The Talmud: Why has a Jewish law book become so popular?
The Talmud, the book of Jewish law, is one of the most challenging religious texts in the world. But it is being read in ever larger numbers, partly thanks to digital tools that make it easier to grasp, and growing interest from women – who see no reason why men should have it to themselves.
Step into the last carriage of the 07:53 train from Inwood to Penn Station in New York and you may be in for a surprise. The commuters here are not looking at their phones or checking the value of their shares, but peering down at ancient Hebrew and Aramaic text and discussing fine points of Judaic law.
It’s a study group on wheels, and the book absorbing their attention in between station announcements is the Talmud – one of the most challenging and perplexing religious texts in the world. The group started 22 years ago, to help Long Island’s Jewish commuters find their way through the “book”, which stretches to well over 10 million words across 38 volumes.
In his book, the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud, Rabbi Aaron Parry says that when, shortly before his death, Einstein was asked what he would do differently if he could live his life again, he replied without hesitation: “I would study the Talmud.”
It contains the foundations of Halakha – the religious laws that dictate all aspects of life for observant Jews from when they wake in the morning to when they go to sleep at night. Every imaginable topic is covered, from architecture to trapping mice. To a greater extent than the other main Jewish holy book, the Torah, the Talmud is a practical book about how to live.
“The laws are very, very relevant to everyday life,” says Eliezer Cohen, a real estate manager who organises the classes on the train with a couple of other amateur scholars. “Many times, I go to the office afterwards and I’ll get questions on current events or in business and I’ll say, ‘Oh, we just learnt that today in the Talmud.’ It’s a blueprint for life.”
But the Talmud is perhaps better described as a prompt for discussion and reflection, rather than a big book of Do’s and Don’ts.
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