What is the Talmud?

With a Q&A style, this text has shaped modern Judaism

First page of the Talmud

The Torah might be the cornerstone of Judaism, but the Talmud is what has shaped modern Judaism as we know it. 

After the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the loss of the temple service (among other Torah-based commandments), a harsh truth was realized and thousands of years of Jewish oral tradition were at last written down in the Talmud, meaning study or learning. A series of texts collected over several hundred years, the Talmud comprises the Mishnah and Gemara and is a collection of law, legend, philosophy, history, science, and humor.

In Judaism, the Torah is the written law. The oral law is a detailed elaboration on the written law that attempts to make sense of some otherwise incomprehensible halakah (law) and no subject is left undiscussed. 

Mishnah

The Mishnah, meaning repetition, is the oral law and is believed to have been given at Sinai along with the written law. It was a tradition passed down between the First and Second Temple periods, and it was redacted around 200 C.E. by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. The rabbis who worked on the compilation of the Mishnah are known as the tannaim, or repeaters. 

Written in Hebrew, there are six sedarim, or orders, with 7-12 tractates in each, for a total of 63 tractates, or sections. The Mishnah is sometimes referred to as Shas, which is an acronym for "Shisha Sedarim" or "the six orders."

The orders are:

  • Zeraim ("seeds"): This section deals with prayer, blessings, tithes, and agricultural laws. 
  • Moed ("festivals"): This section deals with the laws of the Sabbath and festivals.
  • Nashim ("women"): This section deals with laws concerning marriage and divorce.
  • Nezikin ("damages"): This section deals with courts, oaths, and civil and criminal law. 
  • Kodashim ("holy things"): this section deals with sacrificial rites. 
  • Tehorot ("purity"): This section deals with the laws of purity and impurity, such as the impurity of the dead, bodily purity, and food purity. 

Gemara

Written in Aramaic, the Gemara, meaning "to study" or "learning by tradition," is a collection of rabbinical analysis and commentary on the Mishnah. After the Mishnah was redacted around 200 C.E., rabbis poured over the work exhaustively in both Babylonia and the Land of Israel. These rabbis are known as the amoraim, or "spokesmen." 

The Final Product

The discussions and debates resulted in two distinct versions of the Gemara, and separately each was combined with the Mishnah as a series of question and answers to produce two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) around 500 C.E. and the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) around 350/400 C.E. The former tends to be more elaborate and colorful in its presentation while the latter is more concise and tends to be more streamlined and focused. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled by Rav Ashi and Ravina, while the Jerusalem Talmud was redacted by the disciples of Rabbi Yohanan in Tiberias. 

There are two types of texts found in the Talmud: aggadah and halakahAggadic texts not legal statements, but are ethical, historical, or exegetical and typically supplement a halachic, or legal, discussion.

On any given page of the Talmud, you'll find the following elements:

  • Mishnah
  • Gemara
  • Rashi's commentary: commentary by 11th-century French rabbi that seeks to explain the plain meaning of the texts
  • Tosefot: medieval commentaries
  • Mesoret haShas: 16th-18th century, provides cross-references to relevant passages elsewhere in the Talmud
  • Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah: references to relevant halachic (legal) rulings outside the Talmud (e.g., from )
  • Torah Or: provides references for biblical passages
  • Glosses: a modern addition, these glosses include definitions, comments, cross references, and more
  • Other Commentaries

Today, when one refers simply to the Talmud, it is referencing the Babylonian Talmud because it is more widely studied and more rabbinic rulings tend to be based on its teachings. 

For a more detailed, visual explanation of the layout of a page of Talmud, click here