Tag Archives: Qumran

Why is Chicken Forbidden with Dairy?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we find one of three instances in the Torah prohibiting to “cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Deuteronomy 14:21) The most literal understanding of this prohibition is not to cook a baby goat specifically in its own mother’s milk. Certain sources suggest this refers to an ancient pagan practice where idolaters did exactly that. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) writes in his Moreh Nevuchim (III, 48):

Meat boiled in milk is undoubtedly gross food, and makes overfull; but I think that most probably it is also prohibited because it is somehow connected with idolatry, forming perhaps part of the service, or being used on some festival of the heathen. I find a support for this view in the circumstance that the Law mentions the prohibition twice after the commandment given concerning the festivals…

Since twice the Torah juxtaposes this prohibition with celebrating festivals, the Rambam reasons that it must have been something done by pagans on their festivals. Archaeologists have indeed found evidence of a possible ancient Canaanite fertility ritual where they would cook a kid in its mother’s milk, then sprinkle the soup on their farms. Idolatry aside, this ritual is undoubtedly cruel, too. Way back in the 1st century CE, Philo Judaeus wrote in his On Virtues how anyone who does such a thing “is exhibiting a terrible perversity of disposition” (XXVI, 144).

Intriguingly, Philo also explains the meat-dairy prohibition as having more of a mystical reason: There is something spiritually incompatible in mixing meat and dairy, for “it is a very terrible thing for the nourishment of the living to be the seasoning and sauce of the dead…” (143) In other words, milk is that nourishing substance that represents new life, whereas meat requires slaughter and represents death. It is important to remember that God originally prohibited mankind from eating any meat whatsoever. Adam and Eve were vegetarians. Meat was later permitted by God after the Flood, though in a very limited capacity, and mainly for a spiritual reason (as explained in the past here). And spiritually, meat and dairy are simply incompatible.

Now, everyone agrees, as did Philo, that the Torah’s prohibition is not just specifically for goats, but for any domesticated herd flesh such as sheep and cows. Undomesticated animals are a different story, since they are not milked, so it wouldn’t be possible (or it would be extremely difficult) to cook them in their mother’s milk. Birds, of course, are not mammals and have no milk at all. Hence, Rabbi Akiva teaches in the Mishnah (Chullin 8:4) that “an undomesticated animal or bird in milk is not prohibited by Torah law.” Rabbi Akiva also adds non-kosher animals, meaning that a Jew who, say, works as a cook in a non-kosher restaurant would be allowed to mix pork and dairy for the non-Jewish diners. According to Rabbi Akiva, this is why the Torah mentions the meat-dairy prohibition three separate times, to teach that three categories of animals are excluded: undomesticated, birds, and non-kosher.

The Talmud then discusses this Mishnah in more depth. The implication of Rabbi Akiva’s statement is that while those three categories are not prohibited by Torah law, they are prohibited by Rabbinic law (Chullin 116a). However, Rabbi Yose haGelili held that consuming birds with dairy is not prohibited at all, not even by Rabbinic law, and that in his hometown it was normal for Jews to eat fowl and dairy regularly! Then, in a story about the sage Levi, the Talmud presents the possibility that the hometown of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira may have permitted fowl and dairy, as well. Earlier in the Talmud (Chullin 104b), Agra teaches that fowl and cheese are permitted to be eaten together, though his statement is later qualified to mean that he meant they can be consumed one after another, not actually together.

There is no doubt that by the close of the Talmudic period, consuming fowl and dairy was prohibited just as any other meat. And everyone agrees that this is a Rabbinic fence. The big question is: why? The Talmud does not give a reason for the expansion of the prohibition to include fowl. One cannot argue that the Sages simply extended the prohibition to include all animal flesh with dairy, for they did not extend the prohibition to fish and the kosher locusts, which remain pareve. Only fowl became forbidden.

For many years, I searched for a satisfying answer to the problem. Surprisingly, there is a serious scarcity of discussion on the matter. The most oft-repeated reason is that fowl may be easily confused with red meat, so the Sages worried that people might unintentionally break a Torah law, hence the need for a fowl fence. Yet, there doesn’t appear to actually be an ancient source for this answer, nor does it make much sense upon closer examination. If we are worried about appearances, some fish might also be confused with meat (they call tuna the “chicken of the sea” after all), but fish and dairy was not prohibited. Eating a hamburger with artificial pareve cheese, or eating a vegan cheeseburger, have not been prohibited either, and those situations are far more visually confusing. Besides, people are generally careful to know what they are eating—especially Jews who have many dietary restrictions.

A better answer I came across looks at the question more practically. For most of history, red meat was prohibitively expensive.* Cows, sheep, and goats are a lot more valuable alive than dead. One could get years’ worth of nutrition—milk, butter, cheese—not to mention other goods like wool and lanolin, as long as the animal remains living. Also, there is too much meat on these animals for a single family to consume in one sitting, and there were no freezers to keep the leftovers. Thus, red meat was typically only consumed on special occasions and big events. The most common meat was chicken, which was easy and quick to raise and slaughter, not expensive at all, and small enough that there was little waste. Practically speaking, for most people in the past, “meat” meant chicken, and had more day-to-day significance than rare red meat. Thus, it wasn’t much of a leap to include chicken (and thereby other fowl) in the prohibition.

Having said that, another answer might seem totally the opposite. The Mishnah (Bava Kamma 7:7) states that it was forbidden to raise chickens in Jerusalem during Temple times, and kohanim were not allowed to raise chickens at all, anywhere in Israel. This is because chickens are scavengers that will eat anything, including garbage, and might pick up bones and move them from place to place, spreading tumah impurity. One of the peculiar archaeological findings in Qumran—famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls—is that while many bones of cows, sheep, and goats have been dug up, there are absolutely none of chickens! Those Essenes who likely inhabited Qumran were very strictly-observant Jews, so it makes sense that they kept the same purity laws as would be kept in Jerusalem. Considering how much the Essenes influenced Rabbinic Judaism (or reflected an element of that era’s Rabbinic Judaism), it is quite possible that many of the early Sages avoided chicken as well. The Torah itself never mentions chickens at all, the Midrash describes them as “the most brazen of birds” (Shemot Rabbah 42:9), while the Talmud (Berakhot 6a) associates chicken feet with demons.

So, it is quite possible that Jews in those days actually ate little chicken. In fact, we know that the main fowl that was consumed in Israel was pigeon and dove. Perhaps chicken was designated “meat” (for dairy-mixing purposes) because it was uncommon and unfamiliar. Once chicken was prohibited, other birds slowly followed suit. Indeed, the episode in Chullin mentioned above describes how Levi was presented with a peacock and dairy dish, and did not object. Perhaps the fence started with chicken, and over time expanded to include other birds.

A study highlighting one issue of eating meat and dairy together.

Whatever the case, what we find is that during the Second Temple era, consuming fowl with dairy was not prohibited, and shortly afterwards was prohibited Rabbinically. It took several centuries for the prohibition to be cemented and universal. Intriguingly, the Ethiopian Jewish community knew of no prohibition for fowl and dairy, and only accepted it upon themselves when they began settling in Israel in recent decades. (This may be a valuable point of evidence suggesting the Ethiopian Jewish community branched off in the very early years of the exile after the Temple’s destruction, or even earlier). I believe that here, in this chronology, lies one more possible answer as to why fowl and dairy was forbidden. And this answer is a mystical one.

Elevating Birds

Illustration of a kohen washing his hands in the Temple’s copper laver.

From the information above, we can deduce that the critical moment in the birth of the fowl-dairy prohibition was the destruction of the Temple. A great many things changed with that seismic event. Our Sages stated that since we no longer have a Temple altar, the meal table now takes its place (Berakhot 55a, Chagigah 27a). As such, the Sages instituted a number of meal-time rituals to parallel the Temple services. First is netilat yadayim, which parallels the priestly washing in the Temple’s copper laver before service (as well as the washing before their consumption of terumah). Second is dipping bread in salt after hamotzi, since all sacrifices in the Temple had to be salted. Then there’s the final washing, mayim achronim, as explored in depth in Secrets of the Last Waters. Such practices were meant to commemorate, reinforce, and facilitate that what was spiritually accomplished in the Temple before could now be spiritually accomplished at the meal table. So, what is it that we seek to accomplish spiritually here?

Across Jewish mystical texts (particularly the Arizal), it is made clear that the purpose of the Temple was to elevate the holy sparks of Creation trapped in this lower physical world. The soul of an animal that was sacrificed in the Temple was able to break free of the kelipot, and return Above. Any lost holy sparks (nitzotzot) trapped within the animal were restored to their true place in the cosmos. The same goes for eating, which serves to elevate the spiritual matter within the food, thereby rectifying Creation. (See, for instance, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 22; Sha’ar haMitzvot on Ekev; and the Zohar on Ekev.)

In Temple times, a person was able to elevate sparks on things like fruits, vegetables, and fish through eating and reciting an after-blessing. Fowl and herd animals were more difficult to elevate, and generally required sacrifice in the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, the spiritual potential within each Jew declined. Now, an additional pre-blessing was necessary to properly elevate the sparks, which is the mystical reason for the Sages having instituted the berakhah rishonah. This works for low-level sparks and kelipot like those in produce or fish, but what about the more difficult fowl and herd animals, which were offered in the Temple? For those, we have the meal table, and thus the necessity of the additional rituals instituted by the Sages, mirroring those in the Temple.

The kelipot within fowl and herd animals are particularly strong, and their souls are greater than other animals. (This has a biological aspect, too, in that birds and mammals are the only two categories of animals that are warm-blooded.) To accomplish their elevation in a spiritually-weaker reality devoid of a Temple, the Sages had to introduce a number of spiritual supports. For instance, there was the directive to preferably leave meat consumption only for Shabbat, when a Jew has an additional soul and more spiritual power. Another suggestion was that only a tzadik should eat meat since the average ‘am aretz is not spiritually refined enough to process it (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Ekev).

I believe that it is for this mystical reason that the prohibition on mixing fowl and dairy emerged. Without a Temple, it became more difficult to spiritually process fowl meat. In the same way that it is biologically harder to digest meat and dairy mixtures, and effectively absorb their nutrients (see here, for example), it is more difficult to spiritually “digest” them together, too. This would also explain why the meat-dairy prohibition did not extend to other animals like fish and kosher locusts, since those animals were never brought as offerings in the Temple anyway. Finally, it would explain why the fowl-dairy prohibition was not instituted by a decree of the Sanhedrin, and was not universal for several centuries, since it would have been taught specifically by the mystics, and the general rule is that we don’t impose mystical stringencies and rituals upon the general public. Of course, due to their power and allure, mystical practices spread widely over time anyway, and become normative halakhah. That could very well be what happened with fowl and dairy.

A study highlighting one issue of eating meat and dairy together.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!


*My parents often relate how lucky we are to have so much meat today, and so cheaply. In Soviet Uzbekistan where they lived, a kilo of beef cost 5 rubles. To put that in perspective, the average monthly salary then, as mandated by the government, was about 85 rubles. So, a single kilo of beef was worth roughly 6% of one’s monthly income. To compare, average monthly income in the US today is $3000, so it would be like paying $180 for a kilo of beef—and that’s not even kosher beef! A whole live chicken, meanwhile, would go for as little as 4 rubles. My mother says how, when she was a child, her mother would ask her to walk down the street to the shochet, and he would do a kosher chicken slaughter for just 5 kopeks! (My mom always put the chicken in a closed box because she didn’t want anyone to see!)

Secrets of the Mishkan

A Modern Replica of the Mishkan in Timna, Israel

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins with God’s command for the Israelites to build a Mishkan, an Earthly “dwelling place” for the Divine. God tells Moses (Exodus 25:2-8):

Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the incense; shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the choshen. And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst…

God requests that each person donate as much as they wish to construct a Holy Tabernacle. He concludes by stating that when the sanctuary is built, He shall dwell among them. The Sages famously point out that the Torah does not say that God will dwell in it, but in them. The sanctuary was not a literal abode for the Infinite God—that’s impossible. Rather, it is a conduit between the physical and spiritual worlds, and a channel through which holiness and spirituality can imbue our planet.

In mystical texts, we learn that the Mishkan was far more than just a temple. Every piece of the Mishkan—every pillar and curtain, altar and basin, even the littlest vessel used inside of it—held tremendous significance and represented something greater in the cosmos. In fact, the whole Mishkan was a microcosm of Creation. This is the deeper reason for why the prohibitions of Shabbat are derived from the construction of the Mishkan. The passage we cited above appears one more time in the Torah, in almost the exact same wording, ten chapters later. In that passage, we read the same command for each Israelite to donate the above ingredients to build a sanctuary. The only difference is that in the second passage, the construction of the Mishkan is juxtaposed with (Exodus 35:1-2):

Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that God commanded to make. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to God; whoever performs work on this day shall be put to death…”

From this clear connection, the Sages learn that the actions required to construct and maintain the Mishkan are the same ones we must abstain from on the Sabbath. There are 39 such melakhot in all. On a more mystical level, these 39 works are said to be those same actions performed by God in creating the universe! For example, the first prohibited work (see Shabbat 7:2) is zorea, “sowing”, or seeding the earth, just as we read in the account of Creation that God said (Genesis 1:11) “Let the earth bring forth grass, herb-yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, in which its seed is found on the earth.” Perhaps the most famous prohibition, mav’ir, “lighting” a flame, parallels God’s most famous Utterance, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Such is the case with all 39 prohibited works. In this way, when a Jew rests on the seventh day from such actions, he is mirroring the Divine Who rested from these works on the original Seventh Day.

A Periodic Table of the 39 Melachos, by Anshie Kagan

The Mishkan and the Holidays

The Zohar (II, 135a) comments on this week’s parasha that the ingredients of the Mishkan symbolize the Jewish holidays. The first ingredient is gold, and this corresponds to the first holiday of the year, Rosh Hashanah. The second ingredient, silver, corresponds to Yom Kippur. This is because silver and gold represent the two sefirot of Chessed, “kindness”, and Gevurah, “restraint”. The latter is more commonly known as Din, “judgement”. In mystical texts, silver and gold (both the metals and the colours) always represents Chessed and Gevurah. Rosh Hashanah is judgement day, which is gold, and Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness, silver.

The third ingredient, copper, corresponds to the next holiday, Sukkot. The Zohar reminds us that on Sukkot, the Torah commands the Israelites to sacrifice a total of seventy bulls, corresponding to the seventy root nations of the world. This is why the prophet Zechariah (14:16) states that in the End of Days, representatives from all nations of the world will come to Jerusalem specifically during Sukkot to worship God together with the Jews.

‘Vision of the Four Chariots’ by Gustave Doré

The Zohar explains that copper is Sukkot because copper (at least in those days) was the main implement of war, which the gentiles use to build their chariots and fight their battles. This, the Zohar explains, is the meaning of another verse in Zechariah (6:1), which states that “…there came four chariots out from between the two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of copper.” The Zohar concludes that the Torah prescribes the sacrifices to be brought in decreasing order (thirteen on the first day, twelve on the second, eleven on the third, etc.) to weaken the drive for war among the gentile nations.

The next ingredient is the special blue dye called techelet, which corresponds to Pesach. As the Talmud (Sotah 17a) states, techelet symbolizes the sea, and the climax of the Exodus was, of course, the Splitting of the Sea. Only at this point, the Torah states, did the Israelites believe wholeheartedly in God, and his servant Moses (Exodus 14:31). The Zohar therefore states that techelet holds the very essence of faith.

Following this is the purple dye called argaman, which is Shavuot. It isn’t quite clear why the Zohar relates these two. It speaks of purple being a fusion of right and left, perhaps referring to the fact that purple (or more accurately, magenta) is a result of a mixing of red and blue. This relates to the dual nature of Shavuot, having received on that day the two parts of the Torah (Written and Oral), and later the Two Tablets, in the month whose astrological sign is the dual Gemini. There is a theme of twos, of rights and lefts coming together. We might add that Shavuot is traditionally seen as a sort of “wedding” between God and the Jewish people, with the Torah being the ketubah, and Mt. Sinai serving as the chuppah.

The sixth ingredient, tola’at shani, red or “crimson” wool, corresponds to the little-known holiday of Tu b’Av. Although the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) states that on Tu b’Av the young single ladies of Israel would go out in white dresses to meet their soulmates, the Zohar suggests that they also wore crimson wool, based on another Scriptural verse (Lamentations 4:5).

Tu b’Av is actually the last holiday that the Zohar mentions. The remaining nine ingredients correspond to the nine days after Rosh Hashanah, through Yom Kippur, ie. the “Days of Repentance”. This brings up a big question: The Zohar relates the ingredients of the Mishkan to the major Torah holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the three Pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot). Naturally, it omits Chanukah, Purim, the fasts and minor holidays, which are not explicitly spoken of in the Torah. So, why does it mention Tu b’Av? Before we even begin to answer this question, we should already recognize the huge significance of Tu b’Av, strangely one of the most oft-forgotten holidays on the Jewish calendar.

Tu b’Av: a Torah Holiday

The holidays that are not explicitly commanded by God in the Torah were all instituted by future Sages. Purim was instituted by Esther and Mordechai, and first celebrated in Persia. Yet, the Talmud tells us that the majority of the Sages in the times of Esther and Mordechai initially rejected their call to establish Purim as a holiday! (See Yerushalmi, Megillah 6b-7a.) Interestingly, historians and archaeologists have not found a single Megillat Esther among the thousands of Dead Sea Scrolls and fragments, suggesting that the Jews who lived in Qumran did not commemorate Purim. Clearly, it was still a point of contention as late as two thousand years ago.

Chanukah, meanwhile, is not found in the Tanakh at all. Although two Books of Maccabees exist, the Sages did not include them in the final compilation of the Tanakh. Similarly, the later Sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic era did not find it fit to have a separate tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a separate tractate for every other big holiday.

The fast days are not festivals, but sad memorial days instituted by the Sages to commemorate tragic events. Tu b’Shevat appears to have no Scriptural origins. Yet, Tu b’Av does. The Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) tells us that one of the historical events that we commemorate on Tu b’Av is the fact that the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to “rejoin the congregation of Israel”. In the final chapters of the Book of Judges, we read how a civil war emerged in Israel, pitting all the tribes against Benjamin because of the horrible incident where a woman was brutally raped in Gibeah. The tribe of Benjamin was subsequently cut off from Israel, with their men forbidden from marrying women of other tribes. The ban was eventually lifted on Tu b’Av. The men of Benjamin were told:

“Behold, there is a festival of God from year to year in Shiloh, which is on the north of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah.” And they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; and see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards, and take every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin…” (Judges 21:19-21)

The Tanakh is clearly describing what the Talmud says would happen on Tu b’Av, when the young ladies would go out to dance in the vineyards to find their soulmates. The exact Scriptural wording is that this day is a chag Adonai, “festival of God”. This is precisely the term used by Moses during the Exodus (Exodus 10:9), possibly referring to Pesach, or more likely to Shavuot (as Rabbeinu Bechaye comments). It is also the term used later in the Torah to describe Sukkot (Leviticus 23:39). Thus, Tu b’Av is evidently a Torah festival, too! And this is why the Zohar singles it out from all the other, “minor” holidays. It seems Tu b’Av is not so minor after all.

The Zohar concludes its passage on Terumah by saying that although we do not have the ability to offer Terumah today, and there is no Mishkan for us to build, we nonetheless have an opportunity to spiritually offer up these ingredients when we celebrate the holidays associated with them. When one wholeheartedly observes Rosh Hashanah, it is as if they offered up gold in the Heavenly Temple, and during Yom Kippur one’s soul brings up silver. Over the days of Sukkot, there is an offering of copper up Above, and on Pesach it is techelet; on Shavuot, argaman, on Tu b’Av, tola’at shani, and on the Days of Repentance the remaining ingredients. On these special days, we help to construct the Heavenly Abode. And this is all the more amazing when we remember that Jewish tradition maintains the Third Temple will not need to physically be built as were the first two, but will descend entirely whole from Heaven.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Things You Didn’t Know About the Talmud

Judaism is famously built upon an “oral tradition”, or Oral Torah, that goes along with the Written Torah. The primary body of the Oral Torah is the Talmud. At the end of this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, the Torah states:

And Hashem said to Moses: “Ascend to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the mitzvah that I have written, that you may teach them…

The Talmud (Berakhot 5a) comments on this that the “Tablets” refers to the Ten Commandments, the “Torah” refers to the Five Books of Moses, the “mitzvah” is the Mishnah, “that I have written” are the books of the Prophets and Holy Writings, and “that you may teach them” is the Talmud. The Mishnah is the major corpus of ancient Jewish oral law, and the Talmud, or Gemara, is essentially a commentary on the Mishnah, with a deeper exposition and derivation of its laws. Today, the Mishnah is printed together with the corresponding Gemara, along with multiple super-commentaries laid out all around the page, and this whole is typically referred to as “Talmud”.

Anatomy of a page of Talmud: (A) Mishnah, (B) Gemara, (C) Commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105, (D) Tosfot, a series of commentators following Rashi, (E) various additional commentaries around the edge of the page.

In the past, we’ve written how many have rejected the Talmud, starting with the ancient Sadducees, later the Karaites (whom some consider to be the spiritual descendants of the Sadducees), as well as the Samaritans, and many modern-day Jews whether secular or Reform. Such groups claim that either there was never such a thing as an “oral tradition” or “oral law”, or that the tradition is entirely man-made with no divine basis. Meanwhile, even in the Orthodox Jewish world there are those who are not quite sure what the Talmud truly is, and how its teachings should be regarded. It is therefore essential to explore the origins, development, importance, and necessity of the Talmud.

An Oral Torah

There are many ways to prove that there must be an oral tradition or Oral Torah. From the very beginning, we read in the Written Torah how God forged a covenant with Abraham, which passed down to Isaac, then Jacob, and so on. There is no mention of the patriarchs having any written text. These were oral teachings being passed down from one generation to the next.

Later, the Written Torah was given through the hand of Moses, yet many of its precepts are unclear. Numerous others do not seem to be relevant for all generations, and others still appear quite distasteful if taken literally. We have already written in the past that God did not intend for us to simply observe Torah law blindly and unquestioningly. (See ‘Do Jews Really Follow the Torah?’ in Garments of Light.) Rather, we are meant to toil in its words and extract its true meanings, evolve with it, and bring the Torah itself to life. The Torah is not a reference manual that sits on a shelf. It is likened to a living, breathing entity; a “tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18).

Indeed, this is what Joshua commanded the nation: “This Torah shall not leave your mouth, and you shall meditate upon it day and night, so that you may observe to do like all that is written within it” (Joshua 1:8). Joshua did not say that we must literally observe all that is written in it (et kol hakatuv bo), but rather k’khol hakatuv bo, “like all that is written”, or similar to what is written there. We are not meant to simply memorize its laws and live by them, but rather to continuously discuss and debate the Torah, and meditate upon it day and night to derive fresh lessons from it.

Similarly, Exodus 34:27 states that “God said to Moses: ‘Write for yourself these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’” Firstly, God told Moses to write the Torah for yourself, and would later remind that lo b’shamayim hi, the Torah “is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). It was given to us, for us to dwell upon and develop. Secondly, while the words above are translated as “according to these words”, the Hebrew is al pi hadevarim, literally “on the mouth”, which the Talmud says is a clear allusion to the Torah sh’be’al peh, the Oral Torah, literally “the Torah that is on the mouth”.

The Mishnah

2000-year old tefillin discovered in Qumran

It is evident that by the start of the Common Era, Jews living in the Holy Land observed a wide array of customs and laws which were not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, or at least not explained in the Torah. For example, tefillin was quite common, and they have been found in the Qumran caves alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls (produced by a fringe Jewish group, likely the Essenes) and are even mentioned in the “New Testament”. Yet, while the Torah mentions binding something upon one’s arm and between one’s eyes four times, it does not say what these things are or what they look like. Naturally, the Sadducees (like the Karaites) did not wear tefillin, and understood the verses metaphorically. At the same time, though, the Sadducees (and the Karaites and Samaritans) did have mezuzot. Paradoxically, they took one verse in the passage literally (Deuteronomy 6:9), but the adjoining verse in the same passage (Deuteronomy 6:8) metaphorically!

This is just one example of many. The reality is that an oral tradition outside of the Written Law is absolutely vital to Judaism. Indeed, most of those anti-oral law groups still do have oral traditions and customs of their own, just not to the same extent and authority of the Talmud.

Regardless, after the massive devastation wrought by the Romans upon Israel during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, many rabbis felt that the Oral Torah must be written down or else it might be lost. After the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), the Talmud suggests there were less than a dozen genuine rabbis left in Israel. Judaism had to be rebuilt from the ashes. Shortly after, as soon as an opportunity presented itself, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was very wealthy and well-connected) was able to put the Oral Torah into writing, likely with the assistance of fellow rabbis. The result is what is known as the Mishnah, and it was completed by about 200 CE.

The Mishnah is organized into six orders, which are further divided up into tractates. Zera’im (“Seeds”) is the first order, with 11 tractates mainly concerned with agricultural laws; followed by Mo’ed (holidays) with 12 tractates discussing Shabbat and festivals; Nashim (“Women”) with 7 tractates focusing on marriage; Nezikin (“Damages”) with 10 tractates of judicial and tort laws; Kodashim (holy things) with 11 tractates on ritual laws and offerings; and Tehorot (purities) with 12 tractates on cleanliness and ritual purity.

The root of the word “Mishnah” means to repeat, as it had been learned by recitation and repetition to commit the law to memory. Some have pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi may have used earlier Mishnahs compiled by Rabbi Akiva and one of his five remaining students, Rabbi Meir, who lived in the most difficult times of Roman persecution. Considering the circumstances of its composition, the Mishnah was written in short, terse language, with little to no explanation. It essentially presents only a set of laws, usually with multiple opinions on how each law should be fulfilled. To explain how the laws were derived from the Written Torah, and which opinions should be given precedence, another layer of text was necessary.

The Gemara

Rav Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy – a depiction from the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv

Gemara, from the Aramaic gamar, “to study” (like the Hebrew talmud), is that text which makes sense of the Mishnah. It was composed over the next three centuries, in two locations. Rabbis in the Holy Land produced the Talmud Yerushalmi, also known as the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud, while the Sages residing in Persia (centred in the former Babylonian territories) produced the Talmud Bavli, or the Babylonian Talmud. The Yerushalmi was unable to be completed as the persecutions in Israel reached their peak and the scholars could no longer continue their work. The Bavli was completed around 500, and its final composition is attributed to Ravina (Rav Avina bar Rav Huna), who concluded the process started by Rav Ashi (c. 352-427 CE) two generations earlier.

While incomplete, the Yerushalmi also has much more information on the agricultural laws, which were pertinent to those still living in Israel. In Persia, and for the majority of Jews living in the Diaspora, those agricultural laws were no longer relevant, so the Bavli does not have Gemaras on these Mishnaic tractates. Because the Yerushalmi was incomplete, and because it also discussed laws no longer necessary for most Jews, and because the Yerushalmi community was disbanded, it was ultimately the Talmud Bavli that became the dominant Gemara for the Jewish world. To this day, the Yerushalmi is generally only studied by those who already have a wide grasp of the Bavli.

The Talmud is far more than just an exposition on the Mishnah. It has both halachic (legal) and aggadic (literary or allegorical) aspects; contains discussions on ethics, history, mythology, prophecy, and mysticism; and speaks of other nations and religions, science, philosophy, economics, and just about everything else. It is a massive repository of wisdom, with a total of 2,711 double-sided pages (which is why the tractates are cited with a page number and side, for example Berakhot 2a or Shabbat 32b). This typically translates to about 6,200 normal pages in standard print format.

Placing the Talmud

With so much information, it is easy to see why the Talmud went on to take such priority in Judaism. The Written Torah (the Tanakh as a whole) is quite short in comparison, and can be learned more quickly. It is important to remember that the Talmud did not replace the Tanakh, as many wrongly claim. The following graphic beautifully illustrates all of the Talmud’s citations to the Tanakh, and how the two are inseparable:

(Credit: Sefaria.org) It is said of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) that past a certain age he only studied Tanakh, as he knew how to derive all of Judaism, including all of the Talmud, from it.

Indeed, it is difficult to properly grasp the entire Tanakh (which has its own host of apparent contradictions and perplexing passages) without the commentary of the Talmud. Once again, it is the Talmud that brings the Tanakh to life.

Partly because of this, Jews have been falsely accused in the past of abandoning Scripture in favour of the Talmud. This was a popular accusation among Christians in Europe. It is not without a grain of truth, for Ashkenazi Jews did tend to focus on Talmudic studies and less on other aspects of Judaism, Tanakh included. Meanwhile, the Sephardic Jewish world was known to be a bit better-rounded, incorporating more scriptural, halachic, and philosophical study. Sephardic communities also tended to be more interested in mysticism, producing the bulk of early Kabbalistic literature. Ashkenazi communities eventually followed suit.

Ironically, so did many Christian groups, which eagerly embraced Jewish mysticism. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) translated portions of the Zohar and Arizal into Latin, publishing the best-selling Kabbalah Denudata. Long before him, the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), one of Michelangelo’s teachers, styled himself a “Christian Kabbalist”, as did the renowned scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522). Meanwhile, Isaac Newton’s copy of the Zohar can be still found at Cambridge University. It is all the more ironic because Kabbalah itself is based on Talmudic principles, as derived from the Tanakh. For example, the central Kabbalistic concept of the Ten Sefirot is first mentioned in the Talmudic tractate of Chagigah (see page 12a), which also outlines the structure of the Heavenly realms. The Talmud is first to speak of the mystical study of Ma’aseh Beresheet (“Mysteries of Creation”) and Ma’aseh Merkavah (“Mysteries of the Divine Chariot”), of Sefer Yetzirah, of spiritual ascent, of how angels operate, and the mechanics of souls.

Having said all that, the Talmud is far from easy to navigate. While it contains vast riches of profound wisdom and divine information, it also has much that appears superfluous and sometimes outright boring. In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a) itself admits that it is not called Talmud Bavli because it was composed in Babylon (since it really wasn’t) but because it is so mebulbal, “confused”, the root of Bavli, or Babel.

Of course, the Written Torah, too, at times appears superfluous, boring, or confused. The Midrash (another component of the Oral Torah) explains why: had the Torah been given in the correct order, with clear language, then anyone who read it would be “able to raise the dead and work miracles” (see Midrash Tehillim 3). The Torah—both Written and Oral—is put together in such a way that mastering it requires a lifetime of study, contemplation, and meditation. One must, as the sage Ben Bag Bag said (Avot 5:21), “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it; see through it, grow old with it, do not budge from it, for there is nothing better than it.”

Defending the Talmud

There is one more accusation commonly directed at the Talmud. This is that the Talmud contains racist or xenophobic language, or perhaps immoral directives, or that it has many flaws and inaccuracies, or that it contains demonology and sorcery. Putting aside deliberate mistranslations and lies (which the internet is full of), the truth is that, taken out of context, certain rare passages in the vastness of the Talmud may be read that way. Again, the same is true for the Written Torah itself, where Scripture also speaks of demons and sorcery, has occasional xenophobic overtones, apparent contradictions, or directives that we today recognize as immoral.

First of all, it is important that things are kept in their historical and textual context. Secondly, it is just as important to remember that the Talmud is not the code of Jewish law. (That would be the Shulchan Arukh, and others.) The Talmud presents many opinions, including non-Jewish sayings of various Roman figures, Greek philosophers, and Persian magi. Just because there is a certain strange statement in the Talmud does not mean that its origin is Jewish, and certainly does not mean that Jews necessarily subscribe to it. Even on matters of Jewish law and custom, multiple opinions are presented, most of which are ultimately rejected. The Talmud’s debates are like a transcript of a search for truth. False ideas will be encountered along the way. The Talmud presents them to us so that we can be aware of them, and learn from them.

And yes, there are certain things in the Talmud—which are not based on the Torah itself—that may have become outdated and disproven. This is particularly the case with the Talmud’s scientific and medical knowledge. While much of this has incredibly stood the test of time and has been confirmed correct by modern science, there are others which we know today are inaccurate. This isn’t a new revelation. Long ago, Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006) stated that the Talmudic sages were not doctors, nor were they deriving medical remedies from the Torah. They were simply giving advice that was current at the time. The Rambam held the same (including Talmudic astronomy and mathematics under this category, see Moreh Nevuchim III, 14), as well as the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, c. 1635-1682, on Orach Chaim 173:1) and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. One of the major medieval commentaries on the Talmud, Tosfot, admits that nature changes over time, which is why the Talmud’s science and medicine may not be accurate anymore. Nonetheless, there are those who maintain that we simply do not understand the Talmud properly—and this is probably true as well.

Whatever the case, the Talmud is an inseparable part of the Torah, and an integral aspect of Judaism. Possibly the greatest proof of its significance and divine nature is that it has kept the Jewish people alive and flourishing throughout the difficult centuries, while those who rejected the Oral Torah have mostly faded away. The Talmud remains among the most enigmatic texts of all time, and perhaps it is this mystique that brings some people to fear it. Thankfully, knowledge of the Talmud is growing around the world, and more people than ever before are taking an interest in, and benefitting from, its ancient wisdom.

A bestselling Korean book about the Talmud. Fascination with the Talmud is particularly strong in the Far East. A Japanese book subtitled “Secrets of the Talmud Scriptures” (written by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer in 1971) sold over half a million copies in that country, and was soon exported to China and South Korea. More recently, a Korean reverend founded the “Shema Education Institute” and published a six-volume set of “Korean Talmud”, with plans to translate it into Chinese and Hindi. A simplified “Talmud” digest book became a bestseller, leading Korea’s ambassador to Israel to declare in 2011 that every Korean home has one. With the Winter Olympics coming up in Korea, it is appropriate to mention that Korean star speed skater Lee Kyou-Hyuk said several years ago: “I read the Talmud every time I am going through a hard time. It helps to calm my mind.”