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Studying the Talmud

BS”D

Something I have been thinking about for a long time, and which I have promised to per video but simply never can make myself get around, is to do a study of the Talmud, if not all the Talmud (that is going to take some time, maybe also too much time), then at least some. And not only in order to study it or to talk about it, but also to study the reasoning of the Talmud, especially the different ways of discussions in the Mishnah and the Gemarrah.

But before we get there an introduction is in its place.

First off, there are two Talmuds: The Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi. Why there are two and which one I will be relating to will be explained a little later. The structure of the two Talmuds are very alike, they consist of a textual body with commentaries being written around them, elucidating the text. The textual body consist of two parts, the mishnaic text, which is the foundation, and the text of the Gemarrah, which takes the most space by far. The reason for this is that the mishnaic text is the actual body being commented on by the Gemarrah.

The Mishnah:

In Judaism (that is, Rabbinic Judaism, which from now on in this context simply will be called Judaism for convenience) there are two bodies of holy Scriptures, the Bible (called TaNaCh) and the Mishnah. The Bible is structured in three parts, the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophetical Books), and the Ketuvim (the Scriptures), thereby forming the word T-N-K (pronounced TaNaCh). The Torah, which is the five Books of Moshe Rabenu, A”S, is the Holy Book in Judaism, being the foundation for every commandment and principle deduced by the Sages. It is known by other names as well, describing its nature in comparison with the other Jewish Scriptures, namely Torah she’bichtiv, the Written Torah, and Humash, the name being based on the number of books (the number five in Hebrew is hemesh). That the Torah, the Humash, is written is important in relation to that part of the Torah, which is believed to have been given Oral, namely the Oral Tradition or Torah she’be’al-Peh (the Torah which is in the mouth), which has been transferred orally from generation to generation, from Moshe Rabenu, A”S, until R. Yehuda HaNasi, Z”L, who saw the need to write down the Oral Tradition in the beginning of the third century CE.

The Mishnah is organized in six “Sedarim,” from the word ‘seder,’ which means ‘order.’ These Sedarim are organized in massechot, tractates, which each has a number of chapters, which each has a number of ‘mishnayot.’ The term “mishnah” with a small ‘m’ is the decisions brought down through the ages, though not all are going back to Sinai. In differing between the Mishnah in its total and the single mishnah, I will write it with capital m and without.

The six Sedarim are as follows:

Seder Zera’im, which deals with agriculture, though the first tractate, Massechet B’rachot, which we will be dealing with in the beginning, is concerned with prayers and blessings. It has eleven tractates in it.

Seder  Mo’ed, which deals with the festivals, and which has twelve tractates.

Seder Nashim, which deals with issues concerning women, such as the various forms of marriage, divorce, female impurity and so on. It has seven tractates.

Seder Nezikin, which deals with civil law and the structure of the courts, as well as punishments, idol worship and witnesses. Here we also find the ethical tractate, Pirqei Avot. It has ten tractates, though the three first, Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra, originally was one tractate.

Seder Qodashim, which deals with issues related to holiness. It has eleven tractates.

Seder Tehorot, which deals with purities. It has twelve tractates.

There are other mishnaic materials besides the Mishnah. When R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, had organized the Mishnah there was still mishnaic material left. This material was collected by his disciples in a work called Tosefta, which means ‘addition,’ a work which is being referred to by various rabbis in the discussions of the Gemarrah as proof-text, in their attempts to strengthen or attack a position. But in comparison to the mishniyot of the Mishnah they have lesser authority.

The Mishnah is written in what is called “mishnaic Hebrew,” a form of Hebrew being slightly simpler than the Biblical Hebrew, showing its traces of being a spoken more than a written language. It has some differences from Modern Hebrew, such as the suffixes in the plural, but any Hebrew speaker should be able to read and understand the mishnaic text without any noteworthy troubles.

The Gemarrah

Not long after the death of R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, the compilation of the Mishnah, and the gathering of the Tosefta, the need to explain the mishniyot in the Mishnah appeared, both because the Jews found themselves under new situation as well as the Mishnah being presented in a very straightforward language, which leaves many details unexplained, something I believe will appear from the beginning of our study.

Therefore the rabbis of the religious centers, found in two geographical areas, namely in Eretz Yisrael, what constitutes the Galilee, Judea, and surroundings, and Babylon, began to comment on the Mishnah.  Their comments, which were written in the spoken language of their time, Aramaic, show proof of their geographical background, such as local features being used in their examples and discussions. There are other differences as well, such as the type of Aramaic, the Babylonian Gemarrah being written in Eastern Aramaic, and the Palestinian Gemarrah in Western Aramaic. Also the elements differ, the Babylonian having a lot of Persian and Babylonian mythical elements incorporated.

The Babylonian Gemarrah is the most extensive of the two, having a century more to be edited and worked upon, finished most likely around 550 CE, though there has been proved later editing, conducted by the anonymous group of rabbis called Savoraim.

The Palestinian Gemarrah was never finished, being disrupted around 425 CE caused by anti-Jewish pogroms by the Christian emperor Theodosius II, and therefore lack a lot of material as well as organization. It does hold material which the Babylonian Gemarrah doesn’t cover, especially in context of agriculture, since that issue was important for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, while not for the Jews in Babylon, having the commandments only being connected to the Land of Israel. Therefore the Babylonian Gemarrah is considered the more authoritative of the two, except on issues where it doesn’t mention anything.

From this we find one Mishnah and two Gemarrot, one Babylonian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Babylonian Talmud or Talmud Bavli, and one Palestinian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Palestinian Talmud or Talmud Yerushalmi.

Mentioning the Mishnah in this context one thing has to be pointed out, namely that there are some smaller differences on the mishnaic text in the two Talmuds. I have dealt with this issue in some earlier posts, which you can read here, here and here. This might have been caused by the Mishnah being transferred orally in the Land of Israel even at the time of the disruption of the Palestinian Gemarrah, causing the changes in language as will always appear through time, while the mishnaic text most likely was considered holy in its written form from the beginning in Babylon.

Regarding the Sages. We will see that a lot of Sages will be mentioned by names, and I will try to explain when and where they lived. But sometimes the Gemarrah talks about ‘Tanna.’ This is the title for the Sages living in the Mishnaic times, that is, from the time before the compilation of the Mishnah. The Sages of the Gemarrah are called Amoraim.

With this said (or written) I feel that we are ready to begin the study of the Talmud.


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