Sample Text in Translation
The main body of the page, occupying its centre and printed in formal block letters, is the Talmud, or Gemara. Both these synonymous terms derive from words meaning "study" or "learning." "Talmud" is Hebrew, whereas "Gemara" (in the present sense) is found only in the Aramaic dialect of the Babylonian Talmud.
The Talmud is composed in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic (the latter was the spoken vernacular of Babylonian Jews). In general, formal statements by the Amora'im are formulated in Hebrew, whereas the explanations and discussions of those statements are worded in Aramaic.
The beginning of a Gemara passage, following the Mishnah passage to which it is attached, is designated by an abbreviated form of the word (GM') printed in large bold letters.
The scholars (Rabbis) who participated in the Talmud are referred to as "Amora'im" [singular: "Amora"], from an Aramaic word that originally designated the official in the academy whose job it was to recite the scholars' teachings before the public.
Official Rabbinic ordination could only be granted in the Land of Israel. Therefore most of the Babylonian sages did not bear the title "Rabbi," but were called by the lesser honorific Rav.
Some of the most prominent Babylonian Amora'im were:
- "Rav" (Actual name: Abba Arikha), died in 247. He was the founder of the great school at Sura.
- Samuel, died in 254. He founded the rabbinic school at Nehardea, which later moved to Pumbedita.
- Rav Huna, died 297. He was Rav's successor in the leadership of the Sura school.
- Rav Judah [bar Ezekiel], died 299. He led the academy at Pumbedita.
- Rav Hisda, died 309. He stood at the head of the Sura school.
- Rav Nahman [bar Jacob], died 320. He was active in Nehardea, and is known as a judge, apparently in the court of the Exilarch (the political head of the Babylonian Jewish community).
- Rabbah [bar Nahmani], died 330: The most prominent teacher of his generation, he directed the academy at Pumbedita. His astute dialectical abilities earned him a reputation as an "uprooter of mountains."
The disputes and discussions of these two scholars, students of Rabbah, are found on almost every page of the Babylonian Talmud.
- Abaye, died 339. He headed the academy at Pumbedita
- Rava [bar Joseph bar Hama], died 352. He founded an academy at Mahoza.
Rav Papa, died 375. A student of Abaye and Rava, he led a school in Narsh.
- Rav Ashi, died 427. A prominent head of the Sura academy, he has often been credited with the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud (See below).
- Rav Ashi's son, Mar bar Rav Ashi [also known as "Tavyomi"], died 468.
A passage in the Talmud (Bava Mesi'a) speaks of Rav Ashi and Ravina as "the end of instruction" (Hebrew: "sof hora'ah"), in a context that compares them with Rabbi Judah the Prince as "the end of Mishnah." Because Rabbi Judah is generally regarded as the redactor of the Mishnah, it became common to speak of Rav Ashi as the redactor of the Babylonian Talmud. (The name "Ravina" is a recurring one during the Talmudic era, and there was a figure of that name who was Rav Ashi's contemporary).
Since Rav Ashi died in 427, and several later generations are represented in the Talmud's pages, it is clear that we cannot speak of him as the Talmud's final redactor, though there is considerable evidence that indicates that he was involved in some sort of preliminary redaction and organization of the traditions--still in an oral, memorized form.
In 987, the medieval authority Rav Sherira Ga'on, leader of the Pumbedita academy (then situated in Baghdad), composed an important study ("Epistle") on issues of Talmudic literature and chronology. Although Rav Sherira accepts that the Talmudic "end of instruction" is a reference to a final redaction, he applies the expression not to the famous Amora Rav Ashi(to whom he attributes only the beginnings of the process), but to a lesser known figure, Rav Yose, and to his contemporary Ravina, who were active at the close of the fifth century.
Modern scholarship, basing itself on careful internal analysis of Talmudic passages, prefers to see the redaction as a prolonged process that may have extended over several centuries. The anonymous Aramaic discussions that hold the work together and give its it much of its distinctive dialectical character are often attributed to the "Savora'im," or "Rabbanan Sabora'ei" the anonymous Babylonian scholars who were active in Babylonian during the sixth century, perhaps until the Muslim conquest.
Babylonia was situated in the area that is presently occupied by Iraq and was known to the ancient Greeks as "Mesopotamia" ("Between the Rivers") The agricultural and economic lives of the populace were determined by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the intricate network of canals emanating from them.
During most the Talmudic era, Babylonia was ruled by a Persian dynasty, the Sasanians.
The Babylonian Talmud is a commentary on the Mishnah, whose order it follows. It was composed over several generations, from the early third century to about the sixth.
The Talmud as a Commentary on the Mishnah
As a commentary, it deals with many aspects of the Mishnah, often going far beyond mere explanation. Some of the items involved in the Talmud's commentary include:
- demonstrating how the Mishnah's rulings or disputes, derive from interpretations of Biblical texts.
- exploring the logical principles underlying the Mishnah's statements, and showing how different understandings of the Mishnah's reasons could lead to differences in their practical application.
- resolving contradictions, perceived or actual, between different statements in the Mishnah, or between the Mishnah and other traditions; e.g., by stating that:
- two conflicting sources are dealing with differing circumstances; or
- they represent the views of different Rabbis.
The distinctive character of the Talmud derives largely from its intricate use of argumentation and debate. Some of these debates were actually conducted by the Amora'im, though most of them are hypothetically reconstructed by the Talmud's redactors ("This is what Rabbi X could have argued...")
As in the Mishnah, the Amora'ic Rabbis encouraged multiple opinions and interpretations. Whereas the Mishnah usually limits itself to a brief statement of the conflicting views, the Talmud tries to verify the integrity of the positions of the Tanna'im and the Amora'im. Prooftexts are quoted to corroborate or disprove the respective opinions.
Talmudic Debate and Dialectic
The process of deduction required to derive a conclusion from a prooftext is often logically complex and indirect. Every effort is made to uphold the correctnesss (i.e., the logical consistency) of the opinions ascribed to the Rabbis, though this often requires forced and unconvincing intepretations of the evidence.
The Babylonian Talmud covers 36 1/2 of the 60 tractates that comprise the Mishnah [The Talmud actually subdivides some of the Mishnah's tractates, so that it has 63 of them]:
The standard Vilna editions of the Talmud consist of twenty large folio volumes, including many commentaries and supplementary texts.
- The Talmud covers almost all of the tractates in the Mishnah's orders "Mo'ed" (about Sabbath and festivals), "Nashim" (about family law) and "Qodashim" (about the Temple and its sacrificial worship).
- Of the Mishnah's order Zera'im," concerned with agricultural regulations, the only tractate included in the Talmud is Berakhot, dealing with blessings and prayers.
This situation is usually ascribed to the fact that most of the agricultural laws were not considered binding outside the Land of Israel.
- Similarly, the Mishnah's order "Tohorot" (about rules of purity) is not included in the Talmud. Most of the laws found there could not be observed following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E.
The single exception is the tractate "Niddah" which discusses the impurity of menstruating women. Several of these laws were still of practical relevance.
In addition to the Bible, Mishnah and the teachings of the Babylonian Amora'im, the Babylonian cites and discusses several other kinds of sources.
Sources Used by the Talmud
It must be emphasized that during the era of the Talmud's development, the Jewish "Oral Tradition" was not allowed to be set down in writing, and therefore all the sources mentioned here, except for the Bible, were edited and transmitted by memory and recitation. They did not exist as written books.
- Teachings by the Rabbis of the Mishnah (Tanna'im) that were not included in the Mishnah. Such sources are designated "external mishnahs," or in Aramaic: Baraita.
There are several different types of baraita. These include:
- Tanna'itic (or: Halakhic) Midrash:
These follow the text of the Torah, especially its legal sections, explaining it in close detail. Many of the midrashic baraitas in the Talmud are identical or similar to known midrashic collections (works such as the "Mekhilta"s to Exodus, "Sifra" (="Torat Kohanim") to Leviticus, or "Sifre" to Numbers and Deuteronomy), stemming from the Schools of Rabbis Akiva and Ishmael. Others are known only from the Talmud itself.
- Baraitas attached to the Mishnah. Many of these are similar or identical to the Tosefta, a Tanna'itic work arranged according to the order of the Mishnah, that provides explanations and supplementary material.
- Tanna'itic sources known only from the Babylonian Talmud.
- Teachings of the Palestinian Amora'im:
The Land of Israel continued to be the most important centre of Torah study, and the Rabbis there also studied the Mishnah in the same ways as their Babylonian counterparts. Their scholarly activities culminated in the production of the Palestinian (or: "Jerusalem") Talmud.
Many traditions of the Palestinian Amora'im were cited and incorporated in the Babylonian Talmud.
- Aggadah, the non-legal component of Rabbinic teaching.
Included in this category are:
- interpretations of the Bible, often taken from synagogue preaching
- moralistic teachings and maxims
- anecdotes about the Rabbis
- folklore, especially magical and medical recipes
- Records of legal rulings by the Rabbis.