Blog Archives

How Rabbi Akiva Saved the Shema for the Jews

In 1898 the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, Walter Nash purchased four fragments of a sheet of papyrus from a dealer in Egypt. Written on them were the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Dated probably to the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the Nash Papyrus confirms the statement in the Mishnah (Tamid 5:1) that the Ten Commandments and the Shema were recited together. The Mishnah is referring to practices in the Temple; the Nash Papyrus (which may have come from a set of tefillin) shows that these two passages were also regarded as a single unit outside the Sanctuary. Read more »

A Talmudic Polemic at the Cave of Machpelah

The Talmud occasionally introduces polemics against what it considers to be misinterpretations of Jewish ideas. Frequently these polemics seem obscure to us. Either because we are not familiar with the issue the Talmud is arguing against or, particularly in the case of anti-Christian polemics, because the text was doctored by medieval censors.

One such polemic relates to this week’s Torah reading, which describes Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah. It occurs in Bava Batra 58a: Read more »

God’s Will or Human Reasoning? Which is More Important?

A fascinating discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 6,2) illustrates the tension in rabbinic thought between human creativity and divine power. The discussion concerns the blessings that are to be made over food. Generally, when eating something that grows on a tree, a blessing is made to God who creates the ‘fruit of the tree’. If it grows in the soil the blessing is for the ‘fruit of the soil’. But some foods, notably bread and wine have their own specific blessing. The question is, why? What makes these foods different, and who said that they are? Read more »

History Education Is So Much Better Today

I failed Latin and History O-levels at school (that’s the old-fashioned equivalent of GCSEs). It wasn’t because I was too stupid at school, I did well in my other subjects. It was because I found both Latin and History to be boring, and I couldn’t summon up the motivation to study them. And yet today I have a PhD in a classical language and write well-received books, on the history of ancient texts. My O-Level teachers would never have predicted that, and with hindsight I’m surprised at my lack of schoolboy enthusiasm for History and Latin. Read more »

The Talmud and Islam

The Talmud, the great multi-volume compendium of Jewish law and thought is based on discussions in rabbinic colleges alongside the Tigris and Euphrates, in modern day Iraq. The discussions took place between the third and fifth centuries, but the Talmud was still being compiled and collated two hundred years later. By then the area was under the control of the Islamic caliphate.

In the year 750 the caliph built the sparkling city of Baghdad, not far from the site of the ruined Babylon. The new city was the most magnificent the world had ever seen. Its dazzling splendour forms the backdrop to the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Read more »

The Talmud: A Biography now published

It’s already been on sale through Amazon for the last few days and The Talmud: A Biography is now officially published everywhere.

I’ll be speaking about the book at various venues over the next few months, full details on my events page. First up is this Sunday, March 2nd at 11.00 at Jewish Book Week. If you are in London, please come along.

The Unexpected Appearance and Influence of the Talmud

One of the remarkable things about the Talmud is that it came from nowhere, entering a national-religious culture that was already strong and thriving yet rapidly becoming that culture’s dominant text.

The Bible and the subsequent, vast corpus of Jewish literature is self-confident in its religious identity and highly prescriptive in terms of belief, practice and behaviour. It doesn’t seem to be lacking a great deal of further illumination. There is certainly no suggestion that this whole corpus will one day be eclipsed by a text that will become the cornerstone of Jewish religion. The emergence of the Talmud as a written summary of centuries of academic debate is unexpected. The dominance of the Talmud in the Jewish world today could not have been anticipated, even in the first centuries of the common era. Read more »