What is the Jewish Talmud?
The collections of extra-biblical Jewish religious writings are often confusing to read and categorize for modern readers, especially those who own a Western mindset or Christian background. The Talmud could be most concisely described as a collection of collections. These collections are of oral laws based on the Torah, or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament or Tanakh, and of commentary on and additional material relating to those oral laws.
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There are four important Hebrew terms used in this discussion:
- Mishnah (written record of the oral law)
- Gemara (commentaries on the Mishnah)
- Halakha (detailed legal discussions based on the Mishnah)
- Talmud (the overarching document containing the previous three)
Some parts of the Talmud began developing hundreds of years before the birth of Messiah. Oral laws which expanded upon the Torah were passed down from rabbi to rabbi as a way to ensure that the Law was followed as closely as possible. In theory because of the serious lack of well-educated rabbis alive at the time, Rabbi Judah the Prince chose to write down these oral codes, called the Mishnah, around AD 200. Not only did Rabbi Judah record these rules and commentaries, but he arranged them systematically into six different sections and 63 subsections called "tractates." This introduced a vast difference in the study of the Torah, for never had a rabbi been able to look up in one place everything said in the Torah, along with oral laws, on one subject.
Around AD 400 Jewish rabbis in Palestine edited together the many commentaries, called Gemara, and legal discussions, called Halakha, which had since been made about the Mishnah. This document is known as the Jerusalem Talmud. Over 100 years later, rabbis in Babylon compiled and edited these documents as well, creating the Babylonian Talmud. This later document, containing more and what are generally held to be more advanced commentaries on the Mishnah, is almost exclusively used for study by Jewish rabbis and scholars today. If "The Talmud" is referenced, one may assume the Babylonian Talmud is intended.
It should be noted that the term "Talmud" is sometimes, or even often in some circles, used in place of "Gemara" and therefore placed in parallel with the Mishnah. This is not technically correct, but is somewhat pervasive, and must be determined by context.
From the perspective of Followers of Jesus, the Talmud and its various parts are of value in understanding how the Torah was and is interpreted, and is invaluable in understanding post-temple Judaism. This compilation is the heart and soul of Jewish life and thought today. However, it does not acknowledge or provide the hope of Jesus, Messiah. We welcome our Jewish friends to accept the beautiful fulfillment of the Torah and Tanakh which they have taken such enormous care to understand. Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Moses, to free us from this impossible task-master, and bring us into full relationship with the God who has cared for and pursued Israel for so long. To understand this fulfillment further, we recommend reading Acts 7 and the book of Hebrews. This site also has information which you may find helpful as you explore Jesus as Messiah.
What is the Pentateuch?
Why should we read the Old Testament?
Are Christians expected to obey the Old Testament law?
What do Jews believe? What is Judaism?
How are Christianity and Judaism different?
Truth about the Bible