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The Talmud
Each page of the Talmud holds
the text of the Mishnah—a
Hebrew account of the Oral Law
2nd–5th century CE,
Palestine and Babylonia
140 BCE –70 CE The Pharisees
espouse belief in an Oral Law.
2nd century CE Rebellions
against Roman rule prompt
the destruction of many of the
Yeshivot (places for the study
of the Torah); Rabbis write
down the Oral Law.
11th century CE Rabbi
Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi)
produces a commentary on
the Talmud, which becomes
standard in printed editions.
c.1170–80 The Jewish
philosopher Maimonides
composes the Mishneh
Torah, a work describing
and reviewing the laws
mentioned in the Torah.
The text of the Mishnah is
explained and discussed in
the surrounding Gemara.
Texts of the Mishnah and
Gemara are then surrounded
by other layers of text
and commentaries from
a later period.
The text of the Talmud
is a discussion.
Its arguments guide the reader
to the kernel of the truth.
ewish tradition maintains
that God gave Moses a body
of laws and teachings, which
he passed on to the people of Israel
(pp.168–75). Many of these are
recorded in the first five books
of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah,
but some Jews also believe
that Moses received additional
teachings (transmitted verbally to
the community’s leaders, and then
from generation to generation),
which became known as the Oral
Law. This Oral Law included
additional details about, and
interpretations of, the biblical laws.
From the 2nd century CE, Jewish
rabbis (a word meaning “scholars”
or “teachers”) set out to record the
Oral Law. The result was a large
new body of literature. Many of
the rabbis’ writings are collected
in a set of books called the
Talmud which, for observant
Jews, is the most important and
authoritative religious text after
the Bible itself.
Part of the reason the Oral
Law is important is that the Bible’s
laws are frequently ambiguous.
For example, the Bible prohibits
working on the Sabbath, but it
does not explain what kind of
work is prohibited. The Talmud
See also: God’s covenant with Israel 168–75
Progressive Judaism 190–95
The pathway to harmonious living 272–75
The primary purpose of the Talmud
is to record the analysis of Jewish
traditions by the best intellects of
previous generations, and to challenge
new students to find their own truths.
resolves this ambiguity by
specifying 39 types of activity
(including building, cooking,
and writing) that are forbidden.
In addition to recording the
laws given to Moses, the Talmud
includes extensive discussions
between rabbis over interpretation.
These discussions are considered
part of the Oral Law too, because
the authority to interpret the laws
was handed down through Moses.
Each page of the Talmud is
designed to reflect this debate:
the earliest writings, or Mishnah,
setting out the law, are surrounded
by the discussions, or Gemara, so
the book can be read a series of
conversations between rabbis.
Acceptance of the Talmud
The concept of an oral law has not
been universally accepted among
Jews. Prior to the writing of the
Talmud, the doctrine of the Oral
Law was promulgated by a Jewish
sect called the Pharisees. However,
two sects—the Karaites and the
Sadducees—rejected this doctrine.
The Karaites originated around the
8th century in Baghdad and (unlike
the Sadducees) still exist today.
Karaites have their own traditions
for interpreting the Bible, but they
do not believe that any teachings
were given to Moses besides those
in the biblical text. Nonetheless,
other branches of Judaism accept
the Talmud as a sacred text, and
Orthodox Jews continue to trace
its origins to the Oral Law given
to Moses by God. Many modern
Jews do not take this idea literally,
but rather view the Talmud as
part of a living tradition that
preserves and interprets Jewish
law for every generation and
encourages theological debate. ■
Versions of the Talmud
A collective work of thousands
of rabbis over hundreds of
years, the Talmud is organized
into six orders that deal with
different aspects of law and
tradition, then into tractates
and chapters. There are
two versions of the Talmud:
the Jerusalem Talmud, which
was compiled in the 4th
century CE in the Land of Israel,
and the Babylonian Talmud,
which was compiled c.500 CE
in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq).
Although there are many
similarities between the
two versions, the Babylonian
Talmud, which is more than
6,000 pages in extent, is
generally considered to be
more authoritative and is
used more widely by students
of Judaism. The Jerusalem
Talmud was never completed
due to the persecution of
the Jews in Israel, and is thus
far shorter and more cryptic
than the Babylonian Talmud.
Moses received the Torah
from Sinai and transmitted
it to Joshua, Joshua to the
elders, and the elders to the
prophets, and the prophets
transmitted it to the men
of the Great Assembly.
Ethics of the Fathers