So What IS the Talmud, exactly?

So What IS the Talmud, exactly?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

When you have a chance to look at a Talmud page, you’ll notice that the Hebrew or Aramaic text is in the middle surrounded by commentaries from various learned rabbis, often in different centuries. The idea is to give depth, diversity, and continuity to the original interpretations (with what we would today call Hyperlinks to an Internet page). In addition, there are multiple published volumes of later commentary that amplify each text.

This text in the middle is itself usually found in two parts (the Mishnah and the Gemara) separated by about 400 to 600 or so years. While the earlier Mishnah is in Hebrew, the Gemara is often in Aramaic, which had become the vernacular of the Israelite people, just as it was in the time of Jesus in the first century C.E.

Then, after the destruction of the Second Temple (72 C.E.), which the Romans razed to the ground so that there would be nothing left, including most of the leadership, a small group of rabbis gathered together to set down Jewish law, just as if the Temple still existed – in the great hope that remained essential to the Jewish religion in every country to which the Jews were scattered, that someday they would return to the Holy Land. Although the rabbis had some remnants of scrolls, most of their combined knowledge came from memory. And much of what they established as rabbinic Jewish law was also committed to memory and later transcribed. Students of both the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the Talmud are aware that both an Oral Law and a Written Law existed. Now there was a need to set the Oral Law down so that it would not be lost. This took about four centuries to complete, and it was called the Mishnah.

However, after a few centuries had passed, the rabbis of those years considered that some of the views of the Mishnah needed updating since they reflected an agricultural society, while the Jews who remained in the Holy Land (despite propaganda to the contrary, there has always been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land) as well as the much greater number of Jews in the Diaspora, were now living a more urban life, although they were usually persecuted and earning their often meager livings through  various trades. In most cases, they could not own land. So the earlier text of the Mishnah needed additional opinions.

This new text, which follows on each page right after the Mishnaic text, is called the Gemara. In other words, the rabbis of different centuries are picking up earlier arguments and adding their own, more sophisticated opinions to it, just as if no time had passed. Together they are called the Talmud. (The redactors of the Talmud were very ingenious in their ability to link together opinions expressed over the years.) In many ways, this process is similar to the way we argue the finer points of the U.S. Constitution today, and very carefully some amendments have been added over time.

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017, Los Angeles. All rights reserved.