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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: May 2015

12 - The Centrality of Talmud

Summary

The Talmud, a collection of rabbinic discussions from late antiquity, created and preserved by a rather small scholarly class in Palestine and Babylonia, ultimately emerged as the central text and reference point of Jewish life and practice up to the modern period and beyond. This remarkable story unfolds in the pages that follow.

ORIGINS OF THE TALMUD

The Talmud's beginnings date from the period of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (536 BCE–70 CE), when, under Persian rule, a small group of Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile to Jerusalem and the area around it, now named Yehud, and rebuilt the walled city and its Temple. Seeking to strengthen Jewish life, Ezra the scribe, a Persian-appointed leader, established the Torah as the Judean community's basis of law and practice. Interpretation of the Torah, deemed to be divine in origin, was encouraged in an effort to apply ancient rules and laws to contemporary situations. Various schools of exegesis, “reading out of the text,” likely emerged, and these different approaches were further diversified as the Greek conquest of the Persian Empire in the fourth century BCE brought Jews into contact with Hellenistic ideas and values. Unfortunately, little direct evidence of this period remains for scholars to draw reliable conclusions about these exegetical schools. Nevertheless, in terms of ritual and practice, Greek and Latin sources attest to common Jewish beliefs and behaviors regarding monotheism, food purity, Sabbath observance, intermarriage, and circumcision.

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