The People of the Book - Since When?
Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures
by Talya Fishman
University of Pennsylvania Press, 424 pp., $65
"The People of the Book" Muhammad called the Jews, and by the "Book" he meant the Bible. Observant Jews nowadays don't live by the Bible, but by the Talmud—but how long has that been the case? When did Jews start to live by the complex regulations of the Talmud; when did its regimen achieve its decisive hold? In brief, when did the reign of the Talmud begin?
Talya Fishman's new study on this central issue has awakened wide interest and received high honors. Last year, the Jewish Book Council gave Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Culture its prestigious Nahum M. Sarna Memorial National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship. The book is gracefully written, heavily documented, and advances a revolutionary argument. In fact, it challenges every notion of the past millennium about this fundamental problem and, by implication, overturns many of the most basic assumptions about the history of halakhah.
The standard version of when, where, and how the Talmud attained its normative standing runs like this: Sometime between the years 600 and 725 C.E. a group of mostly anonymous scholars known as savoraim collected and edited a vast number of the halakhic discussions that had taken place in the rabbinic academies of Mesopotamia from 200 until the middle of the 5th century. The result was the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli). Parallel halakhic discussions had taken place in Palestine that eventuated in a Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi). As Palestine was in the Byzantine Empire and Mesopotamia in the Sassanian one, the two different compendia scarcely competed. But when the Muslim conquest in the 7th century united these two worlds, the authority of the caliphs stretched from Persia to the Pyrenees, and struggles between the heads of the Palestinian academies and those of Babylonia for hegemony took on sudden urgency.