Click here to skip the Preface and go directly to the Quotes. But please read the Preface at least once.

It's a difficult task to try and convey within the limited space of this web site the subtle points of theology that need to be conveyed for this site to be useful and unique. I know the reader doesn't have patience to read pages of complicated arguments on the screen, especially when they don't know me or have reason to trust me. (Fair enough.) Hopefully the quotes will speak for themselves so that you can trust them. (I find the righteousness of their advice plain to see and hopefully you will too.)

I need to convey the essence of Talmudic wisdom because, I believe, it contains a particular righteousness that is absent from modern Christianity. Below are approximately 50 sayings from The Living Talmud. I have comments next to some of the sayings as an attempt to tie the wisdom to previously discussed material, or to bring attention to a concept that I might like to discuss in greater detail, but realistically can't in this brief forum.

A little preface to this Jewish wisdom: The capitalized words are quotes of wisdom from the Mishna period (a couple of hundred years BC through about 200 AD). The commentary that follows most of the capitalized sayings is from Talmud scholars from the period of about 1000-1400 AD. The rabbi or school of thought that provides the comment is noted in parentheses. The Mishna is related to the Oral Torah which the Jews believe is critically connected to the Written Torah (which is the first 5 books of the Old Testament). The Oral Torah is said to have been given from God to Moses as a necessary interpretation of the Written Torah.

Christians are familiar with the Written Torah from reading the Bible, but most Christians aren't familiar with the Mishna and Oral Torah, even though they were an essential part of the spirituality and religious practices of Judaism during the time of Jesus and era of formative Christianity. (I hope that I've convinced you of at least the need for unfamiliar Christians to consider these sayings and not dismiss them out of hand(?).)

You will recognize that much of this is very similar to the wisdom sayings in the New Testament (in fact, very exact and not just a coincidence--read the full text of The Living Talmud to see many other similarities). Also, the commentaries by the Talmud scholars are similar to the wisdom of the Desert Fathers. (The Desert Fathers material can be found within the Christian Pursuit topics on the Home Page, and especially within the Critical Advice section which contains a lot of Desert Fathers material.)

Of course the big difference between the Talmud and New Testament and Desert Fathers Jesus. What you do see a lot of is reference to "the Torah." The trick is to make use of the righteousness of this wisdom, but reinterpret it in light of the Christians' acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. The scholars below did not accept Jesus but emphasized observance of the Torah as the sign of their relationship with God and means to their salvation. You can see that Jesus and the Torah have similar roles in defining our relationship with God and in determining salvation. This is the old argument of law versus faith and grace.

Christians need to remember that their access to God is through faith in Jesus by grace. The laws of the Torah are still valid commandments for all of us, but are reinterpreted through Jesus' role as the Messiah and atoning sacrifice for our sins. There are a thousand opinions out there on how Jesus' role affects each of the laws of the Torah. As far as general ethics are concerned, I think we can get by on this page with a very simple view. For the purposes of this essay, think of Jesus as the "embodiment" of the Torah. As you read the quotes below, if you read "Torah," think "Gospel," or "Good News," or "the Word." (That sounds bad, because Jesus doesn't replace the Torah, he fulfills it. So keep that in mind too.)

Selections From The Living Talmud

    MAKE A HEDGE ABOUT THE TORAH: A vineyard surrounded by a fence is not like a vineyard without a fence; but no man ought to make the fence more important than the thing fenced in. For if then the fence falls, he will tear down everything (ARNB).


    BE NOT LIKE SLAVES WHO SERVE...FOR THE SAKE OF THEIR ALLOWANCE: True service is the kind of service a slave renders his master because of his love for him, whether the latter rewards him or not (Duran).


    AND DO NOT SHRUG OFF ALL THOUGHT OF CALAMITY: This teaches that a man's heart should be in a state of fear at all times and he should say, "Woe unto me! Perhaps calamity will come upon me today, perhaps tomorrow." He will thus be in a state of fear at all times; for thus is it said of Job, "The thing which I did fear has come upon me" (Job 3: 25). Another interpretation. When a man sees his affairs prosper let him not say, "Because I have merited it, God has given me food and drink in this world and the stock is laid up for me in the world to come." Instead let him say, "Woe unto me! Perhaps no more than one good deed was found before Him in my behalf. And He has given me food and drink in this world so that He might destroy me in the world to come" (ARN).

    LOVE WORK: Let no man neglect to work, for idleness will throw a man into depression (Rabbi Jonah). Even the rich must love work, that is to say, must engage in some worthwhile occupation, and not remain idle--for idleness is the cause of terrible things (Meiri).

    ABTALYON SAYS: SAGES, WATCH YOUR WORDS LEST YOU INCUR THE PENALTY OF EXILE AND BE CARRIED OFF TO A PLACE OF EVIL WATERS, AND YOUR DISCIPLES WHO COME AFTER YOU DRINK THEREOF AND DIE--AND THUS THE NAME OF HEAVEN IS PROFANED. EVIL WATERS: "Evil waters" is a term for heresy. Abtalyon says: When you speak in public watch your words so that they do not lend themselves to a false interpretation. For if there are heretics present they will interpret your words in accordance with their false beliefs. The disciples who have listened to these words will also turn to heresy thinking all the time that this was your belief too. In this way the Name of God is profaned (Maimonides).

    (HILLEL SAYS) HE THAT DOES NOT INCREASE SHALL CEASE: One who is not always striving to improve will come to an end, that is to say, the very memory of him will perish....Hence the Sages have said that one should always be adding to his learning, and if he has learned a number of Talmudic tractates or a number of things, let him yearn to study what remains to be learned (Meiri). He who has not studied at all is like a beast, for he was created solely for the purpose of learning and studying Torah, whose ways are ways of pleasantness. Now if a person has not studied at all, and if he persists in such wickedness, he does not deserve to live even one day, even one hour (Rabbi Jonah).

      Comment: Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel were very important teachers who lived in or near the lifetime of Jesus. They each ran schools and St. Paul was a student of Gamaliel (before he converted of course). You can bet that Jesus knew the wisdom of these three teachers, and one wonders if Jesus repeated teachings of theirs he agreed with, or said things in opposition to what they were teaching the people (?).

    AND BEING FOR MYSELF, WHAT AM I? Let no man say, "Today I am busy with my work; tomorrow I will turn to the task of perfecting myself." Perchance the opportunity will not present itself. And even if it does not present itself, that particular day has vanished utterly and an opportunity of serving the Lord has been lost; it can never again be recovered (Rabbi Jonah).


    (GAMALIEL SAYS) PROVIDE THYSELF WITH A TEACHER, AND ESCHEW DOUBTFUL MATTERS, AND TITHE NOT OVERMUCH BY GUESSWORK: I asked my teacher, of blessed memory: Where there is a controversy between the codifiers, what shall a person do?...He answered: If one has a tradition from his teacher, let him follow and practice what he has learned from his teacher; otherwise, let him select one of the great codes and follow the one that seems best to him (Nahmias).

    (HILLEL SAYS) DO NOT JUDGE THY COMRADE UNTIL THOU HAST STOOD IN HIS PLACE: If it happened with your comrade that he did not withstand temptation, do not disgrace him. Say instead: "What he did is nothing!" For it is possible that had the same circumstance befallen you, you too would not have been able to withstand the temptation (Aknin). This is of a piece with the statement that a man is not to trust in himself and be too sure of his own judgment. If a person sees that a companion of his in high office does not behave justly, let him not say: "If I occupied his position I would not do any of the evil things he does." You don't know. Human beings, one's no better than the next! Perhaps that office would have perverted you too. When you have reached his position and his station and revealed a better nature, then you may question his ways (Rabbi Jonah).

    REPENT ONE DAY BEFORE THY DEATH: Rabbi Eliezer was asked by his disciples: "Does, then, a man know on what day he will die, that he should know when to repent?" "All the more," he replied; "let him repent today lest he die on the morrow; let him repent on the morrow lest he die the day after: and thus all his days will be spent in repentance" (ARN). This is the meaning of the verse, "Let thy garments be always white" (Ecclesiastes 9: 8) (ARNB).

    LET ALL THINE ACTIONS BE FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN: Like Hillel's. When Hillel used to go out to a certain place, folks would say to him: "Where are you going to?" [He would reply,] "I am going to carry out some commandment." "Which commandment, Hillel?" "I am going to the privy." "Is this, then, a commandment?" "Indeed," he would say, "so that the body does not deteriorate" (ARNB).

    LET ALL THINE ACTIONS BE FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN: Even things permitted to you, like eating, drinking, sitting down, rising up, walking, lying down, sexual intercourse, conversation and all bodily needs, let them all be in the service of your Creator or contribute to whatever leads you to serve Him....This is the end of the matter: a man must set his eyes and heart to his ways and weigh all his actions in the scale of intelligence. When he sees that there is something which leads to the service of the Creator, blessed be He, let him do that; if not, let him shun it (Rabbi Jonah).

    LET ALL THINE ACTIONS BE FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN: A man certainly has to be engaged in worldly and social affairs for the benefit of his body. But he has been warned that even when he engages in these he should have only one purpose, perfection of his soul. Thus he will be found meritorious even when engaged in such activities, since the intention was not the activities themselves, but the perfection of his soul (Meiri).

    RABBI SIMEON SAYS: BE ALERT IN RECITING THE SHEMA AND THE PRAYER. WHEN THOU PRAYEST, DO NOT MAKE OF THY PRAYER SOMETHING AUTOMATIC, BUT A PLEA FOR COMPASSION, A SUPPLICATION BEFORE GOD, BLESSED BE HE....: Things automatic become a burden to a man and he hastens to get rid of them. This is not the proper form of respect, the way of supplication even in the presence of a king of flesh and blood! (Vitry). A man should recite his prayers like a poor person pleading and beseeching for something which he needs (Rabbi Jonah).

    KNOW HOW TO ANSWER AN EPICUROS: You have to learn the arguments with which to refute Gentile non-believers....Now, it is said in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b): Such debate is permitted only with a Gentile non-believer, but not with a Jewish one, for him argument only leads to deny even more, that is, he gets to despise and ridicule the Torah even more. That is why one should not enter into debate with him at all, for there is no remedy for him, no cure at all (Maimonides).

    (RABBI TARFON SAYS:) THE DAY IS SHORT, THE WORK IS PLENTIFUL, THE LABORERS ARE SLUGGISH, AND THE REWARD IS ABUNDANT: The measure of man's life is short and his days are too few to acquire all the wisdom and knowledge that there is, because these are endless. For every science, "The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea" (Job 11: 9), and if this is true of Medicine, as Prince Hippocrates the Saint has it, how much more so of the Torah, the Mysteries of Creation and the Mysteries of the Chariot (Aknin).


    TO A PLACE OF DUST, WORM, AND MAGGOT: Reflection on his origin will lead a man to humility. When he contemplates his ultimate end, he will get to despise mundane matters. And when he contemplates the majesty of the Commander, he will obey His commandments speedily. And when a person succeeds in keeping his mind on these things, he will sin no more (Maimonides).

    IN MERCY IS THE WORLD JUDGED: The Lord created the evil impulse, but He created Torah and repentance as its remedy. And the world is judged in mercy in that the sinner's repentance is found acceptable; and this is a merciful act of the Lord toward his creatures (Meiri).

      Comment: The Jews, I think, are superior in this aspect in that they respect/fear/love God so much that it's OK to say that God created the evil impulse. Some Christians might lose faith if they believed God was responsible for anything evil. Some Christians will identify all potential evil and assign it to Satan or demons. My point is, there is no need to make excuses for God or use theology to protect God from accusations. The superior theology is simplification: love God either way. And if Satan or demons interfer and provide their own evil, that shouldn't affect one's relationship with God. What does affect one's relationship with God is holding onto bad theology that might lead one to judge God, and I think the Jews have secured against that here by loving God under any circumstance.

    EVERYTHING IS FORESEEN, YET FREEDOM OF CHOICE IS GRANTED; IN MERCY IS THE WORLD JUDGED; AND EVERYTHING IS ACCORDING TO THE PREPONDERANCE OF WORKS: We may interpret our Mishna as follows: Even though "everything is foreseen, freedom of choice is granted." And although we cannot understand this great mystery, for "everything is foreseen" and "freedom of choice is granted" seems like a contradiction in terms, nevertheless do not question this matter--for "in mercy is the world judged," the judgment of the Holy One, blessed be He, is a merciful judgment, whether he punishes or rewards (Nahmias).

      Comment: Just like the quote above, Nahmias recognizes a paradox where one could easily end up judging God. In Christianity mystery is usually reserved for doctrinal issues. Here the mystery is used to secure the relationship between God and the individual. The paradox could have been sweetened by affirming the innocence of God in his reasons for creating the world like it is, with evil and free choice, despite his omniscience, etc. But the superior theology is: "Don't question God, because he judges with mercy." This not only prevents one from judging God, but might even draw one closer to God.

    EVERYTHING IS GIVEN AGAINST A PLEDGE: This may be compared to a person who entered a city and found no one there. He walked into a house and found a table set with all kinds of food and drink. So he began to eat and drink, thinking, "I deserve all this, all of it is mine, I shall do with it what I please." He didn't even notice that the owners were watching him from the side! He will yet have to pay for everything he ate and drank, for he is in a spot from which he will not be able to escape (Rabbi Jonah).

    THE SHOP IS OPEN: The world has been compared to a shop because, as in a shop, many things are found in it of different nature...and the choice is left to the purchaser to buy what he wishes, either the bitter or the sweet. Such a shop is the world and man is the purchaser, and it is in his power to do either evil or good, either little or much (Meiri).

    EVERYTHING IS READY FOR THE FEAST: [w]hen men are invited to a feast they all enter through one doorway, but when they sit down they do not sit down pell-mell but each one according to his station and dignity (Vitry). The end purpose of everything our Mishna has described is the life of the world to come (Maimonides).

    WHERE THERE IS NO TORAH (, THERE'S NO RIGHT CONDUCT): When a man is not profound in his learning he cannot properly understand the meaning of fear of Heaven (Vitry).

    WHERE THERE IS NO BREAD (, THERE'S NO TORAH): When a man is Torah-less his food is useless too--for the only purpose of riches is to provide for a man's need so that he may have the leisure to study Torah (Rabbi Jonah).

    HE WHOSE WORKS EXCEED HIS WISDOM: When a man is one of those who fear the Lord, no strategy will prevail against him; even if arguments are flung against him which he cannot refute, he will not succumb (Meiri).

    BEN ZOMA SAYS: WHO IS A WISE MAN? HE THAT LEARNS FROM ALL MEN...: A WISE MAN: It is he who is ready to learn even from his inferiors. With such readiness, if his inferior should present him with a wise view, he will not be ashamed to accept it and will not treat his words with contempt. This was characteristic of David, King of Israel, who said, "...I would pay attention to any man who came to teach me something" (Vitry).

    A RICH MAN: A rich man who is malcontent has no enjoyment or pleasure in his wealth. All the more so a poor man who protests against the measure meted out to him by the Holy One: he has good neither in this world nor in the world to come--none in this world, because he is poor; none in the world to come, because he is unable to receive the reward for having suffered poverty, for having borne poverty patiently. For this affliction might have served as an atonement for his iniquities, and he should have accepted his lot lovingly instead of protesting against the judgment of the Holy One (Vitry).

    BEN AZZAI SAYS: BE QUICK IN CARRYING OUT A MINOR COMMANDMENT AS IN THE CASE OF A MAJOR ONE, AND FLEE FROM TRANSGRESSION.... Recoil from a light sin, so that you may recoil from a grievous sin. Hasten to overtake a good act so that calamity should not overtake you. If transgression has come your way, then do not be distressed by that transgression, but by the one coming after it. If a good deed has come your way, then do not rejoice at that good deed, but at the one coming after it (ARNB). A MINOR COMMANDMENT: That is to say, even a commandment that seems insignificant in your sight--hasten to carry it out (Vitry).

    IF ONE PROFANES THE NAME OF HEAVEN IN SECRET: The penalty for profaning the Name is so extreme because in this instance a man sins not because he is overpowered by the evil impulse, but because he wishes to throw off the yoke and treat the Torah and commandments with contempt, and because he denies the omniscience and providence of God (Meiri).

    AND SAY NOT: "ADOPT MY VIEW": If your colleagues disagree with you in some matter do not compel them to adopt your view. They are at liberty to choose whether or not they should adopt it; you may not compel them to adopt it (Maimonides).

    ENGAGE BUT LITTLE IN BUSINESS: Engage in business no more than you need for livelihood...and make your chief aim the study of the Torah, as it is said, "And thou shall meditate therein day and night (Joshua 1: 8) (Aknin).

    BE OF HUMBLE SPIRIT BEFORE ALL MEN: That is to say, not only in the presence of those greater than yourself should you be of humble spirit, but in the presence of everyone. So that, whenever you sit with any person, speak to him and behave toward him as though he were superior to you. Such extreme conduct is recommended in order to help a man to flee from pride (Maimonides).

    IF THOU HAST NEGLECTED THE TORAH: He who is diligent over the words of the Torah is given [agents] that are diligent in his behalf; but he who neglects the words of the Torah is given over to [forces] that will make him idle--for example, wolves, lions, bears, leopards, panthers, serpents, robbers or brigands, come and surround him; and they settle accounts with him, as it is said, "God hath His chastisers on the earth" (Psalm 58: 12) (ARN).

    RABBI JUDAH SAYS: STUDY WITH CARE, FOR ERROR IN THE COURSE OF STUDY IS ACCOUNTED DELIBERATE SIN. A man must keep reviewing his study so that he will never forget, so that he may understand things thoroughly. For by nature man's understanding is limited, and forgetfulness is common to all human beings. Moreover, a person ought not to rely on the first thoughts that come to him....Now, where the Torah and commandments are concerned, since error is a common thing, if a person has not taken this to heart and makes a mistake, he is not innocent but guilty, for he ought to have kept in mind that every man is prone to error, and he should have been careful not to make a mistake (Rabbi Jonah).

    ONE HOUR OF REPENTANCE AND GOOD WORKS: One hour in which to repent and do good works in this world is richer than (when done in) all the life in the world to come, for in the world to come it is impossible to repent or to do good works. That world exists only for the receiving of reward for what a person has carried out in this world (Vitry). The saints of the world were eager for life so that they might continue doing good works in this world--something which they will be unable to do in the world to come (Nahmias).

    DO NOT APPEASE THY FELLOW IN HIS HOUR OF ANGER: Our Sages, of blessed memory, have said (Yebamot 65b): Even as a man is commanded to speak up when his words will be listened to, so he is commanded to hold his peace at moments when he will not be listened to (Aknin).

    WITH TEN TRIALS WAS ABRAHAM OUR FATHER (MAY HE REST IN PEACE) TRIED, AND HE WITHSTOOD THEM ALL.... The TEN trials with which Abraham was tried are mentioned here to teach us that when one of us is put to the test, he should not grieve over it; let this not seem evil in his sight; let him not say, "Why bother acquiring wisdom and good works, seeing that troubles come upon me? I might as well pursue my heart's desires for worldly delights, and not labor in vain." Lo, there was Abraham our father, may he rest in peace, this grandee of the universe, the lover of the Lord...--God tested him many times! All the more therefore should I, of the least in the world, accept trouble with cheer and love and not regard it as evil. Now, why are trials brought upon the righteous? In order to make them known in the world as lovers of the Most High whose hearts are steadfast before Him...--that is, to make known to the inhabitants of the world what is in your heart, for before Him it is revealed and well known; and in order to give you double reward...(Aknin).

    [TWO OF SEVEN QUALITIES OF A WISE MAN:] OF WHAT HE HAS NOT HEARD HE SAYS: "I HAVE NOT HEARD"; AND HE ACKNOWLEDGES WHAT IS TRUE. ...[a]nd not sounding off on subjects he knows nothing about: and this is what the Mishna is referring to by the statement "of what he has not heard he says, 'I have not heard,' " and not being perverse in argument, but acknowledging what is true when he hears it; even if it is possible for him to contradict and persist in his own arguments and to triumph over his fellow--this does not seem right to him. It is to this the Mishna refers in the statement "and he acknowledges what is true" (Maimonides). We have been taught in the Talmud (Berakot 4a), "Teach your tongue to say, 'I don't know' lest you be caught in error" (Vitry). When a person has not heard something from his teacher, let him say, "The following view I have not heard from my teacher." If he has an opinion of his own in the matter, let him give it, but let him add, "So it seems to me" (Rabbi Jonah).

    SEVEN KINDS OF CALAMITY: The purpose of this saying is this: Let a man review his works meticulously and take thought over every calamity that befalls him. Perhaps it is a punishment (Meiri).

    (THERE ARE FOUR TYPES OF DISCIPLES:) The Sages of the Talmud (Niddah 70b) say: What should a man do in order to become wise? Let him study diligently. But many have acted in this way and it did not help! In that event, let a person plead for mercy from Him to whom belong wisdom and perception, as it is said, "For the Lord giveth wisdom, out of His mouth cometh knowledge and discernment" (Proverbs 2: 6) (Nahmias).

    ONE WHO ATTENDS BUT DOES NOT PUT TO PRACTICE: ...[e]ven a person who simply refrains from carrying out the commandments is thoroughly wicked, even if he does not commit transgressions outright. But the meaning is this: he does not go out of his way to carry out the commandments; he puts them to practice only by chance if the opportunity happens to present itself to him (Rabbi Jonah).

    IF LOVE DEPENDS ON SOME SELFISH END, WHEN THE END FAILS, LOVE FAILS; BUT IF IT DOES NOT DEPEND ON A SELFISH END, IT WILL NEVER FAIL. AN EXAMPLE OF LOVE WHICH DEPENDED ON A SELFISH END? THAT WAS THE LOVE OF AMNON FOR TAMAR. AN EXAMPLE OF LOVE WHICH DID NOT DEPEND ON A SELFISH END? THAT WAS THE LOVE OF DAVID AND JONATHAN. SELFISH END: What is a vain end? For example, an appetite for worldly things, e.g., loving a woman, or loving one's friend for his wealth. If the woman falls sick and loses her beauty, gone is his love for her; if his friend's generosity comes to a halt, gone is his love for him. And the same is true of all things that have to do with bodily needs: a love based on such things is bound to disappear; when the cause is gone, the object is gone. But where love is for the sake of Heaven, as, for example, when a disciple loves his master in order to be able to learn from him, or as it is when scholars who love the truth assemble to study, then the love never vanishes, because the cause--namely, wisdom--endures forever. And that is why the effect--namely, love--will never vanish (Aknin).

    EVERY CONTROVERSY WHICH IS FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN WILL IN THE END ENDURE.... FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN: That is, to establish truth, or to upbraid human beings because of their transgression--and not out of a passion for lording it over others or building up a reputation or self-glorification at the expense of others (Vitry).

    JUDAH BEN TEMA SAYS: BE STRONG AS THE LEOPARD, SWIFT AS THE EAGLE, FLEET AS THE GAZELLE, AND BRAVE AS THE LION, TO DO THE WILL OF THY FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN. BRAVE AS THE LION: All of a man's thoughts and all his activities should have one objective: fulfilling the will of the Father in heaven (Rabbi Jonah).

    (AT FIFTEEN, THE STUDY OF TALMUD;) AT EIGHTEEN, MARRIAGE: Although it is proper for a man to marry early, it is not right to hurry and take a wife before this age, for then a man will find he has a millstone round his neck and is unable to study Torah. Instead, let him study Talmud for three years, and then take a wife (Vitry).

    BY ACCEPTANCE OF SUFFERING: If sufferings come upon a person, let him receive them lovingly and not rise up in revolt against them. Let him not plan in his heart to neglect the Torah, to rebel against God and say that he is toiling in vain since the Torah does not protect him from sufferings. For there is no such thing in this world as reward for the commandments (Vitry).

    TAKES NO CREDIT TO HIMSELF: That is, he does not swell up with pride over what he has learned; instead he says to himself that what he has learned was his obligation to learn, indeed he has not studied enough (Vitry).

    IS EXACT IN WHAT HE HAS LEARNED: That is, he is most meticulous not to add to the statement he has received nor to subtract from it (Vitry).

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