In the Temple, the synagogues, and the schools of Palestine and Babylonia the scribes and the rabbis composed those enormous bodies of law and commentary known as the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. Moses, they held, had left to his people not only a written Law in the Pentateuch, but also an oral Law, which had been handed down and expanded from teacher to pupil, from generation to generation. It had been the main point of issue between the Pharisees and the Sadducees of Palestine whether this oral Law was also of divine origin and binding force. As the Sadducees disappeared after the Dispersion of A.D. 70, and the rabbis inherited the tradition of the Pharisees, the oral Law was accepted by all orthodox Jews as God’s commandment, and was added to the Pentateuch to constitute the Torah or Law by which they lived, and in which, quite literally, they had their being. The thousand-year-long process by which the oral Law was built up, given form, and put into writing as the Mishna; the eight centuries of debate, judgment, and elucidation that accumulated the two Gemaras as commentaries on the Mishna; the union of the Mishna with the shorter of these Gemaras to make the Palestinian, and with the longer to make the Babylonian, Talmud—this is one of the most complex and astonishing stories in the history of the human mind. The Bible was the literature and religion of the ancient Hebrews; the Torah was the life and blood of the medieval Jews.
Because the Law of the Pentateuch was written, it could not meet all the needs and circumstances of a Jerusalem without freedom, or a Judaism without Jerusalem, or a Jewry without Palestine. It was the function of the Sanhedrin teachers before the Dispersion, and of the rabbis after it, to interpret the legislation of Moses for the use and guidance of a new age or place. Their interpretations and discussions, with majority and minority opinions, were transmitted from one generation of teachers to another. Perhaps to keep this oral tradition flexible, possibly to compel its memorizing, it was not written down. The rabbis who expounded the Law might on occasion call in the help of persons who had accomplished the feat of committing it to memory. In the first six generations after Christ the rabbis were called tannaim—“teachers of the oral Law.” As the sole experts in the Law, they were at once the teachers and the judges of their communities in Palestine after the fall of the Temple.
The rabbis of Palestine and of the Dispersion constituted the most unique aristocracy in history. They were no closed or hereditary class; many of them rose from the poorest ranks; most of them earned their living as artisans even after achieving international repute; and until near the end of this period they received no payment for their work as teachers and judges. Rich men sometimes made them silent partners in business enterprises, or took them into their homes, or married their daughters to them to free them from toil. A few of them were spoiled by the high status accorded to them in their communities; some were humanly capable of anger, jealousy, hatred, undue censoriousness, pride; they had frequently to remind themselves that the true scholar is a modest man, if only because wisdom sees the part in the light of the whole. The people loved them for their virtues and their faults, admired them for their learning and their devotion, and told a thousand stories about their judgments and their miracles. To this day no people so honors the student and the scholar as do the Jews.
As rabbinical decisions accumulated, the task of memorizing them became unreasonable. Hillel, Akiba, and Meir attempted various classifications and mnemonic devices, but none of these received general acceptance. Disorder in the transmission of the Law became the order of the day; the number of men who knew the entire oral Law by heart was dangerously reduced, and dispersion was scattering these few to distant lands. About the year 189, at Sepphoris in Palestine, Rabbi Jehuda Hanasi took over and transformed the work of Akiba and Meir, rearranged the whole oral Law, and wrote it down, with some personal additions, as the “Mishna of Rabbi Jehuda.” * It was so widely read that it became in time the Mishna, the authoritative form of the oral Law of the Jews.
As we have it, the Mishna (i.e., oral teaching) is the result of much editing and interpolation since Jehuda; even so it is a compact summary, designed for memorizing by repetition, and therefore tantalizingly terse and obscure to one who comes to it from any background except that of Jewish life and history. Babylonian and European as well as Palestinian Jews accepted it, but each school placed upon its maxims an individual interpretation. As six “generations” (A.D. 10–220) of rabbinical tannaim had shared in formulating the Mishna, so now six “generations” (220–500) of rabbinical amoraim (“expounders”) accumulated those two masses of commentary, the Palestinian and the Babylonian Gemaras. The new teachers did to the Mishna of Jehuda what the tannaim had done to the Old Testament: they debated, analyzed, explained, amended, and illustrated the text to apply it to the new problems and circumstances of their place and time. Towards the end of the fourth century the schools of Palestine co-ordinated their commentaries in the form known as the Palestinian Gemara. About the same time (397) Rab (Rabbi) Ashi, head of the Sura college, began to codify the Babylonian Gemara, and worked on it for a generation; a hundred years later (499) Rabina II bar (son of) Samuel, also at Sura, brought this work to completion. If we note that the Babylonian Gemara is eleven times as long as the Mishna, we shall begin to understand why its compilation spanned a century. Through an additional 150 years (500-650) rabbinical saboraim (“reasoners”) revised this vast commentary, and gave the finishing touches to the Babylonian Talmud.
The word talmud means teaching. Among the amoraim it was applied only to the Mishna; in modern usage it includes both the Mishna and the Gemara. The Mishna is the same in both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmuds; the two differ only in the Gemara or commentary, which is four times longer in the Babylonian than in the Palestinian form.* The language of the two Gemaras is Aramaic; that of the Mishna is Neo-Hebraic, with many borrowings from neighbor languages. The Mishna is concise, stating a law in a few lines; the Gemaras are deliberately discursive, giving the diverse opinions of leading rabbis on the Mishna text, describing the circumstances that might require modification of the law, and adding illustrative material. The Mishna is mostly halacha, law; the Gemaras are partly halacha—restating or discussing a law—and partly haggada (“story”). Haggada has been lazily defined as anything in the Talmud that is not halacha. For the most part haggada includes illustrative anecdotes or examples, bits of biography, history, medicine, astronomy, astrology, magic, and theosophy, and exhortations to virtue and obedience to the Law. Often a haggada relieved the minds of the students after some complex and tiring debate. So, we read,
Rab Ami and Rab Assi were conversing with Rabbi Isaac Napcha, when one of them said to him: “Tell us, sir, some pretty legend”; and the other said: “Pray explain to us, rather, some nice point of law.” When he began the legend he displeased the one, and when he began to explain a point of law he offended the other. Whereupon he took up this parable: “I am like the man with the two wives, the one young and the other old. The young one plucked out all his gray hairs, that he might look young; the old wife pulled out all his black hairs, that he might look old; and so between the two he became bald. So it is with me between you.”13