Next to the Bible, the Talmud is the most important source of Jewish spiritual teaching. It is much larger and more complex than the Bible, and combines volumes containing many different layers and kinds of material. Its contents fall roughly into three groups: Mishnah, Gemara, and Midrash.
I. Mishnah is the code of Oral Law elaborated largely by the Pharisees in the two or three centuries before the Great Revolt. The Pharisees were the liberal Jews of their day, responsible for doing away with slavery well before other ancient societies did. They interpreted the written law and scriptures to fit changes in the social and political situation under Greek and Roman rule. The written Mishnah code, begun early in the 2nd century by Rabbi Akiba ben Josef and his disciple Meir, was edited into final form around 200 by Judah Ha-Nasi and his followers. Rather than a strict code of laws, it is a compilation of the opinions and rulings of previous rabbinical sages and scholars on a wide variety of situations — giving the majority and dissenting opinions in many cases — and is used as a guideline. These sages were known as Tannaim (“Teachers”); the two most prominent were Hillel the Elder and Shammai.
The Mishnah is made up of 63 treatises or tractates, divided into Six Orders:
- Zeraim (Seeds) covers agricultural produce and ritual offerings
- Moed (Festivals) deals with the laws of the Sabbath, feasts, and fast-days
- Nashim (Women): betrothal, marriage, and divorce
- Nezikim (Damages): civil and criminal laws and accompanying punishments
- Kodashim (Sacred Things): sacrifices, sacrileges, and offerings
- Toharot (Purification): cleanliness and uncleanliness in the ritual sense
II. Gemara is the commentary on the Mishnah compiled by the Amoraim, successors to the Tannaim whose opinions made up the Mishnah. Gemara is what is technically meant by the term Talmud, and is often referred to as the Talmud proper. Two sets of Gemara were created, one in Bablylonia completed by the 4th or 5th century, and one in Palestine, known as the Jerusalem Talmud, completed about a century earlier. Both are incomplete, commenting on a little more than half the treatises in the Mishnah, yet they comprise numerous volumes representing the work of hundreds of scholars over several centuries.
III. Midrash is an assessment of the Bible, but especially the Pentateuch, aimed at clarifying various points of law. Compiled over a thousand year period ending in 1040, it consists mainly of various forms of anecdotal and allegorical material that often began as sermons or homilies based around a passage of Scripture — a method that later became popular with Christians.
The Talmud as a whole is formed of two kinds of material: halakha and aggada. The halakhah includes all the legal decisions in the Mishnah and the two Gemaras; the aggadah comprises a wide range of legends, myths, anecdotes, parables, and aphorisms aimed at explaining the laws, beliefs, and rituals of the Mishnah to the common folk. This material expands as it expounds, in the process creating a colorful body of folk material. The whole massive, often confusing corpus of laws, commentaries, and anecdotal accompaniments, is referred to popularly by Jews as “The Sea of the Talmud.”