Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures

Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures

Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures

Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures


In Becoming the People of the Talmud, Talya Fishman examines ways in which circumstances of transmission have shaped the cultural meaning of Jewish traditions. Although the Talmud's preeminence in Jewish study and its determining role in Jewish practice are generally taken for granted, Fishman contends that these roles were not solidified until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The inscription of Talmud--which Sefardi Jews understand to have occurred quite early, and Ashkenazi Jews only later--precipitated these developments. The encounter with Oral Torah as a written corpus was transformative for both subcultures, and it shaped the roles that Talmud came to play in Jewish life.

What were the historical circumstances that led to the inscription of Oral Torah in medieval Europe? How did this body of ancient rabbinic traditions, replete with legal controversies and nonlegal material, come to be construed as a reference work and prescriptive guide to Jewish life? Connecting insights from geonica, medieval Jewish and Christian history, and orality-textuality studies, Becoming the People of the Talmud reconstructs the process of cultural transformation that occurred once medieval Jews encountered the Babylonian Talmud as a written text. According to Fishman, the ascription of greater authority to written text was accompanied by changes in reading habits, compositional predilections, classroom practices, approaches to adjudication, assessments of the past, and social hierarchies. She contends that certain medieval Jews were aware of these changes: some noted that books had replaced teachers; others protested the elevation of Talmud-centered erudition and casuistic virtuosity into standards of religious excellence, at the expense of spiritual refinement. The book concludes with a consideration of Rhineland Pietism's emergence in this context and suggests that two contemporaneous phenomena--the prominence of custom in medieval Ashkenazi culture and the novel Christian attack on Talmud--were indirectly linked to the new eminence of this written text in Jewish life.


The University of Pennsylvania Press’s decision to issue Becoming the People of the Talmud in paperback provides me with an opportunity to correct factual errors and to shed light on criticism that followed the book’s publication. This Preface will highlight some of the book’s challenges to entrenched perspectives in the hopes of promoting substantive conversation about the critical study of medieval rabbinic culture.

A work of intellectual and cultural history that relies on primary sources, Becoming the People of the Talmud attempts to reconstruct the process through which the Babylonian Talmud came to serve as Judaism’s quintessential guide to law. The book focuses on ways in which the Talmud was used in disparate geographic communities between the tenth and twelfth centuries, by documenting its roles in the study hall and in legal decision-making and by tracing the shift from its oral to its written transmission. These matters are explored in conjunction with cultural features of the broader societies that the Jewish communities inhabited. A major finding of this work, revolutionary to some, is that the way in which the Talmud would be used as a guide to applied law was by no means predetermined. All Rabbanite Jews recognized the Talmud as an authoritative corpus, but, as late as the twelfth century, scholars from different regions disagreed about the supplementary texts that were to be consulted in order to facilitate use of the Talmud as a source of prescriptive law.

Students of rabbinic culture might understand this book as an investigation that focuses on the discrepancy between two categories recognized in the Talmud itself: “halakha,” or received legal tradition, and “halakha lema’aseh,” or received legal tradition that is implemented in deed, or practice. The distinction between the two is often obscured in common parlance. In considering their relationship, Becoming the People of the Talmud poses several historical questions: Did the boundaries between the categories denoted, respectively, by halakha and halakha le-ma’aseh become less stark during the . . .

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