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Parshas Mishpatim (5778)

South Korea and the Talmud

Did you ever think that the Talmud would be popular in South Korea of all places? Me neither… until I read this (from Ynetnews.com):

Almost every house in South Korea has a translated Talmud. But unlike Israel, even Korean mothers study it and read from it to their young children. Yes, in a country of almost 49 million people, many of whom believe in Buddhism and Christianity, there are more people who read the Talmud – or at least have a copy of it at home – than in the Jewish state. Much more. "We were very curious about the Jews' outstanding academic achievements," explains South Korean Ambassador to Israel Young Sam Ma, who was a guest on Channel 1's "Culture Today" show. "The Jews have a high percentage of Nobel Prize laureates in all fields: In literature, science and economics. It's an amazing achievement. We tried to understand the secret of the Jewish people. How do they – more than other nations – manage to reach such impressive achievements? How is it that Jews are such geniuses? The conclusion we reached is that one of your secrets is studying Talmud.”.

Now you may be wondering what exactly the Talmud is, and why we Jews have been studying it for so many years (even though we’re not Korean!).

The Talmud is essentially the repository of the teachings of our Oral Torah that was handed down from G-d to Moses at Mount Sinai, a collection of writings that covers the full gamut of Jewish law and tradition.

Talmud is Hebrew for "learning," appropriate for a text that people devote their lives to studying and mastering. The Talmud is also referred to as Gemara, which is the Aramaic translation of the word Talmud.

The main text of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a collection of terse teachings written in Hebrew, redacted by Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Over the next several hundred years, the rabbis continued to teach and expound. Many of those teachings were collected into two great bodies, the Jerusalem Talmud, containing the teachings of the rabbis in the Land of Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud, featuring the teachings of the rabbis of Babylon. These two works are written in the Aramaic dialects used in Israel and Babylonia respectively.

There are many commentaries written on the Talmuds (mostly on the Babylonian Talmud, which is more widely studied), notably the elucidating notes of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th Century France), Tosafos (lit. “addenda”, a group of rabbis who lived in the years following Rashi, many of whom were his descendants and/or his students, who “added” insightful commentary to the Talmud.). These two commentaries are printed together with the Babylonian Talmud, surrounding the main text, having become a part of the study of Talmud. The standard edition of the Babylonian Talmud comprises 2,711 double-sided pages, with many, many more pages filled with the teachings of other commentators.

The Mishnah and Talmud are divided into six general sections, called Sedarim (“Orders”):
~ Zera’im (“Seeds”), dealing primarily with the agricultural laws, but also the laws of blessings and prayers.
~ Mo’ed (“Festival”), dealing with the laws of Shabbos and the holidays.
~ Nashim (“Women”), dealing with marriage and divorce.
~ Nezikin (“Damages”), dealing with civil and criminal law, as well as ethics.
~ Kodashim (“Holy [things]”), dealing with laws about the sacrifices, the Holy Temple, and the dietary laws.
~ Taharos (“Purities”), dealing with the laws of ritual purity.

In addition to extensive legal discussions (in Hebrew, halachah), the rabbis incorporated into the Talmud philosophical discussions, guidance on ethical matters, medical advice, and so much more. The Talmud is truly an amazing blend of unique logic and shrewd pragmatism, of history and science, of anecdotes and humor. The Talmud considers no subject to be too strange, too remote, or too bizarre to be studied. You name it, it’s in there …

The Talmud also contains many weird (and seemingly silly) stories within its many pages. In fact, Professor Alan Dershowitz, in one of his books (I think it’s in The Vanishing American Jew) challenges the claim that the Talmud has Divine origins, based on the following really weird anecdote, which can be found in Bava Metzia 84a:

“When Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon met [and stood waist to waist], a yoke of oxen could pass below them without touching them [that is how obese they were]. A certain [Roman] noblewoman said to them, ‘Your children are not yours,’ [because you could not possibly live with your wives on account of your physical build]. They replied, ‘Our wives’ girth is even greater than ours.’ ‘If so, all the more reason that your children aren’t yours,’ she retorted. Some say, this is what they told her: ‘For as a man is, so is his strength’ (Judges 8:21). Others say, this is what they said: ‘Love suppresses the flesh’ ”

What the good professor fails to realize – and he should know better, having gone to Yeshiva in his youth and studied the Talmud himself – is that, as even he admits in his book, the Talmud is one of the most brilliant (and eminently logical) works of all time, and has been studied in depth by some of the greatest minds the Jewish people have known for the better part of 1500 years. So if he finds, on some of its pages, stories which seem just plain silly and irrational, he should realize that even these teachings are all part of the “entire Talmud” and must therefore contain incredible depth and wisdom beneath the surface, in consistency with the rest of the Talmud’s teachings.

Indeed, the Kabbalists teach us that all the strange and seemingly silly stories in the Talmud mask deep mystical ideas. For a great illustration of this, see Rabbi Aaron Feldman’s amazing work The Juggler and the King (Feldheim Publishers), in which he elaborates on the Vilna Gaon’s incredible interpretations of the hidden wisdom of the Sages contained in all these stories.

One of the commandments that we read in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Mishpatim, is the prohibition against lying or stretching the truth. As it says in Exodus 23:7, “Midvar sheker tirchak …Distant yourself from a false word …”

One of my favorite Talmudic stories (from Yevamos 63a) relates to this prohibition, and, as with most other stories and “legends” in the Talmud, contains important lessons and advice for life:

Rav’s wife would constantly aggravate him. When he would tell her, “Prepare me lentils,” she would instead prepare legumes. If he said, “Prepare me legumes,” she would instead prepare lentils. When his son, Chiya, grew up and would relay his father’s requests to his mother, he would reverse them to her, so that his father would end up receiving exactly what he had requested. Upon receiving the desired dish, and not realizing Chiya’s subterfuge, Rav said to him, “Your mother has improved her ways!” Chiya replied to him, “It was actually I who reversed your request to her.” Rav replied to him, “This bears out the popular saying: ‘[The child] who comes from you will educate you.” I, too, should have thought of this trick! However, you should not do this, for it says, ‘they train their tongue to speak falsehood, striving etc. to be iniquitous.’ (Jeremiah 9:4)”

We learn from this story a few things --

a) Even though lying for the sake of peace and harmony is normally permissible (see Yevamos 65b) – which is why young Chiya deemed it okay to “lie” and to reverse his father’s requests to his mother in the first place – one should not do it on a regular and repetitive basis, as it trains a person to speak lies and to become a consummate liar.

b) When we admonish our children for things they’ve done wrong, we should find some way to praise them at the same time, to “soften the blow”. Rav praised his son Chiya’s ingenuity and cleverness, even as he was rebuking him for lying. Such loving reproach is more likely to be accepted by the one receiving it.

c) Even great rabbis have tzaros (troubles). Rav was one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time – his opinions and views are quoted on virtually every page of the Talmud – yet he had a miserable wife and a difficult life. Everyone’s got their peckel (“package”) in life, containing some good and some not so good stuff. You get what you get and you say, “Thank you!”

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