Jewish Literature by Gustav Karpeles - HTML preview
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to-morrow in Rome, next year in Prague or Cracow, and so Jewish
literature is the "wandering Jew" among the world's literatures.
The fourth period, the Augustan age of our literature, closes with a
jarring discord--the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, their second
home, in which they had seen ministers, princes, professors, and poets
rise from their ranks. The scene of literary activity changes: France,
Italy, but chiefly the Slavonic East, are pushed into the foreground. It
is not a salutary change; it ushers in three centuries of decay and
stagnation in literary endeavor. The sum of the efforts is indicated by
the name of the period, the Rabbinical, for its chief work was the
development and fixation of Rabbinism.
Decadence did not set in immediately. Certain beneficent forces, either
continuing in action from the former period, or arising out of the new
concatenation of circumstances, were in operation: Jewish exiles from
Spain carried their culture to the asylums hospitably offered them in
the Orient and a few of the European countries, notably Holland; the art
of printing was spreading, the first presses in Italy bringing out
Jewish works; and the sun of humanism and of the Reformation was rising
and shedding solitary rays of its effulgence on the Jewish minds then at
Among the noteworthy authors standing between the two periods and
belonging to both, the most prominent is Nachmanides, a pious and
learned Bible scholar. With logical force and critical candor he entered
into the great conflict between science and faith, then dividing the
Jewish world into two camps, with Maimonides' works as their shibboleth.
The Aristotelian philosophy was no longer satisfying.
Minds and hearts
were yearning for a new revelation, and in default thereof steeping
themselves in mystical speculations. A voluminous theosophic literature
sprang up. The _Zohar_, the Bible of mysticism, was circulated, its
authorship being fastened upon a rabbi of olden days. It is altogether
probable that the real author was living at the time; many think that it
was Moses de Leon. The liberal party counted in its ranks the two
distinguished families of Tibbon and Kimchi, the former famed as
successful translators, the latter as grammarians. Their best known
representatives were Judah ibn Tibbon and David Kimchi.
enough, the will of the former contains, in unmistakable terms, the
opinion that "Property is theft," anticipating Proudhon, who, had he
known it, would have seen in its early enunciation additional testimony
to its truth. The liberal faction was also supported by Jacob ben
Abba-Mari, the friend of Frederick II. and Michael Scotus. Abba-Mari
lived at the German emperor's court at Naples, and quoted him in his
commentary upon the Bible as an exegete. Besides there were among the
Maimunists, or rationalists, Levi ben Abraham, an extraordinarily
liberal man; Shemtob Palquera, one of the most learned Jews of his
century, and Yedaya Penini, a philosopher and pessimistic poet, whose
"Contemplation of the World" was translated by Mendelssohn, and praised
by Lessing and Goethe. Despite this array of talent, the opponents were
stronger, the most representative partisan being the Talmudist Solomon
At the same time disputations about the Talmud, ending with its public
burning at Paris, were carried on with the Christian clergy. The other
literary current of the age is designated by the word Kabbala, which
held many of the finest and noblest minds captive to its witchery. The
Kabbala is unquestionably a continuation of earlier theosophic
inquiries. Its chief doctrines have been stated by a thorough student of
our literature: All that exists originates in God, the source of light
eternal. He Himself can be known only through His manifestations. He is
without beginning, and veiled in mystery, or, He is nothing, because the
whole of creation has developed from nothing. This nothing is one,
indivisible, and limitless--_En-Sof_. God fills space, He is space
itself. In order to manifest Himself, in order to create, that is,
disclose Himself by means of emanations, He contracts, thus producing
vacant space. The _En-Sof_ first manifested itself in the prototype of
the whole of creation, in the macrocosm called the "son of God," the
first man, as he appears upon the chariot of Ezekiel.
primitive man the whole created world emanates in four stages: _Azila_,
_Beria_, _Yezira_, _Asiya_. The _Azila_ emanation represents the active
qualities of primitive man. They are forces or intelligences flowing
from him, at once his essential qualities and the faculties by which he
acts. There are ten of these forces, forming the ten sacred _Sefiroth_,
a word which first meaning number came to stand for sphere. The first
three _Sefiroth_ are intelligences, the seven others, attributes. They
are supposed to follow each other in this order: 1.
_Kether_ (crown); 2.
_Chochma_ (wisdom); 3. _Beena_ (understanding); 4.
_Chesed_ (grace), or
_Ghedulla_ (greatness); 5. _Ghevoora_ (dignity); 6.
(splendor); 7. _Nezach_ (victory); 8. _Hod_ (majesty); 9. _Yesod_
(principle); 10. _Malchuth_ (kingdom). From this first world of the
_Azila_ emanate the three other worlds, _Asiya_ being the lowest stage.
Man has part in these three worlds; a microcosm, he realizes in his
actual being what is foreshadowed by the ideal, primitive man. He holds
to the _Asiya_ by his vital part (_Nefesh_), to the _Yezira_ by his
intellect (_Ruach_), to the _Beria_ by his soul (_Neshama_). The last is
his immortal part, a spark of divinity.
Speculations like these, followed to their logical issue, are bound to
lead the investigator out of Judaism into Trinitarianism or Pantheism.
Kabbalists, of course only in rare cases, realized the danger. The sad
conditions prevailing in the era after the expulsion from Spain, a third
exile, were in all respects calculated to promote the development of
mysticism, and it did flourish luxuriantly.
Some few philosophers, the last of a long line, still await mention:
Levi ben Gerson, Joseph Kaspi, Moses of Narbonne in southern France,
long a seat of Jewish learning; then, Isaac ben Sheshet, Chasdaï
Crescas, whose "Light of God" exercised deep influence upon Spinoza and
his philosophy; the Duran family, particularly Profiat Duran, successful
defender of Judaism against the attacks of apostates and Christians; and
Joseph Albo, who in his principal philosophic work, _Ikkarim_, shows
Judaism to be based upon three fundamental doctrines: the belief in the
existence of God, Revelation, and the belief in future reward and
punishment. These writers are the last to reflect the glories of the
At the entrance to the next period we again meet a man of extraordinary
ability, Isaac Abrabanel, one of the most eminent and esteemed of Bible
commentators, in early life minister to a Catholic king, later on a
pilgrim scholar wandering about exiled with his sons, one of whom,
Yehuda, has fame as the author of the _Dialoghi di Amore_. In the train
of exiles passing from Portugal to the Orient are Abraham Zacuto, an
eminent historian of Jewish literature and sometime professor of
astronomy at the university of Salamanca; Joseph ibn Verga, the
historian of his nation; Amatus Lusitanus, who came close upon the
discovery of the circulation of the blood; Israel Nagara, the most
gifted poet of the century, whose hymns brought him popular favor;
later, Joseph Karo, "the most influential personage of the sixteenth
century," his claims upon recognition resting on the _Shulchan Aruch_,
an exhaustive codex of Jewish customs and laws; and many others. In
Salonica, the exiles soon formed a prosperous community, where
flourished Jacob ibn Chabib, the first compiler of the Haggadistic tales
of the Talmud, and afterwards David Conforte, a reputable historian. In
Jerusalem, Obadiah Bertinoro was engaged on his celebrated Mishna
commentary, in the midst of a large circle of Kabbalists, of whom
Solomon Alkabez is the best known on account of his famous Sabbath song,
_Lecho Dodi_. Once again Jerusalem was the objective point of many
pilgrims, lured thither by the prevalent Kabbalistic and Messianic
vagaries. True literature gained little from such extremists. The only
work produced by them that can be admitted to have literary qualities is
Isaiah Hurwitz's "The Two Tables of the Testimony," even at this day
enjoying celebrity. It is a sort of cyclopædia of Jewish learning,
compiled and expounded from a mystic's point of view.
The condition of the Jews in Italy was favorable, and their literary
products derive grace from their good fortune. The Renaissance had a
benign effect upon them, and the revival of classical studies influenced
their intellectual work. Greek thought met Jewish a third time. Learning
was enjoying its resurrection, and whenever their wretched political
and social condition was not a hindrance, the Jews joined in the
general delight. Their misery, however, was an undiminishing burden,
yea, even in the days in which, according to Erasmus, it was joy to
live. In fact, it was growing heavier. All the more noteworthy is it
that Hebrew studies engaged the research of scholars, albeit they showed
care for the word of God, and not for His people. Pico della Mirandola
studies the Kabbala; the Jewish grammarian Elias Levita is the teacher
of Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo, and later of Paul Fagius and Sebastian
Münster, the latter translating his teacher's works into Latin; popes
and sultans prefer Jews as their physicians in ordinary, who, as a rule,
are men of literary distinction; the Jews translate philosophic writings
from Hebrew and Arabic into Latin; Elias del Medigo is summoned as
arbiter in the scholastic conflict at the University of Padua;--all
boots nothing, ruin is not averted. Reuchlin may protest as he will, the
Jew is exiled, the Talmud burnt.
In such dreary days the Portuguese Samuel Usque writes his work,
_Consolaçam as Tribulações de Ysrael_, and Joseph Cohen, his chronicle,
"The Vale of Weeping," the most important history produced since the day
of Flavius Josephus,--additional proofs that the race possesses native
buoyancy, and undaunted heroism in enduring suffering.
Women, too, in
increasing number, participate in the spiritual work of their nation;
among them, Deborah Ascarelli and Sara Copia Sullam, the most
distinguished of a long array of names.
The keen critic and scholar, Azariah de Rossi, is one of the literary
giants of his period. His researches in the history of Jewish literature
are the basis upon which subsequent work in this department rests, and
many of his conclusions still stand unassailable. About him are grouped
Abraham de Portaleone, an excellent archæologist, who established that
Jews had been the first to observe the medicinal uses of gold; David de
Pomis, the author of a famous defense of Jewish physicians; and Leo de
Modena, the rabbi of Venice, "unstable as water,"
wavering between faith
and unbelief, and, Kabbalist and rabbi though he was, writing works
against the Kabbala on the one hand, and against rabbinical tradition on
the other. Similar to him in character is Joseph del Medigo, an
itinerant author, who sometimes reviles, sometimes extols, the Kabbala.
There are men of higher calibre, as, for instance, Isaac Aboab, whose
_Nomologia_ undertakes to defend Jewish tradition against every sort of
assailant; Samuel Aboab, a great Bible scholar; Azariah Figo, a famous
preacher; and, above all, Moses Chayyim Luzzatto, the first Jewish
dramatist, the dramas preceding his having interest only as attempts.
He, too, is caught in the meshes of the Kabbala, and falls a victim to
its powers of darkness. His dramas testify to poetic gifts and to
extraordinary mastery of the Hebrew language, the faithful companion of
the Jewish nation in all its journeyings. To complete this sketch of the
Italian Jews of that period, it should be added that while in intellect
and attainments they stand above their brethren in faith of other
countries, in character and purity of morals they are their inferiors.
Thereafter literary interest centres in Poland, where rabbinical
literature found its most zealous and most learned exponents. Throughout
the land schools were established, in which the Talmud was taught by the
_Pilpul_, an ingenious, quibbling method of Talmudic reasoning and
discussion, said to have originated with Jacob Pollak.
Again we have a
long succession of distinguished names. There are Solomon Luria, Moses
Isserles, Joel Sirkes, David ben Levi, Sabbataï Kohen, and Elias Wilna.
Sabbataï Kohen, from whom, were pride of ancestry permissible in the
republic of letters, the present writer would boast descent, was not
only a Talmudic writer; he also left historical and poetical works.
Elias Wilna, the last in the list, had a subtle, delicately poised mind,
and deserves special mention for his determined opposition to the
Kabbala and its offspring Chassidism, hostile and ruinous to Judaism and
A gleam of true pleasure can be obtained from the history of the Dutch
Jews. In Holland the Jews united secular culture with religious
devotion, and the professors of other faiths met them with tolerance and
friendliness. Sunshine falls upon the Jewish schools, and right into the
heart of a youth, who straightway abandons the Talmud folios, and goes
out into the world to proclaim to wondering mankind the evangel of a
new philosophy. The youth is Baruch Spinoza!
There are many left to expound Judaism: Manasseh ben Israel, writing
both Hebrew and Latin books to plead the cause of the emancipation of
his people and of its literary pre-eminence; David Neto, a student of
philosophy; Benjamin Mussafia, Orobio de Castro, David Abenator Melo,
the Spanish translator of the Psalms, and Daniel de Barrios, poet and
critic--all using their rapidly acquired fluency in the Dutch language
to champion the cause of their people.
In Germany, a mixture of German and Hebrew had come into use among the
Jews as the medium of daily intercourse. In this peculiar patois, called
_Judendeutsch_, a large literature had developed. Before Luther's time,
it possessed two fine translations of the Bible, besides numerous
writings of an ethical, poetical, and historical character, among which
particular mention should be made of those on the German legend-cycles
of the middle ages. At the same time, the Talmud receives its due of
time, effort, and talent. New life comes only with the era of
emancipation and enlightenment.
Only a few names shall be mentioned, the rest would be bound soon to
escape the memory of the casual reader: there is an historian, David
Gans; a bibliographer, Sabbataï Bassista, and the Talmudists Abigedor
Kara, Jacob Joshua, Jacob Emden, Jonathan Eibeschütz, and Ezekiel
Landau. It is delight to be able once again to chronicle the interest
taken in long neglected Jewish literature by such Christian scholars as
the two Buxtorfs, Bartolocci, Wolff, Surrenhuys, and De Rossi.
Unfortunately, the interest dies out with them, and it is significant
that to this day most eminent theologians, decidedly to their own
disadvantage, "content themselves with unreliable secondary sources,"
instead of drinking from the fountain itself.
We have arrived at the sixth and last period, our own, not yet
completed, whose fruits will be judged by a future generation. It is the
period of the rejuvenescence of Jewish literature.
Changes in character,
tenor, form, and language take place. Germany for the first time is in
the van, and Mendelssohn, its most attractive figure, stands at the
beginning of the period, surrounded by his disciples Wessely, Homberg,
Euchel, Friedländer, and others, in conjunction with whom he gives Jews
a new, pure German Bible translation. Poetry and philology are zealously
pursued, and soon Jewish science, through its votaries Leopold Zunz and
S. J. Rappaport, celebrates a brilliant renascence, such as the poet
describes: "In the distant East the dawn is breaking,--
The olden times
are growing young again."
_Die Gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden_, by Zunz, published in 1832,
was the pioneer work of the new Jewish science, whose present
development, despite its wide range, has not yet exhausted the
suggestions made, by the author. Other equally important works from the
same pen followed, and then came the researches of Rappaport, Z.
Frankel, I. M. Jost, M. Sachs, S. D. Luzzatto, S. Munk, A. Geiger, L.
Herzfeld, H. Graetz, J. Fürst, L. Dukes, M.
Steinschneider, D. Cassel,
S. Holdheim, and a host of minor investigators and teachers. Their
loving devotion roused Jewish science and literature from their secular
sleep to vigorous, intellectual life, reacting beneficently on the
spiritual development of Judaism itself. The moulders of the new
literature are such men as the celebrated preachers Adolf Jellinek,
Salomon, Kley, Mannheimer; the able thinkers Steinheim, Hirsch,
Krochmal; the illustrious scholars M. Lazarus, H.
Steinthal; and the
versatile journalists G. Riesser and L. Philipson.
Poetry has not been neglected in the general revival.
The first Jewish
poet to write in German was M. E. Kuh, whose tragic fate has been
pathetically told by Berthold Auerbach in his _Dichter und Kaufmann_.
The burden of this modern Jewish poetry is, of course, the glorification
of the loyalty and fortitude that preserved the race during a calamitous
past. Such poets as Steinheim, Wihl, L. A. Frankl, M.
Beer, K. Beck, Th.
Creizenach, M. Hartmann, S. H. Mosenthal, Henriette Ottenheimer, Moritz
Rappaport, and L. Stein, sing the songs of Zion in the tongue of the
German. And can Heine be forgotten, he who in his _Romanzero_ has so
melodiously, yet so touchingly given word to the hoary sorrow of the
In an essay of this scope no more can be done than give the barest
outline of the modern movement. A detailed description of the work of
German-Jewish lyrists belongs to the history of German literature, and,
in fact, on its pages can be found a due appreciation of their worth by
unprejudiced critics, who give particularly high praise to the new
species of tales, the Jewish village, or Ghetto, tales, with which
Jewish and German literatures have latterly been enriched. Their object
is to depict the religious customs in vogue among Jews of past
generations, their home-life, and the conflicts that arose when the old
Judaism came into contact with modern views of life. The master in the
art of telling these Ghetto tales is Leopold Kompert. Of his
disciples--for all coming after him may be considered such--A. Bernstein
described the Jews of Posen; K. E. Franzos and L.
those of Poland; E. Kulke, the Moravian Jews; M.
Goldschmied, the Dutch;
S. H. Mosenthal, the Hessian, and M. Lehmann, the South German. To
Berthold Auerbach's pioneer work this whole class of literature owes its
existence; and Heinrich Heine's fragment, _Rabbi von Bacharach_, a model
of its kind, puts him into this category of writers, too.
And so Judaism and Jewish literature are stepping into a new arena, on
which potent forces that may radically affect both are struggling with
each other. Is Jewish poetry on the point of dying out, or is it
destined to enjoy a resurrection? Who would be rash enough to prophesy
aught of a race whose entire past is a riddle, whose literature is a
question-mark? Of a race which for more than a thousand years has, like
its progenitor, been wrestling victoriously with gods and men?
To recapitulate: We have followed out the course of a literary
development, beginning in grey antiquity with biblical narratives,
assimilating Persian doctrines, Greek wisdom, and Roman law; later,
Arabic poetry and philosophy, and, finally, the whole of European
science in all its ramifications. The literature we have described has
contributed its share to every spiritual result achieved by humanity,
and is a still unexplored treasury of poetry and philosophy, of
experience and knowledge.
"All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is never full," saith the
Preacher; so all spiritual currents flow together into the vast ocean of
a world-literature, never full, never complete, rejoicing in every
accession, reaching the climax of its might and majesty on that day
when, according to the prophet, "the earth shall be full of the
knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."
In the whole range of the world's literatures there are few books with
so checkered a career, so curious a fate, as the Talmud has had. The
name is simple enough, it glides glibly from the tongue, yet how
difficult to explain its import to the uninitiated! From the Dominican
Henricus Seynensis, who took "Talmud" to be the name of a rabbi--he
introduces a quotation with _Ut narrat rabbinus Talmud_,
Talmud relates"--down to the church historians and university professors
of our day, the oddest misconceptions on the nature of the Talmud have
prevailed even among learned men. It is not astonishing, then, that the
general reader has no notion of what it is.
Only within recent years the Talmud has been made the subject of
scientific study, and now it is consulted by philologists, cited by
jurists, drawn upon by historians, the general public is beginning to be
interested in it, and of late the old Talmud has repeatedly been
summoned to appear in courts of law to give evidence.
circumstances it is natural to ask, What is the Talmud?
Futile to seek
an answer by comparing this gigantic monument of the human intellect
with any other book; it is _sui generis_. In the form in which it issued
from the Jewish academies of Babylonia and Palestine, it is a great
national work, a scientific document of first importance, the archives
of ten centuries, in which are preserved the thoughts and opinions, the
views and verdicts, the errors, transgressions, hopes, disappointments,
customs, ideals, convictions, and sorrows of Israel--a work produced by
the zeal and patience of thirty generations, laboring with a self-denial
unparalleled in the history of literature. A work of this character
assuredly deserves to be known. Unfortunately, the path to its
understanding is blocked by peculiar linguistic and historical
difficulties. Above all, explanations by comparison must be avoided. It
has been likened to a legal code, to a journal, to the transactions of
learned bodies; but these comparisons are both inadequate and
misleading. To make it approximately clear a lengthy explanation must be
entered upon, for, in truth, the Talmud, like the Bible, is a world in
miniature, embracing every possible phase of life.
The origin of the Talmud was simultaneous with Israel's return from the
Babylonian exile, during which a wonderful change had taken place in the
captive people. An idolatrous, rebellious nation had turned into a pious
congregation of the Lord, possessed with zeal for the study of the Law.
By degrees there grew up out of this study a science of wide scope,
whose beginnings are hidden in the last book of the Bible, in the word
_Midrash_, translated by "story" in the Authorized Version. Its true
meaning is indicated by that of its root, _darash_, to study, to
expound. Four different methods of explaining the sacred Scriptures were
current: the first aimed to reach the simple understanding of words as
they stood; the second availed itself of suggestions offered by
apparently superfluous letters and signs in the text to arrive at its
meaning; the third was "a homiletic application of that which had been
to that which was and would be, of prophetical and historical dicta to
the actual condition of things"; and the fourth devoted itself to
theosophic mysteries--but all led to a common goal.
In the course of the centuries the development of the Midrash, or study
of the Law, lay along the two strongly marked lines of Halacha, the
explanation and formulating of laws, and Haggada, their poetical
illustration and ethical application. These are the two spheres within
which the intellectual life of Judaism revolved, and these the two
elements, the legal and the æsthetic, making up the Talmud.
The two Midrashic systems emphasize respectively the rule of law and the
sway of liberty: Halacha is law incarnate; Haggada, liberty regulated by
law and bearing the impress of morality. Halacha stands for the rigid
authority of the Law, for the absolute importance of theory--the law and
theory which the Haggada illustrates by public opinion and the dicta of
common-sense morality. The Halacha embraces the statutes enjoined by
oral tradition, which was the unwritten commentary of the ages on the
written Law, along with the discussions of the academies of Palestine
and Babylonia, resulting in the final formulating of the Halachic
ordinances. The Haggada, while also starting from the word of the Bible,
only plays with it, explaining it by sagas and legends, by tales and
poems, allegories, ethical reflections, and historical reminiscences.
For it, the Bible was not only the supreme law, from whose behests there
was no appeal, but also "a golden nail upon which" the Haggada "hung its
gorgeous tapestries," so that the Bible word was the introduction,
refrain, text, and subject of the poetical glosses of the Talmud. It was
the province of the Halacha to build, upon the foundation of biblical
law, a legal superstructure capable of resisting the ravages of time,
and, unmindful of contemporaneous distress and hardship, to trace out,
for future generations, the extreme logical consequences of the Law in
its application. To the Haggada belonged the high, ethical mission of
consoling, edifying, exhorting, and teaching a nation suffering the
pangs, and threatened with the spiritual stagnation, of exile; of
proclaiming that the glories of the past prefigured a future of equal
brilliancy, and that the very wretchedness of the present was part of
the divine plan outlined in the Bible. If the simile is accurate that
likens the Halacha to the ramparts about Israel's sanctuary, which every
Jew was ready to defend with his last drop of blood, then the Haggada
must seem "flowery mazes, of exotic colors and bewildering fragrance,"
within the shelter of the Temple walls.
The complete work of expounding, developing, and finally establishing
the Law represents the labor of many generations, the method of
procedure varying from time to time. In the long interval between the
close of the Holy Canon and the completion of the Talmud can be
distinguished three historical strata deposited by three different
classes of teachers. The first set, the Scribes--
in the period beginning with the return from Babylonian captivity and
ending with the Syrian persecutions (220 B.C.E.), and their work was the
preservation of the text of the Holy Writings and the simple expounding
of biblical ordinances. They were followed by the
"Learners"--_Tanaïm_--whose activity extended until 220
historical events occurred in that period: the campaigns of the
Maccabean heroes, the birth of Jesus, the destruction of the Temple by
the Romans, the rebellion under Bar-Kochba, and the final complete
dispersion of the Jews. Amid all these storms the _Tanaïm_ did not for a
moment relinquish their diligent research in the Law.
The Talmud tells
the story of a celebrated rabbi, than which nothing can better
characterize the age and its scholars: Night was falling. A funeral
cortege was moving through the streets of old Jerusalem.
It was said
that disciples were bearing a well-beloved teacher to the grave.
Reverentially the way was cleared, not even the Roman guard at the gate
hindered the procession. Beyond the city walls it halted, the bier was
set down, the lid of the coffin opened, and out of it arose the
venerable form of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkaï, who, to reach the Roman
camp unmolested, had feigned death. He went before Vespasian, and,
impressed by the noble figure of the hoary rabbi, the general promised
him the fulfilment of any wish he might express. What was his petition?
Not for his nation, not for the preservation of the Holy City, not even
for the Temple. His request was simple: "Permit me to open a school at
Jabneh." The proud Roman smilingly gave consent. He had no conception of
the significance of this prayer and of the prophetic wisdom of the
petitioner, who, standing on the ruins of his nation's independence,
thought only of rescuing the Law. Rome, the empire of the "iron legs,"
was doomed to be crushed, nation after nation to be swallowed in the
vortex of time, but Israel lives by the Law, the very law snatched from
the smouldering ruins of Jerusalem, the beloved alike of crazy zealots
and despairing peace advocates, and carried to the tiny seaport of
Jabneh. There Jochanan ben Zakkaï opened his academy, the gathering
place of the dispersed of his disciples and his people, and thence,
gifted with a prophet's keen vision, he proclaimed Israel's mission to
be, not the offering of sacrifices, but the accomplishment of works of
The _Tanaïm_ may be considered the most original expounders of the
science of Judaism, which they fostered at their academies. In the
course of centuries their intellectual labor amassed an abundant store
of scientific material, together with so vast a number of injunctions,
prohibitions, and laws that it became almost impossible to master the
subject. The task of scholars now was to arrange the accumulation of
material and reduce it to a system. Rabbi after rabbi undertook the
task, but only the fourth attempt at codification, that made by Yehuda
the Prince, was successful. His compilation, classifying the
subject-matter under six heads, subdivided into sixty-three tractates,
containing five hundred and twenty-four chapters, was called Mishna, and
came to be the authority appealed to on points of law.
Having assumed fixity as a code, the Mishna in turn became what the
Bible had been for centuries--a text, the basis of all legal development
and scientific discussion. So it was used by the epigones, the
_Amoraïm_, or Speakers, the expounders of the third period. For
generations commenting on the Mishna was the sum-total of literary
endeavor. Traditions unheeded before sprang to light.
asserted themselves. To the older generation of Halachists succeeded a
set of men headed by Akiba ben Joseph, who, ignoring practical issues,
evolved laws from the Bible text or from traditions held to be divine. A
spiritual, truly religious conception of Judaism was supplanted by legal
quibbling and subtle methods of interpretation. Like the sophists of
Rome and Alexandria at that time, the most celebrated teachers in the
academies of Babylonia and Palestine for centuries gave themselves up to
casuistry. This is the history of the development of the Talmud, or more
correctly of the two Talmuds, the one, finished in 390
C. E., being the
expression of what was taught at the Palestinian academies; the other,
more important one, completed in 500 C. E., of what was taught in
The Babylonian, the one regarded as authoritative, is about four times
as large as the Jerusalem Talmud. Its thirty-six treatises
(_Massichtoth_), in our present edition, cover upwards of three thousand
folio pages, bound in twelve huge volumes. To speak of a completed
Talmud is as incorrect as to speak of a biblical canon.
body, no solemn resolution of a synod, ever declared either the Talmud
or the Bible a completed whole. Canonizing of any kind is distinctly
opposed to the spirit of Judaism. The fact is that the tide of
traditional lore has never ceased to flow.
We now have before us a faint outline sketch of the growth of the
Talmud. To portray the busy world fitting into this frame is another and
more difficult matter. A catalogue of its contents may be made. It may
be said that it is a book containing laws and discussions, philosophic,
theologic, and juridic dicta, historical notes and national
reminiscences, injunctions and prohibitions controlling all the
positions and relations of life, curious, quaint tales, ideal maxims and
proverbs, uplifting legends, charming lyrical outbursts, and attractive
enigmas side by side with misanthropic utterances, bewildering medical
prescriptions, superstitious practices, expressions of deep agony,
peculiar astrological charms, and rambling digressions on law,
zoology, and botany, and when all this has been said, not half its
contents have been told. It is a luxuriant jungle, which must be
explored by him who would gain an adequate idea of its features and
The Ghemara, that is, the whole body of discussions recorded in the two
Talmuds, primarily forms a running commentary on the text of the Mishna.
At the same time, it is the arena for the debating and investigating of
subjects growing out of the Mishna, or suggested by a literature
developed along with the Talmudic literature. These discussions,
debates, and investigations are the opinions and arguments of the
different schools, holding opposite views, developed with rare acumen
and scholastic subtlety, and finally harmonized in the solution reached.
The one firm and impregnable rock supporting the gigantic structure of
the Talmud is the word of the Bible, held sacred and inviolable.
The best translations--single treatises have been put into modern
languages--fail to convey an adequate idea of the discussions and method
that evolved the Halacha. It is easier to give an approximately true
presentation of the rabbinical system of practical morality as gleaned
from the Haggada. It must, of course, be borne in mind that Halacha and
Haggada are not separate works; they are two fibres of the same thread.
"The whole of the Haggadistic literature--the hitherto unappreciated
archives of language, history, archæology, religion, poetry, and
science--with but slight reservations may be called a national
literature, containing as it does the aggregate of the views and
opinions of thousands of thinkers belonging to widely separated
generations. Largely, of course, these views and opinions are peculiar
to the individuals holding them or to their time"; still, every
Haggadistic expression, in a general way, illustrates some fundamental,
national law, based upon the national religion and the national
history. Through the Haggada we are vouchsafed a glance into a
mysterious world, which mayhap has hitherto repelled us as strange and
grewsome. Its poesy reveals vistas of gleaming beauty and light,
luxuriant growth and exuberant life, while familiar melodies caress our
The Haggada conveys its poetic message in the garb of allegory song, and
chiefly epigrammatic saying. Form is disregarded; the spirit is
all-important, and suffices to cover up every fault of form. The Talmud,
of course, does not yield a complete system of ethics, but its practical
philosophy consists of doctrines that underlie a moral life. The
injustice of the abuse heaped upon it would become apparent to its
harshest critics from a few of its maxims and rules of conduct, such as
the following: Be of them that are persecuted, not of the
persecutors.--Be the cursed, not he that curses.--They that are
persecuted, and do not persecute, that are vilified and do not retort,
that act in love, and are cheerful even in suffering, they are the
lovers of God.--Bless God for the good as well as the evil. When thou
hearest of a death, say, "Blessed be the righteous Judge."--Life is like
unto a fleeting shadow. Is it the shadow of a tower or of a bird? It is
the shadow of a bird in its flight. Away flies the bird, and neither
bird nor shadow remains behind.--Repentance and good works are the aim
of all earthly wisdom.--Even the just will not have so high a place in
heaven as the truly repentant.--He whose learning surpasses his good
works is like a tree with many branches and few roots, which a
wind-storm uproots and casts to the ground. But he whose good works
surpass his learning is like a tree with few branches and many roots;
all the winds of heaven cannot move it from its place.--
There are three
crowns: the crown of the Law, the crown of the priesthood, the crown of
kingship. But greater than all is the crown of a good name.--Four there
are that cannot enter Paradise: the scoffer, the liar, the hypocrite,
and the backbiter.--Beat the gods, and the priests will tremble.--Contrition is better than many flagellations.-
pitcher falls upon the stone, woe unto the pitcher; when the stone falls
upon the pitcher, woe unto the pitcher; whatever betides, woe unto the
pitcher.--The place does not honor the man, the man honors the
place.--He who humbles himself will be exalted; he who exalts himself
will be humbled,--Whosoever pursues greatness, from him will greatness
flee; whosoever flees from greatness, him will greatness pursue.--Charity is as important as all other virtues combined.--Be
tender and yielding like a reed, not hard and proud like a cedar.--The
hypocrite will not see God.--It is not sufficient to be innocent before
God; we must show our innocence to the world.--The works encouraged by a
good man are better than those he executes.--Woe unto him that practices
usury, he shall not live; whithersoever he goes, he carries injustice
The same Talmud that fills chapter after chapter with minute legal
details and hairsplitting debates outlines with a few strokes the most
ideal conception of life, worth more than theories and systems of
religious philosophy. A Haggada passage says: Six hundred and thirteen
injunctions were given by Moses to the people of Israel.
them to eleven; the prophet Isaiah classified these under six heads;
Micah enumerated only three: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to
do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." Another
prophet limited them to two: "Keep ye judgment, and do righteousness."
Amos put all the commandments under one: "Seek ye me, and ye shall
live"; and Habakkuk said: "The just shall live by his faith."--This is
the ethics of the Talmud.
Another characteristic manifestation of the idealism of the Talmud is
its delicate feeling for women and children. Almost extravagant
affection is displayed for the little ones. All the verses of Scripture
that speak of flowers and gardens are applied in the Talmud to children
and schools. Their breath sustains the moral order of the universe: "Out
of the mouth of babes and sucklings has God founded His might." They are
called flowers, stars, the anointed of God. When God was about to give
the Law, He demanded of the Israelites pledges to assure Him that they
would keep His commandments holy. They offered the patriarchs, but each
one of them had committed some sin. They named Moses as their surety;
not even he was guiltless. Then they said: "Let our children be our
hostages." The Lord accepted them.
Similarly, there are many expressions to show that woman was held in
high esteem by the rabbis of the Talmud: Love thy wife as thyself; honor
her more than thyself.--In choosing a wife, descend a step.--If thy wife
is small, bend and whisper into her ear.--God's altar weeps for him that
forsakes the love of his youth.--He who sees his wife die before him
has, as it were, been present at the destruction of the sanctuary
itself; around him the world grows dark.--It is woman alone through whom
God's blessings are vouchsafed to a house.--The children of him that
marries for money shall be a curse unto him,--a warning singularly
applicable to the circumstances of our own times.
The peculiar charm of the Haggada is best revealed in its legends and
tales, its fables and myths, its apologues and allegories, its riddles
and songs. The starting-point of the Haggada usually is some memory of
the great past. It entwines and enmeshes in a magic network the lives of
the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs, and clothes with fresh, luxuriant
green the old ideals and figures, giving them new life for a remote
generation. The teachers of the Haggada allow no opportunity, sad or
merry, to pass without utilizing it in the guise of an apologue or
parable. Alike for wedding-feasts and funerals, for banquets and days of
fasting, the garden of the Haggada is rifled of its fragrant blossoms
and luscious fruits. Simplicity, grace, and childlike merriment pervade
its fables, yet they are profound, even sublime, in their truth. "Their
chief and enduring charm is their fathomless depth, their unassuming
loveliness." Poems constructed with great artistic skill do not occur.
Here and there a modest bud of lyric poesy shyly raises its head, like
the following couplet, describing a celebrated but ill-favored rabbi:
"Without charm of form and face.
But a mind of rarest grace."
Over the grave of the same teacher the Talmud wails:
"The Holy Land did beautify what womb of Shinar gave;
And now Tiberias' tear-filled eye weeps o'er her treasure's grave."
On seeing the dead body of the Patriarch Yehuda, a rabbi laments:
"Angels strove to win the testimony's ark.
Men they overcame; lo! vanished is the ark!"
Another threnody over some prince in the realm of the intellect:
"The cedar hath by flames been seized; Can hyssop then be saved?
Leviathan with hook was caught;
Alas! ye little fish!
The deep and mighty stream ran dry,
Ah woe! ye shallow brooks!"
Nor is humor lacking. "Ah, hamper great, with books well-filled, thou'rt
gone!" is a bookworm's eulogy.
Poets naturally have not been slow to avail themselves of the material
stored in the Haggada. Many of its treasures, tricked out in modern
verse, have been given to the world. The following are samples:
BIRTH AND DEATH
"His hands fast clenched, his fingers firmly clasped,
So man this life begins.
He claims earth's wealth, and constitutes himself The heir of all her gifts.
He thinks his hand may snatch and hold Whatever life doth yield.
But when at last the end has come,
His hands are open wide,
No longer closed. He knoweth now full well, That vain were all his hopes.
He humbly says, 'I go, and nothing take Of all my hands have wrought.'"
The next, "Interest and Usury," may serve to give the pertinacious
opponent of the Talmud a better opinion of its position on financial
"Behold! created things of every kind Lend each to each. The day from night doth take, And night from day; nor do they quarrel make Like men, who doubting one another's mind, E'en while they utter friendly words, think ill.
The moon delighted helps the starry host, And each returns her gift without a boast.
'Tis only when the Lord supreme doth will That earth in gloom shall be enwrapped, He tells the moon: 'Refrain, keep back thy light!'
And quenches, too, the myriad lamps of night.
From wisdom's fount hath knowledge ofttimes lapped, While wisdom humbly doth from knowledge learn.
The skies drop blessings on the grateful earth, And she--of precious store there is no dearth--
Exhales and sends aloft a fair return.
Stern law with mercy tempers its decree, And mercy acts with strength by justice lent.
Good deeds are based on creed from heaven sent, In which, in turn, the sap of deeds must be.
Each creature borrows, lends, and gives with love, Nor e'er disputes, to honor God above.
When man, howe'er, his fellowman hath fed, Then 'spite the law forbidding interest, He thinketh naught but cursèd gain to wrest.
Who taketh usury methinks hath said:
'O Lord, in beauty has Thy earth been wrought!
But why should men for naught enjoy its plains?
Ask usance, since 'tis Thou that sendest rains.
Have they the trees, their fruits, and blossoms bought?
For all they here enjoy, Thy int'rest claim: For heaven's orbs that shine by day and night, Th' immortal soul enkindled by Thy light, And for the wondrous structure of their frame.'
But God replies: 'Now come, and see! I give With open, bounteous hand, yet nothing take; The earth yields wealth, nor must return ye make.
But know, O men, that only while ye live, You may enjoy these gifts of my award.
The capital's mine, and surely I'll demand The spirit in you planted by my hand, And also earth will claim her due reward.'
Man's dust to dust is gathered in the grave, His soul returns to God who gracious gave."
R. Yehuda ben Zakkaï answers his pupils who ask:
"Why doth the Law with them more harshly deal That filch a lamb from fold away,
Than with the highwaymen who shameless steal Thy purse by force in open day?"
"Because in like esteem the brigands hold The master and his serving man.
Their wickedness is open, frank, and bold, They fear not God, nor human ban.
The thief feels more respect for earthly law Than for his heav'nly Master's eye,
Man's presence flees in fear and awe, Forgets he's seen by God on high."
That is a glimpse of the world of the Haggada--a wonderful, fantastic
world, a kaleidoscopic panorama of enchanting views.
"Well can we
understand the distress of mind in a mediæval divine, or even in a
modern _savant_, who, bent upon following the most subtle windings of
some scientific debate in the Talmudical pages--
financial, or otherwise--as it revolves round the Sabbath journey, the
raising of seeds, the computation of tithes and taxes--
feels, as it
were, the ground suddenly give way. The loud voices grow thin, the doors
and walls of the school-room vanish before his eyes, and in their place
uprises Rome the Great, the _Urbs et Orbis_ and her million-voiced life.
Or the blooming vineyards round that other City of Hills, Jerusalem the
Golden herself, are seen, and white-clad virgins move dreamily among
them. Snatches of their songs are heard, the rhythm of their choric
dances rises and falls: it is the most dread Day of Atonement itself,
which, in poetical contrast, was chosen by the 'Rose of Sharon' as a day
of rejoicing to walk among those waving lily-fields and vine-clad
slopes. Or the clarion of rebellion rings high and shrill through the
complicated debate, and Belshazzar, the story of whose ghastly banquet
is told with all the additions of maddening horror, is doing service for
Nero the bloody; or Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian tyrant, and all his
hosts, are cursed with a yelling curse--_à propos_ of some utterly
inappropriate legal point, while to the initiated he stands for Titus
the--at last exploded--'Delight of Humanity.' ... Often-
-far too often
for the interests of study and the glory of the human race--does the