In The Shadow Of Destruction

In The Shadow Of Destruction

The Talmud as an expression of dogged Jewish optimism.

One of the best-known and most cherished stories in rabbinic literature is set in the shadow of a destroyed Jerusalem:

One time [Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar b. ‘Azariah, R. Yehoshua and R. Akiva] went up to Jerusalem … when they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies. They began to weep, but R. Akiba laughed. They asked him: Why are you laughing? Said he: Why are you crying? Said they to him: A place of which it was once said, “And the common man that approaches shall be put to death (Numbers 15:5),” now has foxes prancing about, and should we not weep? Said he to them: That is why I laugh, for it is written, “And call reliable witnesses, the priest Uriah and Zechariah the Son of Jeberechiah, to witness for me (Isaiah 8:2).”… Scripture linked the [later] prophecy of Zechariah with the [earlier] prophecy of Uriah. In [the prophecy of] Uriah it is written, Zion shall be ploughed as a field (Micah 3:12). In Zechariah it is written, Thus said the Lord of Hosts, There shall yet be old men and old women sitting in the squares of Jerusalem (Zechariah 8:4). So long as Uriah's prophecy had not had its fulfillment, I thought just as Uriah’s prophecy has not been fulfilled, so too Zechariah’s prophecy might, G-d forbid, not be fulfilled. Now that Uriah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zechariah’s prophecy also is to be fulfilled. They said to him, using these very words, “Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!” (b. Makkot 24b)

With Jerusalem destroyed, and when all was gloom and doom, the great first-century rabbinic interpreter, Rabbi Akiva, somehow managed to see the stirrings of redemption in the smoldering ruins. Judging from its appropriation and adaption in Jewish literature in later centuries, we know that this story remained popular among Jews. Its message of hope kept Jews well, or at least sane, during the expulsions and pogroms they suffered in exile. It also helped engender that distinctive Jewish comedic aesthetic, present in maskilic satires and even the so-called “Holocaust comedies.” The Talmud contains many such passages with positive encouragement across its folios. But more interesting than that is the possibility of conceiving of the Talmud itself as a kind of optimism.

Since the Middle Ages, Jews have been known as the people of the book. No matter that this designation came from an Islamic classification of Scripture-based religions, or that the term included non-Jews, like Christians, as well. In time, Jews would re-appropriate the title and make it their own. There is a significant point about the Jews as a people of the book that is frequently missed. Despite publicly reading the Pentateuch in synagogue a few times a week, dancing with the Torah scrolls on the holiday of Simchat Torah and extolling the beauty and relevance of the Tanach, the truth of the matter is that the religious text which received the greatest attention and intellectual investment from the Jewish community was not the Bible; rather, the Babylonian Talmud. When the Church finally came to realize this, the results were disastrous. But learned Jews knew all along that the nerve center of their intellectual heritage was rabbinic and not biblical in nature.

There is a good deal of debate among scholars about when the rabbinic movement actually began. By some accounts it was born in the aftermath of two awesome moments of destruction — the defeat of the Judean revolt against Rome in 70 CE and the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. Despite this, the Mishna — the very first major rabbinic text, composed around 200 CE and the base interpretive text for the Babylonian Talmud, which was compiled some three centuries later — preserves scarcely any references to the destruction of Jerusalem or its Temple. It is composed in a gorgeous, scholarly classical Hebrew, and across its six orders (devoted to the laws of agriculture, festivals, torts and much more) rarely is heard a discouraging word.

Entire tractates of the Mishna are devoted to institutions that had literally burned down more than a century earlier, and the Mishna and the Talmud proceed to create a space where their own scholars and their inheritors can be enveloped in a dialogue that unfolds beyond the crush of defeat. As moderns, we tend to see denial as a great character flaw, but the Talmud and its unhindered intellectual optimism marshals the denial of destruction as an asset.

Jewish tradition considers the Babylonian Talmud to be part of the Oral Torah. It is true that for more than a millennium it has been studied exclusively via the written word. But as incredible as it may sound, the Talmud was originally composed and transmitted orally. Because we are talking about a document of some 1,800,000 words, like ancient, sacred Indian literature the Talmud has attracted the attention of scholars who study oral transmission and the capacity of the human mind to commit vast amounts of knowledge to memory. The mechanics of compiling, editing and transmitting an oral text like the Talmud are still in the process of being sorted out, but already one cannot help but marvel at the optimism of the Talmudic rabbis who handed this encyclopedic text to their students in the hope and expectation that the next generation of rabbis would do the same. Miraculously, through their efforts this pillar of Jewish tradition survives to this day. What is more, it spawned countless commentaries and super-commentaries (commentaries on commentaries) that are still with us in the 21st century.

At some point, the Talmud was written down on parchment. By the turn of the first millennium CE, the copying of manuscripts was its primary mode of transmission. This was centuries before the advent of the printing press, so like the oral transmitters before them, the scribes who painstakingly copied the Talmud word by word could undertake this gargantuan task only with the naïve optimism that their manuscript would be studied, and ultimately, that it would survive the ravages of mice and mildew, along with war and violence, to be copied onto a new piece of parchment that might continue the chain of transmission. Nothing was assured. When cartloads of Talmudic manuscripts were burned by the Church beginning in the 12th century, the work of these scribes must have seemed cruelly Sisyphean.

The story of Akiva’s comforting words, reproduced above, appears at the very end of tractate Makkot, and my translation is based upon a famously reliable Yemenite manuscript now preserved in Jerusalem. The scribe of this manuscript concludes the story with these words, typical of medieval manuscripts: “Makkot is concluded with the help of Heaven.” He then adds the following words of prayer: “By Your name, He who has mercy on creation, I will fortify myself and copy Talmud Ta’anit.” We still have this scribe’s handiwork for tractate Ta’anit. Yet to our great misfortune, the surviving copy ends six folios early, and by incredible coincidence with the words “they do not complete it.”

The Talmud is at its heart an interpretive endeavor. First and foremost its goal is to explain the Mishna, though essentially it interprets anything and everything that holds its attention — from the makeup of the Divine chariot to, and I do not exaggerate, the best place to find a restroom. Here too, there is something distinctly optimistic about the Talmud’s exegetical impulse. Rabbinic interpreters assume that despite the Divine nature of the Bible, the meaning of the Bible is ultimately accessible to the human mind. More than that, the vast and complex world in which we live is not an impenetrable mystery, but an ultimately knowable entity. This spirit of inquiry and interpretation is a heritage of Talmudic learning. It is also the greatest optimism of all.

Shai Secunda is a Mandel Fellow at the Scholion Center, an interdisciplinary research center and a lecturer in the Talmud department, both at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He co-edits the Talmud Blog (