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The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud

The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud

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The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud

188 pages
1 hour
Jun 24, 2011


Discover the Talmud and its universal values for all people. While the Hebrew Bible is the cornerstone of Judaism, it is the Talmud that provides many central values for living. The Talmud sets out specific guidelines and lyrical admonitions regarding many of life's ordinary events, and offers profound words of advice for life’s most intractable dilemmas. This accessible introduction to the Talmud explores the essence of Judaism through reflections on the words of the rabbinic sages, from one of American Judaism’s foremost teachers and writers, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins. Dr. Elkins provides fresh insight into ancient aphorisms and shows you how they can be applied to your life today. Topics include: Kindness through Giving, Welcoming and Sharing; Human Relationships; Personal Values; Family Values; Teaching and Learning; and Life’s Puzzles. Enlightening and inspiring, the values of the Talmud can be appreciated not just by Jews, but by anyone seeking a greater understanding of life and its mysteries.

Jun 24, 2011

Tentang penulis

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, award-winning anthologist, lecturer, educator and author, is co-editor of the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul. Widely published in the Jewish and general press, he is author of The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud (Jewish Lights), and is editor of Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation; Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation; and Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth: Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Heart and Soul (all Jewish Lights). He is rabbi emeritus of The Jewish Center of Princeton, New Jersey, and a former member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Council for Jewish Education. Visit his websites—www.wisdomofjudaism.org and www.eco-judaism.org—for more information. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins is available to speak on the following topics: A Taste of Eco-Judaism Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul Shabbat: A Day for the Rest of Your Life Hasidic Wisdom and Modern Psychology A Tale of Two Cities—Jerusalem and Washington DC: The Jewish People's Love Affair with the Holy City

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The Wisdom of Judaism - Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins



Kindness through Giving, Welcoming, and Sharing

"Deeds of kindness are equal

to all the commandments."

Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Peah 1:1


The Torah begins and ends with acts of kindness.

Sotah 14a

The Torah bases itself on two stories: in Genesis God clothes the naked—God covers Adam and Eve with a leaf—and in Deuteronomy God buries Moses. (See a similar statement in Judaism’s early morning Shaharit service, from Shabbat 127a: Elu devarim she’adam okhel perotayhem … [These are the deeds that yield immediate harvest and continue to yield in future days…].)

Clothing the naked and burying the dead are among the acts of kindness frequently mentioned when the ancient Rabbis discuss the daily acts of goodness that every human being may be called upon to perform.

There are several things that stand out regarding this Talmudic passage.

First, it is not the gigantic, heroic, once-in-a-lifetime things we do that Judaism (and all religions, I believe) demands of us. It is the simple daily acts, the repetitive acts of goodness, thoughtfulness, and concern for the other, that make us religious, that is, ethical and spiritual. Helping a neighbor, providing food for the hungry, giving clothes for the needy, and offering assistance with a life-cycle event—such as a birth, a wedding, or a burial—are the mark of the religious person in Judaism.

Second, what we call the essence of religion in Judaism is what we do for others. In a famous passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, God says that, if necessary, it is more important to treat our fellow humans well than it is to treat God well. God says, I wish that when necessary, my children would forget me, and pay more attention to the Torah’s ethics about treating one another (Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 1:7).

As Martin Buber, the Austrian-Jewish philosopher, points out in Hasidism and Modern Man, this is one of the primary characteristics of Hasidic philosophy, which is to say that it is a Jewish doctrine that Hasidism emphasizes. In Buber’s words, the core teaching of Hasidism is that [You] cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human; [you] can approach [God] through becoming human. To become human is what [you have] been created for.



Giving tzedakah is greater than all

the sacrifices in the world.

Sotah 49b

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish people were in chaos. Their capital shattered, the people exiled from their homeland, the House of God brought to ruins, what would happen to God’s chosen people? This earthshaking event was the most significant occurrence in Jewish history, and the most terrible tragedy until the Shoah in the twentieth century. The question in the minds of the people was surely: How can we establish our connection with God without the holy Temple? Will Judaism survive without our having the ability to bring offerings of thanksgiving, sin, and guilt, and without the occasions for sharing with the kohanim (priests) our gratitude for the bounty at the seasons of harvest—Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot?

After centuries of struggling with these difficult and painful questions, the Rabbis decided that there were other means to approach God. There was: prayer, the study of Torah, acts of kindness, and the giving of tzedakah (charity).

By the third and fourth centuries, the Talmudic Rabbis had become accustomed to the notion that it would be a long time, if ever, before the sacrificial system was restored. They made peace with the idea that God would still be accessible to them through other means. In fact, in statements like the one about tzedakah that opens this chapter, it seems they even accepted the idea that there might be better ways to satisfy God and live a pious life than by making animal sacrifices and meal offerings. Helping those in need, be it financially or through other means, was surely pleasing to God.

Rabbinic hyperbole is well known. Any good teacher knows that a strong, even exaggerated, statement is likely to burrow its way into the mind of the student. We cannot know if the sage who declared that tzedakah is more important than sacrifice was making the best of a bad situation, or whether he had come to the mature realization, as Maimonides (twelfth-century rabbi, physician, and philosopher) did a millennium later, that the whole sacrificial system was merely a primitive stage in the evolution of Jewish religious ritual.

In any case, his statement is an important one, and it gives us, in the twenty-first century, confidence that our tradition contains the power of evolution and growth, and that we can aspire to even better ways to serve God as time passes. We need not be locked into ancient rituals whose usefulness has been replaced by more humane and humanistic practices.


Let the doors of your home be wide open,

and may the needy be often in your home.

Avot 1:5

A Jew who is not hospitable to the needy ignores one of the most important mandates of the Jewish tradition. The first half of this Talmudic quote reminds us that we should be hospitable to all people. The second half reminds us that we need to be especially gracious and hospitable to the needy.

The practice of opening our doors to the needy goes as far back as the founder of the Jewish people, Avraham Avinu—Abraham, our father. In Genesis (Bereshit) 18:1–8 we read of Abraham’s graciousness to three strangers passing by his tent. As soon as he sees them he runs to greet them, bows down, and pleads with them to allow him to bring them some water to refresh their body and soul, and some food to eat. The medieval commentators note that even though Abraham could ask a servant to perform these acts, he insists on doing them

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