Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: May 2015

12 - The Centrality of Talmud


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.


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.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Berger, Michael S. 1998. Rabbinic Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brody, Robert. 1998. The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Cohen, Steven M., and Eisen, Arnold M.. 2000. The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Davies, William David. 1982. The Territorial Dimension of Judaism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ephrat, Daphna, and Elman, Yaakov. 2000. “Orality and the Institutionalization of Tradition: The Growth of the Geonic Yeshiva and the Islamic Madrasa.” In Transmitting  Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion, ed. Elman, Yaakov and Gershoni, Israel, 107–137. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Etkes, Imanuel. 2002. The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image. Trans. Green, Jeffrey M.. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gafni, Isaiah M. 1997. Land, Center, and Diaspora: Jewish Constructs in Late Antiquity. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press.
Halivni, David Weiss. 1986. Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud: The Jewish Predilection for Justified Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hecht, Neil S., et al., eds. 1996. An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law. Oxford: Clarendon.
Heilman, Samuel. 1983. The People of the Book: Drama, Fellowship and Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Heilman, Samuel. 1992. Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry. New York: Schocken.
Jaffee, Martin S. 2001. Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jaffee, Martin S. 2006. Early Judaism: Religious Worlds of the First Judaic Millennium. 2nd ed. Bethesda: University Press of Maryland.
Kanarfogel, Ephraim. 1992. Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Katz, Jacob. 1993. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. Trans. Cooperman, Bernard Dov. New York: Schocken.
Kraemer, David. 1990. The Mind of the Talmud: The Intellectual History of the Bavli. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kugel, James. 1990. In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lieberman, Saul. 1950. “The Publication of the Mishnah.” In Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, ed. Saul Lieberman, 83–99. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Mintz, Sharon Lieberman, and Goldstein, Gabriel M., eds. 2006. Printing the Talmud from Bomberg to Schottenstein. New York: Yeshiva University Museum.
Rustow, Marina. 2008. Toward a History of Jewish Heresy: The Jewish Community of Egypt and Syria, 980–1100. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Schwartz, Seth. 2001. Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Segal, Eliezer. 1997. “Anthological Dimension of the Babylonian Talmud.” Prooftexts 17:33–61. Reprinted in The Anthology in Jewish Literature, ed. Stern, David, 81–107. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Soloveitchik, Haym. 1987. “Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example.” AJS Review 12 (2): 205–221.
Soloveitchik, Haym. 1994. “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” Tradition 28 (4): 64–130.
Twersky, Isadore. 1976. “The Shulhan 'Aruk: Enduring Code of Jewish Law.” In The Jewish Expression, ed. Goldin, Judah, 322–342. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.