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Becoming the People of the Talmud

Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures

By Talya Fishman

Publication Year: 2011

In Becoming the People of the Talmud, Talya Fishman examines ways in which circumstances of transmission have shaped the cultural meaning of Jewish traditions. Although the Talmud's preeminence in Jewish study and its determining role in Jewish practice are generally taken for granted, Fishman contends that these roles were not solidified until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The inscription of Talmud—which Sefardi Jews understand to have occurred quite early, and Ashkenazi Jews only later—precipitated these developments. The encounter with Oral Torah as a written corpus was transformative for both subcultures, and it shaped the roles that Talmud came to play in Jewish life.

What were the historical circumstances that led to the inscription of Oral Torah in medieval Europe? How did this body of ancient rabbinic traditions, replete with legal controversies and nonlegal material, come to be construed as a reference work and prescriptive guide to Jewish life? Connecting insights from geonica, medieval Jewish and Christian history, and orality-textuality studies, Becoming the People of the Talmud reconstructs the process of cultural transformation that occurred once medieval Jews encountered the Babylonian Talmud as a written text. According to Fishman, the ascription of greater authority to written text was accompanied by changes in reading habits, compositional predilections, classroom practices, approaches to adjudication, assessments of the past, and social hierarchies. She contends that certain medieval Jews were aware of these changes: some noted that books had replaced teachers; others protested the elevation of Talmud-centered erudition and casuistic virtuosity into standards of religious excellence, at the expense of spiritual refinement. The book concludes with a consideration of Rhineland Pietism's emergence in this context and suggests that two contemporaneous phenomena—the prominence of custom in medieval Ashkenazi culture and the novel Christian attack on Talmud—were indirectly linked to the new eminence of this written text in Jewish life.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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p. v

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pp. 1-19

The importance of the Babylonian Talmud in the lives of observant Jews is taken for granted. Yet when considered from certain vantage points, the Talmud’s role as a guide to Jewish life is bewildering. Though construed as a legal reference work, a significant proportion of the Talmud’s content does not pertain to law, ...

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1. The Place of Oral Matters in Geonic Culture

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pp. 20-64

By the eighth century, when the entire Babylonian Talmud was written out— from memory—at the request of Jews living far from the rabbinic academies of Iraq,1 some Jewish communities had come into possession of an oxymoron: an inscribed corpus of oral matters. ...

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2.Oral Matters among Jews of Qayrawan and al-Andalus: Framing Sefarad

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pp. 65-90

While late geonim conceded the necessity of inscribing oral matters, in contravention of a tannaitic prohibition, they saw no reason to disavow the tannaitic dictum stipulating that applied law could only be derived from Talmud once a master attested that the relevant teaching was to be implemented in practice. ...

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3. Framing Ashkenaz: Cultural Landmarks of Medieval Northern European Societies

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pp. 91-120

It has been fashionable in Jewish historiography to account for the subcultures of Sefarad and Ashkenaz in genealogical terms: Sefarad has been portrayed as the cultural heir of Babylonia, and Ashkenaz as the cultural heir of ancient Palestine.1 ...

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4. Textualization of North European Rabbinic Culture: The Changing Role of Talmud

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pp. 121-154

European Jewry’s shift from an ‘‘oral’’ culture to a ‘‘written’’ one in the Middle Ages has not gone unnoticed.1 Observing that Jewish works composed in late antiquity became available at this time ‘‘with disconcerting suddenness—on this side, as it were, of a great manuscript divide,’’2 historians of Hebrew codicology ....

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5. Medieval Responses to the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture

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pp. 155-181

By the twelfth century, northern European Jewish communities had come to determine applied Jewish law solely with reference to the Talmud. This approach differed considerably from that of the Babylonian geonim, who understood living tradition to be a necessary complement to the teachings preserved in Talmud. ...

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6. Rhineland Pietism and the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture in Medieval Northern Europe

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pp. 182-217

The chronological proximity of disparate cultural developments in medieval Jewish history has attracted a fair amount of scholarly attention, some of it quite productive.1 The present chapter attempts to account for the simultaneous emergence of Tosafism and Rhineland Pietism in northern European Jewish communities ....

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pp. 218-224

Little is currently known about why the amoraim generated, and preserved, the traditions found in the Babylonian Talmud. What is clear is that Jews who lived in the centuries following the last of the Talmud’s named tradents focused on the legal traditions of this orally transmitted corpus and, over time, ‘‘transposed’’ them ...


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pp. 225-228


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pp. 229-230


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pp. 231-348


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pp. 349-388


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pp. 389-410

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pp. 411-413

The University of Pennsylvania has proven a wonderful academic environment in which to complete this work. My thinking has been enriched by conversations with my students at Penn, undergraduates as well as graduates. Colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies and in the Seminar on the History of the Book have contributed to my reading and thinking; ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204988
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243130

Page Count: 424
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700579
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Becoming the People of the Talmud

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Talmud -- History.
  • Tosafists.
  • Jewish law -- Interpretation and construction.
  • Talmud Torah (Judaism) -- History.
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