I once visited a shul in a remote town in the United States. During the services, as was the custom, the rabbi, as he did on every Shabbat, gave his sermon on the weekly portion of the Torah. In his sermon, he centered his remarks on the fact that the Torah reading appeared in a certain chapter and this coincidence was crucial in his understanding of the weekly portion.
After the services I approached him and asked him if he was aware that the division of the Torah into chapters was not of Jewish origin.
He retorted that because many of our sages and the Jewish people in general referred to them in this way, it gave the Jewish people ownership of the chapter framework, regardless of its origin, and therefore he was correct in using it as the basis for his sermon.
Why is Mount Moriah, the place where King Solomon built the Holy Temple and where Isaac our forefather was nearly sacrificed by his father Abraham, considered holy for our people, yet Mount Sinai, the place where we received the Torah from Almighty G-d, is not? Why do we consider Kever Rachel Imeinu, the tomb of our matriarch Rachel, holy, when there are countless historians and archeologists who claim that this is not the place of her burial? How is it that we look upon the Talmud as a holy text, for some even equated to Torah Shebe’al Peh, the unwritten Torah, when historically we know that its format and layout are only approximately five hundred years old?
(The original completed text of the entire Babylonian Talmud in its layout was printed by Daniel Bomberg, an ardent Christian in the sixteenth century. Though he followed the format of individual tractates printed by Gershon Soncino decades before, this was the first time the entire Shas was completed and set to the format that we have today. The “Daf” as we know it today and its numeration that is quoted so frequently by our sages of today was not around until the fourteenth century. Placing the commentary Rashi on the inside of the Daf and Tosafot on the outside, and the numeration of the pages, was a new innovation by Gershon Soncino, with great input from the rabbis of his time. The Talmud before its printing was written on individual scrolls with no numeration. Indeed the entire concept of learning the Daf every day is only approximately one hundred years old, started by Rav Meir Shapiro of the Yeshiva of Lublin.)
So why do we deem these things holy?
Rav Joseph Soloveitchik answered this query so succinctly and beautifully. In essence anything that the Jewish people accept as holy becomes holy to our people. Mount Sinai did not represent the efforts of the Jewish people. Almighty G-d initiated the event. Mount Moriah became holy because Abraham our forefather nearly sacrificed his son Yitzchak there, and we in turn made it holy. Rachel’s gravesite might not be authentic but that doesn’t matter. We, the Jewish people, accepted this as the place of her burial and that alone makes it holy.
The numeration of the Talmud, the Daf, its format and accuracy, or the numeration of the chapters in the Chumash are holy because we, the Jewish people, made them holy. It’s irrelevant whether historically this was a new innovation or not. By the very fact that the Jewish people accept it as holy, it becomes holy.
However, though we value and designate these things to be holy, one has to nevertheless always be cognizant of the historical background of these texts and events. As an example, parts of the Talmud are not entirely part of the unwritten Torah. One can see this from the various corrections and addenda that were made by the rabbis throughout the generations and by countless stories of our rabbis told in the Talmud that occurred centuries after the giving of the Torah. In addition, the Talmud is filled with cures and folktales that would seem only related to that specific time and not to the time of the giving of the Torah. Keep in mind, the Talmud was completed around 500 CE, approximately 1,500 years after the giving of the Torah. It therefore behooves us to keep this in mind when we are confronted with difficult statements that appear in the Talmud.
It is especially important for women who study the Daf to realize that many of the statements specifically referring to women were written at a certain time and place when women were looked upon in the general world as nothing but chattel. Within this context one should therefore find it refreshing and appreciate the overwhelming general sensitivity of our rabbis in many of their statements regarding women.
In reality the Talmud was not written for women or for the general population of Jews. It was primarily written for, and studied by, the rabbis and sages. It only became an open book when the various translations into English appeared and therefore the text became available to everyone.
Originally it was written on individual scrolls. Very often a yeshiva did not have the complete scrolls of the Talmud and they had to rely on memory. This is why the burning of the Talmud in France in the thirteenth century was so tragic. They didn’t burn books – they burned all the holy scrolls of the Talmud in France. These were hand-written scrolls containing the statements of our rabbis from days gone by. When the Talmud was finally printed in the sixteenth century, one could only imagine the difficult task of assembling accurate texts and printing them.
All this must be kept in mind when one embarks on the study of the Talmud, and in this context one can appreciate the greatness of our sages and the enormous gift they bestowed upon our people by putting everything in writing.
Holiness in Judaism is defined by the Jewish people. We make something holy. But we must always be cognizant of the events that lead something to be proclaimed as holy.