this world sublime and mean,
great and small, serious and ridiculous, Jewish and heathen
elements, the altar and the ashes, are found in motley mixture.
Those odious dicta of which Jew-haters have taken hold were
in most cases nothing else but the utterances of a momentary
indignation, to which an individual had given vent and which
were preserved and embodied in the Talmud by over-zealous
disciples, who were unwilling to omit a single expression of the
revered ancients. But these utterances are richly counterbal-
anced by the maxims of benevolence and philanthropy towards
every man, regardless of creed and nationality, which are also
preserved in the Talmud. As coimterpoise to the rank super-
stition, there are found therein sharp warnings against super-
stitious, heathen practices (Darke Emori),to which subject a
whole section, under the name of Perek Emorai, is devoted.*

"The Babylonian Talmud is especially characterized and
distinguished from the Palestinian, by high-soaring contempla-
tions, a keen understanding, and flashes of thought which fit-
fully dart through the mental horizon. An incalculable store
of ideas and incentives to thinking is treasured in the Talmud,
but not in the form of finished themes that may be appro-
priated in a semi-somnolent state, but with the fresh coloring
of their inception. The Babylonian Talmud leads into the
laboratory of thought, and its ideas may be traced from their
embryonic motion up to a giddy height, whither they at times
soar into the region of the incomprehensible. For this reason
it became, more than the Jerusalemean, the national property,
the vital breath, the soul of the Jewish people "

* Sabbath, 66a ; Toseptha, Ch. VIL, VIII.





" Ethics is the flower and fruit on the tree of religion. The
ultimate aim of religion is to ennoble man's inner and outer
life, so that he may love and do that only which is right and
good. This is a biblical teaching which is emphatically re-
peated in almost every book of Sacred Scriptures. Let me
only refer to the sublime word of the prophet Micah : ' He hath
showed thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord re-
quire of thee, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk
humbly with thy God?' (Micah vi., 8.)

" As far as concerns the Bible, its ethical teachings are gen-
erally known. Translated into all languages of the world, that
holy book is accessible to every one and whoever reads it with
open eyes and with an unbiased mind will admit that it teaches
the highest principles of morality, principles which have not
been surpassed and superseded by any ethical system of an-
cient or modem philosophy.

" But how about the Talmud, that immense literary work
whose authority was long esteemed second to that of the
Bible ? What are the ethical teachings of the Talmud ?

" Although mainly engaged with discussions of the Law, as
developed on the basis of the Bible during Israel's second com-
monwealth down to the sixth century of the Christian era, the
Talmud devotes also much attention to ethical subjects. Not
only are one treatise of the Mishna (Ptrke Aboth) and some
Boraithoth (as Aboth d'R. Nathan and Derech Eretz) almost
exclusively occupied with ethical teachings, but such teachings
are also very abundantly contained in the Hagadic (homiletical)

ETHICS. ^ 81

passages which are so frequently interspersed in the legal dis-
cussions throughout all parts of the Talmud.*

" It must be borne in mind that the Talmudical literature
embraces a period of about eight centuries, and that the nu-
merous teachers whose ethical views and utterances are recorded
in that vast literature, rank differently in regard to mind and
authority. At the side of the great luminaries, we find also
lesser ones. At the side of utterances of great, clear-sighted
and broad-minded masters with lofty ideas, we meet also with
utterances of peculiar views which never obtained authority.
Not every ethical remark or opinion quoted in that literature
can, therefore, be regarded as an index of the standard of Tal-
mudical ethics, but such opinions only can be so regarded
which are expressed with authority and which are in harmony
with the general spirit that pervades the Talmudic literature.

" Another point to be observed is the circumstance that the
Talmud does not treat of ethics in a coherent, philosophical
system. The Talmudic sages made no claim of being philos-
ophers ; they were public teachers, expotmders of the Law, popu-
lar lecturers. As such, they did not care for a methodically
arranged system. All they wanted was to spread among the
people ethical teachings in single, concise, pithy, pointed sen-
tences, well adapted to impress the minds and hearts, or in
parables or legends illustrating certain moral duties and virtues.
And this, their method, fully answered its purpose. Their
ethical teachings did actually reach the Jewish masses, and in-
fluenced their conduct of life, while among the Greeks, the
ethical theories and systems remained a matter that concerned
the philosophers only, without exercising any educating influ-
ence upon the masses at large.

" Furthermore, it must be remembered that the Talmudical
ethics is largely based on the ethics of the Bible. The sacred
treasure of biblical truth and wisdom was in the minds and
hearts of the Rabbis. This treasury they tried to enrich by
their own wisdom and observation. Here they develop a
principle contained in a scriptural passage, and give it a wider

" * Also the Midrash, a post-Talmudic collection of extracts from popular lectures
of the ancient teachers on biblical texts, contains an abundance of ethical teachings
and maxims advanced by the sages of the Talmud, which must likewise be taken into
consideration when speaking of Talmudical Ethics.


scope and a larger application to life's various conditions.
There they crystallize great moral ideas into a pithy, impress-
ive maxim as a guide for human conduct. Here they give to a
jewel of biblical ethics a new lustre by setting it in the gold of
their own wisdom. There again they combine single pearls of
biblical wisdom to a graceful ornament for human life." — M.

There are many books written upon the ethics of the Tal-
mud which are enumerated in the bibliography. The most ex-
cellent of these is the philosophical book of Professor Lazarus,
"Ethik des Judenthums," in German, Frankfort o. M., 1898,
the first volume of which is translated into English by the Jew-
ish Publication Society. The second volume of this work, we
have heard, is ready for or already in print.*

However, to enable the reader, to get an idea of the Talmud
Ethics, without troubling him with the various books in differ-
ent languages, an extract which was mad^ by Mielziner shall be
given in this book, whose selections are so excellent that practi-
cally we have nothing to add. We, however, would call the
attention of the reader to a book written by us in our period-
ical Hacol, Vol. VL, Vienna, 1885 (translated into German but
not yet published), in which the subject of love of mankind is
explained in two parallels, that of the Talmud and that in
which we have drawn a parallel between the conceptions of
both Talmud and Evangelium as to the moral content of the
principle of Love. An extract of this explanation we should
like to give here :

The commandment in the Old Testament (Leviticus xix.,
17): "Love thy neighbor as thyself," the Talmud interprets
in a negative sense by the words of Hillel, the elder, thus : " That
which thou likest not being done unto thyself do not imto thy
neighbor," and this rule the Talmud adopts in all the ways of
charity, and in all affairs in which man comes in contact with

* Wc cannot restrain ourselves from expressing our great sorrow over the death
of this great man which occurred this year. He was our friend and patron, and many
days and weeks we had been fortunate to spend in his company, when, in 1883, we
had the pleasure to read before him the several thousand quotations from the Talmud,
which we had prepared for his work, " Ethik des Judenthums," at his request. We
certainly do not know how many of them he has made use of. However, he wrote
us a few years ago that our name and service would be mentioned in the second
volume of his book. To our great sorrow he departed before the second volume was


his fellow-man; e.g., based upon this biblical commandment
it is forbidden to betroth a woman before seeing her, for he may-
dislike her thereafter, and as one does not wish to be disliked
himself, he must not cause another to be disliked. And so in
all connections with one's neighbor, it is forbidden to do him
any harm whatsoever, because one dislikes that he himself
should be harmed. Also concerning the duties of charity,
numerous special commandments are to be found in the
Old Testament. The Talmud explains most of them nega-
tively, viz. : "Thou shalt not leave thy neighbor to suffer any
pain whatsoever, but thou shalt prevent it by supplying him
with whatsoever thou canst afford." However, the rich man
is not obliged to divide his money or property with the poor, nor
to supply him with luxuries if the poor man had not been used
to them before he became poor. (More details will be found
in each subject mentioned further on.) Hence this obligation
which is proper and in accordance with common sense, can be
fulfilled by every one without any difficulty. The Evangelist,
however, interprets the passage (Levit. xix., 17) in a positive
sense (Matt, vii., 1 2) : "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would
that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, for this
is the Law and the prophets." After a deep consideration,
it is almost impossible for one to entirely fulfil this command-
ment. According to this, one must divide his money and
property with those not possessing such. "Whatsoever ye
would that men should do to you!" Who then would not
want to be rich and to live luxuriously ; to ride instead of going
on foot, to be dressed in the best garments according to the
latest style, etc.? Hence if one would like to live up to the
words of the Evangelist, he must see that the life of his poor
neighbor should be made exactly equal to his own life, which
certainly can never and was never accomplished. The same
is with the command in Luke vi., 29: "And imto him that
smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other," which was
never and will never be fulfilled, as this is against the nature of
mankind, especially when one is in wrath whilst being beaten.
Therefore nothing of this kind is to be found in the Talmud.
On the contrary the Talmud says : " He who raises his hand to
strike his neighbor is already considered wicked even before he
ho-s smitten him." The above-mentioned book quotes this


parallel in every affair in which human beings come in contact
with each other. It is remarkable that in the explanation of
Deut. vi., 4, "Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, etc.," the
Talmud also does not interpret this literally, thinking that it is
impossible to impose upon the heart to love, especially Him
whom one has never seen, and of whom one has not even a
correct idea. Therefore they interpreted this passage thus,
" The name of the Lord shall be loved through thy treatment
of thy fellow-men, viz. " thy commerce with men should be just
and peaceful ; thy ' yes ' should be firm and thy ' no ' un variable ;
so that it should be proclaimed: 'Hail the man who follows
the Law of the Lord, which is Love thy fellow-men ! Therefore
let us and our children also study this magnificent Law.'
The result evidently is that the name of the Lord is glorified
through thee ' '

All the ethics of the Talmud are thus set up with a view to
make their observance possible in all their particulars, w^hich
is not the case with the teaching of the Evangelist.

Finally, we beg to quote the beginning of the first chapter
of the above-mentioned book: — Abyye used to say: "One
should be always keen in the fear of God; use meek talk,
prevent wrath, bestow thy greeting upon every one in the
market, even if he be a stranger. This will cause you to be
loved by Heaven and liked by thy fellow-men." It was said
about R. Yohanan b. Zakkai, that it never happened that he
should have been greeted first (for he was it who greeted every
one first, as soon as he perceived him).*


Let us now try to give a few outlines of the ethical
teachings of the Talmud. In the first place, concerning

Man as a Moral Being.

In accordance with the teaching of the Bible, the rabbis
duly emphasize man's dignity as a being created in the like-

* This paragraph is said by Abyye in pure Bible-Hebrew, which was not the
language used by him in every-day talk. We infer from this and also from the
expression " he used to say" that he only quoted a traditional proverb which was
established ever since the oral law had been started*


ness of God. By this likeness of God they understand the
spiritual being within us, that is endowed with intellectual and
moral capacities. The higher desires and inspirations which
spring from this spiritual being in man, are called Yetzer tob,
the good inclination ; but the lower appetites and desires which
rise from our physical nature and which we share with the
animal creation, are termed Yetzer ha-ra, the inclination to
evil. Not that these sensuous desires are absolutely evil ; for
they, too, have been implanted in man for good purposes.
Without them man could not exist, he would not cultivate and
populate this earth, or, as a Talmudical legend runs: Once,
some over-pious people wanted to pray to God that they might
be able to destroy the Yetzer ha-ra, but a warning voice was
heard, saying: "Beware, lest you destroy this world!" Evil
are those lower desires only in that they, if unrestrained, easily
mislead man to live contrary to the demands and aspirations of
his divine nature. Hence the constant struggle in man be-
tween the two inclinations. He who submits his evil inclina-
tion to the control of his higher aims and desires is virtuous
and righteous. " The righteous are governed by the Yetzer tob,
but the wicked by the Yetzer ha-ra. The righteous have
their desires in their power, but the wicked are in the power
of their desires."


Man's free-will is emphasized in the following sentences:
"Everything is ordained by God's providence, but freedom
of choice is given to man." "Everything is foreordained by
heaven, except the fear of heaven," or, as another sage puts
it : Whether man be strong or weak, rich or poor, wise or fool-
ish depends mostly on circumstances that surround him from
the time of his birth, but whether man be good or bad, right-
eous or wicked, depends upon his own free-will.

God's Will, the Ground of Man's Duties.

The groimd of our duties, as presented to us by the Tal-
mudical as well as the biblical teachings, is that it is the will of
God. His will is the supreme rule of our being. " Do His will
as thy own will, submit thy will to His will." " Be bold as a


leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a roe, and strong as a lion,
to do the will of thy Father, who is in heaven."

Man Accountable to God for his Conduct.

Of man's responsibility for the conduct of his life, we are
forcibly reminded by numerous sentences, as : " Consider three
things, and thou wilt never fall into sin ; remember that there
is above thee an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a record
of all thy actions." And again, "Consider three things, and
thou wilt never sin; remember whence thou comest, whither
thou goest, and before whom thou wilt have to render account
for thy doings."

Higher Motives in Performing our Duties.

Although happiness here and hereafter is promised as re-

Online LibraryMichael Levi RodkinsonNew edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Original text edited, corrected, formulated, and translated into English (Volume 20) → online text (page 8 of 25)