If the Bible (TaNaK) is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is its magnificent edifice. Its bricks and mortar are shaped by the revelation of the written Torah as represented, understood, and lived by the sages who molded Israel’s salvific apparatus from the ruins of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 c.e.) until the beginning of the Middle Ages. Their accomplishment, the Mishnah, and its commentary, the Gemarah, which together form the Talmud, became the dominant structure of Judaism.
The Talmud is not easily classified in any literary genre. This is because of its encyclopedic range of topics, including law, legend, philosophy, science, and some history; its pragmatic treatment of everyday life issues alongside flights into abstract and ethereal problems; its multiple and varied methodologies, equally logical and fanciful; its terse writing style, which is reminiscent of note taking; and the meticulous final editing of pedantic redactions, themselves based on free-flowing ideas composed centuries earlier.
More a library than a single book, the Talmud is an anthology of national expression responding to the Roman catastrophe of the first and second centuries, and it is more meaningful when it is learned and studied than it is when it is read. The association between one idea and another, a rabbi in Galilee and another in Babylon, the first century and the fifth century, is tenuous at first, but persistent study connects the diverse pieces of knowledge in a way that is reminiscent of the links of a chain—the chain of tradition. The thought of the sages is like a winding stream of consciousness that flows into the “sea of the Talmud” and nurtures the religious and national life of a people. Accordingly, though not surprising, forces hostile to Israel as “a light unto the nations” have maligned the Talmud, prohibited its study, and consigned its pages to flames countless times during the Middle Ages, in fin de siècle Europe, and during the Nazi era. From such horrendous acts, a talmud (in a limited sense, the word means “instruction”) has been revealed: Strip the Talmud from the “people of the Book,” and chances for Israel’s spiritual and, ultimately, physical survival are almost nonexistent.
The Mishnah is the core document of the rabbinic system of philosophy and legalism traditionally called Torah shehbe’al peh (oral Torah). The quintessential “tradition of the elders,” it represents a Pharisian application of the written Torah in the life of the people. Inevitably, as a living interpretation, reflecting changing times and events, it added, subtracted, and modified the written teaching of God. Humility (many teachings are given anonymously), respect for sanctity of the teaching of Moses, and concern that the rabbinic spirit might replace the letter of the Torah in the eyes of the people (for example, mamon tahat ayin [“monetary compensation for bodily injury”] in place of ayin tahat ayin [“eye for eye”]; near abolishment of the death penalty, introduction of a court administered prosbul to overcome the cancellation of debts during the year of release, and so forth) inhibited individual schools of rabbis from writing down their decisions.
Ultimately, successful dissension within greater Judaism (for example, Jewish Christianity) and greater Roman oppressiveness in response to ill-fated Jewish wars led to conditions of exile and set the stage for the redaction of the Mishnah. Rabbi Judah the Prince collated the unwritten rules, customs, interpretations, and traditions of multiple masters, pre-70 and post-70, into a written guide. The Mishnah (“repetition” or “recapitulation” of the revelation at Sinai) claimed an authoritative affinity to Sinai (“everything which a sage will ask in the future is already known to Moses at Sinai”) and also claimed to be its living successor...
(The entire section is 1618 words.)