General concepts of which we need to be aware as a springboard for further study:
The Torah is not a stand-alone document. It must be interpreted in a broader context. Rather than view Judaism as a set tradition carved in stone, we need to recognize it as a faith that evolved over thousands of years in the discussions of the Talmudic rabbis.
The "written" law is the book we call the Chumash, or Five Books of Moses, plus Prophets and Writings. Together these make up the Hebrew Bible, or TaNaK (an acronym for Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim.)
The "oral" law, or Mishnah, also traditionally believed to have been given to Moses by God at Sinai, provides more detail about day-to-day laws than are in the written Torah. The Mishnah was handed down orally until circa 200 CE when it was put into writing by Rabbi Judah ha Nasi. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Hebrews needed a new way to maintain their religion without the Temple, and felt they'd better write stuff down before it was lost forever.
Discussions about the Mishnah are called the Gemara, which were put into writing circa 500 CE. The Mishna and the Gemara comprise the Talmud, which is the defining document of Judaism. The TaNaK, or Hebrew Bible, describes the beliefs and values of the ancient Hebraic temple cult. It does not describe Judaism. We no longer have, for example, animal and grain sacrifices. The Talmudic rabbis developed rituals to replace those that were Temple-dependent.
The Talmud also softens many of the Torah laws, and expounds upon Jewish values such as kindness, working on your own character instead of judging others, honesty, etc.
There are four levels of interpretation for reading the Chumash (5 books of M.) We look at the:
1) obvious literal meaning
2) suggested meanings found in plays on words and numerological references in the Hebrew,
3) refer to stories told by the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash (parables recorded elsewhere), and
4) the secret mystical meaning found in the Zohar (Book of Radiance.)
We need this additional information to get a complete picture of what is being discussed. Prophets and Writings are read more literally.
The Mishna (oral law) contains six different sections called orders, or sederim: Zeraim (seeds) includes laws related to agriculture and blessings over food, Moed (festivals and times) addresses the sabbath, holidays and fasts, Nashim (women) has to do with marriage, divorce, and contracts, Nezikin (damages) has to do with civil and criminal law, and also contains Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, which goes into Jewish ethics and character development. Kodashim (holy things) covers temple sacrifices and keeping kosher. Toharot (purity) covers matters of ritual purity.
Each order is divided into tractates (books), which are further divided into chapters and numbered sections, and finally 2-sided pages called dafs (which have an "A" side and a "B" side.) Most of the Mishna sections have a Gemara (rabbinic discussion.) Discussions from two different groups of rabbis were compiled, one school in Jerusalem and the other in Babylon. Thus, we have two Talmuds, the Yerushalmi and the Bavli. (When not specified, any reference to a Talmud tractate is from the Bavli by default.) The Mishna is in Hebrew; the Gemara is in Aramaic.
The Mishna tends to be pretty convoluted and is probably the source of the expression “two Jews, three opinions” – it’s got debates going off on tangents, and has a guy from one century commenting on the opinions of a guy from another century. It’s like a giant blog with links going all over the place. The Gemara covers thoughts going back to 586 BCE to around 500 CE, and all of these discussions gradually formed Judaism out of Hebraism. In many cases, the rabbis never resolved certain questions, leaving the answers up in the air until the return of Elijah.
The 12th century Spanish rabbi Moses Maimonides put together a summary of the laws in the Talmud. He created a kind of pocket guide to the Talmud. It was an extreme abbreviation (necessarily, as the Talmud is about the size of a small library.) This book is known as the Mishneh Torah. It was controversial in its time, as were his "13 principles of faith." When he was alive, he became unpopular with this work because he was introducing an element of dogma out of line with the more democratic and interpretive nature of Talmudic discussion. In Derech Eretz Zuta, Chapter 1, Verse 6, the Talmud states, “love doubtfulness” (i.e. everything should be doubtful to us until we convince ourselves of it, we should come to spiritual understanding intellectually and not on blind acceptance of the explanations of others.)
In the 15th century, Joseph Caro compiled his book The Set Table, or Shulchan Aruch, which is the text people often refer to today when talking about “Jewish law.”
Both books condensed Talmudic discussions into lists of positive and negative commandments, which reflect the interpretations and preferences of the men who compiled them – they chose what to leave in, what to leave out, and gave us dry rules without the nuanced discussions that would have conveyed their philosophical and ethical underpinnings.
So far, the best Hebrew Bible I have found is the Stone edition, which contains quite a bit of Rashi commentary in its extensive footnotes. A handy, modern, liberal, and accessible large-print guide to the Five Books is: A Spiritual and Ethical Compendium to the Torah and Talmud, by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal (Renewal.)
It's my hope that studying the original source texts of our tradition will gradually become easier due to better, more widely available translations.
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