ANY TREATISE ON THE AMORAIM must begin with the Amoraim of Palestine who were the direct heirs of the Tanaim and the last link in the long chain of the development of the oral law which stretched from the days of the Men of the Great Synagogue down to their time.*)For a better enlightment of the subject, we have to repeat that a teacher of the “Mishna” was called “Tana” (plural: “Tanaim”) and a teacher of the “Gemara” was called “Amora” (plural: “Amoraim”). The Amoraim of Babylonia, on the other hand, marked the beginning of a new historical epoch for the Jews of that country which continued for centuries after the spark of spiritual life expired in Palestine.
With the completion of the Mishna, whose authority was recognized both in Palestine and in Babylonia, the Jewish law assumed its final form. In both countries the Mishna was recognized as the deciding factor in all problems of life, but the subsequent development of the laws followed different lines in each country. None, however dared to question the interpretations of the Tanaim even when these concerned Biblical verses which had no direct relationship to religious problems.
When we consider the teachings of the Tanaim and Amoraim it becomes obvious, that they sought to establish a worthy continuation to the teachings of the prophets, who aimed to elevate the ethics of the Jews to the highest possible level. They therefore interpreted the commandments of the Torah in such a manner as to inculcate the people with feelings of justice, love of peace and love of one’s neighbor. This aim caused some of the scholars to believe that study of the Torah and the fulfillment of its commandments was most important in life even though one did not agree with the commandments. Others said that after the coming of Messiah all commandments would be done with and there would no longer be any need for written laws.1)נדה ס״א ב׳, מדרש תהלים פּרשה נ״ו.
There is a Midrash extant which declares that those Jews who had left Egypt and wandered in the desert belonged to a “generation of knowledge,” because they possessed a measure of civilization and not, as might be assumed, they were untutored slaves who had just acquired freedom. Many critics ironically nod their heads at sight of this Midrash, but on closer observation of the commandments of the Torah it becomes obvious that those Jews possessed a high measure of culture.
Like other civilized peoples of that time, the Jews understood the art of cloth making while still in Egypt. Even if we assume that their garments were not made of the finest stuffs, skill was nevertheless required to weave the linen of which their garments were made. They understood the art of agriculture and the various occupations involved in it such as plowing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, grinding and baking. They also were acquainted with animal husbandry and its attendant occupations. While still in bondage they built houses and cities and they learned to bake bricks out of clay. Woodwork, masonry, metal work, wine making and hunting were also not strange to them. They knew how to find water in the depths of the earth and how to maintain fires. They made decorations out of precious metals and they pressed oil out of olives.
In their social relationships they maintained a civilized system of order which included representatives and judges, policemen and arrests. They understood how to divide time into weeks, months and years. In commerce they used money as is obvious from the stories of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah and of Jacob’s purchase of a tract of land from the sons of Chamor for which he paid 100 Kesitah. In general we may say that the people of that time possessed a high level of intelligence and that the Jews were not behind the times. When other nations were governed by laws we may assume that the Jews did not live in lawlessness.
In the case of some commandments the Torah merely added legal sanction to customs which were already practiced. Thus Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of Rashi) states in his interpretation to the Torah that rules governing robbery, sexual relations, covetousness, courts and hospitality were accepted among the Jews even before the Torah was granted. In this case the Torah merely strengthened the accepted conduct and insured the observance of these laws in the future.
All the civilized peoples of that time, including the Jews of the period preceding the granting of the Torah, were called the “sons of Noah.” As such they only had to observe seven commandments, namely, to deal out justice, not to desecrate the name of God, not to worship idols, not to commit adultery, not to commit murder, not to rob and not to eat flesh that was cut from a living animal. Some maintain that the prohibitions against consuming the blood of a living animal, castration, witchcraft, mating different breeds of animals and planting mixed seeds were included in the above mentioned seven commandments.2)סנהדרין נ״ו ב׳.
The Talmud declares that even Adam was commanded to obey these commandments with the exception of the one concerning eating the flesh of a living animal, since the consumption of meat was altogether prohibited until the deluge. Others said that the “sons of Noah” had thirty commandments to observe.3)חולין צ״ב א׳. But these probably included many observances which were derived from the original seven commandments. It is quite understandable, that in order to conduct trials it was necessary to know which people to select as judges. Likewise, in the matter of adultery, regulations had to be established defining which women were forbidden. The concept of robbery also required definition since borrowing money and not repaying it and not paying the wage of a laborer were then considered to be robbery.
The offering of sacrifices from animals, fowl and fruit was customary since time immemorial. Cain offered a sacrifice from the fruit of his fields and Abel offered his best sheep. After the deluge Noah erected an altar and offered sacrifices. Abraham and Jacob likewise erected altars for the offering of sacrifices. When Moses asked Pharaoh to release the Jews, he said that they had to go to the desert to offer sacrifices to God. Rabbi Saadiah Gaon declared that since sacrifices and circumcision preceded the establishment of the Sabbath, both of them superseded the Sabbath. During the later development of divine service, which at that time consisted of sacrificial offerings, the belief became accepted among many peoples that ordinary men could not fulfill this task since they were not acquainted with all the regulations governing the offerings. This caused the establishment of a separate group of people who devoted themselves solely to sacrifices and who abstained from ordinary labor. For the support of these people tithes were offered by all. Thus we find Abraham giving tithes to Malchi-Zedek, who was a priest of “the highest God”; Jacob vowed to tithe all his possessions if God would bless his journey and would provide him with bread and garments.
The first born son at first performed the divine service. This procedure was also accepted among the Jews until the tabernacle was built. Later the performance of this office was taken out of the hands of the first born and was entrusted to the descendants of Aaron. Further development necessitated the establishment of a class of assistants to the descendants of Aaron and the Levites were added to the service. The priests performed the offering of sacrifices and they received the first fruit, the first born animals and similar gifts. The Levites who worked in the tabernacle were granted tithes, one-tenth of everyone’s income. Of this the Levites had to give one-tenth to the priests. But the rights of the first born were preserved in the government of the family as a representative of the father. The first born also received a double share in the inheritance. If a man had children by two wives one of whom he loved and the other he hated and the first born was a son of the despised wife, the father nevertheless had to recognize the rights of this son to a double share in the inheritance. The custom of the priests blessing the people is very ancient. The first priest to do so was Malchi-Zedek who blessed Abraham. Thus it is also related that Aaron blessed the children of Israel even before the Torah explicitly commanded him to do so.
Even before the deluge Noah could differentiate between animals that were considered as clean and between those that were considered to be unclean. The Talmud questions this and the answer was given that when all the animals sought safety in the ark it admitted only one pair from some kinds of animals and seven pairs from other kinds. By this token it was known which were the clean and which the unclean animals.4)סנהדרין ק״ח ב׳.
Soon after man began to develop family life he recognized his near relatives as part of himself. When rights of property were established he enacted laws to secure his possessions for his relations and he likewise made certain that after his death his possessions would remain within the family. In this manner laws of inheritance were established. Abraham complained to God and said: “Since you gave me no offspring, the manager of my house will inherit me.” Jews also practiced the same custom that was accepted among other peoples in denying a daughter a share in the inheritance. Every father gave his daughter her share as a dowry at the time that she was married. Since daughters could marry men of other tribes, they could not share in the inheritance of their fathers in order that the possessions of one tribe should not pass to another tribe.
Long before the Torah was granted, the descendants of Abraham observed the commandment of circumcision. It may even be assumed that the descendants of Ishmael and the sons of Keturah observed this commandment with greater strictness than did the Jews who did not practice circumcision for forty years while in the desert.
Among other civilized concepts man also learned to observe vows and oaths. He understood his duty of abiding by his word whether that concerned himself or others. All of these concepts civilized peoples possessed long before the Torah was given. The patriarch Abraham swore to Abimelech not to harm him or his descendants. Jacob vowed and later swore to Laban not to trespass his boundaries with evil intent.
The slaughter of animals for food was always considered to be a natural procedure and was practiced from time immemorial. It may also be assumed that such slaughter was always done by cutting the throat of the animal. This form was probably adopted as a reaction against the savage method of beasts of prey which break the necks of their victims. Since the commandments of the Torah aim to refine the people and are based on mercy, it was strictly forbidden to cause unnecessary suffering to any living creature.5)שבת קכ״ה ב׳.
Since ancient times man recognized the concepts of purity and impurity. As soon as man could esthetically comprehend the concept of cleanliness, he avoided coming in contact with things that were unclean. It was then believed that evil spirits inhabited the unclean objects and that they would gain control of the clean body which touched the impure one. Thus Jacob commanded his household when he left Shechem and said: “Cast out the strange idols from your midst, clean yourself and don other garments.” People likewise avoided coming in contact with a woman in the days of her separation, with unclean animals or insects.
Bathing in water was the accepted mode of purification. In this manner all impurity was washed away. Before giving the Torah, God commanded the people to consecrate themselves and to wash their garments. This was also the reason why a proselyte had to immerse himself in water and even though he was circumcised, he was not accepted as a proselyte until after immersion. Menstruating women were also required to bathe before being considered pure. This appears to have been an ancient custom observed by all civilized peoples.
There is no doubt that all of these commandments later evolved into numerous supplementary observances. With the development of society punishments were determined for infractions of these commandments. But no matter how much the scholars wanted that the commandments of the Torah should be observed, they nevertheless warned against observing a commandment at the expense of committing a sin, as in the case of obtaining an object illegally in order to do some good deed with it.6)ברכות מ״ז ב׳, סוכה ל׳ א׳, בבא קמא צ״ד א׳. But in some exceptional instances the ignoring of one commandment could aid in the fulfillment of another as when study of the Torah was interrupted in order to perform some philanthropic deed.7)מנחות צ״ט ב׳.
Ordinarily there was no prohibition which could not be broken in order to save a life with the exception of committing murder, worshipping idols or committing a sexual offense in order to save one’s life.8)יומא פּ״ב א׳. These three sins were considered to be so great that even if one’s life depended on one of them it was forbidden to employ them.9)פּסחים כ״ה א׳.
Observance of the Sabbath was treated differently. Even though it was also considered to be very important and one who desecrated the Sabbath was to be punished by death, it was nevertheless accepted that the Sabbath could be desecrated in order to aid one whose life was in danger.10)יומא פּ״ג א׳. The Tana Rabbi Simeon ben Menasia thus said that “the Sabbath was given to the people and not the people to the Sabbath.”11)מכילתא מסכתא דשבתא פּיסקא י״ד. In order to save the life of a person Rabbi Nathan said that “it is permissible to desecrate one Sabbath in order that he may observe many Sabbaths to come.”12)מכילתא כי תשא פּיסקא מ״ז.
The Talmud declares that the basic purpose of religious regulations was to enable people to live and not to kill them.13)סנהדרין ע״ד א׳. It likewise states that he who destroys one Jewish soul is like one who destroyed a whole world and he who maintains one Jewish person alive is like one who saved a whole world.14)סנהדרין ל״ז א׳
People were forbidden by the scholars to harm themselves even as they were forbidden to harm others.15)בבא קמא צ״א ב׳. When the Torah said that fruit trees should not be cut down during the siege of a city, the scholars added that one may not cut down a fruit tree even in his own garden and he who did so was to be punished.16)מכות כ״ב א׳, ספרי דברים פּיסקא כ״ג. On other occasions the scholars said that endangering one’s life was worse than committing a sin.17)חולין ו׳ א׳, תענית י״א א׳, ויקרא רבה ל״ב ג׳.
The Talmud further declares that the Torah was concerned with the honor of the people. In its eyes the worth of man was so great that one could sometimes overlook a commandment because of it.18)ברכות י״ט ב׳, שבת כ״א ב׳, ערובין מ״א ב׳, מנחות ל״ז ב׳.
Thieves were usually enslaved after they were forced to pay twice the price of the stolen goods. If a living animal was stolen, the thief had to pay four or five times its value. At times thieves were also sentenced to death or to be flogged. The death sentence was imposed by the Torah for stealing a human being and selling him into slavery. Nevertheless the Torah showed consideration even for the thief and the scholars declared that the reason why a thief had to pay five times the value of a stolen ox and only four times the value of a stolen sheep was that an ox can be led easily but a sheep has to be carried and this accounted for the easier punishment for one stealing a sheep.19)בבא קמא ע״ט ב׳.
Other punishments, aside from death and flogging, were meted out to offenders against God or man. Prisons then existed and when one was flogged for an offense and he later committed a similar offense he was imprisoned.20)סנהדרין פּ״א ב׳.
Self-inflicted torture as a religious ritual was known to man for a long time. The forms of this torture were numerous. Some renounced food and drink while others avoided pride. The drinking of wine was considered to be a luxury and he who wanted to deny himself pleasure for the greater glory of God renounced the drinking of wine. Shaving one’s head or letting one’s hair grow wild was at various times considered to be a means against pride. The scholars differed in their evaluation of these forms of self-torment. Some praised them while others condemned them as sinful.21)תענית י״א א׳, סוטה ט״ו א׳, כריתות כ״ו א׳. The majority of the scholars agreed with the opinion of Rabbi Jose that one should not torment himself with too many fasts.22)תענית כ״ב ב׳.
The custom of mourning for dead relatives, as it is accepted in the form of a Biblical commandment, was a subject often questioned by the scholars. From the story of Joseph they deducted that mourning should last seven days. Others reached the same conclusion from the verse “I shall turn your feast days into mourning” and they said that even as each holiday lasts seven days so also must mourning last for seven days. There were also differing opinions among the scholars whether mourning was a Biblical commandment or whether it was instituted by the Rabbis. The Jerusalem Talmud declares that “Moses instituted for the Jews seven days of mourning and seven days of merry making.”23)כתובות פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
For seven centuries from the time of Simon the Just till the last Amora, Greek, Roman and Persian culture influenced Jewish life, which was so closely joined with it. For that reason we come across ideas which arose at different times under different circumstances and differentiated in their spirit and character. At times it is difficult to discover which event preceded and which followed and to separate fact from legend.
Our “Spiritual Heroes” ofttimes rise to great spiritual heights, while at the same time their ideas are rooted not alone in the past but look forward to the future as well. Their roots cleave a path through stem reality to the high ideals of mankind as a whole and emphasize those means which serve as a realization of those ideals.
It is this Talmudic forest whose trees contain the seed for the plants of future generations. It is also the source from which later law-givers derived their notions as well as being the form for the pursuit of learning in all its branches.