If you’ve ever wondered what those guys in those study halls in the middle of Orthodox neighborhoods in many major cities around the world and all over Israel are doing all day long, the answer is that they are learning the Talmud. There might be a little Bible thrown in for good measure, a little Midrash now and then, and a daily dose of Mishna. But what 95% of them are doing 95% of the time is the Talmud, its numerous commentaries, and its many compendiums of religious law, better known by the Hebrew term halacha. They argue with each other over countless minutia in obscure texts. They examine the same text countless times, from every imaginable angle. They compare the subtle differences between the various approaches the different commentaries take to a given issue. And in the end, they hope to arrive at some sort of understanding of whatever it is they are trying to understand.
What on earth is this thing they are studying so hard? It’s called the Talmud, but they call it by its Aramaic (more on that later) equivalent, Gemara. They both mean approximately the same thing – some combination of learning, study, teaching, textual analysis, and oral tradition. The term ‘Gemara’ also includes a connotation of ‘completion’, being as the Talmud is the completion of the Mishna. That sounds like a lot of meanings for a couple of similar words, but they are pretty far-reaching terms. Perhaps the best way to go about explaining such a complex matter is to use the old ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how’ method. Remember, rabbinic stuff tends to be complicated. Frequently it seems to try to be complicated. The Talmud is the reason why.
We’ll start with ‘what’. Following the period of the Mishna, the rabbinic successors of the Tana’im, inherited the task of explaining and expanding on the now standardized text of the Oral Torah. Within the first generation following the completion of the Mishna, those successors, called Amora’im (explainers, speakers), set up their own schools and academies to do just that. The results, which took quite a while to complete, are the two Talmuds.
Two Talmuds? Yes, two Talmuds, one compiled in Israel known as the Talmud Yerushalmi or Jerusalem (sometimes called the Palestinian) Talmud, and the other compiled in the region of contemporary Iraq called Bavel by the Jews, known as the Talmud Bavli or Babylonian Talmud. Both Talmuds consist of the recorded discussions of several generations of rabbis in many different locations concerning the interpretation and updating of the Oral Torah as formulated in the Mishna. The discussions usually take the form of a debate of scriptural derivation of a law or the law’s applicability to a given situation. But the truth is, they could argue over almost anything.
Interspersed within these legal debates, in a seemingly random but actually very organized system, are countless tangential stories, anecdotes, folklore, and scriptural elucidation. It seems almost endless. In fact, to the true-bred Talmud scholar, or Talmid Chacham (learned student) it is endless. Upon completion of any section, he (or she) hardly takes a breath, before diving into the next one. There is so much interconnection between the various sections that one can never really lay claim to completing any individual section. The dedicated student eventually, however, does mange to study through them all and participates in that ultimate Talmudic celebration, the Siyum Hashas (completion of the six orders of the Talmud). But if one is looking for depth rather than breadth, almost any given paragraph in this maze of rabbinic wisdom will suffice. One can go as deep as one chooses – more commentaries, more questions, more comparison to other sections, more possibilities of a conclusion. It’s truly endless.
The Talmud itself is divided into the same subsections as the Mishna, called tractates. However, neither the Bavli nor Yerushalmi Talmud covers all the tractates of the Mishna. The Bavli covers 36 (out of the usual system of 63 tractates of the Mishna) while the Yerushalmi covers 39. The Yerushalmi, however, is much briefer in its treatment of most tractates, with some consisting of only a few pages. In general, the Yerushalmi covers the tractates dealing with agricultural laws, which were either missing or lost from the Bavli. Both deal with the section on holidays and laws related to marriage. Both cover civil and criminal law, but the Bavli’s coverage is enormous while the Yerushalmi’s is minimal. The section on ritual offerings is handled by the Bavli but not by the Yerushalmi (though rumors of a ‘lost Yerushalmi’ on some of these tractates persist until today). Both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi only cover one tractate of the ritual purity section.
Who were the rabbis of the Talmud? First of all, they are collectively known by the Aramaic title of Amora’im. They comprise several generations in both Israel and Bavel, though those of the Bavli are much more numerous and much better known. The Yerushalmi was largely formulated around the teachings of a Rabbi Yochanan, a Galilean student of Rabbi Yehuda, the organizer of the Mishna. He died in 279, with the Talmud Yerushalmi largely already in the structure it would eventually take. His Babylonian peers were known as Rav (another student of Rabbi Yehuda) and Shmuel. They were founders of the two early Talmudic academies of Bavel. Both these pairs produced numerous students, some of whom would inherit their roles. The students, in turn, produced their own students, forming a chain that continues until today. The best students were those who could most faithfully reproduce the words and intent of their predecessors, but who also could understand the religious needs of their own time and how to best deal with them.
When did they do all this? The beginnings of both Talmuds are the initial discussions and teachings of the first generation of Amoraim around 220. The Yerushalmi discussions effectively ended prematurely some time in the middle of the 4th century due to Christian pressure on the struggling communities in Israel. Talmudic scholars throughout the centuries have considered the Yerushalmi to be somewhat unfinished, with loose ends almost everywhere making it difficult to read. Consequently, most Talmud students tended to ignore it. The Bavli discussions lasted until the 5th century, when one of the Amoraim named Ashi began the process of organizing whatever material had been collected through the years. This process lasted until the beginning of the 6th century. Sometime around then the Talmud Bavli was considered finished. However, it is generally agreed that it was expanded and edited for around another 150 years. We have no idea when a final text was established, but the earliest evidence of any written form is about the year 800.
Where they did this we already know. The irony of the Yerushalmi is that is was not done in Jerusalem but in the Galilee area. The main city was Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but there were several others that played significant roles at various times. The main locations of the Bavli were academies that usually functioned in pairs. The primary locations were in three cities along the Euphrates River called Pumbedita, Nehardea, and Sura. There were other significant locations along the Tigris River.
How was all this accomplished? For its first 500 or so years, the material of the Talmud was likely discussed orally and rehashed until it was memorized. It is possible that the Talmudic discussions were not meant to be recorded in a text with fixed content. The Mishna and the Talmud are both part of the Oral Law. This title is no accident. The oral portion of the Torah was meant to remain oral, passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student across the generations. The ideas themselves are what is important, not the technical words. It may be that it was only when the Talmud was redacted in a final form and eventually written down in a fixed text, that the words became ossified and unchangeable.
It might sound incredible that a body of complex arguments, an intricate system of laws, and vast amounts of assorted wisdom and tradition could get passed on without being written down. The explanation of how this could be is twofold. First, as noted in the preceding paragraph, the Oral Torah was meant to be oral, not fixed in a written form. The Talmudic rabbis and their successors took this rule very seriously. Consequently, they had little choice. It was either memorize the material or lose it. They had specifically designated scholars whose main task was to memorize the material and make it available to the main teacher as he needed it. Second, the human mind is capable of a good deal more than we generally give it credit for. The ‘use it or lose it’ rule applies to the brain more than any other part of the body. They had no other options. They had no printing facilities and writing was a laborious and costly task. We may have trouble remembering a phone number, but they, out of sheer necessity, memorized a work that ultimately became over 4 million words long.
They memorized the discussions, and eventually wrote out the text, in a language called Aramaic - a Semitic language similar to Hebrew that came from the region around Bavel. The Bavli has a slightly different dialect of Aramaic than the Yerushalmi. The experienced student however, has little difficulty in switching from one variety of Aramaic to the other. Interspersed within the Aramaic are numerous Hebrew quotes from the Mishna and other sources, along with occasional words in Greek and other languages.
Why was all this done? At the time, it was simply the natural continuation of the process that began with the organizing of the Oral Torah hundreds of years before. It was rabbis trying to understand and elucidate the Mishna. Ultimately, it became much more than that. It eventually turned into the greatest source of the collective rabbinic wisdom of the Jewish people. Throughout the centuries, when religious Jews needed to find a religious answer to any question, the first place they looked was the Talmud. It may sound strange that what is essentially a man-made work could replace a God-given or divinely inspired word as the ultimate source of wisdom. In fact, not all Jews were comfortable with the arrangement. There were always those who reckoned the Bible first and anything else a distant second. There were others who preferred a mystical approach to answer the deep questions rather than the frequently dry logic of the Talmud.
But in the end, the Talmud always won. It had it all – the Biblical quotes and interpretations, the stories of the Midrash, the derivation of religious law, even smatterings of mysticism, in the midst of all the argumentation. It’s difficult, it’s repetitive, it’s dry, it’s endless, and it’s pretty obscure. But when the dust clears, there is nothing in Judaism quite as complete and as challenging as the Talmud. It can fill the lifetime of a serious scholar studying from early morning till late at night for several decades. It can serve as a daily dose of rabbinic thought before starting the day or at its close. Probably more than any other work, it has shaped the Jews as a people who think fast, who thrive on delving to the depths of any issue, and who value knowledge and wisdom as their greatest resources.
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