An explanation of the history and content of the Talmud
Written by Gil Student
Jews believe that the entire Torah (Five Books of Moses) was written by Moses as dictated by G-d. This includes all of the happenings recorded in it from the time of creation. Even Deuteronomy, which is written as the testimony of Moses, was written at the express commandment of G-d. G-d dictated the book as if Moses were addressing the people. [Based on R. Aryeh Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought, vol I 7:22-24]
Along with that written text of the Torah, G-d gave Moses an oral explanation. We can thus speak of two Torahs - the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. They complement each other and a true understanding of each will reveal that they are the same. In many cases the (written) Torah refers to details that are not included in the text, thus alluding to an oral tradition. For example, the Torah states (Deut. 12:21) "You shall slaughter your cattle… as I have commanded you" implying an oral commandment concerning ritual slaughter. Similarly, such commandments as Tefillin (Deut. 6:8) and Tzitzit (Numbers 15:38) are found in the Torah but no details are given and are assumed to be in the Oral Torah. Also, although keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, no details are given as to how it should be kept, and these are also in the unwritten tradition. G-d thus said (Jer. 17:22) "You shall keep the Sabbath holy, as I have commanded your fathers." [Kaplan, 9:1-5]
The Oral Torah was originally meant to be transmitted by word of mouth. It was relayed from teacher to student in such a way so that if the student had any questions he would be able to ask and thus avoid ambiguity. A written text, however, no matter how perfect, is always subject to misinterpretation. Furthermore, the Oral Torah was meant to cover the infinitude of cases which would arise in the course of time. It could never have been written in its entirety. G-d therefore gave Moses a set of rules through which the Torah could be applied to every possible case. [Kaplan, 9:8-9]
Besides receiving many explanations and details of laws, Moses also received hermeneutic rules for deriving laws from the written Torah and for interpreting it. In many cases, he was also given the cases in which these rules could be applied. Laws and details involving common everyday occurrences were transmitted directly by Moses. However, laws involving infrequently occurring special cases were given in such a way as to be derivable from scripture by hermeneutic rules. Otherwise, there would be the danger that they would be forgotten. The actual laws that Moses taught directly were carefully preserved and one never finds a dispute concerning them. However, in the case of laws derived from hermeneutic rules or logic, occasional disputes can be found. Both of these types of laws have the same status as biblical laws and are considered of equal importance. Along with actual laws and the rules of derivation, G-d gave Moses many guidelines regarding how and under what conditions to enact new laws. This is the source of permission to enact rabbinical laws. [Kaplan, 9:20-25, 29]
The Oral Torah was handed down by word of mouth from Moses to Joshua, then to the Elders, the Prophets, and the men of the Great Assembly. The Great Assembly was led by Ezra at the beginning of the Second Temple and codified much of the Oral Torah into a form that could be memorized by the students. This codification was known as the Mishnah. This Mishnah was required to be handed down word for word exactly as it had been taught. [Kaplan, 9:31-33]
During the generations following the Great Assembly, the Mishnah was expanded by new legislation and case law. As controversies began to develop, variations in the Mishnah of the various teachers began to appear. At the same time, the order of the Mishnah was improved, especially by Rabbi Akiva. To end the disputes, Rabbi Judah the Prince redacted a final edition of the Mishnah which is what we have today. This was finished in the year 188 CE and was published approximately 30 years later. It systematically divided the Torah into six orders and subdivided these orders into tractates, with a total of 63 tractates among the six orders. [Kaplan, 9:37,39]
In compiling his work, R. Judah made use of the earlier Mishnah, condensing it and deciding among various disputed questions. The sages of his time all concurred with his decisions and ratified his edition. However, even rejected opinions were included in the text so that they would be recognized and not revived in later generations. [Kaplan 9:41]
Besides the Mishnah, other volumes were compiled by the students of R. Judah during this period. These include the Tosefta which follows the order of the Mishnah, as well as the Halachic Midrashim - the Mechilta, a commentary on Exodus, the Sifra on Leviticus, and the Sifri on Numbers and Deuteronomy. Works from outside of R. Judah's school went by the name of Baraita. [Kaplan 9:46-47]
At this time, the practice was for students to first memorize the basics of the Oral Torah and then to carefully analyze their studies. During the period preceding R. Judah, the memorized laws developed into the Mishnah while the analysis developed into a second discipline known as the Gemara. After the Mishnah was compiled, these discussions continued, becoming very important in clarifying the Mishnah. The Gemara developed orally for some three hundred years following the redaction of the Mishnah. Finally, when it came into danger of being forgotten and lost, Rav Ashi, together with his school in Babylonia, undertook to collect all these discussions and set them in order. It was completed in the year 505 CE. [Kaplan, 9:47-48]
Together, the Mishnah and the Gemara are called the Talmud. They contain both legal rulings and back-and-forth discussions dissecting and clarifying these rulings. The community in Israel compiled a Talmud in the third century called the Jerusalem Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled over 200 years later and is universally accepted as authoritative. In matters of agreement, both Talmuds are consulted. In matters of dispute, the Babylonian Talmud is given precedence. Thus, the Babylonian Talmud is frequently called simply the Talmud.
Within the Oral Torah there are two components - Halachah and Aggadata. Halachah constitutes about ninety percent of the Talmud and nearly all of the Halachic Midrashim. Aggadata makes up the other ten percent of the Talmud - unevenly distributed among its tractates - and virtually the whole of the other Midrashic works.
Halachah is the easier of these two categories to define. It consists of the definitions, the sources, and the explanations of the laws of the Torah. Aggadata, on the other hand, consists of the world of Jewish ideas. Primarily it deals with the principles of faith, the philosophy, and the ethical ideas of Judaism. In addition, it includes all those interpretations of Biblical verses and stories which are unrelated to Jewish law; expositions of the importance of the laws and the rewards and punishments which they entail; stories from the lives of the righteous; lessons in character training; and even, sometimes, what appears to be practical advice on worldly matters such as business and health.
Aggadata, in contrast to the straight-forward and logical methodology of Halachah, conveys its teachings through less direct means. Aggadata is often intentionally obscure wherein the message - often one of the most basic ideas of Judaism - is garbed in what appears to be parables, riddles, or even practical advice without apparent religious content. Scriptural texts are usually understood exegetically rather than simply, despite the Talmudic dictum that the simple meaning of the verse is always true (Talmud Shabbat 63a). [Based on R. Aharon Feldman, The Juggler and the King, pp. xxi-xxii]
In summary, the Talmud is a complement to the Bible. It fills in the gaps and explains the laws of the Torah. In addition, it includes stories and sayings that both straightforwardly and allegorically offer the philosophy and wisdom of Judaism. However, the Talmud is a difficult text to read because it contains many discussions (that took place over hundreds of years) in the form of proof and disproof. The logical progressions lend itself to out-of-context quotes that represent a soon-to-be toppled assumption.