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Talmud and Bible


Written by Gil Student

The Accusation

The Talmud is Judaism's holiest book (actually a collection of books). Its authority takes precedence over the Old Testament in Judaism. Evidence of this may be found in the Talmud itself, Erubin 21b (Soncino edition): "My son, be more careful in the observance of the words of the Scribes than in the words of the Torah (Old Testament)."

 

It is indeed interesting that anyone should make this claim about the Talmud. While it is certainly not true that Judaism views the Talmud as being holier than the Bible, what if it were true? How does that in any way show that Judaism is wrong?

However, as with most of these claims, the exact opposite is true. Judaism considers the Bible to be its holiest book and biblical laws are considered most important. Judaism views the Torah (Five Books of Moses) as the literal word of G-d. The Prophets (Joshua, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremeiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Prophets) are the divinely inspired words of the prophets to the people and the Sacred Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Chronicles) are the divinely inspired words of the prophets to be inscribed. The Bible is the holiest book to Judaism and is treated with special respect. The following is taken from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged Code of Jewish Law) in the laws regarding treatment of a Torah scroll.

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:3

A person is obligated to treat a Torah scroll with great respect and it is praiseworthy to appoint it a special place and to respect that place and beautify it. One should not spit in front of a Torah scroll and one should not hold it without a cloth [in between the scroll and one's bare hands]. One who sees someone carrying a Torah scroll must rise before it until the Torah scroll is placed in its position or until one no longer sees it.

Similarly, we treat the Bible with such respect that no books are allowed to be placed on top of a Bible. Even a book of the Prophets or Sacred Writings may not be placed on top of a Torah [Talmud Megillah 27a].

From a legal perspective, biblical laws are more important than rabbinic laws.

Talmud Shabbat 128b

Removing a utensil from its prepared function is a rabbinic prohibition, causing pain to animals is a biblical prohibition. The biblical prohibition comes and overrides the rabbinic prohibition.

We see the same in Talmud Pesachim 9b that we are stricter with biblical laws than with rabbinic laws. In Talmud Pesachim 4b, Eiruvin 30, and Ketuvot 28b children's testimony is seen as acceptable only for rabbinic laws but not for biblical laws because they have stricter requirements. In Talmud Berachot 21a we see that when in doubt whether a biblical commandment has been fulfilled one must repeat it but when in doubt whether a rabbinic commandment has been fulfilled there is no need to repeat it. A similar idea is repeated in Talmud Avodah Zarah 7a - when there are two opinions about a biblical commandment we follow the stricter opinion but when there are two opinions about a rabbinic commandment we follow the more lenient opinion. Anyone familiar with Talmudic thinking immediately recognizes the ridiculousness of a claim that Judaism considers the Talmud more important than the Bible.

Not only is the Bible important to Jews, but the Talmud tells us that we are obligated to study it.

Talmud Avot 5:21

He [R. Yehudah ben Teima] would say: A five year old to Scriptures, a ten year old to Mishnah, a thirteen year old to commandments, a fifteen year old to Gemara...

However, Bible study may begin at the age of five but the Talmud tells us that it must remain a major part of our daily study routine.

Talmud Kiddushin 30a

A man must always divide his years into three - one third in Scriptures, one third in Mishnah, and one third in Talmud. Who knows how long he will live? Rather his day must be split into thirds.

In fact, Talmud Berachot 8b tells us that a Jew must review a portion of the Torah each week twice and again in translation and finish the Torah each year.

There is no question that the Bible, as the Written Law, is a center-piece of Judaism and while the Talmud may contain discussions of the Oral Law, the Bible has precedence.

 

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Copyright 2000 Gil Student