In addition to the written scriptures we have an "Oral Torah," a tradition explaining what the above scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the Laws. Orthodox Jews believe God taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down to the present day. This tradition was maintained in oral form only until about the 2nd century C.E., when the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah.

Over the next few centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional commentaries are known as the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. This was completed in the 5th century C.E.

There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian one is more comprehensive, and is the one most people mean when they refer to The Talmud. There have been additional commentaries on the Talmud by such noted Jewish scholars as Rashi and Rambam. Adin Steinsalz is currently preparing a new edition of the Talmud, with his own commentary supplementing the Mishnah, Gemara, and Rashi commentaries.


The Mishnah is divided into six sections called sedarim (in English, orders). Each seder contains one or more divisions called masekhtot (in English, tractates). There are 63 masekhtot in the Mishnah. Approximately half of these masekhtot have been addressed in the Talmud. Although these divisions seem to indicate subject matter, it is important to note that the Mishnah and the Talmud tend to be engage in quite a bit of free-association, thus widely diverse subjects may be discussed in a seder or masekhtah. Below is the division of the Mishnah into sedarim and masekhtot:


1 = Mishna is the first major transcription of the oral law. Foreseeing the advent of the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the world, Rabbi Judah the Prince composed the Mishna around the year 200.

2 = Gemara is a written record of analytical discussions of the Mishna, along with philosophy, ethics, and practical advice, by the rabbinic authorities who lived between 200 and 500. This is the main body of the Talmud, consisting of some 4,500 pages of text.

3 = Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Isaac, an 11th-century French commentator. Rashi explains the difficult terms and helps students understand the Gemara's analysis and reasoning.

4 = Tosefos, which literally means "additions," are collections of comments, generally based on Rashi, made by French and German rabbis between 1100 and 1300. These comments discuss conceptual issues raised in the Gemara, and contrast these with concepts raised in other Gemara texts.

5 = Hananel are comments by a 16th-century North African Talmudist.

6 = Eye of Justice, Mitzva Candle, by 16th-century Italian scholar Rabbi Joshua Boaz, includes notes referencing final legal decisions found in Maimonides' and others' codes of Jewish law.

7 = Talmud Cross-References

8 = Light of the Bible includes references to Biblical quotations.

9 = Bach's Annotations, textual emendations by 17th-century Polish scholar Rabbi Joel Sirkes, note variant texts that appear in early editions of the Talmud.

10 = Gra's Annotations, concise notes by 18th-century Lithuanian scholar Vilna Gaon, suggest fascinating insights into legal rulings. Similar annotations by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and other 19th- and 20th-century scholars are planned for the new edition of the Talmud.

Click the image to see what a page spread from the Talmud looks like, with English translation.

Image Header © 2002 by Jonathan L. Hirshon

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