Why Do Jews Study Talmud?

On the various motivations and interests which brought Jews into a cross-generational conversation called Talmud.

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Whether they wanted to train to be rabbis or be intellectually challenged or encounter the divine, Jews have studied Talmud. Author Robert Goldenberg addresses some of the difficulties that modern scholarship on the Talmud has created for the traditional student, although he acknowledges that most contemporary students of the Talmud see the scholarly problems as irrelevant to the religiously powerful act of studying Talmud. Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, published by Simon & Schuster.

Jews have studied the Talmud for a great variety of reasons. Many of these can be labeled practical. Of these "practical" reasons, one has already been discussed at some length [in the book Back to the Sources]—the Talmud has been studied in order to extract functioning law from its pages. For most of Jewish history, Jews in various communities have constituted self-governing enclaves within the larger society, and from the time rabbis rose to prominence as leaders of Jewry their legal traditions provided the rules by which these enclaves lived.

Thus rabbinic marriage law became Jew­ish marriage law, rabbinic rules about the Sabbath became rules for all Jews, and so on. The Talmud itself does not always state with precision what these rules are to be, and in the nature of things it could not anticipate new situations in which these rules would have to be applied. Thus study of the Talmud for its law became a chief activity of those in the community who were charged with teaching and enforcing that law.

There were other practical reasons too, however. The Talmud, like the Mishnah before it, has always functioned as a training text for rabbis and their disciples. This "academic" function, as has been noted, may in fact be older than the applied-law function just mentioned. Now, not all rabbis actually served as legal authorities. Some were teachers, or admin­istrators, or political advisors; some, for that matter, were merchants. Anyone, however, who aspired to the title "rabbi," anyone who wished to be part of an ancient chain of tradition, had to become immersed in the "sea of the Talmud." The Talmud therefore served the additional practical function of training religious leaders. Not all so trained there­upon took up the authority now available to them. Some used the train­ing in other ways, and some did not use it at all.

In a rather more specialized sense, the Talmud was also of practical use in the study of Scripture. Among their other intellectual enterprises, the rabbis of antiquity spent a great deal of time reading and explaining the Bible. Their explanations are found scattered throughout Talmudic and especially Midrashic literature. Later generations of Jews—even Jews who never achieved the ability to study the Talmud itself—did study Scripture; the Pentateuch in particular was read through, year in and year out, in the synagogues. Jews needed to know what their holy writings meant, and their ancient rabbis could tell them.

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Robert Goldenberg is a professor of history at the State University of New York at Stonybrook.