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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1618

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.

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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 (“We teach more Torah [than . . . ] received at Sinai”). Therefore, the Mishnah designates the transition from Israelite religion to the system now called Judaism in the same manner that the New Testament points the way from Israelite religion to Christianity.

The Mishnah is divided into six orders (sedarim), which are divided into sixty-three topical sections (massekhtot), with each massekhet containing multiple chapters (perakim). The Mishnah, also known as SHaS, an acronym for the six orders (shishah sedarim), covers a range of Pentateuchal legislative topics:

1. “Seeds” (Zeraim): agricultural rulings (gleanings, tithes, the Sabbatical year, and so forth), though the first massekhet is a discussion on “Benedictions” (Berakhot).

2. “Appointed Festivals” (Mo’ed): regulations governing holy time, such as the Sabbath, the holidays, and their respective festival offerings.

3. “Women” (Nashim): ordinances on marriage, divorce, and vows, and related exceptional cases, such as Levirate marriage, suspected adulteresses, and the Nazarite vow.

4. “Damages” (Nezikim): civil and criminal decrees, and the conduct of and conduct before an ecclesiastical court of law. Includes the tractate Avot (“Founders”), a selection of maxims and ethical statements given in the names of sixty tannaim (Aramaic for “repeaters,” or teachers) of the oral Torah; its five chapters (and a sixth one, added centuries later) are traditionally studied on the six Sabbath afternoons between Passover and Pentecost.

5. “Sacred Things” (Kodashim): the holy things of the Temple, pertaining mainly to animal, fowl, and meal offerings.

6. “Purifications” (Tohorot): conduct dealing with cultic and domestic purity and defilement.

In sum, the Mishnah is an enigmatic corpus. It claims the authority of revelation but it was not admitted by the Rabbis into the canon of Holy Scriptures. Written in Hebrew, it departs from the style and syntax of biblical Hebrew. It does not speak of an eschatological future (stable material in the holy writings of world religions), and it fuses a cultic past (the Temple), regarding which it has no direct access, into a present that is dubious and fanciful. Its many halakhot (laws) regulate an “existing” priesthood, Jewish government, and courts, totally oblivious to the ruin of these institutions during the first and second centuries. Other halakhot relate to religious practices that have no bearing on the Judaism of the day. It purports to be a code of law, but it is actually a compilation of unresolved legal disputations together with biblical exegesis (midrash) and nonlegal material (aggadot). Despite these facts, however, the Mishnah’s paradoxical complexity is justified by its objective: the restoration of the peoplehood of Israel when all signs, internal and external, pointed to its disintegration. In the end, the Mishnah represents a beginning: the initiation of a salvation grounded more in polity survival than in personal salvation.


In the generation following its appearance, the Mishnah proved to be the focus of increasingly involved discussions by groups of rabbis and their students. The first generation (early third century) clarified obscure passages, and the succeeding generations developed and expanded principles and rules of conduct from the extant mishnaic material as they applied to situations arising in their own societal setting. In due time, new tributaries of oral Torah called gemarah (“completion,” “learning tradition”) in Aramaic and talmud (“learning”) in Hebrew gushed forth from academies in Galilee and in Babylonia.

Decades of gemarah expansion became a virtual reservoir of oral Torah, and the need arose to legitimate the process by editing inconsistencies, curtailing new interpretations, and showing coherent linkage between gemarah and Mishnah. In addition, the abrupt Roman closure of Galileean schools of learning in the mid-fourth century and the exile of Jewish communities from Babylonia hastened the pace of selection and collation. The informed result was the creation of two Talmuds, each named after the place of redaction: Yerushalmi (a product of the land of Israel, not Jerusalem, as the name would suggest), circa 400 c.e., and Bavli (Babylonia), circa 500 c.e.

The Talmuds share the same Mishnah (for the most part), but their gemarah are written in different dialects of Aramaic (Yerushalmi in Western Aramaic, with a considerable mixture of Greek words; Bavli in Eastern Aramaic, with many Hebrew loan words). They differ in length (Bavli is about twice the length of Yerushalmi), style, syntax, and methodological principles. Their diverse emphasis and halakhot may be explained by their places of composition. For example, the Yerushalmi, serving Palestinian Jewry, has gemarah for all tractates dealing with agriculture in the Order Zeraim, but this is lacking in the Bavli, a product of diaspora amoraim (Aramaic for “interpreters” of the Mishnah). Similarly, the Bavli records that the fourth century Amora, Mar Samuel of Nehardea, laid down the principle Dina deMalkhuta Dina, which holds that, in civil matters, the law of the land (Jews were a minority in Babylonia) is as binding on Jews as are the commandments of the written Torah.

A dwindling Jewish community in Eretz Israel, stunted in its growth in oral Torah, and a growing diaspora Jewry, which drew succor and moral support from the Babylonian sages, combined to make the Bavli the Talmud of authority during the past 1,500 years of Jewish life and learning, and conceivably for the future as well. For all practical purposes, the Yerushalmi has become a closed book; its many obscure passages have become the objects of antiquarian research. The reclamation of the Temple Mount by the Israelis in the Six Day War (June, 1967), however, has renewed interest in the Yerushalmi by groups of religious nationalists, who believe that the Talmud of the land of Israel holds the key for the rebuilding of the Third Temple and proper worship therein.

Temple building and its complementary idea, Israel’s messiah, however, were conceived by the framers of the Talmud in an ahistorical framework. The main purpose of the oral Torah is to emphasize the holiness of everyday acts and thoughts, which are the way to achieve individual and group happiness and survival. The Talmud successfully preserved the teachings of earlier generations so that later generations could continue them. Its directive “Go forth and study!” is heard to this day.

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