Book review: The Talmud – A Biography: Banned, censored and burned. The book they couldn’t suppress

Professor Shai Secunda of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem astutely noted in his book The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context that the Babylonian Talmud is “a complex literary artifact with a multi-vocal textual architecture that frequently confounds attempts to read for consistency”. The very nature of its composition precludes many from any attempt to study it.

While the Talmud itself may be impenetrable for many, in The Talmud – A Biography: Banned, censored and burned. The book they couldn’t suppress, author Harry Freedman has written an engaging account of the book itself. For those who may be fascinated by the Talmud and at the same time intimidated by it, the book is a great resource that profiles what the Talmud is.

Freedman wrote the book not to tell you the text of the book or to delve into its myriad contents and subjects; rather to show the reader how instrumental it has been to the Jews and world history, in addition to other cultures and religions.

Freedman details where the Talmud came from, its creation almost 2,000 years ago; to its development and use in current times. He provides an interesting, albeit brief overview of its development, copyediting, printing, burning and banning.

For those looking for a detailed and much more technical introduction to the Talmud, The Essential Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz provides a superb overview. What Freedman provides is a much higher overview of the topic, and details what the Talmud is, but does not get into its lower level abstractions, which can be so frustrating to the beginner.

Freedman writes that for all its complex composition, the Talmud appears to the reader to be a seamless work. He writes that although it was written in Babylon (modern day Iraq), it can quote the opinions of people who lived their entire lives elsewhere; yet make it read as though they were in the same study hall in Babylon. Also, a characteristic Talmudic discussion contains the opinions of people who may have lived centuries apart, and is woven together to sound as if they are having an actual conversation.

The book does an excellent job of showing the genius of the Talmud and its creators. That specific genius of the Talmud lies in taking the detailed case law of the Mishnah, defining the principles and concepts the underlie it and advancing arguments that can be used to underpin a subsequent legal ruling.

Freedman details the myriad instances where the study, print or possession of the Talmud was banned. And even with all that, he notes that the Talmud’s capacity for survival is boundless; as it’s currently studied by more people than at any time in its history.

Freedman shows how the Talmud has survived every catastrophe that it has been put through. It has not only survived, it has in fact thrived within the challenges of modernity. The haskalah movement that tried to extinguish the Talmud, has in fact itself been extinguished, while the Talmud thrives.

As 234 pages, Freedman provides a very brief overview, but an interesting one at that. The only issue with the book is that its brevity may not give the reader a feeling for the inherent complexities of the Talmud itself. Nothing in the Talmud is taken for granted; yet Freedman at times presents a subject or problem in an overly simplified form. Part of that is due to the fact that Freedman is an Aramaic scholar, not an academic Talmudist. Nonetheless, the book is of great value for the audience it is written for.

After the Bible, the Talmud is the defining document in Jewish life. In The Talmud – A Biography, Freedman provides an excellent overview on how an eternal book is seminal to an eternal people.


Thank you to Ezra Brand for proofreading this review.





About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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