Let's go back to the problem rabbis had to solve from the second through the sixth centuries A.D. Faced with the end of Temple worship and the rise of Christianity, and without a country of their own, how would Jews remain Jews? With appeasement obviously not satisfactory and societal transformation becoming the activity of Christians, separatism began to rule Judaism. How to separate is a major focus of the Mishnah and the Gemara, the great Jewish books that together comprise the Talmud (which means "teaching").
Few Christians understand the importance of those books. Jacob Neusner writes, "Nearly all Christians view Judaism not as a religion in its own terms, but merely as Christianity without Christ, pretty much the same religion but deeply flawed by the rejection of you know who.... Few grasp that Judaism is not merely 'not-Christianity' or that Judaism reads the written Torah in light of the Torah of Sinai, orally formulated and orally transmitted."
That oral Torah of Sinai is said to embody laws, observances, applications, and understandings given by God orally to Moses and passed from one generation of sages to the next. Around A.D. 200 the oral Torah took on a written form with publication of the Mishnah, a compilation of rabbinical discussions in Palestine over the previous two centuries. Over the next three centuries rabbis in Palestine but mainly in Babylonia had additional debates and developed more nuanced understandings. These discussions became the Gemara, which went through its final editing around A.D. 500.
The Talmudic rabbis had to deal with the sociological problem of how to keep a fragmented people from being absorbed into the non-Jewish multitudes. Saying they were merely going by the oral Torah, the rabbis extended biblical teaching far beyond its apparent meaning by regulating almost every aspect of behavior all through the week.
For example, the biblical stipulation, "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk" (Exodus 23:19), was probably an attempt to foster greater human sensitivity. The Talmud extended the injunction so that meat of any kind and dairy products of any kind could never be eaten together or within a period of several hours. A utensil that came into contact with one class of food could not be used with another.
The written Bible stipulates that God rested from His work on the Sabbath and His followers should do so also. Talmudic rabbis saw Melakhah-the word often translated as "work"-as any "activity that influences the physical world." They laid out 39 categories of forbidden activity, and-to preclude any transgression-defined those activities very expansively. Forbidden activities included weaving or separating two threads or more; tying, untying, or sewing two stitches or more; tearing, writing or erasing two or more letters; kindling a fire; or carrying any object outside of the home.
The rabbis were deeply concerned with a great theological problem. Put simply, it was this: In Old Testament times Israelites could not be saved by keeping the Law, for even the greatest often transgressed it. They needed the sacrifice of atonement made in the Temple, for without the shedding of blood there was no remission of sin. The sin could be transferred to an innocent animal, a scapegoat, that was then slaughtered in the Temple as payment for transgression. But the sacrifices stopped when the Temple was destroyed. How, then, could people be saved?
Christianity had an answer: Christ. Judaism needed an answer, and the Talmud provided it: through good deeds, prayer, and study. But sacrifices are not ignored: Remarkably, major sections of the Talmud are made up of extremely specific detail about Temple worship, including how to kill and dismember the animals used in sacrifice and how to arrange worship by the Temple liturgical calendar. Those who studied and visualized the instructions could almost feel that they were there.
We might think that the rabbis were merely lost in the past, like elderly folks laboring over their genealogical charts. After all, by the time rabbis finished the Babylonian Talmud, the Temple had been nonexistent for a time even longer than that which stretches from Britain's first American settlement in Jamestown (1607) to the present. The likelihood of the Temple being rebuilt was nil, or close to it. So what was the point?