Tag Archives: Gemara

Love and Commentary

praying_jewFrom where do we learn from the Torah that changing one’s clothes is a sign of respect?

-Shabbos 114a

The verse from Yeshaya 58:13 was already expounded to teach, among other things, that one’s Shabbos clothes should not be like one’s weekday garments (113a). Nevertheless, Rabbi Yochanan is quoted trying to show that this concept is indicated not only from a verse in the prophets, but that it is also rooted in the Torah. Ben Ish Chai explains that based upon this verse from the Torah, there is a practical difference which can be derived regarding the need to wear special clothing on Shabbos.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Suiting up for Shabbos”
Commentary on Shabbos 114a

I’ve been pondering a few things lately regarding Judaism and particularly the Messianic sect of Judaism which recognizes Yeshua (Jesus) as the Moshiach (Christ). There are many things about Judaism that I find beautiful and I find myself sometimes drawn to those traditions. In the days when I used to worship on Shabbos and pray while wearing a tallit gadol, there was a “specialness” about it I can’t articulate. Weekday mornings when I would pray shacharit while wearing a tallit and laying tefillin had a texture and a quality about them that I can’t describe. The blessings I recited from the Siddur (which are taken from Hosea 2:21-22 in the Tanakh or verses 19-20 in Christian Bibles) when donning the arm tallit, invoked a particular unity between me and my God that I think Christians miss some of the time.

I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness, and with mercy; and I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you will know Hashem.

Hosea 2:21-22 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Christians sometimes criticize Jews for all their “man-made traditions” but there is a certain beauty in how observant Jews even prepare themselves for encountering God in prayer. After all, if you were summoned to appear before an earthly ruler, such as a King or President, you would certainly prepare yourself, including dressing for the occasion. Why shouldn’t the same be true if we are summoned to appear before the Ultimate King: God? And after all, Jews are indeed commanded to wear tzitzit (Deuteronomy 22:12) and to, in some sense, wear the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:8).

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-8 (JPS Tanakh)

But as my conversation with Pastor Randy reminded me the other day, there are also commandments and rulings that are beyond my comprehension.

All holy writings may be saved from a fire.

-Shabbos 115a

Perek teaches the laws of saving items from being burned in a fire on Shabbos. On the one hand, our sages realized that if a person is given an unlimited license to save everything he can possibly grab, the person would invariably be driven to try to extinguish the flames, which is a Torah violation… This is why the halachah put a finite limit on what a person is allowed to salvage from a fire. Once this quota of clothing and food is met, the person may not remove anything more from the burning building, even if the particular situation allows the time and conditions to retrieve more.

On the other hand, our sages were lenient to allow saving holy scrolls from a burning building. It is permitted to remove a Torah scroll, for example, to a domain which is normally rabbinically restricted. This is the topic which the first Mishnah discusses.

It is interesting to note that the sages put limits on a person regarding his property pulled from a fire in a building, whereas in other cases we find the opposite. If a person is traveling up to the last minute before Shabbos, and he fails to make it to the city, what should he do with the valuables he is carrying? The Gemara (153a) rules that a Jew in this predicament may instruct a gentile who may be traveling with him to bring the items into the city for him. This is normally a violation of “amira l’nochri – telling a non-Jew to do a melachah for a Jew on Shabbos”, but in this case our sages allowed it, being that they felt that if the Jew would have no recourse, he
might carry the items into the city himself. The Rishonim deal with this apparent inconsistent approach of the halachah to a Jewish person who is faced with a risk to his property. In the case of a fire we limit him although he is not doing any melachah, but when carrying into the city as Shabbos begins, we are lenient.

PogromFor a Christian, the problems being posed here and their solutions do not appear on our “radar screens,” so to speak. It’s as if a difficulty was made up for the sake of proposing a solution. Yes, the Jewish people are commanded to observe the Shabbat and to keep it Holy (see Exodus 20:8, Exodus 31:15-17, and Deuteronomy 5:12), but all of the Rabbinic rulings that go along with these commandments are enormously complex, at least to me. How can one even begin to observe Shabbos and remember each and every condition and circumstance that could possibly apply in a flawless manner?

But then again, I don’t live in the Orthodox Jewish space, so what do I know?

(I should say at this point that being married to a Jewish wife does give me an insight that a Christian who is not intermarried lacks, but on the other hand, my wife is the first one to say that she’s hardly Orthodox)

I can only imagine that there are many, many Jews who are Shomer Shabbos. I know that after the local Chabad Rebbetzin gave birth to her youngest child on a Friday night, her husband, the Rabbi, walked from the hospital to the synagogue in the middle of the night (since it was Shabbos and he was forbidden to drive or to even accept a ride from another) so that he could be at shul to lead Shabbat services Saturday morning.

I can’t imagine a Pastor ever being in a similar situation and from a Christian’s point of view, even if we had such a restriction, it is very likely that we would depend on the grace of Jesus and under unusual circumstances, overlook the commandment by allowing ourselves to drive or, in the case of a fire, retrieve any of our property we could lay our hands on before the fire could get to it (or to even put out the fire if we could).

Do we admire such dedication to the commandments of God as they are understood in religious Judaism or do we consider observant Jewish people to be bound and gagged by the letter of the Law and also by the commentary on the letter of the Law?

That’s a tough one. Even if we in the church disagree with how Jews choose to obey God, it’s their choice, not ours.

But if those Jews are also Messianic, should we look at the mitzvot any differently? Should we allow ourselves to judge others because they are Jewish and they choose to live a religious Jewish lifestyle?

I’m in no position to do any such thing, but it does bring forth interesting questions. There is not always a single tradition in religious Judaism as to how to perform the mitzvot because there isn’t a single Judaism. Further, there isn’t always agreement between the ancient or modern sages as to how to perform certain of the mitzvot, and so one much choose which tradition to follow, usually based on which Judaism you are operating within.

But those are human choices not necessarily the will of God, unless we want to consider that God is “OK” with all of the variants on Rabbinic teachings, and that is a big “if.”

Setting that aside for a moment, another problem presents itself, but it too is a man-made problem.

I was recently criticized on another person’s blog about the questions I was bringing up as a result of last Wednesday evening’s conversation with Pastor Randy, but the criticism wasn’t coming from anyone Jewish. There is a certain corner of Christianity that believes we Christians are identical to the Jewish people once we come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, at least as far as the mitzvot are concerned…well, sort of. It’s complicated, but the core of their argument is that there is such a thing as a perfect Christianity/Judaism that can be divined solely from the Bible, and that it is possible to practice this very particular form of religion without any (or any excessive) human-created interpretation and set of attendant traditions, and using more than a little theological sleight of hand to “prove” their position.

What’s really interesting is that my critic and his friends who have commented on the matter, didn’t seem to actually read what I’d written. I was asking questions, not making pronouncements, and yet they were actively condemning my “conclusions.” The one thing I can say with certainty though, is that I see no directive for modern Christians to mimic modern Jewish religious behavior in an attempt to worship as if we are in one of Paul’s first century churches or synagogues.

I’m not here to criticize Jewish people or Jewish religious observance. I don’t have the right or the necessary qualifications to render a definitive commentary, only the drive to share my questions and thoughts on the matter, such as they are. I’m not even really criticizing how other Christians choose to view their religious obligations to God, except to the degree that they attempt to impose their personal viewpoints on other Christians and on observant Jews.

To the best of my understanding (and I’m attempting to improve my understanding all of the time), no human being has the ability to perfectly obey God in every single detail, regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong. This was probably as true in the days of Moses, Solomon, and Elijah, as it was true in the days of Jesus and Paul, as indeed, it is true today.

studying_tanakh_messiahPastor Randy suggested a very straightforward method of studying the Bible based on the three steps of observation, interpretation, and application. That requires some fluency in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and lacking much ability in that linguistic arena, I’m already handicapped. This is why I speak with teachers who I respect to discuss and debate them on their insights. This is why I have so many questions.

But in the end, the advice of another friend of mine must be at the heart of every question and lay the foundation for every answer. In the end, and in the beginning, we should not seek out Judaism or Christianity, but only an encounter with God. This is something that not only are we all capable of, regardless of who we are, but in fact, it is something that we are all commanded to do, because it is God’s greatest desire.

“What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

-Shabbos 31a

Yeshua answered him, the first of all the mitzvot is: “Hear, O Yisra’el! HaShem is our God; HaShem is one. Love HaShem, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your knowledge, and with all of your strength.” This is the first mitzvah. Now the second is similar to it: “Love your fellow as yourself.” There is no mitzvah greater than these.

Mark 12:29-31 (DHE Gospels)

Love God and seek Him and, if you do love God, seek out your fellows and love them, too.

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Struggling to Touch the Essence

Talmud StudyDuring the centuries following the completion of the Mishnah, the chain of transmission of the Oral law was further weakened by a number of factors: Economic hardship and increased persecution of the Jewish community in Israel caused many Jews, including many rabbis, to flee the country. Many of these rabbis emigrated to Babylon in the Persian Empire. The role of the rabbis of Israel as the sole central authority of the Jewish people was coming to an end.

This decentralization of Torah authority and lack of consensus among the rabbis led to further weakening of the transmission process. It became clear to the sages of this period that the Mishnah alone was no longer clear enough to fully explain the Oral Law. It was written in shorthand fashion and in places was cryptic. This is because it was very concise, written on the assumption that the person reading it was already well-acquainted with the subject matter.

So they began to have discussions about it and to write down the substance of these discussions…

…When you look at the page of the Babylonian Talmud today, you will find the Hebrew text of the Mishnah is featured in the middle of the page. Interspersed between the Hebrew of the Mishnah are explanations in both Hebrew and Aramaic which are called the Gemara.

The Aramaic word Gemara means “tradition.” In Hebrew, the word Gemara means “completion.” Indeed, the Gemara is a compilation of the various rabbinic discussions on the Mishnah, and as such completes the understanding of the Mishnah.

The texts of the Mishnah and Gemara are then surrounded by other layers of text and commentaries from a later period.

-Rabbi Ken Spiro
“History Crash Course #39: The Talmud”
Aish.com

My conversations with Pastor Randy are always very rewarding. We’ve taken to meeting somewhat regularly to discuss matters of mutual interest and specifically the world of believing Jews called “Messianic Judaism.” He lived in Israel for fifteen years and has many Israeli Jewish friends. He is well-versed in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and his mind and heart are very open to Israel and the Jewish people.

But in our talks, it’s difficult to address how or if modern Messianic Jews are obligated to Torah, what exactly is meant by “Torah,” and the role of Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara) in the life of an observant Messianic Jew. For a Jew, including one in Messiah, is it even possible to comprehend a passage in Torah without Talmud?

I admit, I have few answers.

But since we both have questions, I thought this was the perfect topic to expose to the blogosphere and to present to my readership (and anyone else my readership wants to share a link to this blog post with minus a few “nudniks”). If the bottom line is the Word of God and the revealed Messiah, how can we say that the word of the Sages go beyond them? I disagree that history was frozen after the destruction of Herod’s Temple and I know that Judaism and Christianity continued to move forward and develop. If I may be allowed a conceit, I believe errors entered both Judaism and Christianity in the past 2,000 years that caused both (although Christianity began as a wholly Jewish sect known as “the Way”) religious traditions to “stray” from the intent of God and the footsteps of the Messiah to some degree (probably a really large degree).

And yet, we cannot recapture first century Christianity as Paul understood it and how it was expressed and lived within both Jewish and Gentile cultural contexts. We can only look at where we’re at now and attempt to return to the scriptures to “observe, interpret, and then apply” what we discover there (to quote Pastor Randy).

ruins
But if the Bible is the final word, what do we do with 2,000 years of Jewish history, law, discussion, and interpretation…just wad it up and toss it in the nearest (very large) trash can?  Do we have a right to take everything that it means to be a Jew and to lay it to waste, leaving behind only ruins?

Absolutely not! I don’t believe Messiah will do this upon his return (although, of course, this is just my opinion). Do we say that Jesus will wholeheartedly accept each and every judgement and ruling made by the sages without question? I don’t know if that’s true either, if for no other reason than because the discussion between the ancient sages that spans the centuries, does not come to a final agreement on many practical and legal matters.

And not all Jews and not all Jewish traditions follow the same interpretations. Which one do you choose, and having made a choice, do you realize that it is a human decision and not God’s decision? How can we reconcile this?

My wife told me something interesting just the other day. She told me that the local Chabad Rabbi and the local Reform Rabbi study Talmud together. That’s kind of surprising, and in a community with a large Jewish population, that wouldn’t happen. Chabad (Orthodox) and Reform Rabbis view the traditions and Talmud from very different perspectives. But in this little corner of Idaho, there just aren’t that many Jews and there are even fewer Jewish Rabbis. That fact acts as a bridge for these two gentlemen to meet and share what they have in common as well as their differences.

However, a much greater bridge is required to link a Messianic Jew to any other observant Jew, particularly an Orthodox scholar, although this too has recently occurred. But what is the relationship between a Messianic Jew “keeping Torah,” a state of righteousness before God, and faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah King? Can a Messianic Jew choose how to keep Torah within a particular traditional framework of halachah? Upon making such a choice, whose choice is it, the person’s or God’s?

Torah is not to be regarded, however, as an academic field of study. It is meant to be applied to all aspects of our everyday life – speech, food, prayer, etc. Over the centuries great rabbis have compiled summaries of practical law from the Talmud. Landmark works include: “Mishneh Torah” by Maimonides (12th century Egypt); “Shulchan Aruch” by Rabbi Yosef Karo (16th century Israel); “Mishnah Berurah” by the Chafetz Chaim (20th century Poland).

“Torah versus Talmud?”
-from “Ask the Rabbi”
Aish.com

Torah is meant to be applied, but how it is applied in the life of an observant Jew is very much dependent on that person’s tradition and the branch of Judaism to which they are attached. I heard a story of a Reform Rabbi who made aliyah. According to the storyteller, when a religious Jew makes aliyah and enters the Land, they either become more religious or become secular. In this case, the Rabbi began studying to become an Orthodox Rabbi.

The differences in halachah between a Reform and Orthodox lifestyle must be enormous. I say this because the Rabbi once had a conversation with the storyteller expressing his frustration at attempting to live out the Torah according to Orthodox halachah. He cried out that he sometimes gets so confused that he doesn’t know which foot to step out of bed with in the morning as a proper way of getting up.

I don’t have a lived Jewish experience to which to compare that statement, especially within the Orthodox, so I don’t know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond when applying all that to the words of James, the brother of the Master:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

James 2:10 (ESV)

Granted, breaking one of the mitzvot does not invalidate the entire Torah nor does it make a Torah lifestyle futile and meaningless, but then what does it mean? A traditional Christian interpretation won’t be revealing here. Is the Jewish person guilty? If he or she is Messianic, what is the role of grace? For that matter, if he or she isn’t Messianic, what is the role of grace?

I know of no Messianic Jew who believes they are made righteous and “saved by the Law.” Messiah is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It isn’t enough for Messianic Jews to say “we have the Torah and the Gentile believers don’t” (and that is a gross oversimplification to be sure). Messiah is the bridge that not only links the Messianic Jew to his Jewish brothers and sisters but to the Gentile believers as well. As Boaz Michael once said, “Yeshua is the boss.” If Messiah isn’t the center of all things, the focal point, the goal of Torah and of the will of God for the redemption of the world, then what do we have?

These are the questions that my conversation with my Pastor brought into view last night. We spoke until there was no one left in the church but us. All the lights were out except for those in the Pastor’s office. All the doors were locked. If we had allowed it, our talk could easily have taken us into the middle of the night as we explored not only these questions, but everything else.

touch-the-essenceI don’t know what the answers are. I don’t know that there is any one answer. There really isn’t any one “Messianic Judaism” even as there isn’t any one “Christianity,” where a single set of interpretations and applications defines the entire group. But I believe the questions are important. I believe that discussion between all of the relevant parties is important, not because Christian Gentiles should have anything to do with defining Judaism, but for the sake of our mutual faith in Messiah.

Who is the Christian and the Messianic Jew when they each stand apart and who are we when we stand side-by-side? How are we to understand one another and in the light of scripture, how are we to understand ourselves?

The Master once said, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20) Granted, his audience at that moment was a Jewish audience, but I don’t discount the possibility that he will also be among two or three Gentile Christians when we gather in our Bible studies and in prayer. I long for the day when two or three (or more…many more) Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah gather together (Matthew 8:11) and we can talk about all these things. I long for the presence of Messiah among us, that he may teach wisdom and reveal understanding.

The angels are jealous of the one who struggles in darkness. They have light, but we touch the Essence.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Jealous Angels”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I struggle in darkness to touch the Essence of Light.

Defining Judaism: A Simple Commentary

Talmud StudyWe find on today’s amud that one who is called up to the Torah has to have heard at least three verses—two if three is impractical—for his aliyah to count.

Someone once presented Rav Moshe Feinstein with a very common concern. He asked, “What if someone failed to hear some words of the Torah reading? Did he discharge his obligation if he missed a few? Many great scholars and tzaddikim were very careful and would make up any word missed by joining another minyan during their reading. But perhaps such stories are not because of any halachic obligation. Maybe they are merely a stringency?”

Rav Moshe ruled decisively, “It is obvious that one should not skip even one word of the reading if it is at all possible. Post facto, if one skipped and it was a day where we lain three verses, on the surface it would appear as though one does discharge his obligation. It is not permitted to read less than three verses. Since the person in question did not hear the minimum, he did not discharge his obligation. This is no different than the case of one who was called up to the Torah and they did not lain three verses—he also did not discharge his obligation if he did not hear the minimum number of verses.

Rav Moshe concluded, “If the reading contains more than three verses and he heard three he discharges his obligation with this aliyah, and if he heard another two aliyos he has fulfilled his obligation. Of course, on Shabbos and Yom Tov one has the problem that if he missed a part of the reading he will not merit to finish the public reading of the Torah for that year. However, in such a case one often has no recourse since he cannot have them repeat the reading only for him!”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Minimum”
Siman 137, Seif 5-6

Recently Dan Benzvi on his blog Fellow Heirs challenged me to discuss the relationship between the Torah, Oral Law, and the Talmud in his blog post The oral Torah. Authority of God or man. I’m not sure we “solved” anything, but at least we got the opportunity to (again) air our different perspectives on the matter.

Dan really does bring up some good questions, though. Can we believe that everything in the Mishnah and all of the rulings in the Talmud are indeed directly tied to the oral Laws God gave Moses at Sinai (assuming you believe that event actually took place) and that a Jew must obey all of the relevant Rabbinic rulings?

Take a look at the example I posted above from Mishna Berura Yomi Digest. There’s nothing in our written Bible that lends itself to describing the traditional Jewish Torah readings in anywhere near this level of detail. Can we believe that God gave these specific details to Moses? If so, why is there a question here? If not, then where did these questions and answers come from and why are they considered binding in Judaism?

If you’re a (non-Jewish) Christian, this entire discussion is moot. People who aren’t Jewish aren’t considered bound by any of the Rabbinic judgments under any circumstances, so we don’t have to give all this a second thought. But what about if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re a believer (i.e. a “Christian” or a “Messianic Jew”)? If it’s not in the written Bible we have with us today but rather, in the extended Jewish documented wisdom, does it really matter?

Indeed, the Mishnah contains not a hint about what its authors conceive their work to be. Is it a law code? Is it a schoolbook? Since it makes statements describing what people should and should not do, or rather, do and do not do, we might suppose it is a law code. Since, as we shall see in a moment, it covers topics of both practical and theoretical interest, we might suppose it is a schoolbook. But the Mishnah never expresses a hint about the authors’ intent. The reason is that the authors do what they must to efface all traces not only of individuality but also of their own participation in the formation of the document. So it is not only a letter from utopia to whom it may concern. It also is a letter written by no one person – nor by a committee, either. Nor should we fail to notice, even at the outset, that while the Mishnah clearly addresses Israel, the Jewish people, it is remarkably indifferent to the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Mishnah makes no effort at imitating the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, as do the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Mishnah does not attribute its sayings to biblical heroes, prophets or holymen, as do the writings of the pseudepigraphs of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Mishnah does not claim to emerge from a fresh encounter with God through revelation, as is not uncommon in Israelite writings of the preceding four hundred years; the Holy Spirit is not alleged to speak here. So all the devices by which other Israelite writers gain credence for their messages are ignored. Perhaps the authority of the Mishnah was self-evident to its authors. But, self-evident or not, the authors in no way take the trouble to explain their document’s audience why people should conform to the descriptive statements contained in their holy book.

from the introduction to
The Mishnah: A New Translation
by Jacob Neusner

Talmud Study by LamplightThat description of the Mishnah is fairly similar to others I’ve read from various sources such as The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee. But given all of that, what can we say about Mishnah, Talmud, and Gemara?

I’m not particularly qualified to respond, not being a scholar in Jewish studies or anything related, but from what I gather, it’s extremely important to Judaism that these texts, opinions, commentaries, and judgments do exist. Here’s why.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent eviction of most of the Jews from the Holy Land, what existed to define Judaism? Prior to this point, it was always the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Even in the times between the Temples of Solomon and Herod, it was the ideal of the Temple and the Torah that, more than anything else, defined Jewish identity in exile. The longing for the Jewish people was always the return to Israel, both as nation and paradigm, and to worship again “as in days of old and as in previous years” (Malachi 3:4).

With the Second Temple reduced to scorched and shattered rubble, and the vast majority of the Jewish people exiled to the diaspora, what was to prevent the eventual assimilation of the Jews into the nations surrounding them and outnumbering them?

Judaism was always about being distinctive, as the scripture says, “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:8 [ESV]). All of the laws we see given to the Israelites in the Torah were designed to impact every area of their lives, serving as national constitution, penal and civil law, business ethics, social mores, and even personal and behavioral guides. In virtually every way, the nation of Israel was to stand out and stand apart from the nations of the world, primarily to lead its inhabitants to a holy life with God, but also to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 51:4), leading the world to God by example.

But a huge amount of the Torah laws apply only if you have a Temple, a functional priesthood, a system of courts including the Sanhedrin, and live within the geographic boundaries of the Land God gave in perpetuity to the Jewish people.

The Romans took all of that away, and then subsequent conquerors kept the Land and national self-rule from the Jews for the next 2,000 years.

Why didn’t the Jewish people assimilate and disappear into the pages of history? Many, many other people groups and religious traditions from that time have utterly vanished from our view. Why did the Jews, though extremely small in number, remain a people vitally alive with purpose and function; with faith and identity?

What do you think of when you think of a religious Jew?

The stereotypes some people have are guys in black hats and coats, wearing some sort of string off of their waistline, having large, bushy beards, and bowing over and over again when they pray. Some people think of “Jewish prayer shawls and prayer books” while others think of events such as Passover or Chanukah. Whatever religious stereotypes seem to identify the Jews, the activities are almost always different than any other people group in the world. Jews worship in different places than anyone else, pray differently, pray in a different language than anyone else, wear different clothes (at least sometimes), have different holidays, eat differently, sing differently and…well, you get the idea.

I can hardly say that the Mishnah and Talmud are direct representations of the “Oral Law” that goes back over 3,500 years to Moses and God on Sinai, especially given the description (or lack thereof) of the origins of the Mishnah. What I can say, is that what the Jews have as “people of the book”, are a set of laws and rulings that set them apart from any other nation and group on earth, and that has defined them and kept them and preserved them when everyone else was doing their best to completely annihilate the Jewish people.

No, I’m not denying God’s involvement in the preservation of Judaism and in fact, I’m counting on it. As God went down into Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46:3-4), so too did He go into the death camps with the Jews during the Holocaust. So too did he go with the Jews into the newly created state of Israel and He is there with them now.

But in a very great way, one of the primary mechanisms that has maintained Judaism as Judaism for the past twenty centuries has been the Talmud. It has now taken on the status of “Holy” among the Jews, especially the Orthodox, and it has many critics, including within more liberal religious and secular Judaism. But without it, would there be a man or woman alive today that we could point to and know he or she is a Jew?

You can love the Talmud or you can hate it, but if you are a Jew, no matter who you are, you cannot dismiss its existence or its role in preserving your existence.

As an afterword, I want to apologize to all of the Jewish people reading this. I’m not trying to pass myself off as some sort of expert (I’m anything but an expert on Judaism) or to co-opt anything belonging to Judaism. I am just presenting the perspective of one Christian writer on why I think the Talmud is not just important, but historically vital for the existence of the Jewish people. Please keep that in mind when or if you decide to comment.

The Hungry Gentile

leket-projectThe Gemara relates that Levi had planted grain and there were no poor people to come and collect the leket. He consulted with R’ Sheishes as to what should be done and R’ Sheishes told him that if there are no poor people who will come to collect the leket he may keep it for himself. Rambam rules in accordance with this position and writes that if there are no poor people he may take the grain for himself and is not obligated to give the monetary value of the leket to the poor. Tur writes that if there are no poor people who live in the vicinity one is not obligated to leave leket in his field. Nowadays, the custom is that people do not leave the gifts for the poor in their fields since the majority of the poor people are gentile and if the gifts were left in the fields gentiles would came and take them.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Gifts to the poor”
Chullin 134

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’-Matthew 25:37-40

What a minute. We read in the commentary on the daf that the commandment for a Jewish farmer to leave an unreaped corner of his field for the poor (based on Leviticus 19:9) seems only to apply to the Jewish poor. If there are no poor Jews in the area but only poor Gentiles, the farmer is under no obligation to provide for them. Can that be right? It seems a little harsh. Are we to infer that when Jesus teaches his Jewish disciples about feeding the poor in Matthew 25 that he only means Jewish poor? That’s not the way most Christians would interpret the message and that’s not how Christian charities work in general.

I have great admiration and respect for the Jewish sages and do my best, within my limited skill set, to study their teachings, but this one is a little hard to swallow, assuming I’m reading it right. The Talmud doesn’t universally have such an uncaring attitude toward non-Jews, and quite some time ago, I recorded some of the portions of the Talmud that relate to Gentiles in the blog post, What the Talmud Says About Gentiles, Revisited. Here are a couple of comments regarding how Jews are to treat the poor among the Gentiles:

“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)

The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)

earthquake-aid-assistanceIn recent years, Muslim Turkey, once an ally of Israel, has become increasingly hostile toward the Jewish nation, supposedly over how Israel is “mistreating” the people in Gaza. However, after the most recent earthquake in Turkey, Israel unreservedly offered aid to Turkey and after initial refusals, Turkey accepted.

We know from the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) that Jesus directed his disciples to pray, “And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”, which seems to say that how we treat others is the way God will treat us. This also reflects a modern Jewish teaching.

How you treat others is how G-d treats you. How you forgive them is how He forgives you. How you see them is how He sees you.

When you show empathy for the plight of another human being, G-d takes empathy in your plight.

When others slight you and you ignore the call to vengeance that burns inside, G-d erases all memory of your failures toward Him. When you see the image of G-d in another human being, then the image of G-d becomes revealed within you.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Image”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I suppose I’m in no position to disagree with the rulings of the sages, but I’m going to disagree with this one anyway. If the farmer would have left unharvested corners in his field for the poor, they are the poor, regardless if they are the Jews of his community or Gentiles living nearby. I can see that the commandment is meant to apply to the Jews primarily so that if there are Jewish poor, the remains in the field should be for them. However, even if we can’t extend the obligation to feeding poor Gentiles, assuming no Jewish poor are around, I think compassion should tell the farmer that a hungry Gentile was also created in the image of God.