Visu­al Arts

Vision & Val­or: An Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry Of The Talmud

Rab­bi Ber­el Wein
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
Nev­er judge a book by its cov­er” is an impor­tant max­im for review­ers and read­ers alike. This hand­some, full col­or, large for­mat, and glossy gift book, pur­ports to be an illus­trat­ed his­to­ry of the Tal­mud and its cre­ators, the Amoraim of the Land of Israel and Baby­lo­nia. While Rab­bi Wein has a well deserved rep­u­ta­tion as a pop­u­lar­iz­er of Jew­ish his­to­ry, this vol­ume falls quite short of its stat­ed goal writ large and in gold on the book’s cov­er. As the author him­self states in his pref­ace, this book is “…a pop­u­lar review of the lives and per­son­al­i­ties of the cre­ators of the Mish­nah and Tal­mud…” While these detailed biogra­phies are excel­lent and com­pre­hen­sive and of great val­ue in and of them­selves they do not con­sti­tute a his­to­ry of the Tal­mud and as such the title is mis­lead­ing.

Although one may quib­ble with some of Rab­bi Wein’s his­tor­i­cal state­ments, most of what he writes is fine for the aver­age read­er. One error, how­ev­er, should be cor­rect­ed. The Tal­mud was not final­ly redact­ed in 550 CE. That process went on for sev­er­al more cen­turies into the Geon­ic peri­od. The pass­ing of Rav­ina and Rav Ashi end­ed the process of hora’ah (insruc­tion) when the Rab­bis were allowed to heremeneu­ti­cal­ly deduce teach­ings from the Bib­li­cal text, but the Tal­mu­dic text itself was not fixed until some time lat­er.

These biogra­phies bring to life, for the first time in Eng­lish, the sto­ries of the schol­ars who cre­at­ed the Tal­mud. There are copi­ous notes and a fine glos­sary, and Rab­bi Wein lists his Hebrew sources in the intro­duc­tion. What is miss­ing is any ref­er­ence to the work of Rab­bi Adin Stein­saltz, and the Ashke­naz­ic vocal­iza­tion is some­what jar­ring.

The illus­tra­tions are lav­ish and beau­ti­ful but have no bear­ing on the text or often even on the peri­od under dis­cus­sion.

There have been many antholo­gies of pas­sages from the Tal­mud, and even some books for begin­ners who wish to study the Tal­mud. A his­to­ry of the Tal­mud is dif­fi­cult to con­fine to one vol­ume. The sub­ject mate­r­i­al is so broad and all encom­pass­ing that the task is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult. Learned pro­fes­sors and rab­bis have writ­ten vol­umes on this sub­ject. Aside from the obvi­ous devel­op­ment of Jew­ish law and prac­tice, there exist volu­mi­nous stud­ies of med­i­cine, ethics, divorce laws, court pro­ce­dures, math­e­mat­ics, agri­cul­ture, civ­il law, crim­i­nal law, social com­men­tary, etc. as dis­cussed in the Tal­mud. One can also find illus­tra­tions of realia con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous to the Tal­mu­dic peri­od. The Tal­mud isn’t just a text of sev­er­al thou­sand folio pages. It con­tains the life giv­ing source of all of Jew­ish life. Hence the dif­fi­cul­ty of con­dens­ing it.

 One can­not sep­a­rate the Tal­mud from the rab­bis who cre­at­ed it. Their lives made man­i­fest the val­ues that they taught. To the extent that these biogra­phies shed light on the lives of the rab­bis of the Tal­mud and the Tal­mud itself, it is a worth­while exer­cise and a valu­able contribution.
Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions