The Talmud in the Sea of Babylon
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The Babylonian Talmud is by most measures a unique text in the history of religious literature. Its impressive size and complexity are remarkable, as is the great variety of topics and genres that it covers. At the same time, the Talmud is one component of the rabbinic canon, which opens with the Mishnah and includes many other compilations, including the Babylonian Talmud’s textual “sister,” the Palestinian Talmud.
The Babylonian Talmud is also neighbored by other major religious works of late antiquity, and it bears instructive similarities to, among other religious canons, the Zoroastrian tradition. This talk will introduce the Talmud as one distinct text among other classical Jewish works, and as an important component of—to adopt Guy Stroumsa’s term—the “scriptural galaxy” of the Sasanian Empire.
About the “Canon in Context” Series
Stepping back and squinting at the major works of the Jewish legal canon dotted across history, many of them appear…puzzling. Centuries of tradition treat the Mishnah, Talmud, and other texts as settled law and as contributions to rabbinic thought. But in their own times, they were outliers. Each one diverged remarkably in form and content from the Jewish writings of their time and place. So how did they get that way, and how did they become canon?
This series explores the historical context of halakhic compilations and codes: who composed them, what were they trying to achieve, and why did they choose the format and the topics they chose? Set aside what you think you know, and encounter these texts in the worlds of their creation.
About the image above: "The Book of Ruth and the Book of Ecclesiastes with Joseph Kara's commentary," ca. 1322, held in the British Library.
Shai Secunda is the Jacob Neusner Professor of Judaism at Bard College, and writes regularly for the Jewish Review of Books on Jewish scholarship and popular culture.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Klatt Family and the Harry Stern Family Foundation.