Talmud 101 From a Beginner

I am not by any means a teacher of Talmud. My reading of Talmud has been like the sort of casual reading some people give the Bible (and I am critical of them for doing it). I read about a topic here and a topic there. I’m a dabbler.

I want to understand the world of Talmud more completely and it is always one of those back-burner projects I think I will get to someday. Talk about a back-burner project! Talmud is huge and complex!

Anyway, if you can bear some notes from a beginner (maybe you are even more a Talmud novice than I am), I will share a few basics and help you understand what all this Talmud stuff is about. After all, you can’t get far in your practice of Messianic Judaism without hearing many references.

The traditional understanding in Judaism is that Moses received more on Mt. Sinai than simply the written Torah. The written Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy, leaves hundreds of gaps. It does not answer many questions about how to do what God commands. This is where the concept of Oral Torah enters into the picture. God, as tradition says, gave Moses many more directions than what is contained in the Torah.

These were passed down orally. So, for example, if someone wanted to know details of the Passover slaughter and how the meat was to be treated, they always reported what they received from the last generation, who got it from their last generation, and so forth, back to Moses.

In many cases, it’s a little hard for us to believe today that all this Oral Torah goes back to Moses. We see many examples where the concerns of later generations, not Moses’ generation, lie behind some aspect of Jewish tradition. (I suppose a literalist would say that the Oral Torah saw these needed changes in advance and anticipated them).

In any case, over time, people realized that more had been forgotten about the Oral Torah than was remembered. On a given matter, say the specifics of the Passover slaughter, there would be two or three or more opinions. Obviously they could not all be right. The tradition was being distorted with its passage through time.

In the schools of the sages, men rehearsed and memorized conversations between teachers about the details of Oral Torah. They did not simply remember the final ruling, in case it turned out that a minority opinion was right and not the majority opinion. They memorized the entire conversation. R. So-and-So says in the name of R. So-and-So, “This is the way we slaughter the Passover . . .” Rabbi Someone-else says in the name of Rabbi Yet-another, “This is the way we slaughter the Passover . . .”

In about the year 200 C.E., these conversations were written down in a collection known as the Mishnah under the supervision of Rabbi Judah HaNasi (the Prince). The Mishnah records the conversations of the Tannaim, the early sages (70-200 C.E.). Other opinions were also recorded that did not come into the Mishnah and these are called the Baraita.

Then, in Tiberias, Israel, around the year 400 C.E., a great commentary on the Mishnah was recorded called the Jerusalem Talmud (or Palestinian Talmud or Yerushalmi). The sages of the next generations, called the Amoraim, continued the conversation and memorized the dialogues and debates of their teachers. The Jerusalem Talmud was much longer than the Mishnah.

Then, in Babylon, around the year 500 C.E., the great academies of Babylon (where Jews had lived since the exile in 586 B.C.E.) recorded their dialogues in what is known simply as the Talmud (or the Babylonian Talmud or Bavli). When someone simply says “the Talmud,” they usually mean the Babylonian Talmud, which is more complete than the Jerusalem Talmud.

Next time: The structure and subject matter of the Talmud, based on Adin Steinsaltz’s The Essential Talmud.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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