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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 3.15:
What is the Talmud?

Answer:

The word 'talmud' literally means 'study'. The Talmud is sometimes referred to as the Shas. Shas is a shortened form of the term 'Shisha Sedarim (six orders), a reference to the six orders of the Mishna. There are two distinct works known as Talmud: the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem or Palestinian) Talmud, and the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud). However, the Babylonian Talmud has greater popularity and authority, so the generic term 'Talmud' almost always refers to the Babylonian Talmud. The generic 'gemara' thus refers to the gemara of the Babylonian Talmud. References to the Jerusalem Talmud are explicitly qualified.

Traditionally, the Talmud is the supreme sourcebook of Law, as it takes the rules listed in the Torah and describes how to apply them to different circumstances. Although technically not a legal code (other works were created for that purpose), it is the ultimate source material that is used to decide all matters of Halakha (Jewish law).

Traditional rabbis study the Talmud in depth; however, they use the actual Talmud very rarely, preferring to accept opinions in later law codes as binding. Study of Talmud for its own sake is considered a great mitzvah.

Conservative rabbis also consider Halakha as binding, but do not always accept the most recent and stringent opinions in the latest law codes as absolutely binding; As such they use the Talmud in the same way that rabbis of past eras used to use it. This is theoretically still an option in the Orthodox community, but in practice is used very rarely.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews do not teach Talmud in their Hebrew schools, but do teach it in their rabbinical seminaries. This material is used as part of the research into the application of Torah law, but the research also includes study of the larger context of the time, and the parallels to other co-existant societies.

A citation "Check the gemara, Yevamos 12b" means tractate Yevamos, folio 12, reverse side of the folio as per the organization of the Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Similarly, Chullin 5a would be the obverse side of the fifth folio of tractate Chullin. "Daf Yomi" is a program in which the participants study both sides of a folio of the Babylonian Talmud every day of the year. It takes about 7.5 years to complete the cycle.

After the closing of the Talmud, there has been considerable further development of the Law in the areas of practical application, but always in a tone that reveres the stated views of the Talmudic rabbis as being on a higher plane than those of our modern scholars, who are free to interpret but not to contradict. A sharp distinction is always drawn between Torah Law (meaning law that derives directly from prohibitions in the Written or Oral Torah) and Rabbinic Law (meaning law that the Talmudic rabbis adopted as a `fence' to protect us from unwarily transgressing Torah Law), and different standards are used to judge cases of doubt in matters of Torah Law than of Rabbinic. Often, a false distinction is made by uninformed posters between `Torah' (meaning Written) Law and Oral Law---in traditional Judaism, the two stand together in distinction to Rabbinic Law. Example: the Written Law says `an eye for an eye'. The Oral Law says (and historical documents from the Second Temple era confirm) that this was _never_ intended literally, but rather means `measured and just (monetary) compensation for damages inflicted'. The Rabbinic Law upholds this principle, but might still command a man to forego the monetary damages in certain cases so as not to even come close to transgressing some other Torah prohibition, such as exacting interest on a debt, or causing baseless hatred. The first two are Torah, the last is not. But all are binding on Jews worldwide. (Note: A still lower level of `law', called minhag, or `custom', is post-Talmudic and usually has force only within particular communities.)


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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