Talmud: IV of V

October 17, 2008 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, believes strongly in “studying Torah” for the sake of it. This becomes quite clear when it comes to studying the Talmud.

Although the Talmud is the basic text from which Jewish law, practice, and even beliefs come from, people who study the Talmud do not establish themselves as experts. Instead, they rely on poskim (plural of posek, which is an authority certified to issue rulings).

This is unique to Judaism. As mentioned before, Jews even study actual books of Jewish law, such as the Shulchan Aruch and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. There are many other commentaries (midrashim) and other books also studied. But those who study them do not become experts on them. Perhaps the debates in the Talmud tell why: despite all being of somewhat equal authority, various Talmud authorities constantly bickered over rulings and rules. This means that not even the greatest of sages could agree on rulings. How, then, can the common man/woman expect to become an expert on his/her own? Poskim are followed because someone has to be consulted, and various poskim even today disagree with eahc other. But a Jew has to stick to a posek. If every Jew thought himself a posek, the contention within Judaism would be fatal.

There are three purposes for studying the Talmud:
1. Become familiar with Judaism. By studying these texts, especially the Talmud, a Jew can learn what Judaism believes and practices (and, often, why). In some cases, the person learns the rules of what to do and what not to do.
2. Continuation of the past. By studying these texts, some of which are many centuries old, historical knowledge is preserved and passed on. It remains living knowledge. In this way, Jews are able to drink deeply from the well of past wisdom and knowledge, using it to refresh themselves today.
3. Derive merit. Studying Judaism, particularly the Talmud and midrashim (but most especially the Talmud), accumulates merit for the person doing the study. This merit helps them win points with God and makes Him more compassionate on the person. This merit can be used to ask for healing and some special blessing. Similarly, this merit can be transferred to someone else, who may need healing or a special blessing. And the merit can be transferred to the dead, to help them advance through the levels of the afterlife to reach Heaven, the Garden of Eden.

A small note on “following the rules”. Many books caution that while the person should study its contents, the person must go by the practices of the locality, and if there is any question he/she should consult a certified authority. Judaism places great emphasis on following the traditions of one’s locality and especially of one’s congregation. Departing from these traditions, even if the new practice conforms with established Jewish law, could cause contention.

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