THE object of the following pages is to give to the student and general reader a fair idea of the contents of the Talmud.
Some time since the translator was asked how it was that no English translation of the Talmud was in existence, and being convinced that many would be interested in its contents, he resolved upon the book which he now presents to the public. It is merely a collection of specimens, and makes no pretensions to any more advanced standing. The only object has been to give in plain, easy language, a correct idea of the scope, and as general an idea as possible of the varied sections of the ancient and wonderful work.
THE TALMUD, ITS NATURE AND SCOPE, WITH A CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE OF ITS COMPILATION.
THE "Talmud" is a collection of early Biblical discussions, with the comments of generations of teachers who devoted their lives to the study of the Scriptures. It is an encyclopædia of law, civil and penal, human and divine. It is more, however, than a mere book of laws. It records the thoughts, rather than the events, of a thousand years of the national life of the Jewish people; all their oral traditions, carefully gathered and preserved with a love devout in its trust and simplicity. Accepted as a standard study, it became endeared to the people, who, as they were forbidden to add to or diminish from the law of Moses, would not suffer this work of their Rabbis to be tampered with in any manner. As it was originally compiled it has been transmitted to us. It is a literary wilderness. At the first view, everything style, method, and language, seems tangled and confused. The student, however, will soon observe two motives or currents in the work; at times harmonious, at times diverse. One displaying the logical mind, which compares, investigates, developes, and instructs; the other, imaginative and poetical. The first is called "Halachah" (Rule), and finds a vast field in the Levitical and ceremonial laws; the other takes possession of the ethical and historical portions of Holy Writ. It is called "Hagadah," or Legend, not so much in our present acceptance of the term, as in the wider sense of a saying without positive authority, an allegory, a parable, a tale.
The Talmud is divided into two parts, Mishna and Gemarah . They are the continued works of successive Rabbis, chiefs or principals of the colleges in which they devoted their lives to study. Most of the redacteurs of the Mishna were dead, however, long before the Gemarah was commenced. The time consumed in the completion of the entire Talmud is stated to have been three hundred and eleven years. In its present form it consists of twelve folio volumes, containing the precepts of the Pentateuch with extended commentaries upon them; amplified Biblical incidents; occurrences affecting the religious life of those who prepared it; philosophical treatises; stories, traditions, and parables. It was called the oral or unwritten law, in contradistinction to the Pentateuch, which remained under all circumstances, the immutable code, the divinely given constitution, the written law.
The guardianship of the laws and traditions was vested in the chiefs of the colleges, known as "Scribes," "Men of the Great Synod," "Princes and Fathers of the House of Judgment." They instructed the people, preached in the synagogues, and taught in the schools. Nothing was allowed to seriously interrupt their duties. Palestine was ruled by various dynasties; the masters were martyred; the academies were destroyed; to study the law was made a crime against the state; yet the chain of living tradition remained intact. The dying masters appointed their successors, and for one academy destroyed, three new ones sprang up in another quarter.
These masters were superior men, mentally and physically, and the scope of their learning was almost unlimited. To be eligible to the position, they were required to be men of well-balanced mind, neither too young nor too old, that their judgment might be neither hasty nor enfeebled. They were required to be thorough linguists, to be masters of the sciences of mathematics, botany, and natural history, and familiar with the arts as well as the sciences.
The highest rank in the estimation of the people belonged to these Chachamim , wise men. Many of them were humble tradesmen, yet they were considered greater than priest or noble. Idleness was particularly abhorred by them, and piety and learning were considered deserving of their full meed of homage only when joined to active, bodily work,
Among the common sayings of the time, we find these:
"It is well to add a trade to your studies if you would remain free from sin."
"The tradesman at his work is the equal of the most learned doctor."
"He who derives his livelihood from the labour of his hands is as great as he who fears God."
The laws, traditions, and ordinances, during many hundred years, grew to such immense proportions, that some better method of their preservation than their scattered and chiefly unwritten form, became a necessity. Three different attempts were made to reduce them into system and order. The third alone was successful.
The progress of these laws, &c., from their revelation and conception till their final rest in the Talmud, is thus traced in the writings of Maimonides.
During the last forty years of the life of Moses, the Lord gave to him six hundred and thirteen precepts, including the Decalogue, with full explanation of their meaning and intent, that he might be able to properly instruct the people. The manner in which Moses imparted these precepts to the chosen race is thus recorded in the treatise Erubim . First, he called his brother Aaron into his tent and spoke to him alone, all the words which God had commanded; the sons of Aaron were then admitted and the same words repeated to them; the seventy elders of the people were then called before Moses, and from his lips received the commandments and ordinances of their God, and then any of the people who so desired were allowed to enter the tent, and to them Moses spoke again the same words. Thus Aaron heard these precepts four times, his sons thrice, the elders twice, and the people once, from the lips of Moses. After this first course of instruction, the prophet retired and Aaron repeated the precepts; then his sons spoke the words which they had heard; the elders reiterated them, and thus were the commands delivered to Moses, impressed upon the minds of the people, who were authorised in turn to teach one another. The precepts themselves were written on rolls of parchment, but the explanations thereof became the basis of the oral law, the foundation and substance of the Talmud. These six hundred and thirteen precepts were given between the years 2448 and 2488 (1312 and 1272 B. C. E.).
"And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month," that Moses called all the people together and said unto them, "My last days on earth are drawing nigh. If there be any among you who have forgotten the precepts of the Lord which I have taught to you, speak now and I will repeat them; or if there be any one among you to whom the law is not clear, and who desires an explanation of any point, behold I am here to answer his questions."
Thus, on the first day of Shebat (February), Moses began to repeat and explain the law and its traditions, as it is written: "On this side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this law, saying" (Deut. 1: 5).
On the seventh day of Adar (March) he concluded this labour. He wrote thirteen copies of the Pentateuch upon parchment. He gave one copy into the keeping of each of the tribes, and the thirteenth he placed in the hands of the Levites, saying, "Take this book of the law and put it at the side of the ark."
At noon, "on this self-same day," the Lord said to Moses: "Go up to the Mount Nebo." The earthly pilgrimage of the great prophet was completed, the rest of Heaven and the smile of God was his for evermore, and upon his friend and servant Joshua devolved the duty to teach and to observe.
Joshua was born in the year 2406. He was eighty-two years of age when he became the leader of the people, and he died in the year 2516. After his death, the elders, chief among whom were Caleb and Pinechas, undertook the duty of preserving a general knowledge of the oral laws. They lived about seventeen years after Joshua's death, and then the charge descended to the judges and the prophets. First of these was Eli, the High Priest. He became judge in 2830, the same year in which Samuel was born, and he died in 2870, one year after Samuel had succeeded to his office. Samuel judged the people eleven years, yielding up his spirit whence it came upon the 28th of Iyar (May), 2882. The sacred guardianship fell then to David the son of Jesse, from him it descended to Achiyah the Shelomite, and from him to the pure Elijah. In the year 3047 Elijah ascended to Heaven, and, with his mantle, his duties devolved upon Elisha, his pupil. Then Yehoyada, Zecheriah, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Joel were the successive guardians of the law and its growing "fences" and traditions. Nahum, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Baruch, the son of Neriah, succeeded these, and in the year 3413 the duty devolved upon Ezra, high priest, scribe, and prophet. Ezra was a member of the great senate, composed of one hundred and twenty members, which introduced a regular order of prayers for divine service. (Previously the people had composed their own prayers--words from their hearts, appropriate to their circumstances and conditions. They had but three set prayers, portions of the Pentateuch, recited from the moment of its existence, viz.: "Hear, O Israel" (Deut. 6: 4-10) "And it shall come to pass" (Deut. 11: 13-22); and "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying" (Numb. 20: 31 to end).
After the death of Ezra, the guardianship fell...