The Talmud

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The Talmud


A muttivolume work of legal discourse, narratives, moral dicta, and scriptural exegesis spanning the first through sixth centuries C.E; generated in Israel and Babylonia, primarily in Aramaic, probably in the fifth and seventh centuries; complete English edition published in 1935–52.


Produced by learned Jewish men, the Talmud is a compendium of sage advice and religious laws pertaining to even the most trivial aspects of Jewish daily life.

Events in History at the Time of the Discourse

The Collection in Focus

For More Information

The image of the sea is often used to depict the vastness of the Talmud, a work of law and commentary on that law, that is one of the highest literary achievements of the Jewish tradition. A cornerstone of Halakhah (Jewish law), the Talmud extends beyond the confines of legal matters to include narrative discourse. There are in fact two Talmuds—the Palestinian Talmud (PT), or Talmud Yerushalmi, which was produced in Israel in the late fourth or early fifth century C.E., and the Babylonian Talmud (BT), or the Talmud Bavli, editorially completed in Babylonia in the sixth century or seventh century. When the term “Talmud” (from the Hebrew limed, “to teach”) is used alone, it refers to the Babylonian Talmud. Less than half the size of the Babylonian Talmud, the Palestinian Talmud is written mostly in a dialect of Western Aramaic, and was produced in the Galilean academies of Sepphoris, Tiberias, and Caesarea. Like the Palestinian Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud includes Mishnaic and post-Mishnaic Hebrew but was written in an Aramaic that is akin to Syriac, the eastern Aramaic dialect then prevalent in Babylonia. Replete with legend and moral teachings as well as law, the Talmud has remained one of the major documents by which Judaism is understood. Much more than a static compilation of dictates, it is a dynamic corpus of legal disputes and disquisitions, an ongoing record and learned reconstruction of the proceedings of the early rabbinic study houses, and a treasure trove of stories, sage advice, and musings. Over time the Babylonian Talmud has exercised greater authority than its Palestinian counterpart, helping to sustain life in the diaspora (outside Israel) for well over a thousand years.

Events in History at the Time of the Discourse

Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism

The Second Temple, the spiritual and national center of the Jewish people, was completed in Jerusalem in 515 B.C.E., 19 years after Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, defeated the Babylonians and invited the Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the First Temple, which the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed in 586 B.C.E. Like the First Temple, the Second Temple became the center of Jewish social, cultural, and religious life. A main aspect of the religious life was an elaborate sacrificial system, involving animal offerings to God (of bulls, goats, and lambs), and meal offerings of flour and first fruits, to ensure the spiritual stability of the Jewish people. Priests made these offerings on behalf of individuals as well as the community at large. Performed daily, the sacrifices served as the vehicle used to gain access to the entity the Jews identified as the one God, to insure God’s favor, and, when followers erred, to appease God. The belief was that if they strayed from God’s ways, he could unleash his wrath and bring about the cultural and political subjugation that had befallen past generations.

When the second wave of Israelites returned to Judah from Babylonian exile in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. (a first wave had arrived nearly a century earlier), the priest and scribe Ezra assembled the Jewish people in Jerusalem for a public reading of the Torah of Moses (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times) —the books of law and narrative that trace the history of the Jews from the Garden of Eden to their arrival at the border of the Promised Land, which, according to the Torah, God pledged to Abraham’s descendants for all eternity (Genesis 17:7ff). A dedication ceremony, which reaffirmed the commitment of the Jewish people to their covenant with God, followed Ezra’s public reading, signifying their devotion to God’s teaching as written in the Torah. The Torah began to play a newly important role in the religious life of the Jews. Ezra, and in turn the priests, exerted both religious and, along with the Persian-appointed governor, political authority over the Jewish community. While the Temple, which operated under the priests, was the physical locus of this power, the Torah as interpreted by the priests and scribes provided the spiritual blueprint to guide the Jewish people. Gradually the practice of reading the Torah in public developed.

In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Judea, and from the late fourth century until the victory of Islam in the seventh century C.E., except for a brief period of self-rule in Palestine (141 B.C.E.-63 B.C.E.), the Jews lived within the cultural, political, and social spheres of Greco-Roman civilization. In general, local Jewish institutions were afforded a great deal of autonomy under Roman rule. Relations between the Jews and Romans gradually deteriorated, however, and in 66 C.E. for various socioeconomic reasons, the Jews revolted. The Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the defeat of the rebels four years later had serious consequences for the Jews in Palestine. Both the high priesthood and the Sanhedrin, the judicial body of the Jewish community chaired by a high priest, lost power and ceased to exist. The Temple had been snuffed out.

The Jews who lived outside the Holy Land, in the diaspora, were affected by the Temple’s destruction too, for it had bound the diasporic communities to those in Palestine.

The half shekel contributed annually by diaspora Jews and the pilgrimages undertaken for the festivals bound together the entire Jewish community…. The ideology of the temple also served as a binding force: it represented monism and exclusivity. Only one place was suitable for God’s home on earth, and that place was the temple mount in Jerusalem.

(Cohen, p. 106)

How then were the Jews to mend the broken axis?

From the rubble and ruins, rabbinic Judaism eventually emerged as a transformation of the sacrificial cult. Some time after the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis, who replaced the priests as figures of authority, drew on many aspects of the Second Temple period (515 B.C.E.-70 C.E.) to configure a conceptually new “temple”—that is, a new mode by which Jewish religious life could thrive in the absence of a physical spiritual center. For the rabbis, the study of the Torah and initially the less important development of functions at the synagogue, became central aspects of a more democratized system of worship than before. In time, personal and communal prayer replaced Temple sacrifices as a means of remaining connected to the Divine. Prayer attained the fixity of sacrificial services; the obligatory prayers, by and large, correspond to prayers once recited by the priests who made the daily sacrifices at the Temple. While prayer was available to Jews of all social strata, Torah study, which the rabbis espoused as tantamount to Temple sacrifice, was available only to a limited group of men with sufficient time to pursue it. The importance of Torah study then and now is captured in the Talmud:

The study of Torah is more beloved by God than burnt offerings, for if a man studies Torah he comes to know the will of God, as it is said [in Scripture], “Then thou shall understand the fear of the Lord, and find the will of God” (Proverbs 2:5). Hence, when a sage sits and expounds [S]cripture to the congregation, Scripture accounts it to him as if he had offered up fat and blood on the altar.

(Rabbi Nathan in Goldin, p. 32)

Stepping into the breach, the rabbis developed a system not only of daily prayers but also of rituals performed at the synagogue to replace the sacrificial temple services. They furthermore exalted Torah learning, as illustrated above; the evolution of the Talmud, which is committed to elucidating all aspects of the Torah, epitomizes this devotion.

The rabbis

The term rabbi (means “master”) was first applied to a member of a group of learned men. Teachers rather than priests (although some of the rabbis were also priests), they produced major texts on Jewish law, religion, and culture between the first and seventh centuries C.E. The rabbis were likely the philosophical and theological descendants of the Pharisees, one of the sectarian groups to emerge during the Second Temple period. The Pharisees accepted the authority of “the tradition of the fathers,” extrabiblical teachings transmitted orally through the generations, and were the only sectarian group to weather the destruction of the Temple. Most scholars consider them proto-rabbis.

The transition from priestly leadership to the rabbis is depicted in a famous legend about one of the leading rabbis, Yohanan ben Zakkai, who escaped Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city. As a ploy to leave the city so he could make contact with the Roman general, Vespasian, ben Zakkai asked his disciples to hide him in a coffin, since the Romans permitted the Jews to bury their dead outside the city. Once beyond the walls of Jerusalem, he was led to Vespasian, who was impressed by Rabbi Yohanan’s audacity, wisdom, and peace-loving stance. He was furthermore charmed by the rabbi’s prediction that Vespasian would be the next Roman emperor, which indeed came true in 69 C.E. Having ingratiated himself, ben Zakkai received permission to establish a center of Jewish learning in the coastal town of Yavneh, 25 miles west of Jerusalem.

According to legend, the destruction of the Temple for a second time made it clear to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his colleagues that no building could be relied on to preserve Jewish spiritual stability. The only way to guarantee the continuity of tradition was to promote the centrality of the Torah. With this in mind, they developed ordinances to relocate ritual practices from the Temple to the home and synagogue. The festival of Sukkot, for example, commemorates the peregrinations of the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, and also celebrates the Israelite fall harvest. Originally the festival called for the lulav (a ceremonial bundle of branches) to be carried inside the Temple for seven days and in the countryside for just one day. After the Temple was destroyed, ben Zakkai ordained that the lulav be taken into the country for seven days. He modified the existing regulations to accommodate the absence of the Temple.

The tannaim, the first generation of rabbis, flourished roughly from the destruction of the Second Temple to the compilation in 200 C.E. of the Mishnah—the first section of the Talmud, a collection of originally oral interpretations of the scriptures. As well as the Mishnah, this generation produced the Tosefta (supplements to the Mishnah), and the earliest collection of rabbinic biblical interpretation of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, known as Halakhic Midrashim. The death in 220 C.E. of Judah Ha Nasi, official high priest of the Palestinian Jews, ushered in a new series of sages, the Amoraim, who produced the Gemara (the second part of the Talmud, consisting of commentary on the Mishnah) for both Talmuds.

Rabbinic tradition states that God gave Moses the Oral as well as the Written Torah at Mount Sinai, a concept promoted to consolidate authority within the Jewish community. As it says in the opening lines of Pirke Avot (“The Sayings of the Fathers”), a collection of moral and religious pronouncements in the Mishnah: “Moses received Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; the Prophets to the men of the Great Assembly [body of scholars who interpreted the Torah and its precepts from c. 539 B.C.E. to 332 B.C.E.]” (Babylonian Talmud, Pirke Avot 1:1). The chain of transmission ends with the earliest rabbis, the tannaim. The Oral Torah, the teachings of the rabbis, was eventually compiled in the form of the Mishnah, and between 200 and 600 C.E., the rabbis of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds engaged in interpretation of the Written and Oral Torahs. Their interpretations comprise the Gemara. By the mid-second century C.E., a revived Sanhedrin had been installed in Galilee, the center of Jewry in the land of Palestine. At the apex of the Sanhedrin was the high priest, by now an official appointee called the Patriarch (leader of the Fatherland) or Ethnarch (leader of the ethnos, people). Over time, the office of Patriarch gained both official Roman recognition and the support of the Jewish populace. By the mid-fourth century, the Patriarch would be granted senatorial rank and authority to collect taxes from all Jews who lived within the ambit of the Roman Empire. During the


Torah The first five books of the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy); also known as the Pentateuch.

Mishnah The originally oral law that forms the basis of the Talmud; according to tradition, this oral law was given to Moses by God at Sinai along with the Ten Commandments, which were written on tablets; the oral law was codified c. 200 C.E. by judah Ha Nasi (Judah the Prince).

Gemara The second part of the Talmud, consisting of commentary on the Mishnah. Unless otherwise noted, the Cemara refers to the commentary in the Babylonian Talmud. Censors also used the term as a substitute for Talmud, which was deemed offensive to Christians.

Tosefta (“supplement”) A collection of early rabbinic teachings contemporaneous with the Mishnah.

Rashi The medieval comments of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac on the Talmud, printed, in general, in a distinctive semicursive script on the part of the page closest to the binding.

Tosafot Medieval glosses on the Talmud, of predominantly French and German origin, generally printed opposite Rashes comments, on the outer margin of the Talmudic page

Baraita (plural, baraitot) Any teaching of the early rabbinic period not included in the Mishnah, but discussed elsewhere in the Talmud.

Halakhah Jewish law; designates alt legal discussions.

Haggadah Non-legal material and rabbinic narrative.

Midrash Rabbinic biblical interpretation that explains legal points or teaches lessons through word play, parables, stories and legends. Some compilations of Midrash are verse-by-verse interpretations of books of scripture such as Genesis Rabbah, and others are arranged as collections of sermons such as Leviticus Rabbah and Pesikta de Rav Kahana.

Tanniam From the Hebrew tanna “repeater” or “reciter”; rabbis of the first, second, and third centuries C.E. who taught the oral Jaw as recorded in the Mishnah and in Baraitot.

Amoraim From the Hebrew amora, “speaker,” “interpreter”; rabbis of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries C.E. who produced the gemara, or commentary, of both Talmuds as well as the Haggadtc Midrashim.

Synagogue From the Greek synagoga, literally “congregation” or “assembly”; some time after the destruction of the Temple, it emerged as the central institution of Jewish communal worship and study, and remains so to this day.

centuries of the Patriarchate (late first century to 425 C.E.), the Exilarchate, a parallel institution in Babylonia under the late Parthian and Sasanian empires, emerged.

Both Palestine and Babylonia boasted thriving rabbinic communities with rival academies. The rabbis of Babylonia furthered the Palestinian rabbinic tradition of learning by developing their own interpretations and spawning their own eminent sages. Abbaye (c. 278–338), a fourth generation amor a, who was head of the Babylonian study house at Pumbedita, and Rava (c. 299–352), a teacher at Pumbedita and then at Mahoza (also in Babylonia), are two of many examples. The myriad disputations between these illustrious sages are found throughout the Talmud and their subtle arguments are models of the dialectic method of Halakhic discourse.

The Collection in Focus

Contents overview

The Talmud contains many sources, authors, and redactors from different eras. Its sheer volume (37 tractates, or treatises) is impressive. One can in fact appreciate just how monumental the work is by examining a single page. Every page has two sides, A and B, on each side of which are four main components: Mishnah (the oral law), Gemara (commentary on the Mishnah), Rashi (commentary on the Mishnah and Gemara by Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac), and the Tosafot (commentaries, often on Rashi).

The Mishnah is divided into six broad categories, called Seders (Orders): Zeraim (“Seeds”), about agricultural laws; Moed (“Festivals”), about Sabbath and festival laws; Nashim (“Women”), about family law, inheritance, and marriage and divorce; Nezikin (“Damages”), about penalties, punishment, civil and criminal law, and torts; Kodashim (“Holy Things”), about cultic ritual in the Jerusalem Temple; and Tohorot (“Purity”), on rules governing ritual purity. Each seder contains a number of tractates, whose names are derived from the prevalent theme of the work (for example, the tractate “Sabbath” deals with laws governing the Sabbath). These tractates are further divided into chapters. The Mishnah in fact has 63 tractates, but the Gemara comments on only 37 of these tractates, probably because many of the topics covered were not considered relevant enough to diasporic Jews to warrant further attention. For example, the agricultural laws discussed in Seder Zeraim apply only to land actually within historical Israel itself. Interestingly, there is commentary for Seder Kodashim (regarding the Jerusalem Temple); why the rabbis preserved and proliferated teachings about a destroyed temple vexes scholars of rabbinics. Perhaps it reflects the hope that the Temple might be rebuilt again, making a detailed account of cultic concerns valuable for posterity; perhaps the study of cultic regulations was a way of maintaining the Temple in spirit, if not in fact.

The very structure of a Talmudic page, with commentaries from different generations, that is, a mix of multiple voices from several eras, reflects the Talmud’s most distinctive feature. At the center of a page of the Talmud is a passage of Mishnah followed by gemara, Talmudic commentary in which several rabbis explain a specific law by referring to scriptural proof-texts and engaging in logical argumentation. More often than not, the sages of the Talmud raise other issues and discuss other rabbinic texts when discussing a law in the Mishnah. The gemara might also refer to topics raised in a baraita, writing contemporary with but not collected in the Mishnah. The discussion can include advice on mundane topics (how to deal with bad dreams how to tie one’s shoes, or how to cure a sore throat), as well as ruminations on important theological questions (why evil exists in the world).

Scattered through the pages of the Talmud are case precedent, scriptural interpretation, philosophical reflections, and historical and legendary stories of grand and simple proportions. For example, the Mishnah states that there are “40 minus one” principal types of work that a person must avoid during the Sabbath. In an effort to define more clearly the scriptural prohibition against working on the Sabbath, the rabbis of the Mishnah list 39 activities that fit the category “work.” The rabbis of the Talmud, however, pose the question, “To what do the 40 minus one principal kinds of works refer?” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 49b), debate the reference to “40 minus one,” and then discuss each activity—such as ploughing, reaping, threshing, sifting, kneading,


According to tradition, the famous and influential sage, Hiliel (c 70 B.C.E,-C 10 CE.), developed his own methods for interpreting Torahu These methods would serve as the basis for much of the Talmudic analysis that followed. A great teacher of Torah, Hillel exhorted his students to study it for its own sake, and gained a reputation for ethical conduct that is integral to his being described as one of the greatest teachers who ever lived Once a non-jew sought Hillel’s counsel, promising that he would convert, “on condition that you [Hillel] teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot” ’What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor” replied Hillel “That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

(Hillel in Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31 a)

and building—individually. In the process of highlighting different lines of thought, disputes between different rabbis often remain unresolved. The lines of thought, however, bring to the fore perennial concerns of as much relevance to life today as to the ancient and medieval past.

To take another example, Mishnah Berakhot, Chapter One, discusses when and how to say the Shema (the central confession of Jewish faith proclaiming the oneness of God, which is recited twice daily): “From what time may a person recite the morning Shema? From the time that one is able to distinguish between blue and white. R. Eliezer says, Between blue and green. And he must finish it by sunrise. R. Joshua says, [The person must finish it] within three hours of sunrise” (Babylonian Talmud, M. Berakhot 1:2). Cited are differing opinions of when the morning Shema may be recited, but no resolution is offered—none of the opinions is declared definitive. The sages of the Talmud thus resume the thread of discourse, but generally do not resolve disputes among the rabbis.

Halakhic statements in the Mishnah are subject to the scrutiny of rigorous rational argumentation. The most prosaic matters are debated with the same intensity as matters of life and death. Understanding divine law as it manifests itself in daily life is of utmost importance to the rabbis, who see the activity of providing detailed, logically sound arguments in support of a law as a form of religious devotion. As the scholar Jacob Neusner explains, “Reason and logic… carry Torah—revealed teaching—from heaven down to earth, and conversely… make the profane sacred. They are modes of religious expression” (Neusner, p. xvii).

Because the Talmud is not easily comprehensible to the uninitiated, a tradition of commentary upon it developed in the medieval period. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040–1105) composed the most influential of these commentaries, and in all editions of the Talmud beginning with the Bologna (Italy) version of 1482, his commentary, written in the distinctive printer’s convention of semi-cursive “Rashi script,” is found closest to the binding, and in a sense at the heart of Talmudic study. Typically, Rashi’s explanation of a Talmudic passage is terse and precise, anticipating a student’s queries in attempting to make sense of an obscure comment, a vague reference, or a complex legal argument.

Later authorities wrote commentaries on Rashi, the most important of which is the Tosafot, located on the outer margin, opposite Rashi’s commentary. The first of these commentators were Rashi’s grandsons and sons-in-law, the most famous of whom are Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), and Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir (Rabbenu Tarn).

Religious law

Written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the Talmud has a unique style that initially makes it difficult to study, an adventure further complicated by many technical legal terms and obscure references. Furthermore, the laws in the Talmud are not expressed casuistically; they rarely tell the reader specifically what to do or not do. Rather, the laws describe how one behaves or does not behave, and interpreters glean the dictate from these descriptions. The language of Halakhah is therefore different from contemporary legal language. Laws are recorded, but more importantly the reader is made privy to careful argumentation among a community of scholars dedicated to clarifying every ramification of the law. One gains insight into their private deliberations, as well as the very process of argumentation.

The Talmud’s distinctive style is illustrated in the following excerpt from tractate Sukkah 49b-50a, which tackles the question of what is greater, performing sacrifices, acts of charity, or acts of loving-kindness:

Rabbi Eleazar said, “Greater is the one who performs charity (tzedakah) than [the one who offers] all the sacrifices, as Scripture says, “Doing charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than offering sacrifices,” (Proverbs 21:3). Rabbi Eleazar stated, “Acts of loving-kindness (Gemilut Hasidim) is [sic] greater than charity, for Scripture says, ‚Sow for yourselves charity and reap according to loving-kindness hesed),’ (Hosea 10:12). If a person sows, it is doubtful whether or not he will eat [the harvest], but when a man reaps, surely he will eat….” Our rabbis taught [in a baraita]: In three respects is performing acts of loving-kindness (Gemilut Hasidim) superior to charity: 1. Charity can be done with one’s money, whereas acts of loving-kindness can be done with both one’s person and one’s money; 2. Charity can be given only to the poor, but deeds of loving-kindness can be performed for both the rich and the poor; 3. Whereas charity can only be given to the living, deeds of loving-kindness can be done both to the living and to the dead [i.e., attending to their funeral and burial]…. Rabbi Hama ben Papa stated, “Every person bestowed with loving-kindness is undoubtedly a God-fearing person, for it is said in Scripture, ’But the loving-kindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting,’” (Psalm 103:17). R. Eleazar continued, “What is the meaning of the scriptural verse, ’She opened her mouth with wisdom and the Torah of loving-kindness (hesed) is on her tongue,’ (Proverbs 31:26)? Is there then a Torah of loving-kindness and a Torah, which is not of loving-kindness? Rather Torah, which is studied for its own sake is the Torah of loving-kindness and Torah, which is studied for ulterior purposes is a Torah not of loving-kindness. There are some who say that Torah studied in order to teach is Torah of loving-kindness, but Torah which is not studied for pedagogical purposes is not of loving-kindness.”

(Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 49b-50a; adapted by C. Bakhos)

The placement of this particular passage within the Talmud points to another of the work’s difficulties: its organization. Although this debate would more obviously fit in tractate Baba Batra 7b-lla, a general discussion about the collection and distribution of charity, the rabbis placed it in tractate Sukkah, a treatise on the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). Specifically, it follows a Mishnah outlining how the water libation ceremony was performed during the festival of Sukkot during Temple times. The rationale is as follows: In ancient Israel, rain was considered a bountiful gift from God. Since the rainy season succeeds the fall festival of Sukkot, the holiday was a time for prayers and supplication having to do with rainfall. The ritual act of pouring water and wine in the Temple therefore symbolized the rain that God would pour forth on the land. In the above passage, scriptural verses are explained in detail and simultaneously used to support a position. Rabbi Eleazar uses scripture to explain why charity outranks sacrifices and why, in turn, acts of loving-kindness outrank charity. Secondly, positions are not merely stated, but rather the reader is exposed to each building block of thought. Instead of just stating Rabbi Eleazar’s position that acts of loving-kindness outrank sacrifices and charity, the Talmud takes the reader through each step and illustrates the progression of thought. Later, the introduction of a verse from the Torah appears to lead into a new topic. When the passage segues into Proverbs 31:26, “She opened her mouth with wisdom and the Torah of loving-kindness (hesed) is on her tongue,” the discussion appears to veer in a seemingly different direction—to the study of Torah. But the “digression” turns out to be a consistent argument on the importance of intention. That is to say, the passage in part argues that actions must arise from good intentions. Acts of loving-kindness are greater when selfless. Some


Born in 1040 in Troyes, France, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, or Rashi, as he is popularly known, wrote the most influential of the medieval commentaries on the Bible and Talmud. He studied in Worms and Mainz, Germany, then returned home, where he opened a school in 1070. His stand-alone commentary on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) was primed in Reggio, Italy, in 1475, the first dated Hebrew book to be printed, In 1482 his commentary was included as marginalia in the Bologna edition of the Pentateuch, The first edition of the entire Talmud with Rashi’s commentary was published in Venice in 1520–22.

Rashi supported himself not only as a rabbi but also as a wine merchant; his connection to the “real world” is evident in his writings, which are filled with folklore and homilies that convey a charming wit His influence spread beyond northern France and southern Germany, to reach Jewish communities in Spain, in Provence, and in eastern regions. His painstaking scriptural analysis also influenced Christian theologians, including Martin Luther (who, ironically, wrote virulently against the Jews), by way of Nicholas of Lyre’s “Postitlae Per-petuae” which draws heavily from Rashi’s work. Rashi died in Troyes in 1105.

rabbis would argue that Torah studied for the purpose of edifying others, in addition to improving oneself, is an act of loving-kindness, for the intention, albeit ulterior, is nonetheless good. The passage includes a baraita, a teaching from an earlier generation, which principally agrees that acts of loving-kindness are greater than acts of charity. Lastly the passage illustrates how the Talmud makes obsolete practices of the past relevant to the present. Its debate about loving-kindness forms part of a larger discussion on the water libation ritual during the Sukkot holiday when the Temple was still standing. Like God, who gives us rain out of loving-kindness, we are called to do the same. What at first seems a peculiar digression is indeed related to the issue at hand—performing acts of loving-kindness in imitation of God, who gives all people, the underprivileged and privileged alike, rain.

First and foremost, the Talmud is concerned with legal matters, but in the course of its explanations, it tells folktales about the common dimensions of human experience and stories about prominent rabbis and the house of study (beit midrash) in both Israel and Babylonia. The values espoused in these rabbinic stories are the same as those that underpin legal statements. The famous story of the “Oven of Akhnai,” found in tractate Baba Metsia 59a-59b, affirms that the majority has authority over the minority in making legal decisions, going so far as to boldly assert the authority of the rabbinic majority over God. At the start of the story, R. Eliezer is debating with other rabbis about whether an oven made of tiles separated by sand is clean or unclean. There is a rabbinic law that says once a clay vessel becomes impure (unclean), it cannot be made pure unless it is broken. The law does not apply, argues R. Eliezer. The oven is made of separate (“broken”) tiles; therefore, it is not a single entity and so is not liable to uncleanness. The other rabbis counter that the outer coating of mortar unifies the oven and makes it a single entity, so it is liable to uncleanness. R. Eliezer brings forward every rational argument possible, but the rabbis remain unconvinced, at which point he resorts to another form of persuasion—miraculous works. He says to them, “If the law is as I say, let the carob tree prove it,” and instantly a nearby carob tree is uprooted (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metsia 59a-59b). The other rabbis, unperturbed, reply that a moving carob tree cannot prove or disprove a legal position, nor can any other miraculous event. Not even the voice of God himself coming from the heavens in support of Eliezer can sway the other rabbis from their position. “Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai,” retorts R. Yirmiyah, “we do not listen to a Heavenly Voice, and in it [the Torah] is written, ’Incline after the majority’ (Exodus 23:2)” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metsia 59a-59b). In other words, once given to Moses, the Torah is no longer in God’s hands but in the hands of the generations of scholars who interpret it. Law, asserts the passage with a reference to scripture, must follow the majority opinion, to which even God is subject. So says the Talmud, and its story continues. Rabbi Natan meets Rabbi Elijah, the biblical prophet (who was a living presence for the rabbis of the Talmud) and asks, “What was the Holy One doing at that time?” whereupon Elijah answers, “He laughed and smiled and replied, ’My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me’” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metsia 59a-59b).

The Law Codes

The centrality of the Talmud as the foundation of Jewish law in the medieval period led to the growth of another type of literature, the Jewish Law Codes. The codifiers, great rabbinic scholars, culled the Talmud for all arguments relevant to a specific issue and compiled only the outcome. Most often these scholars applied standards and rules of codification that were foreign to the writers of the Talmud. The scholars aimed not to transmit the legal tradition, but rather to state the law. Moses Mai-monides’ Mishneh Torah (The Second Law) is generally acknowledged as the foremost of the codifications. Written in Hebrew and compiled in 1180, his 14-book Mishneh Torah, organized topically, became the first work to classify all of the Written and Oral Laws. As his sources Maimonides used both the Babylonian and the Palestinian Talmuds as well as other early rabbinic works, namely the Halakhic Midrashim—the Sifra, (the Halakhic Midrash to the book of Leviticus), Sifrei (the Halakhic Midrash to the Book of Numbers and Deuteronomy), and Mekilta (the Halakhic Midrash to the book of Exodus). He also incorporated principles of Aristotelian science and metaphysics and other non-Jewish works into his own. Almost as soon as the Mishneh Torah appeared so did its vehement critics, who disapproved of the fact that Maimonides did not cite any of his sources, did not write in Aramaic, and had imposed his own order on the books of the Talmud. Nonetheless, the Mishneh Torah won widespread approval and, ironically, this work that aimed always to be brief became the subject of intense scrutiny, generating reams of interpretive literature.

Another famous law code is the Shulhan Arukh (The Set Table) of Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488–1575). Like Maimonides, Caro tended to ignore earlier sources or opinions, but unlike his predecessor, Caro omitted discussion of laws, such as those pertaining to the Temple, that had no contemporary relevance. Completed probably in 1555 and first published in Venice ten years later, the Shulhan Arukh spawned a massive protest (having mostly to do with the rival traditions of different groups of European Jews) and many critical commentaries, which, ironically, served to cement its position as one of the most influential works on law in Jewish life; in time, it became the de facto standard by which Jewish communities around the world viewed Jewish law as found in the Talmud. More recently, it has become associated with Orthodox Judaism.

Despite the relative economy of the law codes, the Talmud remains paramount in Jewish tradition, for it is not merely a book of law. To be sure, its raison d’etre is the elaboration and articulation of law, as noted, but as shown too, it far exceeds legal discourse, serving also as a text of historical, literary, rhetorical, and ethical import.

Sources and literary context

The Talmud, it has been suggested, draws on an assortment of sources, from the Hebrew Scriptures to the Mishnah, the Baraitot, and the Midrashic literature of the rabbis. It further abounds in legends about the rabbis themselves. One of its venerable sages, Rabbi Akiba, who lived in the first through mid-second century C.E., is said to have been a shepherd of modest means who worked for an affluent Jerusalemite, Kalba Sevua. A pious man with an exceptional character, Akiba attracted the attention of the Jerusalemite’s daughter, who promised to marry him if he would give up tending cattle and study Torah, which he did for 24 years, and in the process acquired 24,000 students. The Jerusalemite meanwhile disinherited his daughter, forcing the couple to live in squalor. Later, seeing how Akiba earned universal respect and attained unprecedented stature for his acumen, Kalba Sevua prostrated himself at his son-in-law’s feet, kissed them, and bequeathed half his fortune to Akiba.

It is Akiba who is credited with laying the foundation for the compilation of the Mishnah, or Oral Torah. The tractate Avot de Rabbi Nathan (Chapter 18) likens him to a worker who went out with his basket and collected wheat, barley, spelt, beans, and lentils. When he arrived home, he sorted each item individually. So, too, Akiba systematized Halakhah, Jewish law. He became known as well for evolving a novel method of interpreting Torah, his assumption being that every jot of scripture possesses special significance. Even the smallest word, such as “if” or “and” has meaning. If something appears superfluous and inconsequential, this is only because a person’s limited intelligence cannot comprehend its meaning. Even “and” or “et,” a signifier in Hebrew that indicates which word is the direct object, has interpretive value. Take, for example, Rabbi Akiba’s explication of “And you shall fear the Lord your God.” In the Hebrew this verse includes an et, which, according to Rabbi Akiba, indicates that not only God is to be feared but also God’s Torah. On another occasion, Akiba explained the verse as referring to both God and scholars. In both instances, he uses the direct object marker, et (“You shall fear et the Lord your God.”), as the basis of his exegesis, thus deriving meaning on the premise that the study of God’s word must break free of the strictures of literal interpretation.


The redaction of the Talmud spanned several generations, beginning with the Amoraim and ending with the early Saboraim, the


Also known as Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Maimonides (1138–1204) was born in Cordoba, Spain, spent his adolescence wandering in northern Africa after his family chose exile from Spain over embracing Islam as decreed by the Almohads dynasty and lived his adult fife in Cairo, an important Jewish center. Not only a Talmudist, he eventually became personal physician to the Egyptian viceroy, and wrote reputed works in Arabic on such diverse scientific subjects as astronomy, haemorrhoids, sexual intercourse, and hygiene. His fame, however, is based primarily on two works, the Mishneh Torah and the Momh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed, completed in 1187). The former was written in Hebrew and was the first systematized code of Mosaic and rabbinical law; the latter, written in Arabic, reconciles classical philosophy with rabbinical literature and indeed with the Scriptures themselves. The Moreh Nevukhim became hugely influential across religious boundaries, influencing the medieval Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, as well as such important Christian theologians as Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus.

scholars who are believed to have finalized the internal form of the Gemara in the sixth or seventh century C.E. During the Middle Ages, due in large measure to the role of the Geonim (singular, Gaon), the heads of the Palestinian and Babylonian academies, rabbinic teaching gained authority in an unprecedented way, and the teaching found in the Talmud became the basis of all Jewish religious life and has remained so for traditional Jews to the present. Because Jews from all over looked to the heads of the Babylonian academies for guidance on religious legal matters related to divorce, inheritance, and communal affairs, the rabbis of the medieval period needed to clarify Talmudic law so that it could be applied to sundry new situations. The challenge facing the religious Jewish leaders was finding ways in which the Talmud, the basis of religious authority, could be made viable to a generation of Jews living in a time different from that of the final redactors of the Talmud. Answers to specific questions by rabbis of various local communities addressed to the heads of the communities are called responsa. The responsa were distributed beyond the academies of Palestine and Babylonia, and the law codes of Maimonides and then Caro followed. One might think that law codes would make the study of Talmud obsolete, but the sixteenth century certainly was not the end of Talmudic study.

The reception of the Talmud has not always been favorable. In an effort to undermine Judaism in the thirteenth century, Jewish converts to Christianity brought the Talmud, which contains disparaging passages about Jesus and Christianity, to the attention of Christians in positions of power and influence. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX officially condemned the Talmud and in 1242 ordered the burning of copies of the Talmud in Paris, a practice Pope Gregory IX’s successors maintained throughout Western Europe in the thirteenth century. The Talmud was also opposed by Jews who placed greater importance on mystical means to commune with the Divine.

Study of the Talmud has endured nonetheless. Today scholars pore over the work, using it as a portal into the world of the ancient rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia and a means to intimate knowledge of what is understood as God’s laws. The structure of the Talmud, from the ordering of a single page, to the ordering of each tractate, to the ordering of the voluminous corpus of 37 tractates, remains unparalleled in world literature. Also unique is the fact that the Talmud preserves lengthy deliberations based on laws, theological truths, and ethical teachings, as well as lengthy speculations about the derivation of these truths. Other compilations preserve the final conclusions without all the argumentation.

—Carol Bakhos

For More Information

Abrams, Judith Z. The Babylonian Talmud: A Topical Guide. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002.

Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987.

Goldenberg, Robert. “The Talmud.” In Back to the Sources. Ed. Barry Holtz. New York: Touchstone, 1984.

Goldin, Judah, trans. The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.

Hebrew-English Edition of The Babylonian Talmud. 30 vols. Trans. Maurice Simon. Ed. I. Epstein. London: Soncino Press, 1965–94.

Neusner, Jacob. Invitation to the Talmud. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Rubenstein, Jeffrey. Rabbinic Stories. New York: Paulist Press, 2002.

Strack, Herman Leberecht, and Guünter Stemberger. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.