The History of the Talmud - What is the Talmud? What is Gemora? What is the Oral Tradition? Why Learn Torah?

by Rabbi Ken Spiro

In a time of chaos, the rabbis decide that they must do the unprecedented -- write down the Oral Law.

At various times during the Hadrian persecutions, the sages were forced into hiding, though they managed to reconvene at Usha in 122 CE, and then in a time of quiet managed to re-establish again at Yavneh in 158 CE.

With so much persecution and unrest, with the Jewish people fleeing the land of Israel, the rabbis knew that they would not be able to keep a central seat of rabbinic power alive for long.

Yet, during these great periods of chaos, some of the finest rabbinic minds made their mark. Among them:

  • Rabbi Akiva (whom we discussed in Part 38)
  • Rabbi Akiva's chief disciple, Rabbi Meir, also the husband of the legendary Bruriah
  • Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, the central text of the Kabbalah
  • Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's son, Rabbi Eliezer
  • Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel II, the descendant of the House of Hillel and a direct descendant of King David


Now, another man was to emerge and make his mark -- the son of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel II -- Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (in English "Judah, the Prince").

In a time of chaos, the rabbis decide that they must do the unprecendented -- write down the Oral Law.

He is one personality who is absolutely fundamental to understanding this period of time, and one of the greatest personalities of Jewish history.

So great was he that he is now affectionately referred to in Jewish scholarship as only Rebbe.

He had a unique combination of attributes -- being both a great Torah scholar and a strong leader -- that gave him the power to lead the Jewish people at this chaotic time. He was also a man of tremendous personal wealth, which put him in a position to wheel and deal and do what needed to get done, not just with the Jews in the Land of Israel but with the Roman authorities as well.

During a period of relative quiet, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi managed to befriend the Roman emperors who succeeded Hadrian, particularly Marcus Aurelius. Writes historian Rabbi Berel Wein in his Echoes of Glory (p. 224):

"Providentially, in the course of the Parthian war, Marcus Aurelius met Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi], and they became friends and eventually confidants ... Marcus Aurelius consulted with his friend in Judah on matters of state policy as well as on personal questions ...

"The years of Marcus Aurelius' reign, ending in his death in 180, was the high-water mark in the intercourse between Rome and the Jews. The Jews, under the leadership of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi], would use this period of blissful respite to prepare themselves for the struggle of darker days surely lurking around the corner."

At this time -- circa 170-200 CE -- the Mishna was born.


What is the Mishna?

In past installments we discussed the fact that at Mount Sinai the Jewish people received the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. (See Part 11.) The Oral Torah was the oral explanation of how the written laws should be executed and followed.

The Oral Torah passed from generation to generation and was never written down. (See Part 26 and Part 32) Why? Because the Oral Torah was meant to be fluid. The principles stayed the same, but the application of those principles was meant to be adapted to all types of new circumstances.

This worked exceptionally well as long as the central authority -- the Sanhedrin -- remained intact, and the chain of transmission was not interrupted. (That is, teachers were able to freely pass on their wisdom to the next generation of students.) But in the days since the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin had been repeatedly uprooted and teachers had to go into hiding.

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi realized that things would not get better any time soon. He saw that the Temple would not be rebuilt in his generation and possibly in many generations to come. He saw the Jews fleeing the land as a result of the constant persecutions and impossible living conditions. He saw that the central authority was weaker than ever and might cease altogether (which is what happened in the 4th century as we will discuss in future installments.)

To make sure that the chain of transmission would never be broken, he decided that the time had come to write down the Oral Torah.

This was a mammoth undertaking. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi had to go to as many rabbis as possible in order to extract from them their entire memories. He asked them to tell him all they knew about the legal traditions they received that could be traced back all the way down to Moses at Mount Sinai. He put all those recollections together, edited them, and the end result was the Mishna. (Incidentally, the word Mishna means "repetition" because it was studied by repeating; mishna then, by extension, means "learning.")


The Mishna was divided into six basic segments dealing with six basic areas of Jewish law:

  • Zeraim, literally "seeds," covering all agricultural rules and laws for foods as well as all blessings
  • Moed, literally, "holiday," dealing with the rituals of Shabbat and other Jewish holidays
  • Nashim, literally "women," examining all the issues between men and women such as marriage, divorce, etc.
  • Nezikin, literally "damages," covering civil and criminal law
  • Kodshim, literally "holy things," concerning laws of the Temple
  • Taharot, literally "pure things," concerning laws of spiritual purity and impurity

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi finished the Mishna in 219 CE in the town of Tzipori in the Galilee. You can visit the site today which is very interesting from an archeological perspective. At a place called Beit She'arim, archeologists found a series of catacombs at the side of a mountain. And they actually found his tomb, with his name on it, along with many other great scholars of that time.


No sooner had Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi finished the Mishna, did the rabbis realize that the Mishna was not enough. It was written in shorthand fashion and in places was cryptic. This is because it was very concise, written on the assumption that the person reading it was already well-acquainted with the subject matter.

So they began to have discussions about it and to write down the substance of these discussions.

Since at this time a significant portion of the Jewish population was living in Babylon, which was outside the bounds of the Roman Empire, the rabbis there put together their discussions, the end product of which was called Talmud Bavli or the Babylonian Talmud. In the land of Israel, another set of discussions took place and the end result was Talmud Yerushalmi or the Jerusalem Talmud. (Incidentally, the Jerusalem Talmud was not written in Jerusalem; it was written in Tiberias, the last place where the Sanhedrin sat, but was called the Jerusalem Talmud in deference to the Sanhedrin's rightful home.)

The Jerusalem Talmud is much shorter and much harder to understand than the Babylonian Talmud because the editing had to be much more rushed. The situation in Israel was much worse, while in Babylon it was much more stable. (Today, Jewish students pouring over the Talmud in yeshiva are using chiefly the Babylonian Talmud.)

The Talmud is more than just an application of the details of the Jewish law as expounded in the Mishnah. It's the encyclopedia of all Jewish existence.

The Talmud also contains a lot of agadata -- these are stories that are meant to illustrate important points in the Jewish worldview. These stories contain a wealth of information on a huge range of topics. you name it, it's in there.

This information was vital to the Jewish people because Jewish law was never applied by reading a sentence in the Torah and executing it to the letter. Take for example, "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." It was never Jewish law that if someone blinded you, that you should go and blind him. What is the good of having two blind people? It was always understood on two levels: 1) that justice must be proportional (it's not a life for an eye) and 2) that it means the value of an eye for the value of the eye, referring to monetary damages. Thus, the Talmud presented the written and oral tradition together.

To read the Talmud is to read a lot of arguments. On every page it seems that the rabbis are arguing. This kind of argument -- the purpose of which was to arrive at the kernel of truth -- is called pilpul. This word has a negative connotation outside the yeshiva world, as people read these arguments and it seems to the uneducated eye that the rabbis are merely splitting hairs, and that some of the arguments have absolutely no basis in everyday life. But this is not so.

The reason why the rabbis argued about things that may not have any application to everyday life was to try to get to truth in an abstract way -- to extract the principle. These rabbis were interested in knowing what reality is and in doing the right thing. Reality is what Judaism is all about -- the ultimate reality being God.

Another important point that must be made about these arguments is that they never argued about the big things. You don't see a single argument as to whether or not you eat pork, or whether or not you can light a fire on the Sabbath. These things were a given, they were totally agreed upon. Only small points were subject to discussion. And these rabbis were wise enough to know that a day would come when the principles established by getting to the core kernel of truth would have far reaching implications.


When you look at the page of the Talmud today, you will find the Hebrew text of the Mishna is featured in the middle of the page. Interspersed between the Hebrew of the Mishna are explanations in Aramaic which are called the Gemara.

The Aramaic word Gemara means "tradition." In Hebrew, the word Gemara means "completion." Indeed, the Gemara is a compilation of the various rabbinic discussions on the Mishna, and as such completes the understanding of the Mishna.

The texts of the Mishna and Gemara are then surrounded by other layers of text and commentaries from a later period.

The text of the Mishna is quoting rabbis who lived from about 100 BCE to 200 CE. These rabbi are called the Tanaim, "teachers." In this group are included such greats as Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rabbi Akiva, and of course Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. (In the Gemara, they all have the title Rebbe before their first name.)

The text of the Gemara is quoting the rabbis who lived from about 200 CE to about 500 CE. These rabbis are called, Amoraim, "explainers" or "interpreters." In this group are included Rav Ashi, Rav Yochanan, etc. (Names of the Amoraim are not so famous, but they all begin with Rav.)

The surrounding text of today's Talmud also quotes Rishonim, literally "the first ones," rabbinic authorities who predated Rabbi Joseph Caro, the 16th century author of the code of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch. Among the most prominent Rishonim are Rashi, his students and descendants who were the chief authors of the Tosaphos, Maimonidies and Nachmanides. We will discuss the contributions of these rabbis in future installments.

Just how important was the work of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi and those that followed him would become very clear in the next hundred years when the Jewish people face another threat to their religion. This is when the Roman Empire decides to convert its entire population to Christianity.

#39 of 73 in the Jewish History Series
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Great Leaders of our People
The History of Talmud
What Makes Up The Torah?
Why Learn Talmud?
Nazis Knew "Learning" Is The Key To Jewish Survival

Rabbi Ken Spiro is originally from New Rochelle,NY. He graduated from Vasser College with a BA in Russian Language and Literature and did graduate studies at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He has Rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem and a Masters Degree in History from The Vermont College of Norwich University. Rabbi Spiro is also a licensed tour guide by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children where he works as a senior lecturer and researcher on Aish HaTorah outreach programs.



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