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Why the Talmud Is the Most Important Text in Judaism

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A Talmud from Vienna, dating back to 1793. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

It is always assumed that the most important text of Judaism is the Torah. But while it is true that the Torah is uniquely revered as the essence of our faith identity — and elevated above all other texts as the unadulterated word of God — the primary text of Judaism is undoubtedly the Talmud.

The Talmud is a remarkable compilation of ancient traditions that accompanied the Sinaitic Torah, collectively known as Torah-she’baal-peh, or the “Oral Torah.”

These traditions are made up of two distinct parts. The first consists of guidelines associated with laws mentioned in the Torah, whose practice is undefined by the text (such as the shape and color of phylacteries, or the fact that the Omer-offering countdown begins on the second day of Passover rather than the following Sunday).

The second part consists of a series of interpretative rules that are used to extract information from the often impenetrable text of the Torah. The incredible consequence of this dual system is that it turned the Torah into a living, breathing document, with layer upon layer of depth and meaning.

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August 13, 2017 12:19 pm

It would appear that immediately following the conquest of Canaan, and all the way through the destruction of the First Temple and into the Second Temple period, these traditions remained exclusively oral. Purists believed that the Oral Torah’s dynamism would be fatally compromised if any of it were written down.

This purist approach proved to be a disaster, however — and throughout this period, Jews and Judaism were in constant danger of vanishing completely. The powerful tug of pagan worship, combined with limited Torah knowledge among the people, often resulted in the abandonment of normative Judaism. And when…

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