Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Talmud, brought to you by Oxfam

Leaving a friend's house yesterday I stopped at the local Oxfam to see if they had any interesting books. I'm glad I did, because they had a number of classics for just a couple quid. At one point I had four books under my arm, but, even though they were uber-cheap, I had to choose only two. So I bought an English translation (ca. 1905) of Plato's Republic, and H. Polano's English translation (1894) of selections from the Talmud.

The latter is truly fascinating, not just for being rabbinic literature but for representing a portion of Judaic scholarship from over one hundred years ago. (I presume Prof. Polano was a rather Orthodox Jewish scholar, though I am unable to defend such a presumption.) At any rate, I wanted to post the following from the myth of origins behind the oral tradition that was codified in the Talmud. I've run across this elsewhere, but the presentation as a [quasi- (?)]historical account is what is particularly interesting. For a current and stimulating discussion of ancient Jewish oral tradition, see M. Jaffee's Torah in the Mouth. Without further ado, the words of Prof. Polano:
During the last forty years of the life of Moses, the Lord gave to him six hundred and thirteen precepts, including the Decalogue, with full explanation of their meaning and intent, that he might be able to properly instruct the people. The manner in which Moses imparted these precepts to the chosen race is thus recorded in the treatise Erubim. First, he called his brother Aaron into his tent and spoke to him alone, all the words which God had commanded; the sons of Aaron were then admitted and the same words repeated to them; the seventy elders of the people were then called before Moses, and from his lips received the commandments and ordinances of their God, and then any of the people who so desired were allowed to enter the tent, and to them Moses spoke again the same words. Thus Aaron heard these precepts four times, his sons thrice, the elders twice, and the people once, from the lips of Moses. After this first course of instruction, the prophet retired and Aaron repeated the precepts; then his sons spoke the words which they had heard; the elders reiterated them, and thus were the commands delivered to Moses, impressed upon the minds of the people, who were authorised in turn to teach one another. The precepts themselves were written on rolls of parchment, but the explanations thereof became the basis of the oral law, the foundation and substance of the Talmud. These six hundred and thirteen precepts were given between the years 2448 and 2488 (1312 and 1272 B.C.E.).
Polano, H., trans. The Talmud. Selections from the Contents of that Ancient Book, its Commentaries, Teachings, Poetry, and Legends. London and New York: Frederick Warne and Co., 1894.

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