Sages of the Talmud
The Lives, Sayings and Stories of 400 Rabbinic Masters
By Mordechai Judovits
Urim Publications, 2009, 345 pages
ISBN 13: 978-965-524-035-1
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 3, 2010
This is a book for everyone, Jews and non-Jews, Talmud-students and secularists, men and women, history and literature lovers. Even rabbis who have studied Talmud all their lives will gain information from reading this book and they will enjoy themselves doing so. Mordechai Judovits knows his subject and presents a host of interesting information very well.
The volume introduces readers to some 400 ancient Jewish sages, men who helped mold current Jewish life, men who lived during the pagan period and during the onset of Christianity just prior to the appearance of Mohamed, men who suffered persecution and persevered, men who made sacrifices and endured hardships so that that Judaism would endure.
Judovits answers many questions in his introduction. What is the Talmud and why is it important? What does it contain? Who were the sages who are mentioned in the Talmud and when did they live? Why are their lives and their efforts and their teachings valuable? What events made it impossible for many of them to be unable to be ordained in the traditional manner? He shows us that the talmudic rabbis who devoted their lives to study and to preserving Judaism were frequently working in arduous occupations like other Jews and were not similar to present day pastoral clergy.
Judovits also offers some fascinating original ideas. For example, why didn’t these sages have names such as Abraham, Moses, Aharon, David, and Solomon? He suggests that this was due to the persecutions of the period. Jewish parents were afraid of reminding authorities who forbid circumcision that they advocated it by naming their son after the first Jew who was circumcised. He offers similar reasons for the other names.
The bulk of the volume is devoted to the 400 sages. Judovits gives us their names, dates, and country. He places each in historical perspective, telling us about their era and who were their teachers. He informs us how they made their living. He narrates events in their lives and significant statements that they made. He concludes each biography with a short reference to other sections in his book so that readers can glimpse the entire world during the sage’s lifetime.
For example, the first of three Hillels lived during the first century BCE and the first century CE. He came to Israel from Babylonia. Tradition says that he was a descendant of King David and lived for 120 years. Judavits has three pages describing episodes in his life, including some significant things he said and did and how he impressed people with his humility and his learning. As a young man, Hillel spent half his daily wages as a day-laborer to pay the admittance fee to enter the study hall to study. He lived during the period when the Jewish king Herod was controlled and manipulated by the Romans, when high priests who were ignorant of Jewish law bought their positions. In Avot 1:3, he is reported to have said, among other things: "He who does not study deserves to die. He who uses the crown of Torah for unworthy purposes shall waste away." In 1:14, he says: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Yet if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?"
Rava, to cite another example, is mentioned frequently in the Talmud. He lived in the third and fourth century CE in Babylonia. He ran a wine business. He distributed charity to both Jews and non-Jews. He was fortunate in being friendly with the mother of the king of Persia. He founded the prominent academy in Mehoza in Babylonia and lectured there. Judovits tells stories about him and his ideas in five pages. Rava said, "When a man dies and goes to heaven he is asked: ‘Did you deal honestly and in good faith with your fellow-men?’" Significantly, he did not say, "fellow-Jews."
Meir, another example, lived during the second century CE. His earned his living as a scribe. Judovits describes his teachers, how he was persecuted by the Romans and had to flee Israel to Babylonia, the death of his sons, about his wise wife, about his relationship with an apostate who he admired and respected, and his enormous contributions to Jewish study. He does so in six pages. Meir is recognized for passing on Jewish laws that were later recorded in the Talmud. Yet he was also interested in teaching the common people. It is said that he composed three hundred parables about foxes that taught lessons to the general population in a simple fashion.
Judovits was very scrupulous in presenting the traditions about each sage. When I saw the entry in the first draft of his book about the Bible translator Onkelos, I pointed out that I had proven that the translator lived around 400 CE and not the second century as stated in the Talmud. Judovits explained that his book is designed to relate the talmudic views.
Judovits summarizes the history of these sages from 650 BCE until 550 CE in about forty pages at the conclusion of his book. We meet the last kings of Judea, the scribe Ezra, Julius Caesar, Herod, the first Jewish philosopher Philo, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, and hundreds of others, showing how Jewish history meshed with Babylonian and Roman events and how each affected the other.