And Other Stuff About the Talmud That You Might Not Know
The “written” Torah, or TaNaK, contains the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings, or scrolls). The Oral Torah, or Mishna, was created long before the Hebrews were taken to Babylon in captivity, ca. 586 BCE. (The word mishna comes from the Hebrew root for “repeat” because it was transmitted orally from teacher to student.) The Mishna was put into writing ca. 200 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi.
Discussions about the Mishna, which include the parts of the Torah from which the Mishna is derived, are called the Gemara (from the word mara, meaning to learn or study.) The Gemara is written in Aramaic. Unlike the Mishna, which is relatively brief, the Gemara is long, convoluted, and meanders off topic – as, for example, in the rules for blessings, in which we find a lesson about why it is wrong to embarrass another person. Together, the Mishna and Gemara comprise the Talmud.
In the Gemara, the rabbis dissected the Mishna to determine what it said about Torah law. Although we find 36 ways to incur the death penalty in the Torah, and many in the Mishna, the rabbis in the Gemara gave so many rules to the courts that it became almost impossible to carry out the death sentence. They said any court handing down one death sentence in seven years is a bloody court.
The Mishna contains six sections, called orders or sederim (as in seder or siddur). These sections are:
Zeraim (seeds) – laws about agriculture and blessings over food;
Moed (times and festivals) – laws for the sabbath, holidays, and fasts;
Nashim (women) – laws about marriage, divorce, contracts, and vows;
Nezikin (damages) – civil and criminal law (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, is in this section);
Kodashim (holy things) – laws of kashrut and Temple sacrifices;
Toharot (purity) – ritual purity laws.
Each Order is divided into smaller books called Tractates. The Tractates are divided into chapters. The chapters are divided into smaller numbered sections called Mishnayot. The entire Mishna is made up of thousands of Mishnayot. Parts of the Mishna do not have a Gemara, as in Pirkei Avot, but where it appears, the commentary refers to both the Torah portion from which it is derived, and the Mishna itself.
Our rabbis lived in both Babylon and Judea, and discussed the Mishna in both places. Hence, we have two Talmuds – the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. Citations from Talmud indicate which of the two (the Bavli by default), the Tractate and folio (or daf, an Aramaic word for plank, board, or oar – because the arrangement of words on the page resembles an oar, with the Mishna at the top, the Gemara below, together forming a T-shape, with comments of later medieval rabbis to the sides.)
The Talmud is the beginning of Jewish law (the Torah describes Hebraic law). In it, the rabbis needed to determine the best way to preserve their religion once there was no longer a Temple at which to worship. The dinner table replaces the altar. Prayer replaces sacrifices. Jewish law was discussed in the Gemara over a 1000-year period, from about 586 BCE – 500 CE. The laws don’t appear in order, due to the meandering nature of the rabbis’ conversations. A rabbi from one century might argue with another from an earlier time, but their comments appear side by side as if they are together in the same room. The Gemara presents different perspectives on every issue. Some decisions remain up in the air until Elijah comes to provide a definitive answer.
12th century physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides, AKA the Rambam, compiled a summary of Jewish law in the Mishneh Torah. Joseph Caro, in 15th century Spain, put together his own separate list. Each of them chose what he liked, what made sense to him, probably, I would imagine, in the spirit of offering a concise overview much as I am attempting to do here. Both books omit the nuanced and multifaceted discussion that characterizes the Talmud, leaving us with plain legalism. When people study only the works of the Rambam and Caro, they miss the context. From these men, one might learn how to kasher a plate, but perhaps not the importance of feeding the hungry.
According to tradition, Israel was a small tribe under the Patriarchs. We lost our freedom in Egypt, sprouted a new nation under Moses and Joshua, and continued as such until the end of Solomon’s reign. Two Jewish states, Israel and Judea, emerged side by side. Israel was lost. Judea was captured by Babylon.
The term “Sadducees” comes from the name of Zadok, the first High Priest of Solomon’s Temple (950 BCE-ish). Sadducees practiced the religion of Hebraism. Hebraism accepts only the Five Books of Moses; it discards the Prophetic texts and the Rabbinic texts, including the Talmud. The Hebrews didn’t believe in resurrection, an Afterlife, or a messiah. They did believe in a cult god who punishes in this lifetime, but this is not the universal God of Judaism. The Sadducees didn’t believe in direct prayer to God, but in the intercession of the priesthood through animal and grain sacrifices.
When the Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, and the two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, were taken to Babylon, they could no longer worship as Hebrews. Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the conditions of exile. While some of our people stayed in the Persian empire, others returned to Judea, where they lived under Greek rule and later Roman authority, with a short-lived period of independence in between, following the Bar Kochba rebellion.
During the first generation of religious teachers known as the Zugot (515 BCE – 70 CE), supporters of Hellenism gained control over the position of the High Priest, the Kohen HaGadol. Greek sympathizers were appointed to fill that role. The people elected a nasi, a chief of the courts, as an alternative to the corrupt Temple priests. Thus began a rift between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (separatists – the forerunners of modern Rabbinic Judaism). Pairs of Zugot led the Sanhedrin. One was the Nasi, and the other was called the Av Beit Din (literally “father of the court”) whose role was to oversee the judges.
Following the Hashmonian-Maccabean revolt (around 165 BCE), religious authority shifted from the priests to the courts. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Beit Din HaGadol, the High Court, ceased to exist. The Romans allowed the Sanhedrin to be re-established at Jamnia, but as the influence of Christianity grew, the Romans shut down the Sanhedrin in order to marginalize Judaism. Hillel (traditionally said to have lived from 110 BCE to 10 CE) and Shammai (b 50 BCE, d 30 CE) were the last pair of leaders of the Zugot period, and served at the time of King Herod (who lived ca. 74 BCE – 4 BCE).
The era of the Tannaim, 10-220 CE, began with the emergence of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, two schools of thought with very different perspectives on Jewish law. Disagreements between them appear throughout the Talmud. According to tradition, the Tannaim were the final transmitters of the Oral Law, which had been passed from teacher to student from the time of Moses. The Tannaim include approximately 120 sages whose views are recorded in the Mishna. The root tanna corresponds to the Aramaic word for the Hebrew shanah, which is also the root word for Mishna, meaning to repeat, or to teach. The Tannaim lived and taught from the time of the Roman occupation of Judea, through the destruction of the Second Temple, and the periods before and after the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Among them are Rabban Yohanan ben Zakki (40 BCE – 80 CE), Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Judah HaNasi.
The Amoraim (200 CE – 500 CE) taught the Oral Law in Babylonia and Israel. Their debates were codified in the Gemara. 761 Amoraim are mentioned in both Talmuds. 367 lived in Israel from around 200-350 CE, and the other 394 lived in Babylon from around 200-500 CE. Amoraim is an Aramaic word that means “those who say.”
Savora, which means “reasoner,” is a term used in Jewish law and history to signify the rabbis who are credited with having given the Talmud much of its current structure, i.e. the editors. They did this work from approximately 500 CE – 700 CE. Modern scholars also use the plural stammaim for authors of unattributed statements in the Gemara. Classical rabbinic literature holds that the Babylonian Talmud was redacted into its final form ca. 550 CE. Some statements within classical rabbinic literature and later analysis suggest that the Bavli was smoothed over by the Savora’im, although little was altered.
The Geonim, from 589 CE to 1038 CE, preserved the transmission of Torah and halakhah, Jewish law. They taught the Talmud, and made legal decisions on issues for which no prior ruling existed. Geonim is the plural of Gaon, which means “pride” or “splendor” in Biblical Hebrew, and “genius” in modern Hebrew. The rabbis of the medieval period led the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita in the Abbasid Caliphate. Their schools were the center of Jewish learning. They were consulted from abroad on matters of Jewish law. Their questions and answers were compiled to form what is known as the Responsa literature. Later Geonim consulted not only the Mishna and Talmud, but also the decisions made by their predecessors, whose opinions were generally regarded as authoritative. By the 10th century, as learning spread to other regions, Jewish communities consulted experts in their own countries.
The Rishonim lived in the 11th – 15th centuries. Rishon means “the first ones” and refers to rabbis who lived prior to the publication of The Shulkhan Aruch of Yosef Karo in 1563. The publication of the Shulkhan Aruch marks the transition from the era of Rishonim to that of the Acharonim, or “last ones” (from the 16th century to the present.)
According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, the Acharonim cannot dispute the rulings of rabbis of previous periods unless they find support for their opinions in the positions of other rabbis from previous eras. The question of which prior rulings can or cannot be disputed has resulted in a need to determine exactly which rulings fall within this period. Some rabbis hold that Yosef Karo’s Beit Yosef has the halakhic status of a work of a Rishon, while the later Shulkhan Aruch has the status of a work of an Acharon.
The fervor and dedication applied to the interpretation of the Torah was a lot like a thousand-year chess tournament of International Grand Masters in which every square and every piece and every move and every conceivable arrangement of pieces carried enormous weight. The approach to the process of analysis pre-dates the Mishna. It was developed by many divergent schools of thought over an extended period.
Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, “This and also this are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). Eilu v’eilu emphasizes the incompleteness of any single opinion. The v’, which means ‘and,’ is essential, uniting and complementing the two opinions without choosing one or compromising the integrity of either. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” (Stephen Stills, 1966)
Commencing with the belief that the Torah comes directly from God, the rabbis determined that nothing in it could possibly be superfluous. They attributed significance to inflections, repetitions, forms of usage, and omissions in the language. No word, sound, verb tense, repetition of a passage, or letter was regarded as accidental. The rabbis investigated the gematria (numerological value of the words) to reveal information suggested by, but not explicit in, the Torah. For example, they infer that Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, took part in the battle at Damascus because the number of soldiers in the battle and the numerical value of the letters in his name are the same (318).
Torah was God’s blueprint for the creation of the universe. In Tractate Eruvin 13a, Rabbi Yishmael cautions his student Meir, as Meir is transcribing a new Torah scroll, “My son, be careful in your work, for your work is Heavenly. If you delete even one letter or add even one letter, you may destroy the whole world!”
What follows is a brief excerpt from a much longer discussion, which, while ostensibly about an egg, is actually, by way of analogy, about the 13 rules of Talmudic hermeneutics, which I include to give you a sense of the flavor of the process.
TRACT BETZAH (rules about YOM TOV [holidays])
CHAPTER I. REGULATIONS CONCERNING EATABLES AND BEVERAGES: PREPARATIONS FROM THE FIRST DAY OF FESTIVALS TO THE SECOND, FROM THE FESTIVALS TO THE SABBATH, AND VICE VERSA.
An egg laid on a festival may be eaten on the same day. So says the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel, however, says it must not.
To what kind of hen does the Mishna refer? If to a hen designed for eating, why then does the school of Hillel prohibit the eating of the egg? Is it not a part of the eatables which were prepared (for the festival)? If to a hen kept for laying eggs only, what is the reason of the school of Shammai, who permit to eat it? Is this not Muktzah [non-permitted object to even have around on shabbat or yom tov]?
If we suppose that the school of Shammai does not hold the theory of Muktzah, even then the eating of it could not be permitted, as it is a newborn thing, and even one who denies the theory of Muktzah should hold to the theory of Nolad (newborn thing). No, R’ Na’hman has declared that one who denies the theory of Muktzah denies also the theory of Nolad.
If so, then the school of Shammai will be in accordance with R’ Simeon (who denies the theory of Muktzah), and the school of Hillel will be in accordance with R’ Jehudah (who holds it); but this would not be the case, because did not R’ Na’hman state (in Tractate Sabbath) that the school of Hillel is always in accordance with R’ Simeon and the school of Shammai with R’ Jehudah?
R’ Na’hman may say: Because we found an anonymous Mishna (in Tract Sabbath, p. 375) which is in accordance with R’ Simeon, therefore he declares that concerning the Sabbath the school of Hillel holds with R’ Simeon, and concerning the festivals we found an anonymous Mishna (Sabbath, p. 375) in accordance with R’ Jehudah, therefore he declares that the school of Hillel is in accordance with R’ Jehudah, who is more rigorous.
Let us see: Who makes the Mishna anonymous? Rabbi (its editor). Why does he make it anonymous in regard to Sabbath in accordance with R’ Simeon, and in regard to festivals (makes it anonymous) according to R’ Jehudah? This is no question. Relating to Sabbath, which is so rigorous that it has a capital punishment and there is no fear that anyone will dare to disregard its rules, therefore Rabbi made an anonymous Mishna in accordance with the more lenient R’ Simeon; but relating to festivals, which have no capital punishment at all, and the rules are lenient, for fear that otherwise they may be disregarded, Rabbi made an anonymous Mishna in accordance with R’ Jehudah.
Now, then, if the Mishna means a hen which is kept for laying eggs, and the reason that the school of Hillel prohibits it is because the egg is Muktzah, why do they not differ about the hen itself? (whether it is permitted to eat it or not).
Therefore said Rabba: The Mishna refers to a hen kept for eating, and to a festival which falls after Sabbath; and the teaching of the school of Hillel is not for the reason of Muktzah, but of preparation; i.e., an egg which is laid today. Rabba is certain that it was ripe the preceding day, and it is in accordance with his theory, thus: It is written [Ex. xvi. 5]: “And it shall come to pass on the sixth day, when they prepare what they shall have brought in”; i.e., only on a week day shall anything be prepared for the Sabbath or for festivals, but nothing should be prepared on a festival for the Sabbath, and vice versa.
They go on like this for quite some time, expanding into a discussion of parallels between rules about fruit trees and fallen branches, the relative sanctity of different holidays, the time and circumstances under which the eggs were laid, and whether or not the hen crossed the road on a plank. The real topic is how to think. The rabbis always credit the source of any comment out of respect to teachers and the tradition.