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.

This article is locked

Subscribe now for immediate and unlimited access to Web + Print + App + Archive
  • Already a subscriber? Log in to continue reading.
  • Not quite ready to subscribe? Register now for your choice of 3 FREE articles per quarter.
  • Already a registered user? Log in here.

About the Author

Haym Soloveitchik is the Merkin Family Research Professor of Jewish History and Literature at Yeshiva University. The first volume of his collected essays is forthcoming from The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in spring 2013.


yehuda on February 22, 2015 at 11:38 am
Professor Dr. Hayim Soloveitchik is totally unparalleled in his profound knowledge of the Tosafists. One does not write any new study, especially advancing revolutionary arguments, without checking first with him.
Fishman's thesis was deservedly demolished.

Want to post a comment? Please register or log in.

Most Read

What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot

When Fox News' Lauren Green asked Reza. . .

Conservative Judaism: A Requiem

In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews. . .

Editors' Picks

Playing the Fool

Of the many varieties of anti-Semitism,. . .

Nation and Narrative

The sons of Israel, from the kibbutz to. . .

The Hands of Others

Many people know of Mufti al-Husseini's. . .

In The Next JRB

  • Uri Bar-Joseph on Guy Laron’s The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East
  • Jon D. Levenson’s reconsideration of Allan Bloom and the “Great Books” idea on the 30th anniversary of The Closing of the American Mind
  • Ruby Namdar on an ambitious new translation of S.Y. Agnon
  • And more...
Copyright © 2017 Jewish Review of Books. All Rights Reserved. | Site by W&B