What is it?
The Talmud consists of two specific collections of texts - the Mishnah and the Gemara.
As the Mishnah is written in such precise and terse verse, the rabbis needed to discuss and analyse it. The Gemara is the collection of the rabbinic discussions about the Mishnah and other teachings of the Tannaim (scholars from 400 BCE - 200 CE), which took place for three hundred years after the Mishnah was written down (200-500 CE).
The Gemara is a commentary on the Mishnah, and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds contain two different commentaries on the Mishnah, each originating from a certain place (Babylon and Israel, not actually Jerusalem). Sometimes, the Gemara alone is called the Talmud, although strictly speaking this is not true as the Talmud also contains the Mishnah.
Talmud literally means 'study'. The Talmud embodies the labours, opinions, and teachings of the ancient Jewish scholars in expounding and developing the religious and civil laws of the Bible during a period of some eight centuries (from 300 BCE to 500 CE). There are two different versions of the Talmud - the Talmud Bavli (lit. Babylonian Talmud), and the Talmud Yerushalmi (lit. Jerusalem Talmud). Each of these are very long - the Babylonian Talmud is usually printed as twenty large volumes and the much smaller Jerusalem Talmud - as three large volumes. The two versions of the Talmud contain the same Mishnah (i.e. there is one Mishnah, common to both) but different Gemara. The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) is the authoritative collection, and is usually what people refer to when they mention the Talmud. Not every Masechet (Tractate) of the Mishnah has a corresponding Gemara in both, or even either version of the Talmud. In general, the Talmud Bavli doesn't contain a Gemara on Seder Zeraim (Seeds) as this is about agriculture in the Land of Israel which was not discussed in detail in Babylon. Seder Teharot (Purity) also has no extensive Gemara as laws concerning purity were so important in everyday life that it didn't need to be written down.
Although the Talmud, strictly speaking, consists simply of the Mishnah and Gemara, if you look at a standard edition of the Talmud there are a lot of other commentaries and discussions printed in the book. Again, this is similar to some editions of a play by Shakespeare that may be printed with all sorts of explanations in the margins. The standard Vilna Edition of the Talmud is a little over a hundred years old.
If the Torah is the foundation of Jewish life, then the Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish study and thought.
What is it about?
The Talmud is ordered in the same way as the Mishnah, which is not surprising as it consists of the Mishnah and very extensive commentary on the Mishnah (the Gemara). Since the Mishnah deals mainly with matters of Halachah (Jewish Law), much of the Talmud is about exploring Halachic issues. However this is by no means exclusively what the Talmud is about.
The Talmud is a storehouse for information connected with the life, customs, beliefs, and superstitions of the Jews. It deals with issues as diverse as medicine, astronomy, commerce, agriculture, magic, botany, and zoology. The Talmud also gathers sayings and stories of the rabbis that are not directly connected to the Mishnah.
Because the main purpose of the Talmud is not to decide law but to decide what the truth is, it contains much material that doesn't have any obvious practical application.
The contents of the various Masechtot (Tractates) of the Talmud is as follows. As can be seen from merely a glimpse at the range of major topics, the Talmud covers an enormous scope of material.
Seder Zeraim (The Order 'Seeds')
Berachot (Blessings) is about various prayers and blessings.
Pe'ah (Corner, corner of the field) is about the laws of gifts to the poor, and charity.
Demai (Doubtful, doubtfully tithed) is about what to do with produce about which there is a doubt regarding if it is to be set aside for the poor.
Kilayim (Mixtures) is about laws regarding cross-breeding.
Shevi'it (Seventh, the Sabbatical Year) is about the laws of the Sabbatical Year, when fields must lie fallow and loans are cancelled.
Terumot (Contributions) is about the contributions to the Priests.
Ma'aserot (Tithes) is about contributions that were made to the Priestly assistants.
Ma'aser Sheni (Second Tithes) is about contributions that were made to the Priestly assistants, and assorted poor people.
Challah (Dough) is about the laws of separating a portion of dough before making bread to give to the Priests.
Orlah (Uncircumcised, "uncircumcised fruit") is about the prohibition against using fruit within three years of a tree being planted.
Bikkurim (First fruits) is about first-fruit offerings at the Temple.
Seder Moed (The Order 'Occasions')
Shabbat contains most of the laws governing Shabbat. In the Babylonian Talmud, it also contains a discussion of the laws of Chanukah.
Eruvin (Mergings) is about the boundaries within which one may walk and carry ariticles on Shabbat.
Pesachim (Paschal lambs, "Passover") is about the laws of Passover.
Shekalim (Shekels) is based around a discussion of the taxation levied for the running of the Temple service.
Yoma (The Day, "The Day of Atonement") deals mainly with the order of service in the Temple on Yom Kippur. It also deals with the Yom Kippur fast and prayer service.
Sukkah (Booth) is about building a Sukkah, and the Four Species used on Succot in prayer.
Betzah (Egg) is about the laws that apply to all festivals. It is named after the first word in the Tractate.
Rosh HaShanah is about the laws of fixing the date of the New Year, and of the calendar in general. It also deals with the shofar, and prayer service on Rosh HaShanah.
Ta'anit (Fast) deals with public fast days.
Megillah (Scroll) contains the laws for reading the Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) and of Purim in general. Incidentally it deals with the laws of both reading and writing the Torah and other scrolls, the laws of prayer, and laws about synagogues.
Moed Katan (Minor Festival) discusses the laws of working on Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of Pesach and Succot)
Chagigah (Festival Offering) deals with pilgrimages to the Temple.
Seder Nashim (The Order 'Women')
Yevamot (Sisters-in-Law) deals with the obligation to marry a widow of one's childless brother (levirate marriage), and forbidden sexual relations. It also deals with the laws of prohibited marriages and with conversion.
Ketuvot (Marriage Deeds) deals the laws of marriage deeds, rape, and seduction.
Nedarim (Vows) deals with laws containing vows.
Nazir (Nazarite) contains the laws of the Nazarite, one who temporarily abstains from drinking wine and cutting one's hair.
Sotah (A Woman suspected of Adultery by her Husband) is about the laws concerning a woman suspected of adultery.It is also about the Priestly Blessing and the laws of warfare.
Gittin (Bills of Divorce) deals with the arrangements for bills of divorce.
Kiddushin (Betrothals) deals with the ways in which people may be betrothed. It also deals incidentally with the commandments binding on men and women, and those only binding upon men.
Seder Nezikin (The Order 'Damages')
Bava Kamma (The First Gate) is about types of legal damage.
Bava Metzia (The Middle Gate) is about disputes over financial matters and property.
Bava Batra (The Last Gate) is about laws of partnership and inheritance.
Sanhedrin contains the laws of capital punishment, and judicial procedure in general. It also contains discussion of principles of faith and the afterlife.
Makkot (Lashes) clarifies the laws of corporal punishment and banishment.
Shevuot (Oaths) is about the various oaths administered in court, and by the Rabbis.
Eduyyot (Testimonies) is a collection of sayings on a wide variety of subjects.
Avodah Zarah (Idolatry) deals with idolatry and the restrictions regarding contact with non-Jews.
Avot (Fathers) is a collection of ethical sayings by the Rabbis.
Horayot (Decisions, rulings) deals with cases where the courts, Priests, or King made an error, and what they must do as penitence in such cases.
Seder Kedoshim (The Order 'Holy Things')
Zehavim (Animal Sacrifices) deals with animal sacrifices. It also contains an exhaustive discussion of the methods used to establish Jewish law.
Menachot (Meal Offerings) is about meal offerings. It also discusses the laws of Tefillin (phylacteries) and Tzitzit (ritual fringes).
Chullin (Ordinary, unhallowed) deals with the laws of Kashrut.
Bekhorot (Firstlings) is about laws concerning first-born animals and humans.
Arakhin (Valuations) is about the laws of dedicating things to be used for the Temple.
Temurah (Substitution) is about laws governing the substitution of one sacrifice for another.
Keritot (Excisions)is about sins which incur the punishment of excision (a special kind of Divine punishment)
Me'ilah (Sacrilege) is about the laws concerning the unlawful use of objects that have been consecrated in the Temple.
Tamid (Daily, 'daily sacrifices') contains the permanent laws of the Temple, and the arrangements for the daily service in the Temple.
Middot (Measurements) contains the plan of the Temple, with measurements.
Kinnim (Birds' nests, "pairs of sacrificial birds") deals with the sacrifice of birds.
Seder Teharot (The Order 'Purity')
Kelim (Vessels) is about the various forms of impurity of utensils.
Ohalot (Tents) discusses the ritual impurity of a tent containing a dead body.
Nega'im (Leprosy) contains the laws regarding leprosy.
Parah (Heifer) is about the laws of the Red Heifer, which was used to purify those made "impure" by a dead body.
Teharot (Purifications) contains general laws and principles of ritual impurity.
Mikvaot (Ritual Baths) contains the laws of ritual baths, including how they are to be constructed.
Niddah (Menstruating woman) deals with the ritual impurity of menstruating women, women who have bleeding not connected to their regular periods, and laws of ritual purity regarding a woman who has given birth.
Makhshirin (Preparations, predispositions) is about how foods can be made ritually impure by contact with certain liquids.
Zavim (Those suffering from secretions) deals with the laws of ritual impurity of those suffering from sexual diseases.
Tevul Yom (Immersed during the day) contains laws about at what time in the day one becomes ritually pure after immersing in a ritual bath.
Yadayim (Hands) contains laws about washing hands.
Uktzin (Stems, stalks) contains a discussion of the laws governing the susceptibility of fruit to ritual impurity.
Where does it come from? Who wrote it down?
The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) is a the collection of sayings and teachings of the Amoraim, in Babylon. The Amoraim is the name given to the generation of scholars responsible for the Gemara; the Amoraim lived between 200-500 CE. Most of the sayings of the Amoraim were needed to clarify the Mishnah. The assorted teachings of the Babylonian Talmud were compiled and written down in a process started by Rav Ashi and Rav Ina, in around 500 CE.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) is a similar collection of sayings and teachings, but of the scholars in Palestine. In effect, two separate communities of the time developed different intellectual traditions and explained the Mishnah in different ways. The Jerusalem Talmud was written down approximately 100 years earlier than the Babylonian Talmud, in 400 CE.
Each Talmud is thus the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars of a certain place, edited together at a certain time to form a more complete discussion.
Like the Mishnah, the entire Talmud is believed to be Divinely inspired by some Jews. Again, as with the Mishnah, the same disagreements about the status of the entire Talmud exists.
What do we do with it?
The Talmud is a compendium of some of the main discussions concerning a Jewish world view. Although it is used as the key source material for establishing Halachah (Jewish Law), it is also much more than that. The Talmud, through its breadth and depth of material, links the key text of the Torah to the world.
It is important to know that the two Talmuds are not on an equal footing. The Babylonian Talmud is seen as authoritative. There are three main reasons for this. First of all the Babylonian Talmud was completed later, and so it is addresses issues raised in the Jerusalem Talmud. Secondly the Babylonian Talmud is far more extensive than the Jerusalem Talmud, and this detail lends the work more weight. Lastly the Babylonian Talmud has a sharper and intellectually deeper approach. The difference in standing of the two Talmuds is so great that for most purposes, the Jerusalem Talmud is neglected.
The Talmud itself stresses that it is important to learn Jewish thought for its own sake, and this is borne out by the place of the Talmud in Jewish life. For hundreds of years, the Talmud has been the main source of material for Jewish learning. At age fifteen, many Jews start learning the Talmud, and continue this study for the rest of their lives. In Jewish places of learning throughout the world, the Babylonian Talmud is the text most commonly studied. It is because study of Talmud is not seen as merely a means to some end that minority opinions and entire arguments are recorded and learnt in the Talmud.
There is a custom to learn a page of Talmud (which is really a double page, or folio) each day. Called the Daf Yomi (Daily Page) system, hundreds of thousands of people around the world learn the same page of Talmud each day, completing the entire (Babylonian) Talmud in seven years.
Some passages from the Talmud are used in prayer.
The Halachah (Jewish Law) is developed by using the Talmud as the starting text. Decisions on what to do in various situations are made by first examining the Talmud. Here, the later an opinion (which is known by who said it) the greater weight is given to it.
What language is it in?
The Talmud is mostly in Aramaic, but some Hebrew is used too. Throughout the Talmud, there are words and expressions borrowed from one language by the other.
Aramaic began as the language of the Aramean tribes but became the common tongue for many people of the Middle East after 100 CE.
The Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud is Eastern Aramaic, which was spoken by the Jews of Babylon at the time. The Aramaic of the Jerusalem Talmud is Western Aramaic, which was spoken by the Jews of Palestine. The languages are similar to each other. Aramaic is also quite similar to Hebrew, and share common roots for many words.
If I want to read it...
The Talmud can be a very difficult work to study. The Talmud appears to have no internal order, and a strange logic all of its own. In parts, it is very complicated, and even experienced scholars have difficulty with it. On the other hand, some parts of the Talmud are more accessible, and yield entry into a Jewish way of thinking.
It is obviously very expensive to buy an enormous twenty volume Babylonian Talmud or even a three volume Jerusalem Talmud. A standard (Vilna) edition of the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) in Aramaic (and Hebrew) today would cost upwards of $750. An edition is available with much smaller print that costs around $300, but is less comfortable to use. Luckily, almost all Jewish libraries contain a Talmud.
There are translations of the Talmud currently available. The best editions include the Soncino and the ArtScroll. Check before buying to see if the English translation is something that you feel comfortable with, as they can be difficult in places.
Steinsaltz is currently translating the Talmud into English. The English translation is actually based on his translation into Hebrew (from old Hebrew and Aramaic). As each Tractate is completed, it is published. The Steinsaltz Talmud contains a literal translation as well as a free translation. The free translation is very accessible. Steinsaltz also provides a very thorough reading of the text, and this level of accuracy makes the Steinsaltz Talmud extremely dependable, which is important when each word is treated as vital and meaningful. The Steinsaltz Talmud is a wonderful way to learn Talmud for those who aren't comfortable in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud will fill over a hundred volumes, and each volume costs over twenty pounds.
No translation of the Talmud contains all of the extensive commentaries that are printed with the Talmud in the standard editions. The Steinsaltz translation does reproduce the most important commentary - that of Rashi - but is translated into simple Hebrew, not English.
Talmudic study is traditionally conducted in Chevruta (friendly learning pairs). Chevruta learning is done aloud, and is thought to aid understanding.
There are numerous classes in synagogues and other places based around the Talmud. Often called simply 'Gemara Shiur' (Gemara Lesson) these could be on any part of the Talmud. There are also numerous internet based classes, and even services that can link people to study Talmud together on-line.
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