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The Talmud: A Biography

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Containing nearly two million words in 37 volumes, the Talmud covers topics as diverse as law, faith, medicine, magic, ethics, sex, humour and prayer. It is a highly complex, profoundly logical and frequently impenetrable work with a history like no other. In its 1500 year history the Talmud has been banned, censored and burned, dissected by scholars and rabbis, probed by Containing nearly two million words in 37 volumes, the Talmud covers topics as diverse as law, faith, medicine, magic, ethics, sex, humour and prayer. It is a highly complex, profoundly logical and frequently impenetrable work with a history like no other. In its 1500 year history the Talmud has been banned, censored and burned, dissected by scholars and rabbis, probed by philosophers, poets, republicans and kings. In The Talmud – A Biography, Jewish scholar Harry Freedman recounts the engrossing story of an ancient classic, the legal and mystical pillar of Judaism and recounts the story of a book which, in many ways, parallels the history of the Jewish people. From its origins as a record of discussions amongst scholars in towns and villages close to modern-day Baghdad, Freedman traces the spiralling paths of the Jewish diaspora and explores the story of the Talmud’s early origins in Babylon, its role during the Enlightenment and its influence over traditional Judaism. A compelling fusion of law, storytelling and spirituality, the Talmud’s story is a fascinating insight into the history of Judaism and Harry Freedman’s The Talmud – A Biography is a remarkable account of one of the most important cultural, historical and religious works of our time.


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Containing nearly two million words in 37 volumes, the Talmud covers topics as diverse as law, faith, medicine, magic, ethics, sex, humour and prayer. It is a highly complex, profoundly logical and frequently impenetrable work with a history like no other. In its 1500 year history the Talmud has been banned, censored and burned, dissected by scholars and rabbis, probed by Containing nearly two million words in 37 volumes, the Talmud covers topics as diverse as law, faith, medicine, magic, ethics, sex, humour and prayer. It is a highly complex, profoundly logical and frequently impenetrable work with a history like no other. In its 1500 year history the Talmud has been banned, censored and burned, dissected by scholars and rabbis, probed by philosophers, poets, republicans and kings. In The Talmud – A Biography, Jewish scholar Harry Freedman recounts the engrossing story of an ancient classic, the legal and mystical pillar of Judaism and recounts the story of a book which, in many ways, parallels the history of the Jewish people. From its origins as a record of discussions amongst scholars in towns and villages close to modern-day Baghdad, Freedman traces the spiralling paths of the Jewish diaspora and explores the story of the Talmud’s early origins in Babylon, its role during the Enlightenment and its influence over traditional Judaism. A compelling fusion of law, storytelling and spirituality, the Talmud’s story is a fascinating insight into the history of Judaism and Harry Freedman’s The Talmud – A Biography is a remarkable account of one of the most important cultural, historical and religious works of our time.

30 review for The Talmud: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Harry Freedman

    I wrote The Talmud: A Biography because I have had so many conversations over the years with people who had heard of the Talmud but didn’t really know what it was. Traditionally, writers have tried to to bring the Talmud to a wider audience by compiling anthologies or publishing extracts. Some of these are excellent, I’ve mentioned a few on this website. But extracts and anthologies do not fully explain why the Talmud is such an important, and yet in many ways neglected, part of world culture. It I wrote The Talmud: A Biography because I have had so many conversations over the years with people who had heard of the Talmud but didn’t really know what it was. Traditionally, writers have tried to to bring the Talmud to a wider audience by compiling anthologies or publishing extracts. Some of these are excellent, I’ve mentioned a few on this website. But extracts and anthologies do not fully explain why the Talmud is such an important, and yet in many ways neglected, part of world culture. It is as ancient as many of the world’s classics, lengthier than possibly any other, complex in its composition, frequently profound in its content and it has had a far more tumultuous story than most. A story which is not contained in the words on its pages. It was this story, or at least a good part of it, which I have tried to tell. Most people who have had a good Jewish education have studied, or at least dipped into the Talmud. We value it because it is, as I have tried to explain in the book, the foundation of Judaism. We rarely stop to acknowledge it as part of our cultural heritage. Yet, in a world which is far more culturally interconnected than ever before, the Talmud is not just the heritage of the Jews. It is a classic of world literature. And its story deserves to be told.

  2. 4 out of 5

    C. Varn

    Freedman's history is a history of the development and traditions around the Talmud--moving from post-Second Temple Pharisaic Judaism through the diaspora in Zoroastrian and Islamic lands and its reception in Europe. Freedman's introduction is readable, journalistic, but its scope is somewhat beyond the couple of hundred pages of a popular introduction. For those with little understanding of the structure of the Talmud--the Mishnah, Midrash, and legalistic discussion or the various schools of Ra Freedman's history is a history of the development and traditions around the Talmud--moving from post-Second Temple Pharisaic Judaism through the diaspora in Zoroastrian and Islamic lands and its reception in Europe. Freedman's introduction is readable, journalistic, but its scope is somewhat beyond the couple of hundred pages of a popular introduction. For those with little understanding of the structure of the Talmud--the Mishnah, Midrash, and legalistic discussion or the various schools of Rabbis that led it, I suspect many will be fascinated. The more modern discussion, including Christian Hebraists, attempts to translate it, Henry VIII's attempt to use the text against the Pope, the various pro- and anti-Judaist polemics abounding about the Talmud is also fascinating and even less known. The discussions of the complicated relationship of the between the Jewish Enlightenment and classical Reform movement and the Talmud are fascinating and Reform's love/hate relationship to the Talmud is quite interesting. The primary frustration I have with the text is that each topic could be more fully discussed, but not in a book for a popular readership and at an approachable page count. My secondary frustration is that the content of the Talmud is not discussed that much at all, but again, that is not what the book attests it will do. Freedman's text does exactly what it says it will, so holding those two traits against it seems hardly fair. Highly recommended as an introduction to the history around the Talmud.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    I received a free copy of this book from Goodreads. This isn’t a book with mass market appeal and it’s not for the faint hearted. Turgid, indigestible, impenetrable – all words that came to mind when reviewing this book. However, just because a book is ‘difficult going’ doesn’t in itself detract from the quality of the work. In this case, it doesn’t, as the author has clearly made a spirited attempt to contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of the subject matter. With only a layman I received a free copy of this book from Goodreads. This isn’t a book with mass market appeal and it’s not for the faint hearted. Turgid, indigestible, impenetrable – all words that came to mind when reviewing this book. However, just because a book is ‘difficult going’ doesn’t in itself detract from the quality of the work. In this case, it doesn’t, as the author has clearly made a spirited attempt to contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of the subject matter. With only a layman’s prior knowledge, I felt that this book was always going to be difficult and so it proved to be. When the going got tough, I didn’t really get going. However, it did shine a light for me into some dark corners, even if it was only akin to that from an energy saving bulb! I thought it was well-written and the author shouldn’t be judged on the failings of his readers. I would say that if you have a genuine interest and a desire for greater understanding, then jump in as you will derive some benefit– but if you’re not one of life’s strong swimmers, then you will struggle and end up climbing out, if you haven’t already drowned in treacle. In reading this book, I have certainly learnt a few things but in all honestly, I was pleased to get to the end and move onto something rather lighter.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Binya Koatz

    GREAT

  5. 5 out of 5

    The Jewish Book Council

    Review by Wallace Green for the Jewish Book Council. Review by Wallace Green for the Jewish Book Council.

  6. 4 out of 5

    T Fool

    To consider Talmud biographically does imply it to be a living being. The devout may regard it so. But its vitality really isn't explored here. We're given chronology, geography. We get mention of key figures surrounding it. As an item sacred to a culture, one that helped further develop that culture, we watch it survive and continue to regenerate. But page after page, we as readers live on the its surface. Talmud is 'handled', but looking at its interior is disclaimed from the start. This book i To consider Talmud biographically does imply it to be a living being. The devout may regard it so. But its vitality really isn't explored here. We're given chronology, geography. We get mention of key figures surrounding it. As an item sacred to a culture, one that helped further develop that culture, we watch it survive and continue to regenerate. But page after page, we as readers live on the its surface. Talmud is 'handled', but looking at its interior is disclaimed from the start. This book is informative, but . . . superficial.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Abigail G

    I greatly enjoyed this book. While a lot of information it read like a story. It was so exciting to have all the names of distinct Jewish Rabbis laid out in a historical timeline! The stories and cultural depictions gave clarity to when each person lived and how they influenced the Talmud. Anyone who wishes to understand this central part of Judaism should read this book. It is so helpful to understand the reasons of Judaism and other religions as well.

  8. 5 out of 5

    David Margolis

    This book is an excellent overview of the life of the Talmud, it's origins, its organization and how it was modified over the years. I have a better appreciation of the thought and genius of the Talmudic scholars, and I can understand why someone would spend their entire life debating the complexities of the subject. I highly recommend it for readers who have little or scant knowledge of the Talmud and Jewish thought. This book is an excellent overview of the life of the Talmud, it's origins, its organization and how it was modified over the years. I have a better appreciation of the thought and genius of the Talmudic scholars, and I can understand why someone would spend their entire life debating the complexities of the subject. I highly recommend it for readers who have little or scant knowledge of the Talmud and Jewish thought.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nic

    An approachable introduction to the Talmud - repeats many of the things you might know about the Talmud and some you might not. Gives a broad overview of the history of study and composition in an approachable non-academic writing style. Worth a read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    This book reads as an academic treatise on the Talmud, not a biography. Read it if you want an excellent overview of Talmudic interpretation and of the ways this process has formed and been formed by Jewish experiences.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Caleb Robinson

    Compulsively readable and a great overview.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ada Quasibee

    Enjoyable, accessible intro to the history of the Talmud. Highly recommended. I especially appreciated finishing this just as I start Daf Yomi.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Steve Gross

    Not a book about the contents of the Talmud, but a history of the book itself. Some interesting history with lively writing.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    Very readable An interesting historical review for the average reader. Read it having read all of chaim Potoks books, for the context. Recognized many of his references.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Nicole T.

    Only enjoyable if you're interested in the subject. Focused mostly on a chronological presentation of the text's history and evolution. Lots of incomplete sentences (just like this review!), and even spelling and grammatical errors, which make me question the quality of the scholarship. Only enjoyable if you're interested in the subject. Focused mostly on a chronological presentation of the text's history and evolution. Lots of incomplete sentences (just like this review!), and even spelling and grammatical errors, which make me question the quality of the scholarship.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kat

    a deeply enjoyable work. it became clear that the history of the Talmud is deeply entwined with Jewish history itself.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Eric Silverman

    Talmudic refers to dense, Incomprehensibly profound. Here, Harry Freedman sheds light. The book chronicles the revelatory and great, the ignorant bad actors (Medieval) Evil (Nazi and others) paralleling the people’s plight. Freedman’s a trustworthy scholar guide who explains in plain English, and the book is populated with folks you know and others you will meet does the first time.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Tracy Riva

    The Talmud: A Biography is a book of magnificent scope covering the history of the Talmud – one of Judaism’s most important texts – from its beginnings in the schools of Jerusalem and Babylon through the modern era. It details the first known burning of the Talmud as Crusaders set forth to battle Muslims in Jerusalem, but stopped first to kill Jews along the way and burn their ancient scrolls, through the many burnings that have taken place since. It also details how Talmud study has become an e The Talmud: A Biography is a book of magnificent scope covering the history of the Talmud – one of Judaism’s most important texts – from its beginnings in the schools of Jerusalem and Babylon through the modern era. It details the first known burning of the Talmud as Crusaders set forth to battle Muslims in Jerusalem, but stopped first to kill Jews along the way and burn their ancient scrolls, through the many burnings that have taken place since. It also details how Talmud study has become an end in itself. For many the study of the Talmud becomes a life long pursuit. The belief being that Talmud study is even more important than good deeds for its study is believed to lead to good deeds. The history of the Talmud, and its endurance through multiple persecutions is fascinating. Its history and that of the Jewish nation, are so intricately intertwined that they mirror one another. I highly recommend this book. It is well presented, interesting and presented in a manner anyone can understand. A solid, stimulating read.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Reading Reader

    I know a few bits and pieces about the Talmud, but not much. I was looking forward to learning about its formation and history, sure, but I assumed that its content would also be on display here, at least a little bit. It was the subtitle that drew me in. A book about the Talmud, written as a biography -- that sounds great. Unfortunately, this is instead written as The Talmud: A History. It's like a biography that tells you all about what happened to the person over the course of his/her life, bu I know a few bits and pieces about the Talmud, but not much. I was looking forward to learning about its formation and history, sure, but I assumed that its content would also be on display here, at least a little bit. It was the subtitle that drew me in. A book about the Talmud, written as a biography -- that sounds great. Unfortunately, this is instead written as The Talmud: A History. It's like a biography that tells you all about what happened to the person over the course of his/her life, but never tells you even a little bit of what the person was like. A final thought (and the reason for two stars instead of three): Was Bloomsbury's editorial staff on vacation when this got published? Large chunks of the book are filled with sentence fragments and the kind of mistakes that a spell-checker doesn't notice but an editor should. Other sections of the book are more or less free of these errors, so there was clearly some editing done -- just not nearly enough.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Abbey

    I'm pretty certain that I'm not the target audience for this work, despite Freedman writing in the Introduction that a knowledge of the Talmud isn't necessary, I think it would be of more interest to people with a prior knowledge. That being said, I really enjoyed reading this. I'm not going to lie and say that it wasn't hard going; it took so much of my concentration to make sure that I was actually taking the information in - I felt like I was doing my dissertation all over again. I really fee I'm pretty certain that I'm not the target audience for this work, despite Freedman writing in the Introduction that a knowledge of the Talmud isn't necessary, I think it would be of more interest to people with a prior knowledge. That being said, I really enjoyed reading this. I'm not going to lie and say that it wasn't hard going; it took so much of my concentration to make sure that I was actually taking the information in - I felt like I was doing my dissertation all over again. I really feel that it was worth it though. I read around a chapter a day, sometimes I gave it a miss for a few days, but it was something that seemed to stick with me. The way that Freedman writes is almost conversational, so although the information you're getting is heavy the way in which it reaches you is quite relaxed. This really awoke the history student inside me, and I will defintely be looking into reading more about early Europe and on Moses Mandelssohn and Shabbetai Tzvi.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Joe Q.

    This book is a survey of Jewish history from the perspective of the Talmud, illustrating its rise to prominence and both the devotion and scorn it has received. As someone who regularly learns Talmud, I appreciated learning more of the back-story of its dissemination and adoption into the Jewish world. At the same time, I wonder how much someone who has never opened a volume of Talmud could actually appreciate a book like this -- while describing the Talmud's history very well, it doesn't actuall This book is a survey of Jewish history from the perspective of the Talmud, illustrating its rise to prominence and both the devotion and scorn it has received. As someone who regularly learns Talmud, I appreciated learning more of the back-story of its dissemination and adoption into the Jewish world. At the same time, I wonder how much someone who has never opened a volume of Talmud could actually appreciate a book like this -- while describing the Talmud's history very well, it doesn't actually provide much in the way of a sample text (its quotes consist only of sentences and sentence fragments) that would give the neophyte reader any perspective on the Talmud's language and methods. Freedman's writing is clear but somewhat choppy. The book also has an unfortunate number of spelling mistakes and typos. It's a quick read, though, and worth a look for anyone interested in Jewish history who already has some familiarity with the Talmud.

  22. 5 out of 5

    John Carter

    I received this book from Goodreads after entering a giveaway. I went into the reading of this book with minimal knowledge of the Jewish faith. And with zero knowledge of the Talmud. Even though at the start of the book it says you don't require knowledge of the Talmud to be able to read this book. I do think that previous knowledge of the Talmud and what it has been through would make the read more interesting, as you can better know what the book contains rather than being told. But nonetheless, I received this book from Goodreads after entering a giveaway. I went into the reading of this book with minimal knowledge of the Jewish faith. And with zero knowledge of the Talmud. Even though at the start of the book it says you don't require knowledge of the Talmud to be able to read this book. I do think that previous knowledge of the Talmud and what it has been through would make the read more interesting, as you can better know what the book contains rather than being told. But nonetheless, I still enjoyed reading and found the content of the book fascinating. My previous (and basic knowledge of the Jewish faith, and the Talmud) has been vastly expanded. The book gives an in-depth look at the content and appearance of the Talmudic pages, with a detailed history about the book its self.

  23. 4 out of 5

    William Crosby

    This book explained to me the Talmud (more specifically the Babylonian Talmud) and its importance and relationship to other works such as the Torah and Mishnah. Presents the Talmud as having a turbulent history parallel to that of the Jewish people, being more important than the Bible as the foundation of the Jewish legal system and the reason for the development of the Jews as a distinctive group of people who might have otherwise been dispersed and forgotten (like the lost 10 tribes). Discusse This book explained to me the Talmud (more specifically the Babylonian Talmud) and its importance and relationship to other works such as the Torah and Mishnah. Presents the Talmud as having a turbulent history parallel to that of the Jewish people, being more important than the Bible as the foundation of the Jewish legal system and the reason for the development of the Jews as a distinctive group of people who might have otherwise been dispersed and forgotten (like the lost 10 tribes). Discusses its role in world history and culture and how a variety of tragedies have often led to the further development of the Talmud and its influence. Primarily focuses on individuals and what they did with respect to the Talmud. Mostly interesting account. Extensive bibliography for further reading.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephie Williams

    This book was different than most of the books on the Talmud I have read. It concentrated on the history of its compilation and later trials and tribulations. One piece of content that was mentioned was that you are required to put your right shoe on first. Good thing I don't believe in the Talmud's content and am not an orthodox jew. Although I suppose that Yom Kipper would take care of it, since it seems to me that it is a sin against god only, so that no forgivenes is require of other humans. This book was different than most of the books on the Talmud I have read. It concentrated on the history of its compilation and later trials and tribulations. One piece of content that was mentioned was that you are required to put your right shoe on first. Good thing I don't believe in the Talmud's content and am not an orthodox jew. Although I suppose that Yom Kipper would take care of it, since it seems to me that it is a sin against god only, so that no forgivenes is require of other humans. Overall, I found the book to be pretty good. The author presents the flavor of the times very well. It is a quick moving book not being very long, less than 230 pages including a small glossary. It is a good book for someone interest in jewish history, but not for someone who is after the Talmud's content.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Klein

    This book is a captivating history of the Talmud, of Judaism and frankly of western civilization. While I have read and studied much of this time period, it was good to have it put into a context and all in one place. The Talmud is a work of literature that has defined Judaism through the millennium. It is the backbone of Jewish law and debate and essential for understanding the Torah. By turning the history into a biography (of a book not a person) and making the book the central character, we This book is a captivating history of the Talmud, of Judaism and frankly of western civilization. While I have read and studied much of this time period, it was good to have it put into a context and all in one place. The Talmud is a work of literature that has defined Judaism through the millennium. It is the backbone of Jewish law and debate and essential for understanding the Torah. By turning the history into a biography (of a book not a person) and making the book the central character, we better understand its development and role. Very helpful! Good for professionals and for lay people as well.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Johnny Leavesley

    I received this book through Goodreads and dutifully ploughed my way through it. For a Christian layman as myself with a passing interest in the two other religions of 'the Book' this was an easily digestible summary of what the Talmud is and how it has evolved. It is, however, written with an academic's love of detail rather than granting us a narrative sweep of how it became so important and central to Judaism and the Jewish diaspora. Still, I enjoyed it. I received this book through Goodreads and dutifully ploughed my way through it. For a Christian layman as myself with a passing interest in the two other religions of 'the Book' this was an easily digestible summary of what the Talmud is and how it has evolved. It is, however, written with an academic's love of detail rather than granting us a narrative sweep of how it became so important and central to Judaism and the Jewish diaspora. Still, I enjoyed it.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

    After receiving this book in a Goodreads giveaway, I did wonder if it would be my "cup of tea". I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the historical detail and feel even though I may have been more interested if I had morevknowledge of the Talmud and the Jewish faith beforehand, this book is written with the novice in mind and I was intrigued throughout. This is definitely an introduction to what is obviously an enormous subject. After receiving this book in a Goodreads giveaway, I did wonder if it would be my "cup of tea". I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the historical detail and feel even though I may have been more interested if I had morevknowledge of the Talmud and the Jewish faith beforehand, this book is written with the novice in mind and I was intrigued throughout. This is definitely an introduction to what is obviously an enormous subject.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    A very readable history of the development and influence of the Talmud, beginning with the Roman defeat of the Jews and coming right to the present time. Judaism's largely positive experiences under early Islam and its tortured, depressing dealings with Christianity are very much on display. A good overview, not of the scripture's content but of its history. A very readable history of the development and influence of the Talmud, beginning with the Roman defeat of the Jews and coming right to the present time. Judaism's largely positive experiences under early Islam and its tortured, depressing dealings with Christianity are very much on display. A good overview, not of the scripture's content but of its history.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Moti Rieber

    This is a 200-ish page history of the Talmud. It's brief, well-written (though idiosyncratically copyedited), not jargon-y, and would be of interest in anyone with an interest in Jewish intellectual history. It should be required reading in the rabbinic year at RRC. This is a 200-ish page history of the Talmud. It's brief, well-written (though idiosyncratically copyedited), not jargon-y, and would be of interest in anyone with an interest in Jewish intellectual history. It should be required reading in the rabbinic year at RRC.

  30. 5 out of 5

    David

    Very interesting history of the Talmud. This is not a religious book, but rather a history of a religious book and with it the tribulations of the Jewish people that at various times created, supported, forgot and rediscovered it.

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