THE HISTORY OF A PEOPLE is primarily constructed out of the biographies of those individuals whose activities characterize the specific nature of the progress and development of the national forces, both internal as well as external.
No prominent person can be entirely detached from his environment. It makes but little difference whether such a person influenced the environment in which he lived or whether his individuality was conditioned by it, for this type of influence is mutual and complementary. Just as the individual presents a picture of his environment in miniature, even so does an environment present a composite photograph of its component individual parts.
Every person develops in a different manner; neither does this development follow an unbroken path from beginning to end. Life, on the contrary, follows some very devious ways and the chronicler must find a suitable approach for each complex historical situation in order not to go astray.
“World history is the history of heroes,” is the claim of a German philosopher. This rule also applies to Jewish history with this difference that our heroes are generally “spiritual heroes,” master navigators of the deep and stormy literary sea and commanders on the battle fields of the Torah.
Especially heroic were the struggles of our spiritual heroes of the time when we lost our political independence and were becoming accustomed to the role of a wandering people which is forced to live in a foreign environment but insists on retaining its own mode of life.
World history is motivated by an eternal force which flows in an endless labyrinth of channels and is given form and direction by the leading spirits of each generation. It is therefore necessary, first of all, to observe the ways of the leading spirits rather than the events which transpire.
The historical development of a people contains no accidents. Every event has its cause and reason which are results of previous events. It is therefore important to bear in mind that a matter of fact relation of events is not as significant as the understanding of the spirit and the logical necessity of such an event. We must also remember that ever since we lost our homeland the spirit of our people has found its expression in ideas and theories.
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Concerning the Talmud in the form that it was taught in Babylonia (and therefore called the Babylonian Talmud) as well as in the form in which it was expounded in Palestine (and therefore called the Jerusalem Talmud), is recognized as the exclusive creation of the Jewish spirit to which the Gentile world can lay no claim.
As far as the Bible is concerned we are confronted with various accusations. The enemies of Jewry find it undignified to admit that the Jews are the creators of the greatest spiritual treasure which the civilized world possesses. They therefore claim that the Bible is not specifically Jewish. The liberal legislation of the Pentateuch and the noble ideals of the prophets, they say, have been borrowed from neighboring peoples. When they do recognize the greatness of the Bible, they give equal credit to other peoples.
The style of the Bible is today the possession of all civilized peoples and has become a fructifying element in every language; but the Talmud could not be taken away from us and the honor of being the creators of this great work will remain with us forever.
Seven centuries passed from the time of Simon the Just, the last of the members of the “Great Synagogue” or “Great Assembly,” when the oral law became popular among the masses of the people until the conclusion of the Talmud. On the foundations of the Torah there was erected an imposing structure—an eternal monument to Jewish spirit as it developed in those seven centuries. This development began immediately after the conclusion of the Bible when the Jews lived on the soil of Palestine for the second time and even continued in Babylonia where they sought refuge and found freedom and happiness for many years. It lasted even in Babylonia until they had to flee the sword.
Seven centuries is a long time in the life of any nation, even in the life of such an old nation as the Jews are. For no matter how conservative our historical evaluation it would be impossible to assume that no changes occurred during seven centuries. As among other nations, so also among the Jews there appeared new ideas and new concepts during these centuries. In the course of the years these new ideas developed and spread, only to disappear later on and to be supplanted by others. This is especially true when we consider that we are dealing with a time when the political conditions of the nation changed radically. At times the Jews lived freely in their own land and at other times they were involved in wars, at times they were exiled from their own country and at other times they prospered in other lands.
It may also be stated with certainty that in all Jewish history there never was a period so involved and characterized by unusual events as were the seven centuries during which the Talmud was created. The sources of information concerning that period are very meager and every historian must fall back on his imagination in order to complete the picture that was handed down to us.
If one wants to establish the true facts concerning events which took place at that time from the information contained in Talmudic literature, he must bear in mind that these books were not written with the aim of presenting history. They were therefore not careful to present exact dates or precise information regarding the people of whom they wrote. Whenever history is dealt with, it is generally embellished with many legends and even the personalities of the heroes are not definite.
For our purpose the event which occurred may be of paramount importance but the authors stressed a personality; in other cases we may be interested in a personality while they stressed the event. It is also necessary to remember that the original text of the books regarding historic events and names of persons was not strictly adhered to. There therefore exist in the Talmud numerous versions pertaining to people and events. Thus we read a story regarding a certain Talmudic personality, but another version may vary by one word and change the sense of the event to have involved another person or to have occurred in a different manner.
Such variations could easily creep into the Talmudic books when the copyists made an error in transcribing a name or when they sought to shorten their work and employed abbreviations which can be interpreted in numerous ways. These errors are not so important in establishing a law. It makes but little difference if the name of the person who rendered the deciding opinion regarding a law was misspelled. But where we are concerned with establishing historical facts, such errors are very confusing.
The basis for the Talmud was provided by the “Sofrim.” These were the copyists of the Torah who were at the same time teachers explaining the sayings of the Torah to the people. The original text of many commandments was not very clear and could not be understood unless they were interpreted. But the interpretations of the Sofrim became accepted and on the foundation of their explanations there grew an organization of seers and elders which came to be called “The Men of the Great Synagogue.”
The Great Synagogue acted as a Supreme Court in deciding all religious matters and it was presided over by the High Priest. The beginning of the Great Synagogue occurred in the time of the last prophets (Haggai, Zacharias, Malachi) when the people, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemia, signed a written covenant to observe the laws of Judaism, and it ended with Simon the Just.
At first it was prohibited to put the interpretations of the Sofrim in writing and they were handed on orally. Later it became obvious that they would be forgotten and so they began to write down all the traditional interpretations to the commandments of the Torah and they were considered as laws which God orally instructed Moses from Mount Sinai. But before this was done the Bible was completed in twenty-four books so that no one should try to add any of the traditional interpretations to its text.
Even today it is difficult to establish with certainty the time of the duration of the Great Synagogue. Of the history of the second Temple we lack the chronicles of the events of a period covering about 200 years (from the time of Alexander the Great till the reign of Antiochus). All we know is that it was a time of turbulent political changes and that control of Palestine changed hands several times. It is considered that these were the years of the Great Synagogue.
Ezra the Cohen and Scribe was the greatest scholar of the Torah of that time. When he observed that the Jews did not faithfully follow the commandments he tore his clothes, gave himself over to fasting and grew melancholy. Later there arrived Nehemiah Ben Chachalia, the cup bearer of Artaxerxes, and together they introduced regulations which later became laws. Their first move was to nullify all mixed marriages and to expel the non-Jewish wives together with their children. They were strict in preserving the purity of the race in spite of the fact that the richest and most prominent Jews, not excluding the family of the High Priest, intermarried with non-Jews.
The main achievement of the Great Synagogue was in purifying the Jewish faith from imitation of the customs of other peoples which the Jews at that time freely engaged in. In order to prevent a return to idol worshipping, as occurred in the time of the first Temple, the Great Synagogue prohibited the erection of altars for offering sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. Instead they established prayers by means of which a person could praise his Creator in a few heart-felt words without having to resort to the blood of a sacrificed animal to attain nearness to God. The Talmud indirectly refers to this achievement when it states that the Great Synagogue killed the “Tempter” of idol worship. Of equal importance were the regulations of the Great Synagogue regarding inter-family marriages of which the Talmud says that “they captured the ‘Tempter’ of love and blinded his eyes.”1)יומא ס״ט ב׳.
In addition the Great Synagogue established the correct form of every word in the Bible. They introduced the custom of having all the inhabitants of the villages surrounding Jerusalem meet every Monday and Thursday to hear the reading of a chapter of the Torah. In Jerusalem itself the whole weekly portion was read every Saturday. They established a new calendar so that the count of years should begin with Tishri instead of Nisan, and that the day of the blowing of the ram’s horn, the first day of Tishri, should be the New Year.
Many of the old institutions of the Temple were dispensed with. Thus no “Cherubim” were made for the second Temple because when Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers destroyed the first Temple they carried out the Cherubim and exhibited them as the Jewish God. The Jubilee was also done away with; since it was prohibited to hold Jewish slaves it was no longer necessary to observe a Jubilee to free such slaves. The “Urim and Thummim” were also done away with, although the High Priest retained all of the other vestments.
The Great Synagogue also appointed judges in all places where Jews resided so that everyone could find justice according to the laws of the Torah. They determined the content of “Tefillin” and “Mezuzoth” on the door posts and tightened all prohibitions, even forbidding many things which were previously permitted. This was done to prevent laxity in the observance of all prohibitions. The commandment of the Torah “an eye for an eye” they interpreted to mean that monetary compensation should be granted to the victim for the damage caused him instead of the literal meaning which is implied in Leviticus 24, 2.
The necessity for preserving the oral law from getting lost was especially keenly felt about the interpretations of the commandments. When sacrifices were done away with and prayers took their place it was necessary to codify the laws pertaining to prayers as well as to elucidate those laws which were not clearly explained in the Torah. In addition there was the constant change in the concepts of the people going on over a period of seven centuries. When the Jews returned to Palestine from the Babylonian exile they were primarily tillers of the soil and shepherds. Later there arose a class of wage workers, merchants and artisans. This necessitated new interpretations of the laws to conform with the development of the times.
Out of all these interpretations there developed a wide literature whose content is the pride of the Jewish nation. This includes sixty tractates of the Talmud in two different texts and in addition Tosephta, Safra, Sifri, Mechilta together with hundreds of various Midrashim.
This whole literature is divided into Halacha and Hagadah. The Halacha includes the injunctions of the law. The Hagadah, on the other hand, introduces a living spirit into the dry legal commandments; it enriches the law with poetic softness and lends to it characteristic beauty. The “Halacha” teaches how to observe the Sabbath and the feast days, how to make a Succah, what four kinds of plants are to be used on Succoth. The “Hagadah” explains the spiritual value of the Sabbath as well as the significance of the other feast days and their attendant customs. Both the Halacha and the Hagadah are basic foundations of the oral law and are of equal worth to the development of Judaism.
Concerning the Hagadah it is also worth remarking that it is of special significance for another reason. It deals continually with the concepts of justice even as it is concerned with the attributes of godliness. It relates many historical events, it cites scientific and medical knowledge as well as proverbs and axiomatic truths of life which accumulated among the Jews in the course of those seven centuries.
In the Halacha we find those religious injunctions which a Jew must follow as well as the code of just relationships between man and man. These two types of law the Talmud refers to as prohibitions and laws. The expounders of these two types of law are divided into two classes. One carries greater authority in religious matters and the other in matters pertaining to human relationship.
The scholars endeavored to define the boundaries of the “fence around the Torah” which the members of the Great Synagogue ordered to be erected in so far as this pertained to the religious regulations. But some of these limitations were considered too extreme by the later scholars and the Tanaim who created the Mishna ruled that “whoever attempts to interpret a law more severely than is accepted must prove his source of authority.”2)ידים, פרק ד׳ משנה ג׳. Afterward it was said that “anyone who attempts to abide by the restrictions of the school of Shamai and the school of Hillel is like a foolish man who walks in the darkness”3)ערובין ו׳ ב׳. and Rabbi Chya warned against attaching more importance to the “fence around the Torah” than to the essence of the Torah itself.4)בראשית רבה י״ט ד׳.
It was for this reason that the scholars objected to having the people assume obligations to perform deeds which the law did not impose upon them and they said that whoever does something which is not made obligatory by law may be called a simpleton.5)ירושלמי שבת פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳. One of the Amoraim expressed this attitude in the following words: “Are there not enough prohibitions in the Torah already that one should seek to establish still other prohibitions?”6)ירושלמי שבת פרק ז׳ הלכה ב׳. and although some of the scholars were strict in the enforcement of certain rabbinical commandments, even stricter than in their interpretations of the commandments of the Torah,7)ברכות ד׳ ב׳; סנהדרין פ״ח ב׳. the general tendency was nevertheless to lighten the burden of the observance of the laws.
This “fence around the Torah,” which the scholars erected, was very timely because the masses of the people were not acquainted with the precepts of the law. From these preventive measures there later developed numerous and various laws as, for instance, the restrictions pertaining to regulations concerning marriage, of which it was said that they are like a garden watchman—if a man watches his garden from the outside he protects it completely.
Very much concerned for the sanctity of morals and the purity of people’s lives, the scholars ruled that a man might not remain alone with a strange woman in an unfrequented place. However, there are indications that this prohibition is derived from a much earlier period.8)קדושין פּ׳ ב׳. In addition to the prohibitions of adultery which are listed in the Torah (Leviticus, 18), the scholars also prohibited marriage between twenty-six different degrees of relatives.9)יבמות כ״א א׳; ירושלמי יבמות פרק ב׳ הלכה ג׳.
Since the Sabbath was not properly observed in previous generations until the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people were warned to observe this day and to sanctify it by means of the restriction of its regulations in order to avoid false interpretations as to what may be done on that day and to prevent people from performing work which is not allowed. At this time the exact meaning of the word מלאכה (work) was defined in order that everyone should know what work is permissible on the Sabbath. The scholars enumerated 39 major types of work which are forbidden on the Sabbath and the performance of which is punishable by death or by flogging. Among these are the following: sowing, plowing, reaping, hauling grain from the field, threshing, baking and cooking, lighting or putting out a fire, hunting, slaughtering, cultivating fields, writing and erasing, building and wrecking, sewing and tearing, carrying objects from a house to the street and vice versa.10)שבת ע״ג א׳.
In addition to these occupations they forbade many other activities, which do not properly speaking constitute work, but which introduce a week day atmosphere such as, climbing a tree, riding on an animal, swimming, judging, buying and selling, getting married and similar pursuits. All of these activities may not be performed on the Sabbath in order to insure complete rest and are also forbidden on feast days.11)ביצה ל״ו ב׳.
Out of concern for the sanctity of the Sabbath, the scholars prohibited the carrying into the street of such objects as are used in the performance of week day labor. In order to safeguard the Sabbath they ruled that it is to be observed from sunset on Friday till the stars appear on Saturday. At the same time they introduced the custom of pronouncing the Kiddush (sanctification) and Havdalah (separation) over a glass of wine at the beginning and at the departure of the Sabbath.12)ברכות ל״ג א׳.
There also was appointed a man who was to give the signal with a Shofar (ram’s horn) for everyone to stop working. The first blowing of the shofar was a signal to the laborers in the fields to cease working; the second blast of the shofar was a signal to the merchants and artisans in the city to put away their work; the third blast was signal to stop all work in one’s house. The shofar was blown once more as a sign that the Sabbath has begun.13)שבת ל״ה ב׳; שבת קי״ד א׳; סוכה נ״ז ב׳; חולין כ״ו ב׳.
Particular effort was exerted by the scholars to remove the disabilities and difficulties which surrounded deserted wives. This need was very keenly felt at that time due to the fact that many men had to leave their homes in search of a livelihood. The highways were then unsafe and many of these men lost their lives or were captured and sold as slaves after which they were never heard of again and the status of their wives remained indefinite.14)גטין ג׳ א׳; י״ט ב׳. Similarly an attempt was made to facilitate the procedure of buying land in Palestine from non Jews. It was ruled that such a bill of sale might be drawn up even on the Sabbath. In the Talmud we find a query in this matter: “How can one write such a contract on Saturday? How would that be possible?” The answer given to this question was that it is permissible to have such a contract drawn up on the Sabbath by a non-Jew, while other activities may not be performed on the Sabbath even through the agency of a non-Jew.15)גטין ח׳ ב׳.
It was also accepted as a rule that just as it is forbidden to declare the impure to be pure even so is forbidden to declare the pure to be impure.15a)15א) ירושלמי סוטה פרק ח׳ הלכה ב׳. Rabbi Nehunia b. Hakana therefore constantly prayed to be preserved from declaring the pure to be impure, and the impure to be pure16)ברכות כ״ח ב׳. and whenever the scholars prohibited certain actions to be performed or pleasures to be enjoyed, they carefully determined beforehand whether the people could abide by these restrictions.17)בבא בתרא ס׳ ב׳; עבודה זרה ל׳ א׳. It is therefore interesting to note that they applied the rule of the “greater power of leniency” only in religious questions. Only in such questions did the school of Hillel decide in favor of leniency and the law remained according to the decisions of the school of Hillel.18)ערובין י״ג ב׳.
But their attitude was different whenever the law involved relations between people. In such a case our scholars studied the problem in all its implications and always considered it on its own merits in an attempt to avoid the severity of the rule which claimed that “the law must penetrate mountains.” They believed that Jerusalem was destroyed because its people insisted on enforcing the letter of the law and did not practice mercy outside of the law.19)בבא מציעא ל׳ ב.
The scholars therefore maintained that the aim of the Torah was not to impose stringent legislation but to encourage the practice of kindness among people. They said that whenever a man aids his neighbor with money or by means of other good deeds but he does so only out of a feeling of duty then such deeds are not acceptable to God because they lack love and generosity.20)סוכה מ״ט ב׳. Similarly they believed that even the study of the Torah is worthless when it is not accompanied by kindness to other people.21)יבמות ק״ט ב׳.
Harmony between husband and wife they held to be the very foundation of family life and they said: “Whoever loves his wife even as he loves himself and respects her more than he respects himself and leads his children in the proper ways and loves his neighbors and welcomes his relatives, such a man fulfills the wishes of God.”22)יבמות ס״ב ב׳. The scholars also instructed that man should not be partial in his love for his children and should show no favoritism in the division of the inheritance even in order to compensate a good son at the expense of a wicked one.23)בבא בתרא קל״ג ב׳.
As an example of the fear of God the scholars extolled Job and they cited Abraham as an example of the love of God. Both of these were ready to overlook their own comfort and dignity in order to be of use to others. Therefore a man must permit himself to be insulted rather than to insult others; if a man is slandered he should not reply in kind; he must fulfill the commandments out of love and he should rejoice in his suffering.24)יומא כ״ג א׳ Similarly a man must permit himself to be persecuted without persecuting others.25)בבא קמא צ״ג א׳.
In addition to the above virtues the Talmud defined the ideal person as a scholar, “Talmid Chochom,” who strives only for the Torah and whose innermost wish is to attain a high degree of morality in his relations with God and man. But who is to be considered a “Talmid Chochom”? The Talmud says that a “Talmid Chochom” is a person who can answer a question of law whenever he is asked. Others maintain that a “Talmid Chochom” is one who disregards his own interests and devotes himself to godly matters solely.26)שבת קי״ד ב׳.
Such “Talmide Chachomim” (scholars) must always endeavor to set an example for others with their behavior as well as by their exterior appearance. A scholar must not allow his clothes to be spotted and must keep himself as attractive as a girl.27)איכה רבתי א׳ ד׳. He must also maintain better manners than others while eating, sitting down, standing up and walking about the street.28)דרך ארץ זוטא פרק ד׳—ה׳.
Various commandments of the Torah were observed by Jews even before the Torah was handed down. After they received the Torah it was only necessary to define and to strengthen these long since accepted commandments. When the Talmud states that Abraham observed all the commandments including “Eruv Tavshilin,29)יומא כ״ה ב׳. it expresses a profound idea that most of the laws which the scholars read into the Torah were operative among Jews for a long time preceding the giving of the Torah.
It is not necessary here to describe what “Tefillin” (phylacteries) are. But it is interesting to note that the Mishna makes no mention of the laws pertaining to phylacteries, nor of their appearance and how they should be made. Likewise it makes no mention of the benedictions that have to be pronounced over the phylacteries. It is therefore safe to assume that all of these laws were well known during the time that the Mishna was created. But later scholars feared that the laws and customs pertaining to phylacteries might be forgotten and they therefore had them written down.
The phylacteries contain four passages of the Bible which refer to the deliverance from Egypt and mention is also made of the injunction that “these words shall be a sign upon your arm and a decoration between the eyes.” For the concept of decoration the text employs the Hebrew word “Totefeth.” The scholars tried to explain this word to prove that phylacteries must contain four passages. Using the fact that the word “Totafoth,” which appears three times, is written once in abbreviated form without the letter “vav” and twice with the letters “vav” they tried to conclude from this that all four passages must be included in the phylacteries. At a later date Rabbi Akiba, who always forced the texts to prove his contentions, tried to deduce the same conclusion in a different manner. He explained the word “Totefeth” to mean four on the basis of two ancient tongues.30)סנהדרין ד׳ ב׳; זבחים ל״ז ב׳; מנחות ל״ד ב׳.
The word “Totefeth” is also mentioned once in the Mishnah and is meant to be a forehead piece. Interpreters declare it to be a decoration worn instead of phylacteries. In the Talmud the word “Totefeth” is used once and is synonymous with phylacteries.31)יומא ל״ג ב׳.
Long before the Torah was handed down it was the accepted custom among all nations that priests, as well as all other people who deal with religious matters, should wear religious emblems to distinguish them as men who are devoted to godly service. In later years, this custom of distinguishing between people according to their office, was also transferred to social and political life. Leaders of the army and officials thus carried special insignia to mark them as servants of the government. In a similar manner Jews adopted phylacteries to symbolize that their bearers are in the service of God.
It is therefore essential to know that even though the commandment to wear phylacteries is not expressly stated in the Torah and is only sanctioned by tradition and despite the fact that it is possible to interpret the word “Totefeth” differently, there is nevertheless not the slightest doubt that the law of wearing phylacteries was in effect among Jews at all times. As additional proof of this we may adduce the fact told by R. Azariah of the Adomim that when Ptolemy, the king of Egypt, sent messengers to Jerusalem to learn about the Jewish religion, the high priest Eleazar explained to them the custom of wearing phylacteries.
There is a dispute in the Talmud whether phylacteries should be worn on Saturday. Rabbi Akiba is of the opinion that since phylacteries are worn as a reminder of the deliverance from Egypt it is not necessary to wear them on those days which serve, in themselves, as reminders of this event such as the Sabbath and the feast days. The question as to whether they should be worn at night he answers in the affirmative.32)ערובין צ״ו א׳.
Women, slaves and children are not obliged to wear phylacteries.33)ברכות כ׳ ב׳. The Talmud derives this conclusion from the well known rule that women are exempt from all those positive commandments which depend on a definite time.34)קדושין כ״ט א׳. It is characteristic that on another occasion the Talmud questions the authority of this rule and finds substantiation for it in the law of phylacteries. “Since phylacteries are obligatory only during a definite time and women are exempt from this commandment, it follows that women are exempt from any commandment which is obligatory only during a definite time.”35)קדושין ל״ד א׳. This logical conclusion regarding the exemption of women from the law of phylacteries thus proceeds in two directions. On the one hand it liberates women from this law and then it proceeds to liberate them from all laws which have the common time characteristic with it.
Phylacteries, as was explained before, are an emblem which indicates that those who wear them are devoted to God solely and do not recognize any other authority. But women, according to the concepts of that time, were the property of their husbands and a married woman was as obedient as a slave and was not the mistress of her actions. For this reason women could not wear phylacteries. It is told, however, that Michal the daughter of Kushi, (in the opinion of some she is identified with Michal the daughter of Saul) did wear phylacteries.36)ערובין צ״ו א׳. This conclusion is derived from the fact that Michal the daughter of Saul once spoke sharply to king David. (Samuel II, Ch. 6.) There is also the case of one other woman, whose name remains unknown, who wrote the phylacteries for her husband.37)בכורות ל׳ ב׳.
Slaves were considered in the same category as women in the matter of phylacteries. Since “Tefillin” contain the statement that God is the only lord of the world, it was impossible for a person who recognized the overlordship of a human being to wear them. Mention is made, however, of one Tabai, a slave of Rabbi Gamaliel, who wore phylacteries.38)מכילתא פ׳ בא.
The opinions of the scholars regarding God were highly original when compared to the prevailing concepts of that time. These opinions differed from those of the nations among whom the Jews lived. Greek culture had attained a high level of perfection but the Greeks still clung to polytheism. The same was true of the Romans, the Parthians and the Persians. In later years the Christians tried to prove that the trinity was a direct continuation of the Jewish faith. One is therefore astounded when he realizes the fortitude of our scholars and their success in their struggle against attempts to introduce competing deities.
The representation of God in a corporeal form, such as the sayings: the hand of God, the mouth of God, the foot of God, the back of God, the scholars explained by the need to describe Him in a manner that should be understandable according to human concepts. At the same time they expressly stated that under no circumstance must these concepts be understood literally that God possesses a hand, a foot or a mouth.39)מכילתא פ׳ יתרו.
The scholars then began to refer to God with names whose aim was to elevate the idea of God above human concepts. They referred to Him with the word “Shechinah” which means that grace which emanates from the godly majesty. At times they called Him “Gevurah,” in an attempt to convey the idea that he represents strength. Similarly they used the name “Makom” (place) because he is present everywhere, and “Shomaim” (Heaven) after the name of his residence. It is also characteristic that these names were not invented by the scholars but were current long before that.
The creation of the world they explained as creation ex nihilo. The central aim of creation was man, who was made in the image of God, whose face turns heavenward and who stands upright on his feet. Man possesses a soul and a free will to do as he chooses. Speaking of man, they considered the Jews to be the chosen people; within the Jewish people the pious and righteous man was the one elect.40)יומא ל״ח ב׳.
The idea of God’s unity, our scholars held to be of the highest importance. They considered it to be a privilege for the Jews to recognize God as the only creator and to be recognized by Him as the chosen people.41)ברכות ו׳ א׳. Jews also took an oath not to change their God.42)גטין נ״ו ב׳. The reason why man was created on Friday before sunset, after all else was created, they explained as a lesson in modesty to man that he should not attempt to set himself up as a partner to God in the work of creation.43)סנהדרֿין ל״ח ב׳.
Thus it was stated in the name of God: “I am first and I have no father, I am also last and I have no brother, there is no God outside of me because I have no son.”44)שמות רבה כ״ט ד׳. Similarly they taught that God is one and eternal, without body and unchangeable. God said to Moses: “I shall be where I shall be” which was interpreted to mean: “I have been long before, I am now and I shall be the same in all time to come.”45)שמות רבה ו׳ ו׳.
When studying the Torah one must aim to observe its commandments. Observation of the commandments is also conditioned by faith in Him who gave the commandments. The Jew was also enjoined to do all things for the sake of God and not merely out of feeling of duty or because he was persuaded that these things must be done.
Faith imposes the obligation to accept the authority of the “kingdom of heaven” and it includes the duty of thanking God on all occasions for the favors as well as for the hardships; one must also submit to the guidance of God and believe that whatever He does is ultimately for the best. It is necessary to serve Him out of love and to endeavor to make others love him. In doing so man’s behavior will become akin to that of God; even as God practices compassion and mercy so also must man strive to attain these virtues.
Before the reciting of prayers was introduced it was customary to offer sacrifices. The offering of sacrifices was not a brutal murderous procedure but aimed at the purification of a man’s thoughts.46)מדרש תנחומא פ׳ שמיני. After the temple was destroyed it only remained possible to take a vow of abstinence (Nazarite), to refrain from drinking wine or cutting one’s hair or to observe a fast day and thus inflict suffering on one’s self through abstaining from all food and drink.
Most important of all is charity which one contributes with his money or by means of personal effort on behalf of another person. Charity is founded in love of one person for another which Hillel expressed as a rule of the Torah: “Do not unto others what you would not have done unto yourself.”
When observing this rule one is led to the practice of true justice, mercy and compassion toward all living things including animals.
Another desirable trait is to preach moral truths to others. A Jew is under obligation to preach to others until the person being corrected becomes angry and shouts and is ready to curse and to beat the moralist.47)ערכין ט״ז ב׳. This trait acts as a safeguard against gossip, hatred and envy; it leads one to seek peace and friendship with others and eliminates the desire to cause damage to others.
One must also believe that God sees all the actions of man, that He knows the needs of the whole world and helps everyone; He particularly aids the Jews because of their justice and their faith in his mercy.
God’s messengers are the angels, the prophets and the just men. The piety of a just man may lead him to the “holy spirit” and such a man can achieve great things for Jews through prayer. Repentance similarly safeguards people from evil.48)ירושלמי פּאָה פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
But the most beautiful element of the faith is the belief in compensation and punishment. After his death, man is compensated for his good deeds and punished for his evil doing; children of good parents are credited with the deeds of their forefathers. And even as the individual meets with justice after death so also does the group. For the nation this assumes the form of the coming of Messiah and the coming to life of the dead. Of these matters the scholars spoke briefly when they referred to the “wars of Gog and Magog,” the “pains of Messiah,” the return of the “kingdom of David,” the “future that is to come” and others. All of these were to compensate the nation for the suffering which it has to endure in the present.
In the course of the generations there at times arose groups or individuals who questioned the validity of the “oral law” and asked: “Of what use are these interpretations of the scholars? Have they ever permitted the eating of a raven or forbidden the eating of a dove?”49)סנהדרין צ״ט ב׳. But none of these opposed the moral views of the scholars for even the opponents of the “oral law” understood that it is possible to condemn certain interpretations of the Torah but that the moral teachings are so important and of such a humanitarian character that one can not oppose them.
The measures of God’s justice are mercy and truth. This is also the meaning of the verse “Your justice is like the mountains of God; your verdict like a deep abyss,” for if His justice were not like the highest mountains, who would be able to withstand his verdicts?50)ערכין ח׳ ב׳.
When God sits in judgment over man He does not consider man’s previous deeds nor his possible future deeds but only the actions of the moment of trial.51)ראש השנה ט״ז ב׳. But God is strict with just men and punishes them for every little ransgression.52)יבמות קכ״א ב׳.
From among all the nations—the scholars believed—God chose the Jews as his beloved children.53)אבות ג׳ י״ד. The Jews are likened to oil; just as oil gives light even so are the Jews the light of the world.54)שיר השירים רבה א׳ כ׳. Because God loves the Jews he called them his first born children.55)שבת ל״א א׳. It is therefore a great virtue to sanctify His name. The Torah was given in order that God’s name be sanctified throughout the world. Whenever there exists the danger that God’s name will be profaned, one must do all in his power to prevent it.56)קדושין מ׳ א׳; יבמות ע״ט ב׳.
Nevertheless, the scholars were willing to grant that there is a possibility that the Torah is not the only means to vanquish passion in man for one must also possess piety. A man who knows the Torah but possesses no piety, they likened to a manager of a palace who was given only the inner but not the outer keys to the palace.57)שבת ל״א ב׳.