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Reviewed by JOSEPH LEVEN
"The Talmud a Biography" is a curious sort of book. It’s really two books in one.

Part I is the story of how the Talmud came into being. Frankly, this should have been the main subject of the book, but it only fills about 100 pages in Freedman’s telling, so he seemingly tacked on Part II to fill another 100k pages.
Part II consists of a survey of Jewish history over the last 800 years with periodic references to how the Talmud was involved in the events described. In some of these events the Talmud plays a central role; in others it is peripheral. There is nothing wrong with Part II – it’s interesting reading, but not quite what was anticipated.
In Part I Freedman does a good job of explaining what the Talmud is and how it came into being. There are of course two Talmuds, the Babylonian and the Jerusalem. Freedman concentrates on the former as it is the preeminent work and he explains how it came to be preeminent.
The Talmud, Freedman states:
‘Is concerned with law, (but) it is not a law code. It is a record of discussions that took place in academies in Babylon between the third and fifth centuries, discussions that were based on a book called the Mishnah, a second to third-century codification of Jewish law.’
Some of the topics dealt with in the Talmud include:
‘The governance and regulation of society, the practical performance of religious rituals, family relationships and contract and monetary law...medicine, astronomy, folklore, magic, sex and humour, to mention just a few.’
Freedman makes it abundantly clear that the discussions in the Babylonian academies were of a scholarly nature. They were not particularly concerned with practical applications and were carried out by a very small scholarly ‘class’. The very detailed and rigid regulation of the lives of observant Jews based on the Talmud only arose many, many centuries later in Europe and elsewhere.
Jews in Talmudic times had the Torah, their customs and traditions, their language and their family ties, but ‘of the Talmud, most of them were blissfully unaware.’
The change from a scholarly pursuit to a code of law, Freedman explains, came about when the Talmud was finally committed to print. For centuries the discussions in the academies had been preserved orally. Vast quantities of material were preserved in memory and transmitted from one generation to the next (no doubt with the inevitable alterations and omissions that arise with oral transmission).
Around the 9th century the Talmud began to be written down. This allowed the Talmudic discussion to become available to a wider audience within the Jewish people and to break out of the halls of Jewish academia. The rest, as they say, is history.
Which brings us to Part II. Part II covers a hodgepodge of topics including the Karaites, the Khazars, Maimonides, Gershom ben Yehuda, Rashi, various disputations with the Church, Kabbalah, the printing press, burning of the Talmud, Henry VIII’s divorce, Hebraists, Spinoza, Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, Hasidism, the Vilna Gaon, Moses Mendelssohn, Reform Judaism, The Cairo Genizah, Daf Yomi, the Holocaust, Adin Steinsaltz and more; all in snippets of two to five pages.
The writing is knowledgeable and easy to read and the general reader is bound to learn some new things. For instance I had no idea that the Daf Yomi originated in 1924 upon the suggestion of Meir Shapiro at a rabbinical conference in Vienna in 1923. For anyone not familiar with Daf Yomi, it is a program where individuals undertake to study one page of Talmud per day. Over the course of several years the entire Talmud is studied, at which point the cycle begins anew. Twelve cycles have been completed since the inauguration of the program and the concept has become enormously popular. A gathering of 93,000 men convened in a football stadium in New Jersey to mark the conclusion of the twelfth cycle in 2012. Today there are dozens of high quality websites dedicated to the Daf Yomi. The Talmud has come a long way from the academies of Babylon.
All in all The Talmud a Biography is a very pleasant read. It will increase the reader’s knowledge of Jewish history, it includes an extensive bibliography, and it may prod at least a few into beginning the study of the Talmud.

The Talmud   A Biography
Harry Freedman
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2014, 243 pages