Talmud/Mishnah/Gemara

A fifth order, Kodashim, outlines the laws of sacrifices and ritual slaughter. The sixth order, Taharot, contains the laws of purity and impurity.

Although parts of the Mishnah read as dry legal recitations, Rabbi Judah frequently enlivened the text by presenting minority views, which it was also hoped might serve to guide scholars in later generations (Mishnah Eduyot 1:6). In one famous instance, the legal code turned almost poetic, as Rabbi Judah cited the lengthy warning the rabbinic judges delivered to witnesses testifying in capital cases:

"How are witnesses inspired with awe in capital cases?" the Mishnah begins. "They are brought in and admonished as follows: In case you may want to offer testimony that is only conjecture or hearsay or secondhand evidence, even from a person you consider trustworthy; or in the event you do not know that we shall test you by cross-examination and inquiry, then know that capital cases are not like monetary cases. In monetary cases, a man can make monetary restitution and be forgiven, but in capital cases both the blood of the man put to death and the blood of his [potential] descendants are on the witness's head until the end of time. For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: 'The bloods of your brother cry unto Me' (Genesis 4:10) -- that is, his blood and the blood of his potential descendants.... Therefore was the first man, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one man, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among men, so that no one should say to his fellow, 'My father was greater than yours.... Also, man [was created singly] to show the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, for if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, made each man in the image of Adam, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obligated to say, 'The world was created for my sake"' (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). (One commentary notes, "How grave the responsibility, therefore, of corrupting myself by giving false evidence, and thus bringing upon myself the moral guilt of [murdering] a whole world.")

One of the Mishnah's sixty­three tractates contains no laws at all. It is called Pirkei Avot (usually translated as Ethics of the Fathers), and it is the "Bartlett's" of the rabbis, in which their most famous sayings and proverbs are recorded.

During the centuries following Rabbi Judah's editing of the Mishnah, it was studied exhaustively by generation after generation of rabbis. Eventually, some of these rabbis wrote down their discussions and commentaries on the Mishnah's laws in a series of books known as the Talmud. The rabbis of Palestine edited their discussions of the Mishnah about the year 400: Their work became known as the Palestinian Talmud (in Hebrew, Talmud Yerushalmi, which literally means "Jerusalem Talmud").

More than a century later, some of the leading Babylonian rabbis compiled another editing of the discussions on the Mishnah. By then, these deliberations had been going on some three hundred years. The Babylon edition was far more extensive than its Palestinian counterpart, so that the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) became the most authoritative compilation of the Oral Law. When people speak of studying "the Talmud," they almost invariably mean the Bavli rather than the Yerushalmi.

The Talmud's discussions are recorded in a consistent format. A law from the Mishnah is cited, which is followed by rabbinic deliberations on its meaning. The Mishnah and the rabbinic discussions (known as the Gemara) comprise the Talmud, although in Jewish life the terms Gemara and Talmud usually are used interchangeably.

The rabbis whose views are cited in the Mishnah are known as Tanna'im (Aramaic for "teachers"), while the rabbis quoted in the Gemara are known as Amora'im ("explainers" or "interpreters"). Because the Tanna'im lived earlier than the Amora'im, and thus were in closer proximity to Moses and the revelation at Sinai, their teachings are considered more authoritative than those of the Amora'im. For the same reason, Jewish tradition generally regards the teachings of the Amora'im, insofar as they are expounding the Oral Law, as more authoritative than contemporary rabbinic teachings.

In addition to extensive legal discussions (in Hebrew, halakha), the rabbis incorporated into the Talmud guidance on ethical matters, medical advice, historical information, and folklore, which together are known as aggadata.

As a rule, the Gemara's text starts with a close reading of the Mishnah. For example, Mishnah Bava Mezia 7:1 teaches the following: "If a man hired laborers and ordered them to work early in the morning and late at night, he cannot compel them to work early and late if it is not the custom to do so in that place." On this, the Gemara (Bava Mezia 83a) comments: "Is it not obvious [that an employer cannot demand that they change from the local custom]? The case in question is where the employer gave them a higher wage than was normal. In that case, it might be argued that he could then say to them, 'The reason I gave you a higher wage than is normal is so that you will work early in the morning and late at night.' So the law tells us that the laborers can reply: 'The reason that you gave us a higher wage than is normal is for better work [not longer hours].'"

1/20/2010 5:00:00 AM
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