1. The Talmud Is the Link Between Scripture and Jewish Practice
The Hebrew Scripture (also known as Torah) is the bedrock of Jewish practice and beliefs. But the verses are often terse, containing layers of hidden meaning. Since the Giving of the Torah, Jewish people studied Scripture along with a corpus of Divine traditions (the Oral Torah), which elucidated and expanded the Divine wisdom of Torah. These oral traditions, and much more, were eventually recorded in the Talmud. Here’s how it happened...
Read: What Is the Talmud?
2. The Talmud Is Based on the Mishnah
Following the destruction of the second Holy Temple and the subsequent breakdown of Jewish life and scholarship, Rabbi Judah the Prince edited the first layer of the Talmud, a compendium of Jewish laws known as the Mishnah, in 189. The Mishnah comprises short teachings on virtually every area of Jewish law. Even with the basic laws now recorded, much still remained oral, and teachings that did not make it into the Mishnah (braitot) as well as subsequent scholarship were carefully studied by the rabbis of each generation. This continued for several hundred years until the decision was made that these traditions, too, needed to be written down.
Read: History of the Mishnah
Manuscript of the Mishnah dating to the 10th or 11th century from the collection of David Kaufmann.
3. There Are Two Talmuds
In the Talmudic era, there were two main centers of Jewish learning: The Galilee (northern Israel) and Babylon. There was significant back-and-forth; messengers and letters were regularly sent between them, yet the traditions varied, as did the style of learning, prompting one Babylonian sage, Rav Zeira, to fast for 100 days, praying that he forget the Babylonian way of learning and merit to learn the teachings of the masters of the Land of Israel with clarity.
As Jewish life in the Holy Land disintegrated, the teachings of the Galilean scholars were written (but never properly redacted) in what is commonly known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). Several generations later, early in the fifth century, the teachings of the Babylonian academies were finally codified in the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli).
Both can be loosely described as commentaries on the Mishnah, but are really much more than just that. They begin each section by quoting the Mishnah, which is then parsed and elucidated by the sages of the Talmud.
Read: The Two Talmuds
4. The Babylonian Talmud Is the Main One
The Babylonian Talmud was completed later and under more tranquil circumstances, making for a more seasoned product. Moreover, most rabbis in the years after the completion of the Talmud were students of the Babylonian school. For these reasons (and others), the Babylonian Talmud has become the dominant tradition among Jews today. In fact, due to its scarcity, there are significant chunks of the Jerusalem Talmud that have been lost, and that which we do have is based off just a few surviving manuscripts. Thus, whenever someone says Talmud, without specifying which one, you can be almost certain they are referring to the Babylonian Talmud.
A copy of the Jerusalem Talmud found in the Cairo Geniza
5. Talmud Has Two Other Names: Gemara and Shas
The word talmud means learning, closely related to the word talmid, Hebrew for “student.” The Talmudic commentaries on the Mishnah have another name as well, gemara, Aramaic for “completion,” thus named because they provide the full context and interpretation for the Mishnah. Since the middle ages, Gemara has become the preferred term for Talmud among learned Jews. In part, this was in order to avoid undue attention from Christian authorities who abhorred Talmud, which they saw as a threat to their traditions.
Shas is an acronym for shisha sedarim, “six orders.” In common parlance, when one studies Talmud we say he is “learning Gemara,” but when speaking of the work as a whole, it is often referred to as Shas, since it encompasses teachings on all six orders of the Mishnah.
A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud. (Photo by Wikimedia) Art by Rivka Korf Studio
6. The Talmud Is Written in (at least) Two Languages
The Mishnah was written in Hebrew. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, primarily spoke and wrote in Aramaic, with the dialects in the Holy Land and Babylon differing significantly. The text of the Babylonian Talmud transfers back and forth between Babylonian Aramaic discussion provided by the Babylonian rabbis, and Hebrew quotes from sages of previous generations and contemporaneous sages from the Holy Land (who are almost never quoted in their native Galilean Aramaic). Similarly, the Jerusalem Talmud contains a mix of Hebrew and Galilean Aramaic.
7. The Talmud Is Arranged (Loosely) By Theme
The Mishnah comprises six sedarim, “orders,” each covering another area of Jewish law: agriculture, holidays, marriage and divorce, civil jurisprudence, the Temple sacrifices, ritual purity. Each order is further divided into masechtot, “tractates.” A tractate is made up of several perakim, “chapters,” each of which contains a number of mishnayot, “paragraphs.”
Since many of these subjects (such as most agricultural laws or those pertaining to the Holy Temple) did not apply to Jews living outside of Israel after the destruction of the Temple, the Babylonian Talmud is missing commentary for many of those tractates.
8. There Are Two Kinds of Rabbis in the Talmud
A sage from the era of the Mishnah is known as a tana. Conversely, one from the Talmudic era is known as an amora. Following the Jewish tradition that the generations closer to the revelation at Sinai had a more perfect tradition and were gifted with greater wisdom, the general rule is that an amora may not disagree with the teachings of a tana.
How do you know if someone is a tana or an amora? Here’s a simple trick:
Although, the term rabbi is fairly ubiquitous nowadays, in ancient Israel, only a Torah scholar who was deemed worthy was conferred this special title in a ceremony known as semichah. Since the Babylonian sages did not live in Israel, they were not able to receive semichah and were thus simply known as rav so-and-so. So if someone in the Talmud’s name is preceded by rabbi you can assume he is either a tana or an amora from the Land of Israel. Conversely, if his title is rav, you know he is a Babylonian amora.
9. It’s a Series of Conversations That Span Centuries
Much of the Talmud is written as a conversation. A statement will be made, questions will be asked, answers will be suggested and rebutted, and more answers will be proffered, often going on for pages. Looking carefully at the names to whom the questions and answers are attributed (and many are simply anonymous), one can see hundreds of years of brilliant scholarship and intense analysis packed together. Like any conversation, things sometimes veer off topic, and can easily turn to things more germane to another tractate for many pages.
10. You Never Know What You’ll Find Next
The Talmudic discussion was by real people who were working their hardest to apply G‑d’s word to their real life. Thus, the bulk of the Talmudic texts contain analysis of Biblical verses and Torah law, but it’s interspersed with everything from medical advice to stories, from folk sayings to fabric dying tips.
11. Details Matter in the Talmud
In the Talmud, nothing is trivial or irrelevant, which means the conversation can sometimes center around unlikely scenarios that can never actually happen. Why bother discussing something that you will never encounter, and may not have happened to anyone in history? Because it’s the Divine wisdom, and when your mind is trying to wrap itself around G‑d’s mind, you’re unified with Him in the most intense way.
Read: G‑d in the Talmud
12. Talmud Is Studied in a Yeshivah
The Talmud is almost entirely the product of thousands of discussions that took place in Torah academies. In Hebrew, these can be known as a yeshivah (“[place of] sitting”) or beit midrash (“house of study”). The Aramaic counterparts of these terms are metivta and bei midrasha. Until this very day, yeshivah students around the world spend many hours a day poring over the Talmud and its commentaries.
Read: What Is a Yeshivah?
13. Talmud Study Involves Noise and Motion
Talmud is traditionally studied aloud in a singsong, with each part of the “conversation” intoned differently. Questions, replies, and proofs, for example, all have their own unique tunes.
This holds true when someone is learning with a study partner (chavruta) as well as when one studies alone. It is also traditional to sway (shokel) when studying, resembling a restless flame, passionate and full of warmth.
The beit midrash is therefore typically vibrant, noisy and pulsating with lively discussion in a medley of languages.
Carl Schleicher, “Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud”
14. There Are Countless Commentaries
Almost immediately after the Talmud was completed, students began compiling commentaries. The most widely studied is that of Rashi, 11th-century leader of Ashkenazi Jewry, who also composed a commentary on the entire Hebrew Scripture. Second in prominence are those composed by rabbis who lived until the start of the 16th century (known as Rishonim, “first ones”), notably the authors of Tosafot (“Additions”), many of whom were actually Rashi’s descendants. Throughout the centuries, thousands of commentaries and supercommentaries have been written, each one enriching the corpus of Torah scholarship.
Read: A Biography of Rashi
15. The Talmud Was First Printed by a Non-Jew
Almost as soon as the printing press was invented, printers (notably the Soncino family) began printing individual tractates of Talmud. The first complete printing was done in Venice by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian, in the early 16th century. The text of the Talmud was printed surrounded by the classic commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot. This layout (and pagination) was found to be so convenient and well arranged that it has remained standard until this very day.
The Talmud is a collection of writings that covers the full gamut of Jewish law and tradition. Jewish people devote much time to studying the Talmud. Seen here is an open volume of the Talmud.
16. The Talmud Has 2,711 Pages
The standard edition of Babylonian Talmud fills 2,711 double-sided pages of text, as well as many thousands more devoted to various commentaries.
Each page is referred to as a daf (Hebrew for “board”) or blatt (Yiddish for “leaf”), and each side is called an amud (“column”). The pages are typically referenced by Hebrew letters rather than Arabic numerals. Thus, the second half of the 10th page of the tractate devoted to the Shabbat laws, for example is referred to as Shabbat, daf yud amud bet, since yud and bet are the 10th and second letters of the Hebrew alphabet respectively.
Celebrating the completion of all 2,711 pages is known as a siyum hashas. Mastering the entire Talmud is a lifetime’s achievement, as one can study the same text again and again, each time finding more meaning and depth.
Read: What Is a Siyum Hashas?
17. There Are Two Fonts in the Talmud
Both Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic are written in standard Hebrew letters. It is interesting to note, however, that the standard edition of the Talmud contains two kinds of lettering. The primary text of the Talmud is in block lettering (also known as ktav ashurit), and many of the commentaries are written in a more rounded font known as Rashi script.
The first page of Talmud as it appears in standard editions, the text surrounded by the commentaries of Rashi,Tosafot, and others.
18. The Talmud Was Burned by Christians
In the middle ages, Christians believed that the Talmud was the main obstacle to Jews adopting Christianity, and that it contained insults to their religion. In 1244, King Louis IX (later St. Louis) of France had 24 wagon loads of Talmudic volumes publicly burned outside the famed Notre Dame cathedral. At the time, books were painstakingly handwritten and could not be easily replaced, making it a disaster of massive proportions for French Jewry.
Read: The Talmud Is Burnt
19. People Learn Talmud By Heart
Talmud is not something to read once. Rather it is studied again and again. In the words of the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha: Learning without reviewing is like planting but not reaping.
After learning and relearning the same text again and again, with intense concentration, it is natural for people to become so familiar that it is committed to memory. Thus, the accomplished scholars typically know large chunks of the Talmud more or less by heart. In fact, the highest praise one can apply to a Talmudist is that he can pass the pin test, in which a pin is inserted into a tome of Talmud and he would be able to say which word it would meet on any given page of text.
20. Today, It Is Translated Into Many Languages
In recent centuries the Talmud has been translated into multiple languages, meaning that Jews from the US, France, Russia and Latin America (among others) can all study in their native tongue.
Photo: Koren Publishers
21. You Can Learn Talmud Online
In the 1990s, cassette tapes with classes on every page of the Talmud were produced. With the advent of easy and affordable internet streaming, many teachers began releasing Talmud classes online. In fact, master Talmud teacher Rabbi Avraham Zajac has classes on almost the entire Talmud right on Chabad.org.
Watch: Advanced Talmud Classes
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