The Babylonian Talmud

By Translated by Michael L. Rodkinson

Book 10 - Volume 19

Volume II: Historical and Literary Introduction to the New Edition of the Talmud

Part II

Chapter 1


"Ethics is the flower and fruit on the tree of religion. The ultimate aim of religion is to ennoble man's inner and outer life, so that he may love and do that only which is right and good. This is a biblical teaching which is emphatically repeated in almost every book of Sacred Scriptures. Let me only refer to the sublime word of the prophet Micah: 'He hath showed thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with thy God?' (Micah vi., 8.)

"As far as concerns the Bible, its ethical teachings are generally known. Translated into all languages of the world, that holy book is accessible to every one and whoever reads it with open eyes and with an unbiased mind will admit that it teaches the highest principles of morality, principles which have not been surpassed and superseded by any ethical system of ancient or modem philosophy.

"But how about the Talmud, that immense literary work whose authority was long esteemed second to that of the Bible? What are the ethical teachings of the Talmud?

"Although mainly engaged with discussions of the Law, as developed on the basis of the Bible during Israel's second commonwealth down to the sixth century of the Christian era, the Talmud devotes also much attention to ethical subjects. Not only are one treatise of the Mishna (Pirke Aboth) and some Boraithoth (as Aboth d'R. Nathan and Derech Eretz) almost exclusively occupied with ethical teachings, but such teachings are also very abundantly contained in the Hagadic (homiletical) passages which are so frequently interspersed in the legal discussions throughout all parts of the Talmud. 1

"It must be borne in mind that the Talmudical literature embraces a period of about eight centuries, and that the numerous teachers whose ethical views and utterances are recorded in that vast literature, rank differently in regard to mind and authority. At the side of the great luminaries, we find also lesser ones. At the side of utterances of great, clear-sighted and broad-minded masters with lofty ideas, we meet also with utterances of peculiar views which never obtained authority. Not every ethical remark or opinion quoted in that literature can, therefore, be regarded as an index of the standard of Talmudical ethics, but such opinions only can be so regarded which are expressed with authority and which are in harmony with the general spirit that pervades the Talmudic literature.

"Another point to be observed is the circumstance that the Talmud does not treat of ethics in a coherent, philosophical system. The Talmudic sages made no claim of being philosophers; they were public teachers, expounders of the Law, popular lecturers. As such, they did not care for a methodically arranged system. All they wanted was to spread among the people ethical teachings in single, concise, pithy, pointed sentences, well adapted to impress the minds and hearts, or in parables or legends illustrating certain moral duties and virtues. And this, their method, fully answered its purpose. Their ethical teachings did actually reach the Jewish masses, and influenced their conduct of life, while among the Greeks, the ethical theories and systems remained a matter that concerned the philosophers only, without exercising any educating influence upon the masses at large.

"Furthermore, it must be remembered that the Talmudical ethics is largely based on the ethics of the Bible. The sacred treasure of biblical truth and wisdom was in the minds and hearts of the Rabbis. This treasury they tried to enrich by their own wisdom and observation. Here they develop a principle contained in a scriptural passage, and give it a wider scope and a larger application to life's various conditions. There they crystallize great moral ideas into a pithy, impressive maxim as a guide for human conduct. Here they give to a jewel of biblical ethics a new lustre by setting it in the gold of their own wisdom. There again they combine single pearls of biblical wisdom to a graceful ornament for human life."--M. Mielziner.

There are many books written upon the ethics of the Talmud which are enumerated in the bibliography. The most excellent of these is the philosophical book of Professor Lazarus, "Ethik des Judenthums," in German, Frankfort o. M., 1898, the first volume of which is translated into English by the Jewish Publication Society. The second volume of this work, we have heard, is ready for or already in print. 1

However, to enable the reader, to get an idea of the Talmud Ethics, without troubling him with the various books in different languages, an extract which was made by Mielziner shall be given in this book, whose selections are so excellent that practically we have nothing to add. We, however, would call the attention of the reader to a book written by us in our periodical Hacol, Vol. VI., Vienna, 1885 (translated into German but not yet published), in which the subject of love of mankind is explained in two parallels, that of the Talmud and that in which we have drawn a parallel between the conceptions of both Talmud and Evangelium as to the moral content of the principle of Love. An extract of this explanation we should like to give here:

The commandment in the Old Testament (Leviticus xix., 17): "Love thy neighbor as thyself," the Talmud interprets in a negative sense by the words of Hillel, the elder, thus: "That which thou likest not being done unto thyself do not unto thy neighbor," and this rule the Talmud adopts in all the ways of charity, and in all affairs in which man comes in contact with his fellow-man; e.g., based upon this biblical commandment it is forbidden to betroth a woman before seeing her, for he may dislike her thereafter, and as one does not wish to be disliked himself, he must not cause another to be disliked. And so in all connections with one's neighbor, it is forbidden to do him any harm whatsoever, because one dislikes that he himself should be harmed. Also concerning the duties of charity, numerous special commandments are to be found in the Old Testament. The Talmud explains most of them negatively, viz.: "Thou shalt not leave thy neighbor to suffer any pain whatsoever, but thou shalt prevent it by supplying him with whatsoever thou canst afford." However, the rich man is not obliged to divide his money or property with the poor, nor to supply him with luxuries if the poor man had not been used to them before he became poor. (More details will be found in each subject mentioned further on.) Hence this obligation which is proper and in accordance with common sense, can be fulfilled by every one without any difficulty. The Evangelist, however, interprets the passage (Levit. xix., 17) in a positive sense (Matt. vii., 12): "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, for this is the Law and the prophets." After a deep consideration, it is almost impossible for one to entirely fulfil this commandment. According to this, one must divide his money and property with those not possessing such. "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you!" Who then would not want to be rich and to live luxuriously; to ride instead of going on foot, to be dressed in the best garments according to the latest style, etc.? Hence if one would like to live up to the words of the Evangelist, he must see that the life of his poor neighbor should be made exactly equal to his own life, which certainly can never and was never accomplished. The same is with the command in Luke vi., 2 9: "And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other," which was never and will never be fulfilled, as this is against the nature of mankind, especially when one is in wrath whilst being beaten. Therefore nothing of this kind is to be found in the Talmud. On the contrary the Talmud says: "He who raises his hand to strike his neighbor is already considered wicked even before he has smitten him." The above-mentioned book quotes this parallel in every affair in which human beings come in contact with each other. It is remarkable that in the explanation of Deut. vi., 4, "Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, etc.," the Talmud also does not interpret this literally, thinking that it is impossible to impose upon the heart to love, especially Him whom one has never seen, and of whom one has not even a correct idea. Therefore they interpreted this passage thus, "The name of the Lord shall be loved through thy treatment of thy fellow-men, viz. "thy commerce with men should be just and peaceful; thy 'yes' should be firm and thy 'no' unvariable; so that it should be proclaimed: 'Hail the man who follows the Law of the Lord, which is Love thy fellow-men! Therefore let us and our children also study this magnificent Law.' The result evidently is that the name of the Lord is glorified through thee ------"

All the ethics of the Talmud are thus set up with a view to make their observance possible in all their particulars, which is not the case with the teaching of the Evangelist.

Finally, we beg to quote the beginning of the first chapter of the above-mentioned book.--Abyye used to say: "One should be always keen in the fear of God; use meek talk, prevent wrath, bestow thy greeting upon every one in the market, even if he be a stranger. This will cause you to be loved by Heaven and liked by thy fellow-men." It was said about R. Yohanan b. Zakkai, that it never happened that he should have been greeted first (for he was it who greeted every one first, as soon as he perceived him). 1


81:1 Also the Midrash, a post-Talmudic collection of extracts from popular lectures of the ancient teachers on biblical texts, contains an abundance of ethical teachings and maxims advanced by the sages of the Talmud, which must likewise be taken into consideration when speaking of Talmudical Ethics.

82:1 We cannot restrain ourselves from expressing our great sorrow over the death of this great man which occurred this year. He was our friend and patron, and many days and weeks we had been fortunate to spend in his company, when, in 1883, we had the pleasure to read before him the several thousand quotations from the Talmud, which we had prepared for his work, "Ethik des Judenthums," at his request. We certainly do not know how many of them he has made use of. However, he wrote us a few years ago that our name and service would be mentioned in the second volume of his book. To our great sorrow he departed before the second volume was published.