Author Archives: Jacob Neusner

Jacob Neusner

About Jacob Neusner

Professor Jacob Neusner is the senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology and a full-time professor at Bard College. He has published more than 800 books and innumerable articles. His publications range from the scholarly and academic to the popular and journalistic.

Talmudic Thinking

Excerpted from
Invitation to the Talmud: A Teaching Book
, with permission of the author.

The Talmud… records not only laws, but the processes by which laws are uncovered. By describing those processes, the rabbis propose to resolve the tension between ordinary life and logic. Using the data deriving from revealed laws of ritual purity and liturgy, the Talmud engages in the give‑and‑take of argument about what one is obligated to do and not do (for example) in eating a meal. 

The argument develops its themes through inquiry into fundamental, unifying principles and their application of those to ordinary affairs. Humble matters of where one puts his napkin are shown to reveal such underlying principles. These are then subjected to analysis and produce a search for still more basic, and ultimately unifying conceptions.

Principles of Everyday Life

The primary convictions which generate this search for hidden unities are that God is one, creation derives from the single, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator, and Torah expresses his wholly self‑consistent will. We deal, therefore, with the intellectual effects of the fundamental conviction of monotheism.

The conceptions turned up by the rabbis’ quest for the principles to guide everyday deeds prove to be highly relative and abstract. For nothing is more abstract than the nonmaterial, or supramaterial, laws of purity and impurity. So even the placing of a napkin at a meal is turned into a sacred discipline for living, a discipline which requires that logic and order everywhere prevail, and demands, as I said, that concerns for a vast world of unseen, well-regulated, and highly principled relationships of sanctity come to bear.

talmudThoughtless action is elevated, sanctified, made worthy of thought, and is shown to bear heavy consequences. Thus, as Judah Goldin says, “Study, interpretation, debate are the discipline for living; without them no right action is likely…” (The Living Talmud).

The Talmud is a fundamentally nonhistorical document. It does not appeal to the authority of the past. The argument, though unfolding by generations of rabbis, is not about the authority and biography of the ancients, but about their timeless, impersonal reasons for ruling as they do.

The Formation of the Oral Torah

In the following article, Neusner describes his theory concerning the formation of the Mishnah and it attaining authoritative status. However, it should be noted that some scholars disagree with him and present alternative theories. Excerpted from The Talmud: A Close Encounter, with permission of the author.

Problem: How could the Mishnah gain authority?

From the formation of ancient Israelite Scripture, in the aftermath of the return to Zion and the creation of the Torah book in Ezra’s time (ca. 450 BCE), coming generations routinely set their ideas into relationship with Scripture. This they did by citing proof texts alongside their own rules.

Otherwise, in the setting of Israelite culture, the new writings could find no ready hearing. Over the six hundred years from the formation of the Torah of "Moses" in the time of Ezra, from ca. 450 BCE to ca. CE 200, four conventional ways of accommodating new writings–new "tradition"–to the established canon of received Scripture had come to the fore.

First and simplest, a writer would sign a famous name to his book, attributing his ideas to Enoch, Adam, Jacob’s sons, Jeremiah, Baruch, and any number of others, down to Ezra. But the Mishnah bore no such attribution, for example, to Moses. Implicitly, to be sure, the statement of Mishnah Avot 1: "Moses received Torah from Sinai (and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets. And the prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly…)" carried the further notion that sayings of people on the list of authorities from Moses to nearly their own day derived from God’s revelation at Sinai. But no one made that premise explicit before the time of the Talmud of the Land of Israel.

Second, an authorship might also imitate the style of biblical Hebrew and so try to creep into the canon by adopting the cloak of Scripture. But the Mishnah’s authorship ignores biblical syntax and style.

Third, an author would surely claim that his work was inspired by God, a new revelation for an open canon. But, as we realize, that claim makes no explicit impact on the Mishnah.

Fourth, at the very least, someone would link his opinions to biblical verses through the exegesis of the latter in line with the former, so Scripture would validate his views. The authorship of the Mishnah did so only occasionally, but far more commonly stated on its own authority whatever rules it proposed to lay down.

The Hebrew of the Mishnah complicated the problem, because it is totally different from the Hebrew of the Hebrew Scriptures. Its verb, for instance, makes provision for more than completed or continuing action, for which the biblical Hebrew verb allows, but also for past and future times, subjunctive and indicative voices, and much else.

The syntax is Indo‑European, in that we can translate the word order of the Mishnah into any Indo‑European language and come up with perfect sense. None of that crabbed imitation of biblical Hebrew, which makes the Dead Sea scrolls an embarrassment to read, characterizes the Hebrew of the Mishnah. Mishnaic style is elegant, subtle, exquisite in its sensitivity to word order and repetition, balance, pattern.

Rabbinic Solutions: Avot, Tosefta, Talmud, Sifra

The solution to the problem of the authority of the Mishnah, that is to say, its relationship to Scripture, was worked out in the period after the closure of the Mishnah. Since no one now could credibly claim to sign the name of Ezra or Adam to a book of this kind, and since biblical Hebrew had provided no apologetic aesthetics whatever, the only options lay elsewhere. The two [solutions] were, first, to provide a myth of the origin of the contents of the Mishnah and, second, to link each allegation of the Mishnah, through processes of biblical (not Mishnaic) exegesis, to verses of the Scriptures. These two procedures, together, would establish for the Mishnah that standing which the uses to which the document was to be put demanded for it: a place in the canon of Israel, a legitimate relationship to the Torah of Moses.

There were several ways in which the work went forward. These are represented by diverse documents that succeeded and dealt with the Mishnah. Let me now state the three principal possibilities:

(1) The Mishnah required no systematic support through exegesis of Scripture in the light of Mishnaic laws.

(2) The Mishnah by itself provided no reliable information, and all of its propositions demanded linkage to Scripture, to which the Mishnah must be shown to be subordinate and secondary.

(3) The Mishnah is an autonomous document but closely correlated with Scripture.

The first extreme (1) is represented by the (Pirkei) Avot, ca. C.E. 250 (see quotation above–a later addition to the order of Nezikin of the Mishnah), which represents the authority of the sages cited in Avot as autonomous of Scripture. Those authorities in Avot do not cite verses of Scripture, but what they say does constitute a statement of the Torah. There can be no clearer way of saying that what these authorities present in and of itself falls into the classification of the Torah.

The authorship of the Tosefta (a collection of Mishnah-era materials, most of which are not included in the Mishnah itself, but many of which are parallel and include commentaries) ca. C.E. 400, takes the middle position (3, above). It very commonly cites a passage of the Mishnah and then adds to that passage an appropriate proof text. That is a quite common mode of supplementing the Mishnah.

The mediating view is further taken by the [Talmud] Yerushalmi and the Bavli, ca. C.E. 400-600. With the Yerushalmi’s authorship, that of the Bavli developed a well‑crafted theory of the Mishnah and its relationship to Scripture. Each rule of the Mishnah is commonly introduced, in the exegesis supplied by the two Talmuds, with the question, "What is the source of this statement?" And the answer invariably is, "As it is said," or ". . . written," with a verse of Scripture, that is, the written Torah, then cited.

The upshot is that the source of the rules of the Mishnah (and other writings) is Scripture, not freestanding logic.

The far extreme (2)–everything in the Mishnah makes sense only as a (re)statement of Scripture or upon Scripture’s authority–is taken by the Sifra, a post‑Mishnaic compilation of exegeses on Leviticus, redacted at an indeterminate point, perhaps about C.E. 300. The Sifra systematically challenges reason (= the Mishnah), unaided by revelation (i.e., exegesis of Scripture), to sustain positions taken by the Mishnah, which is cited verbatim, and everywhere proves that it cannot be done.

The Fully-Developed Solution: "Oral Torah"

The final and normative solution to the problem of the authority of the Mishnah worked out in the third and fourth centuries produced the myth of the dual Torah, oral and written, which formed the indicative and definitive trait of the Judaism that emerged from late antiquity. Tracing the unfolding of that myth leads us deep into the processes by which that Judaism took shape. The two Talmuds know the theory that there is a tradition separate from, and in addition to, the written Torah. This tradition it knows as "the teachings of scribes."

There is ample evidence, implicit in what happens to the Mishnah in the Bavli, to allow a reliable description of how the Bavli’s founders viewed the Mishnah. That view may be stated very simply. The Mishnah rarely cites verses of Scripture in support of its propositions. The Bavli routinely adduces scriptural bases for the Mishnah’s laws. The Mishnah seldom undertakes the exegesis of verses of Scripture for any purpose. The Bavli consistently investigates the meaning of verses of Scripture and does so for a variety of purposes.

Accordingly, the Bavli, subordinate as it is to the Mishnah, regards the Mishnah as subordinate to, and contingent upon, Scripture. That is why, in the Bavli’s view, the Mishnah requires the support of proof texts of Scripture. By itself, the Mishnah exercises no autonomous authority and enjoys no independent standing or norm-setting status…

Having represented the Mishnah as it did, the Bavli’s authorship quite naturally chose to represent its own system in the same way–that is to say, as a mere elaboration of a received tradition, a stage in the sedimentary and incremental process by which the Torah continued to come down from Sinai. And for that purpose, I hardly need to add, the mixed logics embodied in the joining of philosophical and propositional statements on the principle of fixed association–commentary attached to a prior text–served exceedingly well.

That explains how, in the Bavli, we have, in the (deceptive) form of a tradition, what is in fact an autonomous system, connected with prior systems but not continuous with them. The authorship represented their own statement of an ethos, ethics, and defined social entity, precisely as they did the received ones, the whole forming a single, seamless Torah revealed by God to Moses at Sinai.

Why Do So Few Jews Observe Shabbat?

Reprinted from The Enchantments of Judaism, published by Basic Books.

Passover is like a love affairintense but brief. The Sabbath stands in judgment upon us as human beings and calls into question the things that should merely engage but, in fact, overwhelm us. That is why, at sunset on the eve of the seventh day, words do not create worlds. The magic works only when people want it to. The Sabbath is like a marriage that is ordinary and lasts for years. A love affair is what it isbut on the basis of the Sabbath, one can build one’s life, and many do.

shabbat observanceWe Jews fail the Sabbath, fail to observe the day of rest and renewal, not because in the ordinary and everyday we do not find an above and beyond. The opposite is the case. The common life of every day demands the Sabbath; the workaday world requires it; the working person languishes without it. But the Sabbath’s magic and message of the sanctification of timeremarkably relevant to the human condition at the threshold of the twenty-first centurypresent a vision altogether too austere, too penetrating. Lacking in sentimental guise, the Sabbath does not appeal to resentment and fear and does not address individual and family alone.

The Sabbath lays down a judgment on the fundamental issues of our civilization and, specifically, demands restraint, dignity, reticence, and silent restnot commonplace virtues. If, therefore, the transformation of time, the centerpiece of the life of Judaism, occurs for only a few, the reason is not obsolescence but the opposite: excessive relevance. The Sabbath touches too close to home, ripping the raw nerve of reality. For it calls into question the foundations of the life of one dimension only, asking how people can imagine that all there is is what they see just now. The Judaic vision that perceives things to be not what they seem blinds, on the Sabbath, with too much light. Passover is but once a year and, in all the hocus-pocus of removing leaven and eating matzah, easy in its cultic complexity. But the Sabbath, and, in its wake, the festivals and the Days of Awe, these are another matter. They question. They disrupt. They do condemn. And they take place every weekor, with the festivals, [less] oftenturning one place into another and one time into another.