The Talmud is a collection of rabbinical writings that interpret, explain and apply the Torah scriptures. Many believe that the Talmud was written between the second and fifth century CE, yet Orthodox Jews believe it was revealed to Moses, along with the Torah, and preserved orally until it was written down. The Talmud is thus known as the "Oral Torah," with the first five books of the Tanakh or Jewish Bible designated the "Written Torah."
Role of the Talmud in Judaism
In Orthodox Judaism, the Oral Torah is accepted as equally sacred, inspired, and authoritative as the Written Torah. One of the aims of Orthodox Judaism in Israel is to establish Talmudic law as the state law of Israel. Elsewhere in the world, Orthodox Jews submit themselves voluntarily to Talmudic law and the rabbinic court system, especially in matters of dietary and ritual law, marriage and divorce, and social work.
The Talmud also plays an important role in Conservative Judaism, although it is viewed as an evolutionary process that changes with the times. Both professional and lay Talmudic scholarship is dedicated to determining the proper response to modern issues by intensive study of the Talmud. Reform Judaism officially rejects the Talmud as an entirely human invention reflecting medieval thought and values.
In 1923, Polish Rabbi Meir Shapiro organized the Daf Yomi ("the daily page") for a group of students, in which one page of the Talmud is studied each day. This took 2,711 days - about seven and a half years.
The Daf Yomi has since been undertaken by thousands of Jews around the world, and in 1997 a global celebration was held to celebrate the completion of the 10th cycle of readings. Over 70,000 took part in the celebration, which gathered at the locations around the world connected by satellite, including Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum, Eugene, Oregon, and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Current Daf Yomi groups, now embarked on the 11th cycle of readings, can be found around the globe and the daily reading is available on the Internet.
The Babylonian Talmud
There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The former was composed circa 500 CE and the latter was completed around 600 CE. By the 11th century, the Babylonian Talmud had established supremacy and today it is the one that is meant by "the Talmud." Thus it is the one on which we will concentrate.
The Organization of the Talmud
The Talmud consists of two parts: the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is rabbinic commentary on the Torah and the Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah.
Mishnah The Mishnah ("a teaching that is repeated") is organized as a law book, and consists of legal rulings and teachings by rabbis of the first through third centuries CE. It was codified by Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi around 200 CE and divided into "six orders," or shisha sedarim in Hebrew (the Talmud is known colloquially as "shas" for short), each of which addresses a different aspect of Jewish life:
- Zera'im ("Seeds") - blessings, tithes, temple offerings, agriculture
- Mo'ed ("Set Feasts") - Sabbath laws and holiday observances
- Nashim ("Women") - marriage and divorce
- Nezikin ("Damages") - idolatry, matters of civil law, and the Pirke Avot
- Kodashim ("Holy Things") - sacrificial system in the Temple, dietary laws
- Tohorot ("Purities") - ritual purity and impurity
Each Order contains seven to twelve subdivisions called tractates (masekhtot). There are a total of 63 tractates in the Mishnah: see the Fast Facts page for a list of them. The tractates are further divided into chapters. The most commonly read tractate is the Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), a collection of ethical rules.
Gemara The Gemara ("completion") is primarily a commentary on the Mishnah. Like the Mishnah, it contains matters of Jewish law (halakhah), but it also includes stories, legends, and sermons (aggadah, "discourse").
- - "Talmud and Midrash." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service (2004).
- Essential Judiasm: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals by George Robinson (Pocket Books, 2000).
- "Torah, Torah, Torah: The Unfolding of a Tradition." Judaism for Dummies (Hungry Minds, 2001).
- Tracey R. Rich, "Torah." Judaism 101 (1995-99).