Off the shelf | Three books illuminate evolution of Jewish practices

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I always welcome books that further my grasp of history, and these three new titles deepen our understanding of Jewish life in large part by illuminating their historical context.

Harry Freedman’s very approachable “The Talmud: A Biography” focuses not on the Babylonian Talmud’s contents, but on its career — its impact over the centuries in many lands both inside and outside Jewish communities.

Particularly in the present day, when Iraq connotes chaos and despair, it is constructive to recall the setting of the Talmud’s development. What is now Iraq was for centuries the world’s chief source of rabbinic authority. It was the site of perhaps the most ambitious endeavor of the Jewish people: the collection and organization of the thoughts of sages on a huge range of matters over the course of several hundred years.

The Talmud is an extraordinarily innovative text, placing rabbis separated from each other by time and place in conversation with each other. And within a few centuries of the Talmud’s codification, the interpretive voices of Rashi and other European sages would supplement the Babylonian rabbis and their mishnaic predecessors. In another fascinating chapter highlighting the multicultural background of the Talmud, the practice of including the contributions of subsequent commentators was formalized early in the 16th century when the Talmud was first printed — by Christian Flemish printer Daniel Bomberg in Venice.

Freedman devotes significant attention to non-Jewish responses to the Talmud, the most salient of which were repeated persecutions in medieval Europe. In the early 13th century, Nicholas Donin, a French Jew who had converted to Catholicism, convinced Pope Gregory IX of the blasphemous nature of the Talmud. In France, the impact was especially brutal: In 1240, King Louis IX ordered that the Talmud be put on trial. Following the Paris trial, thousands of priceless hand-copied volumes confiscated from Jewish communities were burned. Similar incidents would recur in Europe over centuries.

In “Bar Mitzvah: A History,” British rabbi Michael Hilton summons a great amount of historical material to examine the background of the familiar ritualized entry into Jewish adulthood. I would have guessed that the ceremonial dimension was a recent development, but Hilton demonstrates otherwise. By the 16th century, Leon of Modena was picking up extra money by ghostwriting Venetian boys’ bar mitzvah speeches. Many communities of the era had standards governing apparel and similar matters, and in 1715 in Frankfurt, it was decreed that “no bar mitzvah boy may stand before the Torah scroll wearing a wig. He should not distribute nor send round honey cake nor distribute shirts and collars.”

In spite of the book’s title, Hilton also devotes considerable time to the bat mitzvah. The 1922 bat mitzvah of Mordecai Kaplan’s daughter Judith in New York City in 1922 is frequently cited as the first in history. However, Hilton shows that variations of bat mitzvah ceremonies were occurring in Germany, Italy and France throughout the 19th century, although the prevalent model was a sort of group initiation. Hilton also looks at the question of bat mitzvah celebration among Orthodox Jews, showing a huge range of perspectives and practices in recent times.

Bernard Spolsky, professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, is a pioneering figure in the field of sociolinguistics. In “The Languages of the Jews,” he applies insights from this relatively young academic discipline, which attempts to understand how language and society interrelate, to the grand scheme of Jewish history.

The Jewish story is marked by many linguistic shifts, including the development of quite a few Jewish languages — such as Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Judezmo (commonly called Ladino) and Judeo-Persian. Spolsky demonstrates how Jews’ linguistic habits have been closely tied to both geographic and social mobility, factors that, for much of Jewish history, have not been a matter of choice, but the result of exile, expulsion and oppression. In new places or under new regimes, the Jewish relationship to language has often correlated with that society’s openness to Jewish participation. Where Jews were ghettoized or forced to adopt second-class citizenship, they had a tendency to develop or retain insular Jewish languages. Where there was opportunity for mobility, Jews tended to adopt the language of the majority culture. And yet, there are cases — as with Yiddish-speaking Hassidic groups in the United States — in which a Jewish language is preserved precisely to resist the threat of assimilation in a culture that provides opportunity for full participation.

The exceptional feature in the Jewish experience is the persistent role of Hebrew. After the replacement of ancient Hebrew as a spoken language by Aramaic and Greek, Spolsky shows how Jews became a multilingual people. Nonetheless, Hebrew has nearly always maintained its presence, even as the vernacular languages shifted. In an interesting twist, Spolsky concludes his book with the question of Israeli Hebrew, and its relationship to the ancient language from which it derives.

There are occasions when the book fails in execution to befit its scope — in some sections, information is too sparse or conclusions feel overly reductive. But I was taken by Spolsky’s spirit of inquiry and analysis, and I learned an enormous amount about both Jewish history and Jewish language.


“The Talmud: A Biography” by Harry Freedman(256 pages, Bloomsbury, $26)

“Bar Mitzvah: A History” by Rabbi Michael Hilton (344 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $30)

“The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History” by Bernard Spolsky (373 pages, Cambridge University Press, $36.99 paperback)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco.  All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.