Maimonides, Gemara and – Mishmash (?): Fardrei zich dem kop

Fardrei zich dem kop – Make the head spin

In Judaism, there is the written Torah and the oral Torah. Here is Judaism 101’s explanation of the relationship between the two kinds of Torah

“In addition to the written scriptures we have an “Oral Torah,” a tradition explaining what the above scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the Laws. Orthodox Jews believe G-d taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down to the present day.”

The above description, argues Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal, has got it back to front: it is the written Torah that is a product of the oral Torah:

“It is not the Oral Law that is a supplement to the Written Law, it is the Written Law that serves as a supplement and an augmentation for the Oral Law. The Five Books present themselves as something that came after a complete body of Oral Law was already firmly established.”

The commentary on (perhaps “addition to” is more accurate) the written Torah is another product of the oral law, which was written down in the 2nd century C.E. in the Mishnah.

The Gemara, in turn, is a commentary on (addition to) the Mishnah, where the latter, as mentioned above, is itself a commentary on (addition to) the written Torah.

If one holds the view that the whole oral Torah was revealed to Moses at Sinai, then the written torah, the Mishnah and the Gemara are also considered as all revealed at Sinai but to appear later in the chronological sequence: written Torah, Mishnah, Gemara. The latter two are known as the Talmud, which was completed in the 5th century C.E. There are two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is the one that carries most influence, so much so that “The Talmud” usually means the Babylonian Talmud. There are further commentaries on the Talmud by the two most influential scholars In Judaism: Rashi and Maimonides (Rambam).

With regard to Rambam, here’s the rub: After spending so much time and effort in his extraordinary busy life on his commentary on the Gemara, Rambam longed, I suggest, to rub his eyes and make all the trash he read in and wrote on the Gemara vanish.

Here is Hedwig Bernard on Maimonides’ lament:

“‘He was, says Isaac Casaubon, ( a man of great parts and sound learning, of whom, I think, we may truly say, as Pliny said of old of Diodorus Siculus, that he was the first of his tribe who ceased to be a trifler.’ He was so far from paying an undue regard to absurd fables and traditions, as his nation had always been accustomed to do, that he dissuaded others from it in the most express terms. ‘Take heed, says he, and do not waste your time in attempting to draw sense or meaning out of that which has no meaning in it; I myself have spent a great deal of time in commenting upon, and explaining the Germara, from which I have reaped nothing but my labour for my pains.'”

Here is another translation of Rambam’s plaint:

“Do not waste your time with the commentaries and inconclusive explanations of the obscure passages of the Gemara. I abandoned those practises long ago as a waste of time and of little profit. May HaShem lead you in the right path.”

(Rambam’s letter to Yosef ibn Aknin; p83 in “Letters of Maimonides” by Feldheim Publishers)

Here’ s the nub of Rambam’s rub: the Gemara is regarded by most believers in Oral Torah as divine revelation because it is considered part of Oral Torah. Yet Rambam says that much of it is drivel. Enough to drive an oracular Jew away from the Talmud – to the pub.


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