Becoming the People of the Talmud

Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures

Talya Fishman
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 424
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    Becoming the People of the Talmud
    Book Description:

    In Becoming the People of the Talmud, Talya Fishman examines ways in which circumstances of transmission have shaped the cultural meaning of Jewish traditions. Although the Talmud's preeminence in Jewish study and its determining role in Jewish practice are generally taken for granted, Fishman contends that these roles were not solidified until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The inscription of Talmud-which Sefardi Jews understand to have occurred quite early, and Ashkenazi Jews only later-precipitated these developments. The encounter with Oral Torah as a written corpus was transformative for both subcultures, and it shaped the roles that Talmud came to play in Jewish life. What were the historical circumstances that led to the inscription of Oral Torah in medieval Europe? How did this body of ancient rabbinic traditions, replete with legal controversies and nonlegal material, come to be construed as a reference work and prescriptive guide to Jewish life? Connecting insights from geonica, medieval Jewish and Christian history, and orality-textuality studies, Becoming the People of the Talmud reconstructs the process of cultural transformation that occurred once medieval Jews encountered the Babylonian Talmud as a written text. According to Fishman, the ascription of greater authority to written text was accompanied by changes in reading habits, compositional predilections, classroom practices, approaches to adjudication, assessments of the past, and social hierarchies. She contends that certain medieval Jews were aware of these changes: some noted that books had replaced teachers; others protested the elevation of Talmud-centered erudition and casuistic virtuosity into standards of religious excellence, at the expense of spiritual refinement. The book concludes with a consideration of Rhineland Pietism's emergence in this context and suggests that two contemporaneous phenomena-the prominence of custom in medieval Ashkenazi culture and the novel Christian attack on Talmud-were indirectly linked to the new eminence of this written text in Jewish life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0498-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    The importance of the Babylonian Talmud in the lives of observant Jews is taken for granted. Yet when considered from certain vantage points, the Talmud’s role as a guide to Jewish life is bewildering. Though construed as a legal reference work, a significant proportion of the Talmud’s content does not pertain to law, and the legal traditions themselves are presented in the form of pending disputes. (Critical scholars have determined that the resolved disputes are actually late interpolations into the talmudic text.)¹ In other words, there is no evidence that the sages whose teachings are preserved in the Talmud, Babylonian...

  4. 1 The Place of Oral Matters in Geonic Culture
    (pp. 20-64)

    By the eighth century, when the entire Babylonian Talmud was written out—from memory—at the request of Jews living far from the rabbinic academies of Iraq,¹ some Jewish communities had come into possession of an oxymoron: an inscribed corpus of oral matters. The distinction between written matters, i.e., Scripture, and oral matters, extra-scriptural tradition, had been made by tannaitic sages of late antiquity. One of their several dicta regulating the transmission and use of these disparate categories of Jewish knowledge explicitly stated: “Words/matters that are oral—you are not permitted to say them in writing.”² It is clear from...

  5. 2 Oral Matters among Jews of Qayrawan and al-Andalus: Framing Sefarad
    (pp. 65-90)

    While late geonim conceded the necessity of inscribing oral matters, in contravention of a tannaitic prohibition, they saw no reason to disavow the tannaitic dictum stipulating that applied law could only be derived from Talmud once a master attested that the relevant teaching was to be implemented in practice. As seen in the previous chapter, Hai Gaon had reacted with rage when he learned that rabbinical students in Qayrawan were treating the talmudic text as a prescriptive legal source, privileging its authority over that of orally transmitted tradition, and permitting its teachings to undermine longstanding patterns of communal behavior.¹ Yet...

  6. 3 Framing Ashkenaz: Cultural Landmarks of Medieval Northern European Societies
    (pp. 91-120)

    It has been fashionable in Jewish historiography to account for the subcultures of Sefarad and Ashkenaz in genealogical terms: Sefarad has been portrayed as the cultural heir of Babylonia, and Ashkenaz as the cultural heir of ancient Palestine.¹ Yet scholars of the last several decades have raised questions about the adequacy of this explanatory paradigm, particularly where Ashkenaz is concerned.² To complement the reigning hereditary perspective, the present chapter will consider features of non-Jewish cultures that left their marks on northern Europe, the territory that became identified with Ashkenaz.³

    Though the Roman Empire came to an end in 476, its...

  7. 4 Textualization of Northern European Rabbinic Culture: The Changing Role of Talmud
    (pp. 121-154)

    European Jewry’s shift from an “oral” culture to a “written” one in the Middle Ages has not gone unnoticed.¹ Observing that Jewish works composed in late antiquity became available at this time “with disconcerting suddenness—on this side, as it were, of a great manuscript divide,”² historians of Hebrew codicology noted that more Hebrew manuscripts are extant from the eleventh century than from any previous century,³ and that a far greater number of manuscripts have been preserved from the twelfth century.⁴ How is this data to be explained? One (now discredited) hypothesis suggested that the trauma of the First Crusade...

  8. 5 Medieval Responses to the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture
    (pp. 155-181)

    By the twelfth century, northern European Jewish communities had come to determine applied Jewish law solely with reference to the Talmud. This approach differed considerably from that of the Babylonian geonim, who understood living tradition to be a necessary complement to the teachings preserved in Talmud. As noted earlier, the geonim concluded many of their responsa by acknowledging these two sources of authority, affirming that “this is the halakhah and this is the custom.”¹ It seems unlikely that most rabbinically learned Jews of medieval Europe would have been aware that their own approach to adjudication deviated from the approach taken...

  9. 6 Rhineland Pietism and the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture in Medieval Northern Europe
    (pp. 182-217)

    The chronological proximity of disparate cultural developments in medieval Jewish history has attracted a fair amount of scholarly attention, some of it quite productive.¹ The present chapter attempts to account for the simultaneous emergence of Tosafism and Rhineland Pietism in northern European Jewish communities by situating both within the broader historical narrative of textualization. It stops short of trying to tell an even larger (and longer) story, one that would link textualization to the emergence of Kabbalah.Happily, the contours of this omitted narrative (and a great amount of detail) may be found in studies by Moshe Idel, Elliot Wolfson, Ḥaviva...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 218-224)

    Little is currently known about why the amoraim generated, and preserved, the traditions found in the Babylonian Talmud. What is clear is that Jews who lived in the centuries following the last of the Talmud’s named tradents focused on the legal traditions of this orally transmitted corpus and, over time, “transposed” them so that they came to be construed as guidelines for living a Jewish life. A range of activities made this transposition possible: unclear words and phrases were explained, conflicting passages were harmonized, and adjudicatory principles, kelale pesiqa, were articulated. Principles of this sort, establishing (for example) that the...

    (pp. 225-228)
    (pp. 229-230)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 231-348)
    (pp. 349-388)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 389-410)
    (pp. 411-413)