HIS 155 1.7 The Talmud

The Sea of Talmud


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Excerpts from The Sea of Talmud: A Brief and Personal History

Henry Abramson (2012)

The Yeshiva administration must have put considerable thought into the wording of the hand-lettered sign posted outside the cafeteria. Many young men studying Talmud at this Jerusalem institution were taking advantage of the free food by eating their meals, then taking a second (or third) plate of food up to their dormitories for later consumption. A good number of the students were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and their behavior might have been the result of their childhood experiences of the social upheaval and economic instability of those early years of political independence. Nevertheless, the cost to the Yeshiva must have been significant, not to mention the fact that the dirty dishes left in the hallways attracted some formidable insects.   When the early afternoon minhah prayer concluded and the students left the study hall for begin lunch, a clutch of students gathered around the entrance to the cafeteria to examine the sign:



Lunch progressed without further incident, and I don’t recall whether or not students were compliant with the new policy.  After eating our usual fare of baked chicken, couscous and the traditional Israeli salad of vegetables cut in small cubes, we returned to the bet midrash to continue our studies. I happened to glance back at the sign, which someone had altered in a subtle manner:



With three tiny, playful alterations–a question mark, an exclamation point, and an underscore–the meaning of the text was completely transformed.  The anonymous student who defaced the sign exhibited skills typical of Talmudic study: a profound command of the ambiguity of language, an ability to see past first impressions and perceive the underlying philosophical structure of a statement, and an understanding of the multivalent implications of any idea committed to expression in text. The administration relented, and the sign was permanently removed before supper.

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The “Constitution of Judaism”

The Talmud has been called the “constitution of Judaism,” an apt metaphor in terms of its central importance to this ancient religion but inexact in terms of the function of the document. Basically, the Talmud is an extended, multi-author commentary on the Mishnah, a third-century compilation of Jewish law and lore. The word “Talmud” is derived from the Hebrew root term “lamad,” which means “to learn” or “to teach,” and therefore “the Talmud” might be best translated as “the teaching.”  The Aramaic equivalent is the word Gemara, and these terms are used interchangeably to describe the same book. To avoid confusion, we will restrict ourselves to using the term Talmud rather than Gemara, largely because Talmud is more commonly used in English.  

The principal function of the Talmud is to explore and clarify the meaning of the Mishnah and identify its implications for halakhah, Jewish law.  The Talmud is not, however, a code of law or a statement of principles like the United States Constitution or the Bill of Rights. It is rather a collection of highly coded arguments, conforming to a unique set of hermeneutic rules of argument, that form the basis of ongoing debates in Jewish law and philosophy to the current day.  It is impossible to understand Judaism adequately without engaging the Talmud, and the Talmud retains its relevance and immediacy in every society that Jews have lived in since it was written nearly two millennia ago. For example, the rapid evolution of medical technology presents numerous ethical challenges that are without precedent in human history. What is the true definition of “death” when medical intervention can keep a brain-injured individual breathing artificially despite a lack of higher cognitive activity? What is the legal relationship between a woman and the child she births when modern medical technology obviates the need for mother and child to share a genetic relationship?  Amazingly, these questions and thousands more are addressed in arguments held between Rabbis in Babylon and Israel in the second through the fifth centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud is a document that retains its value and importance far beyond the time and place it was composed.

The Torah itself is a more fitting candidate for the term “constitution of Judaism.” Traditional Jewish theology holds that the Torah, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), is the written blueprint of the universe, given directly to Moses by God.  The surface meaning of the Torah is usually easily grasped, but more probing analysis reveals incredible depths and great variety of possible interpretations.  According to Jewish tradition, the Torah has “seventy faces,” meaning, a vast number of possible readings. Several movements have attempted to limit the possible readings in a radical manner and use the Torah as the sole source of authority, notably the Karaites of the ninth century. This approach is rife with difficulty, as the Torah itself is often opaque and abstruse, its meaning impossible to comprehend without commentary that clarifies the text.

Orthodox Judaism holds that a parallel body of teachings was also conveyed to Moses to serve this clarifying function.  Known as the Oral Torah because it was not committed to writing for centuries, this body of teachings was handed down from student to teacher for generations.  The Talmud is considered the penultimate link in the chain of Oral Torah; the final link is when it literally becomes oral, that is, when two students engage in argument over the meaning of the Talmud itself. Unlike the written, canonized text of the Torah, the Talmud does not stand on its own, fully sufficient and independent. The Talmud has meaning only when it receives voice in a literal sense. Like the sign outside the Yeshiva cafeteria, it needs someone to add the punctuation.

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The Talmud in the Context of Jewish Religious Literature

The prime distinction between Judaism and later religions that developed from its culture is the Oral Torah. Both Christianity and Islam make some use of the teachings of the Oral Torah, the former especially by incorporating Jewish interpretations of problematic verses and the latter with a body of teachings that function in a structurally similar manner. Still, the Oral Torah is essentially Jewish, and it is the Oral Torah that makes Judaism highly distinct from these successor faiths. The Written Torah, that is, the Five Books of Moses, acts as the skeletal structure of Judaism, giving it a basic physical form.  Just as a skeleton is a crucial element of the human body, providing stability and structure to the human form, the Torah undergirds everything Jewish. A skeleton alone, however, is not what makes a human being recognizable to others. Only a radiologist can identify someone by an x-ray photograph. It is rather the material that surrounds the skeleton–the flesh, skin and hair–that we recognize as a person. The Oral Torah is related to the Written Torah in the same manner. The Written Torah, that is the Five Books of Moses, makes up the skeleton, and the Oral Torah provides the musculature, the circulatory and digestive systems, and finally the skin and hair that makes up the externally recognized form of the person. The Oral Torah builds upon the teachings of the Torah and literally vivifies the document, making it real in a human sense. The Written Torah is therefore a better candidate for the title “constitution of Judaism,” but it is absolutely impossible to separate the Oral Torah from this organic whole and still call the religion “Judaism.”

The Oral Torah consists of three basic types of information: midrash, Mishnah, and mysticism (often referred to by the Hebrew term kabalah, which means “that which is received” or “tradition”). Although all of these teachings were originally maintained as strictly oral communications between teachers and students, at various points in history they were committed to writing as well, and today students of Judaism work with printed texts that are more or less canonized.

Midrash (plural: midrashim) is essentially a huge collection of ancient rabbinic teachings connected to the biblical text, in particular the Five Books of Moses, but is also to other works in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) as well.  These midrashim may have legal import, i.e., they may clarify the meaning of a biblical text so that it may be properly implemented in actual practice, or they may be homiletic in nature, offering insights on theology or human nature. The Mishnah is in the main a collection of legal pronouncements and positions held by ancient Rabbis.  Since it forms the most important structural foundation of the Talmud, it will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 2. Mysticism, the esoteric teachings of Judaism known as kabalah, comprises the third category of teachings in the Oral Torah.

The Talmud is essentially an extended discussion of the Mishnah. In order to understand the text properly, the authors of the Talmud frequently invoke citations from the other branches of Oral Torah. Accordingly the Talmud forms a distillation of all three and is known as the “wine of   Torah” for this reason.

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Talmudic literature continued well after the text of the Babylonian Talmud was closed in the fifth century. Three principal categories of Talmudic literature developed, and all of them continue into the 21st century: commentary, analysis, and codification. The work of Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaki (1040-1105), better known as Rashi, from the Hebrew acronym of his name, emphasizes line-by-line commentary on the Talmud, with the purpose of explaining its basic meaning.  Another, more complex, trend in Talmudic literature is analysis, exemplified by the work of the Tosafists, a school of Talmudists that flourished in Europe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Although their contributions (known as Tosafot, or “additions”) occasionally contributed Rashi-like comments on the text, their principal approach to the Talmud was a critical analysis, comparing passages widely dispersed throughout the Talmud and resolving apparent inconsistencies. This type of Talmudic literature also continues to grow in the contemporary period as scholars produce volumes of hidushim, or “novellae,” on the Talmud.  Finally, Talmudic scholars in the medieval period began the difficult process of codification of the Talmud, gathering legal decisions from across the scope of the Talmud and organizing them into collections, or codes, of Jewish law.  Important examples include the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) and the Shulhan Arukh of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575).  Modern codes, or more precisely, modern commentary on existing codes (especially the Shulhan Arukh) continue to be produced in the contemporary period, as the demands of a rapidly changing social and technological environment pose new questions not addressed in earlier codes. An example of  a modern commentary is Nishmat Avraham, which deals with the implications of twenty-first century medical technology for Jewish Law.

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The Two Talmuds

Let us begin with the fact that there are actually two Talmuds. The earlier version, compiled in Israel, is known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi, also known as the Palestinian Talmud); the other, somewhat larger and generally considered more authoritative, is the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli). When people speak of “the Talmud,” or the Aramaic synonym Gemara, it is likely that they are referring to the latter, which has been the subject of far more study over the centuries.  The daf-yomi program, for example, is based on the Babylonian Talmud, although some students also participate in a Yerushalmi-yomi program as well.  Our focus in this work will be on the Babylonian Talmud, but let us quickly glance at the most significant differences between the two.

The principal reason for the greater popularity of the Babylonian Talmud is that it represents a more up-to-date version of Talmudic material.  Compiled some two centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud freely cites teachings from the Jerusalem Talmud. During this time the Jews of Israel were living under increasingly dire circumstances, with major upheavals such as the Roman-Jewish wars and the subsequent expulsion of the late first century, and the failed Bar Kokhba uprising and the subsequent Hadrianic persecutions of the second century.  Jews were exiled to settlements in North Africa and elsewhere. The Babylonian Jewish community, already over six hundred years old by the time of the Roman destruction of the Temple, replaced Israel as the scholarly center of the Jewish world. The Babylonian Talmud may be understood as an improved version of the Jerusalem Talmud, even though it omits some highly relevant material, such as the agricultural laws generally observed only in Israel (for example, the commandment to let the land lie fallow in the seventh, Sabbatical, year). These laws were not necessary for life along the Tigris or Euphrates rivers. They retain their eternal relevance for Jewish settlement in Israel, and thus a resurgence of interest in the Jerusalem Talmud accompanied the rise of modern Zionism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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The two Talmuds represent the voices of literally thousands of individuals. By the time the Babylonian Talmud was codified, sometime in the fifth or sixth century of the Common Era, the Oral Torah had been circulating for roughly two millennia. Each generation of transmission from teacher to student added clarifications and illustrations, included like parenthetical notes jotted down in the margins of a worn history textbook used over and over again by students in public school.  The compilation of these notes into a comprehensive and cohesive role is attributed to Rabbi Yohanan for the Jerusalem Talmud and Ravina and Rav Ashi for the Babylonian Talmud. Although the work of  redacting the Talmud into its current form represents a signal achievement in scholarship, arguing that they were the authors of the Talmud would be like saying that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are the authors of the English language.

The literary origins of the Talmud are described in the very first Mishnah of that little book that Bob Gibbs gave me back in the late 1970s: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.” In context, it is clear that this passage refers to the Oral Torah, as the Mishnah continues by quoting teachings that are not found anywhere in the Written Torah, often with explicit reference to the Written Torah as a separate document: “They said three things: be deliberate in judgement, raise up many students, and erect a fence around the Torah.” The last clause, “erect a fence around the Torah,” is widely interpreted as an exhortation to enact protective measures that will reinforce observance of the laws described in the Written Torah. If writing is forbidden on the Sabbath, for example, a law prohibiting the handling of writing materials would be a “fence around the [Written] Torah.” This type of activity is typical of the Oral Torah.

The transmission of the Oral Torah becomes manifest with a generation of scholars known as the zugot, or “pairs,” in the last two centuries before the Common Era. These highly influential Rabbis included the famous Hillel and Shammai, who each formed large schools of followers (Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, “the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai”). Their debates over the interpretation and implementation of the Torah were continued by a generation of scholars known as the tana’im (“teachers,” singular tana), and recorded in the Mishnah, which was codified in the early third century by the tana Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi. Debates continued for a few more centuries (as the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions”) during the post-Mishnaic era.  These scholars were known as the amora’im (“speakers,” singular amora). The Talmud was completed toward the end of this Amoraic period, sometime around the fifth century CE.

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In terms of actual words on the page, traditional printings of the Talmud feature two basic texts, with layers of commentary that reach up to the 21st century.  The core text is the Mishnah, codified in the third century. The Talmud itself, also known as the Gemara, follows.  These two texts are printed in the center of the page.  Since the Talmud is considerably larger than the Mishnah, the reader will often progress through several pages of Talmud before reaching the next Mishnah. Surrounding the text are additional texts of the three types of supporting materials: commentary (e.g., Rashi), anaylsis (e.g., Tosafot) and various navigational tools that allow the student to find parallel texts elsewhere in the Talmud (e.g. Mesorat ha-Shas) or look up references in the codes (e.g., Shulhan Arukh).


Since the Talmud is essentially an extended commentary on the Mishnah, it follows the same structure of six orders.  The term Shas is often used to describe the entire Talmud, when it is  actually an abbreviation that refers to the Six Orders (shishah sedarim, thus forming the acronym   Shas from the opening letters).

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The six orders form another acronym: ZMaN NaKaT, an Aramaic phrase that can be loosely translated as tempus fugit, or “time flies.” Of the six orders, the tractates most commonly studied in traditional Yeshivot are selected from Nashim (women) and Nezikin (damages).  Zera’im is well represented in the Jerusalem Talmud, but only the first tractate appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot, which deals with blessings to be recited over food and related matters).  Even though tractate Berakhot is the technical beginning of the Talmud, the work is not cumulative in structure, and new students will be as lost starting at the beginning as if they had begun near the end or anywhere in the middle. Certain sections, such as the second chapter of tractate Bava Metsia, are generally understood to be slightly more accessible to the first-time reader, although even they require considerable mediation and training to gain comprehension.

The Sea of Talmud is far more welcoming at such shorelines, with sandy beaches and long, shallow waters that allow the inexperienced swimmer ease of access to the wonders of the ocean, with promise of a safe return to dry land.  Other points of entry are extremely dangerous, with turbulent waves crashing on rocks or rip currents that threaten to pull the swimmer out to unfathomable depths, or crowded with poisonous jellyfish and teeming with underwater predators. It’s important above all never to swim alone. As the Yehoshua ben Perahaya puts it in Pirkei Avot (1:6), “appoint a teacher for yourself, and acquire a friend [to study with].”



The Talmud is written in two closely related languages, with frequent linguistic borrowings from several others.  The Mishnah is recorded in an early form of Hebrew known as lashon Hazal, the “language of the Sages” (Hazal, sometimes transliterated Chazal, is a Hebrew acronym for the phrase “the wise ones, whose memory is a blessing”).  It differs from biblical Hebrew and modern Hebrew in ways that are beyond the scope of this short work.  The Talmud, on the other hand, is written in Aramaic, a Semitic language written in Hebrew characters that became the Jewish vernacular for several centuries, making an impact on the liturgy with the kaddish prayer, for example. Lashon Hazal is relatively accessible to readers with some Hebrew knowledge. Aramaic is another story altogether. The languages are closely related, but even tiny differences between them can be very misleading. The prefix letter shin in Hebrew acts as the preposition “that,” whereas in Aramaic the letter dalet performs the same function.  Sometimes identical words have almost diametrically opposite meanings.  For example,  the Hebrew root word shakhah means “forget.” The same root word in Aramaic means “find.”

Beyond the simple translation is the difficulty posed by the highly coded syntax of the Talmud. Parsimonious when it comes to spelling out an argument, the Talmud will quite often lay out the general parameters of a question and then abruptly change a variable to pose a different question.  For example, the Talmud might be discussing the ownership of grain that spilled over an area of four square cubits, and then transition to a phrase like “two cubits, then what? One cubit, then what?” The reader who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the fundamental question (grain spilled over four square cubits) will be lost.

The Talmud often assumes that the reader already has extensive background knowledge of the subject matter under discussion. Biblical verses are quoted as proof texts, but often in a highly truncated fashion, as if the reader should be so familiar with the Hebrew Bible that it would be unnecessary to provide the entire verse (even though the omitted portion of the verse is precisely what makes the text important). Unlike much western philosophical literature influenced by the Greek tradition, the Talmud does not move from the general to the specific. It does not lay out basic information and then examine particulars.  Everything is presented in medias res, as if the student stumbled into a room filled with Rabbis halfway through a furious debate, when no one will stop and explain how the argument erupted. Fortunately, one kindly old Rabbi notices the befuddled student, and with a few brief running comments whispered into the ear of the student, the Rabbi slowly clarifies the meaning and significance of each speaker’s position. This Rabbi, of course, is none other than Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaki (1040-1105), known by the acronym of his name, Rashi.

Rashi’s commentary, an essential tool for understanding the Talmud, intimidates many new students because it is written in an unfamiliar font popularly called “Rashi script.” Contrary to popular opinion, Rashi did not create this cursive font, but later publishers used it when printing his commentary. It’s basically an italicized version of traditional block Hebrew letters, widely used in both manuscript and printed forms of the Talmud to distinguish the text of the Mishnah and Talmud from the supporting commentaries. In reality, there’s no reason to be intimidated by  Rashi script because only a few letters are radically different from the familiar block letters: eight, to be exact.

The Way and the Telling

The Talmud consists of teachings than can be loosely divided into two overlapping categories: halakhah and aggadataHalakhah is literally translated as “the way,” and it deals with the comprehensive aspects of Jewish law. The Aramaic term Aggadata means “the telling” (related to the Hebrew Hagadah, the book read at Passover seders) and represents everything that is not halakhah: philosophy, anecdotes from the lives of the Sages, popular Babylonian sayings, recipes, medical information–whatever the Sages felt was relevant or interesting for inclusion in the Talmud.

Halakhah is huge.  Jewish law does not recognize valid distinctions in importance between various types of activity–ritual law is equally important to civil or criminal law–and therefore every aspect of human behavior is included. Halakhah discusses seemingly insignificant matters such as how to tie one’s shoes, alongside much more weighty issues such as major real estate transactions or premeditated murder.

For most of Talmudic history, halakhah has received the privileged position over aggadata. Far more commentaries have been written on halakhah, and it forms the overwhelmingly dominant portion of the curriculum of Talmudic studies in Yeshivot.  This predominance of halakhah has deeps roots in the Jewish tradition, which generally emphasizes the practical and pragmatic over the theoretical. The term “Orthodox,” for example, is really a misnomer. Coined in the nineteenth century as a borrowing from ecclesiastical Latin, the word means “right opinion,” implying that the traditionally observant community based their identity on a core set of essential beliefs. In reality, a much better term would have been “orthopractic,” or “right practice.” Traditional Judaism holds only a handful of beliefs to be inviolate (Unity of God, life after death, etc.), whereas the practice of Judaism must conform to a definite set of standards, otherwise known as halakhah. The Mishnah prioritizes the observance of the commandments over everything else in the teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (Avot 1:16)–“the study is not the essence, rather the practice.”

Orthodox Judaism is not monolithic, however, and even this emphasis on orthopraxy yields a variety of expressions that are considered entirely legitimate.  For example, a Talmudic passage that combines both halakhic and aggadic significance is teaching of Rabbi Hiyah bar Ami in the name of Ula (Berakhot 8a): “since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One who is Blessed has nothing in this world except for the four cubits of halakhah.” Leaving aside the huge theological implications of this statement, it is worth noting that the Talmud refers to the “area” of halakhah as four square cubits (Hebrew: amot, singular amah).  In modern measurements a cubit is roughly eighteen inches, therefore four square cubits would mean approximately six square feet (two square meters). A lot of people can stand inside six square feet, and each may have a perfectly valid halakhic position. Hence Sephardic Jews, with ethnic roots in the medieval Spanish Jewish diaspora, will have slightly different halakhic practices than Ashkenazic Jews, who trace their background to Germany and Eastern Europe.

The study of aggadata has lagged far behind halakhah. This may be because aggadata does not lend itself well to the same kind of analytical tools used for close inspection of legal issues. Aggadata often demands an immediate, visceral response rather than a sustained dissection. Taking the passage cited earlier, for example, what are we to understand by the statement that God has “nothing in this world except for the four cubits of halakhah”? If this were taken as a halakhic statement, the Sages would debate why four and not five cubits, which of the various measurements of a cubit to use, where exactly these four cubits are located, and so on. This approach would probably destroy the central meaning of the text, which in my humble opinion refers principally to the notion that a relationship may be formed between humanity and God only through careful attention to the study and practice of halakhah. The study and practice of halakhah thus replaces the connection that was once possible through the performance of the rituals of the Temple, now destroyed. On the one hand, one may mourn the loss of a practical, concrete way of reaching God; on the other, that connection is now made manifest in every aspect of Jewish observant life.

Aggadata is like a poem that must be absorbed in its entirety and receive focused meditation.  The boundaries of such ideas are often blurry and suffer by comparison with other, apparently competing aggadot. Unlike halakhah, which demands a seamless compatibility of all ideas, aggadata may entertain mutually exclusive interpretations and other contradictions without losing its value.

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