Jewish Literacy

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by Ron Fox


When the rabbis designated the bible, they excluded all works they believed were written after Ezra, the great fifth-century BCE sage. The most famous volumes are the Books of Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus, also Judith, some additions to the book of Esther and two short books about Daniel. 


MAIMONIDES (1135-1204)

The greatest work of medieval Jewish philosophy is Maimonides’s Guide to the Perplexed. He also compiled the first fully comprehensive code of Jewish law, a fourteen volume work, the Mishneh Torah. Was he attempting to draft a constitution and laws of a future Jewish state? He legislated in accordance with views expressed in the Talmud but sometimes new categories like in Tzedaka where the highest of the eight degrees of charity is to give a poor person a loan or establish him in business so that he would never again be in need of charity.



While Jewish law is based on the Torah and the interpretations of the Torah in the Talmud, one could not find an answer to the question of whether one could drive an automobile on the Sabbath and other issues which could not have been contemplated at the time they were written. The work that records legal questions Jews have posed to rabbis and their answers is known as responsa literature. Few Jews are familiar with this extensive body of Jewish literature, which encompasses thousands of volumes.



According to the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was sentenced to death in the second century but hid for 12 years in a cave with his son. In the twelfth century, a Spanish rabbi named Moses De Leon claimed that he had unearthed a manuscript that bar Yochai had written during his hiding.  The book was known as the Zohar and it has been regarded as the central work of the kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism. The Zohar and kabbalah have provoked considerable controversy, Jewish rationalists calling it dangerous nonsense in that it encourages Jews to act according to mystical impulses rather than reason.



JOSEPH KARO (1488-1575) MOSES ISSERLES, THE RAMA (1525-1572)

The legal code known as the Shulkhan Arukh, compiled by the great Sephardic rabbi Joseph Karo in the mid-1500’s is still the standard legal code of Judaism.  When rabbis, particularly if they are Orthodox, are asked to rule on a question of Jewish law, they first consult the four volumes of the Shulkhan Arukh. This is the first compilation, because of the work of Rabbi Isserles of Poland , to list the differing customs and laws of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry



The Talmud is hard to read. It is in Hebrew and Aramaic with shorthand style and each page is one paragraph with no punctuation. Rashi in the 11th century provided a running commentary explaining words no longer used, etc. Adin Steinsaltz, an Israeli born scholar and “one of the genuine Jewish geniuses of the twentieth century” has devoted his life to making the Talmud accessible to all Jews. He has published to date modern commentary on most of the Talmud (38 volumes of an anticipated 45).


©CJA 2006

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