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An Introduction to the Talmud

by Dr. Harris Brody

Part II

The Oral Law, called the Talmud in written form, is a vital part of Jewish Tradition. These oral laws were to teach the way their fathers had walked and that their children were bound to the same. These laws became a hedge by the rabbis to prevent any breach of the Law or customs and to ensure the exact observances. Traditionalism was declared absolutely binding on all. They became a greater obligation than the Scriptures themselves. In the Talmud we read, "The sayings of the elders have more weight than those of the prophets" (Berakoth 1:7); "An offense against the saying of the scribes is worse than one against those of Scripture" (Sanhedrin 11:3). In the Midrash (commentary on the Scriptures), in the introduction on Lamentations, it is inferred from Jeremiah 9:12,13 that to forsake the Oral Law was worse than idolatry, uncleanness or the shedding of blood. So strict were the laws that the Jews must obey them in every jot and tittle. These oral laws were both positive, in the sense of things they had to do (TEGGANOTH), and negative in the things they were not to do (GEZEROTH). These traditional ordinances, or legal laws, are referred to as Halakhah.

The Jews, under the burden of outward ordinances and observances, had crushed their own spirit. They were no longer following the pure religion and law of the Old Testament or Torah. All of their traditions did not make them holier but only gave them more of a burden. Our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, had addressed this issue in Matthew 23:3, 4: "All, therefore, whatever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not after their works; for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." These Scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses' seat. Only a teacher of the Law of Moses can sit in that seat. The Law is to be honored, but not the hypocritical teachers of it (Matthew 23:2).

The religion of Israel was becoming one of show by the wearing of phylacteries, sitting at the head tables at banquets and in the synagogues, and the deference paid them on the streets (Matthew 23:5-7). The teachings of Yeshua were different. He laid aside the rabbinic Halakhah and tried to restore the inner sanctuary of worship and life style. He was not against true Biblical Halakhah for He said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). Our Lord taught that the body of Jewish dogmatism and moral theology is really only Haggadah (legends, folklore, parables) and has no absolute authority. It was wrong to codify a Haggadah into a Halakhah (law, legal code). One should particularly take note of the woes our Lord announces upon the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:13-36. They closed up the kingdom of heaven not only to themselves but to all who follow them. Yeshua calls them hypocrites.

Two Divisions Of The Talmud

The Talmud consists of two distinct parts: the Mishnah, which is the code of laws, and its commentary, the Gemara. The Mishnah was transmitted orally. A great and well-known Pharisee known as Hillel (30 BC - 20 AD) made one of the earliest attempts to codify the oral laws. No one knows what happened to his effort.

Rabbi Akiba (or Akiva), who died around 135 AD, initiated the pioneer work of collecting and classifying the oral teachings by subject into a "Mishnah" or "review." He was a well-known and respected teacher and had thousands of followers.

The Oral Law was finally compiled in writing by Rabbi Judah Ha Nasi around 200 AD He was known simply as "Rabbi" and was the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. He was a great scholar, but he feared that the Mishnah would someday be forgotten or that there would be heretical departures. He therefore compiled, edited and codified the oral laws and declared the Mishnah to be canonically closed, as Ezra and Nehemiah had "closed" the Torah (five books of Moses).

The Mishnah, which means, "to repeat one's learning, review" was a digest of all the oral laws from the time of Moses. It is referred to as the Second Law, whereas the Torah is the First Law. The work was written in Hebrew.

The second division of the Talmud is known as the Gemara. It was written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew and means "to learn." It was basically an expanded commentary on the Mishnah. Like the Mishnah, the Gemara is the collected discussions of the rabbis who lived after the Mishnah was completed. It was transmitted in two traditions, the Palestinian Gemara (AD 200) and the larger and more authoritative Babylonian Gemara (AD 500). The shift from an oral to a written form was due to a political crisis in the sixth century AD. Zoroastrian fanatics came to power in the Persian realm and most Jews in that area either fled, were dispersed or were killed. The rabbis were afraid that the collective memory of Mishnah and Gemara was in Peril of extinction. A group of scholars called the Saboraim had the task of writing down the teachings into the Babylonian Talmud. The Palestinian Gemara was written by scholars of Caesarea in Palestine in a short digest in the middle of the 4th Century AD.

The Mishnah plus the Babylonian Gemara is known as the Babylonian Talmud. The two Talmuds have always been printed separately and never together. There are different Jewish cultures and customs behind each one.

The Talmud and its traditions are a vital part of Jewish life. Apart from the Torah, the Talmud has more authority than the rest of Scripture. When a Jew speaks of being a Torah Jew, he usually is referring to being an observer of both the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the Talmud.


Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VIIPart VIII | Part IX | Part X


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