In the previous blog, we discussed the source, the foundation and the need for the Mishna, the backbone of the oral Torah. In this blog, part 3, I would now like to discuss the Gemara, the other part of the oral Torah.
Everyone knows that there are three basic Jewish books: the TaNaCh, (the Bible or “Old Testament”), the Mishna, and the Gemara. (Four if we count the Kabbalah). For those of us in possession of more than general knowledge, we know that there are two types of Gemara as well: the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. However, the focus and the backbone of both of these great works is, again, the Mishna, upon which the Gemara rests.
What confuses everyone, however, is the fact that anyone who actually learns these books knows that they are full of the names of individuals whose only common denominator is that they lived after the times of the Mishna.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, there are around four generations of sages who are listed by name. In the Babylonian Talmud, there are about seven or eight. They begin with the first students of the aforementioned Rabbi Judah haNassi, the prince, whose names were Rav (Rabbi Abba “the long”, as he was, apparently, taller than most), Shmuel, (both of whom lived in Babylonia) and Rabbi Jochanan, (who lived in the land of Israel) and they end when they end. If all of the Gemara was written after the Mishna then what was the oral Torah that existed beforehand, in the times of the Mishna and the prophets?
I’m glad you asked that question. It’s a very good and appropriate one to ask. (I also wonder why so few people actually ask it?)
To answer this we have to backtrack for a moment into the Mishna.
As we mentioned in the previous blog, the real point of the Mishna of Rebbe, which became known simply as “Mishna”, is exactly that: to become THE Mishna. As there was no standard format to the Mishna up until the days of Rebbe and it was clear to the Sages of the Mishnaic times, ob”m, that the Jewish world was about to go global, it became necessary to create a standard backbone of the oral Torah, the Mishna, so that when the Jews would find themselves in far-off places they would still be unified in their learning of the oral Torah. Boy, did that work!
In the generation after the Mishna’s creation, many safeguards were enacted in order to secure the place of the newly anointed “Mishna” so that all Jews everywhere would have a unified, rock-solid, Mishna in place, upon which they could now build the next tier: the Gemara.
For example, the Gemara in Tractate Bava Metzia 33 tells us as follows:
ת“ר “העוסקין במקרא מדה ואינה מדה, במשנה מדה ונוטלין עליה שכר. גמרא אין לך מדה גדולה מזו. ולעולם הוי רץ למשנה יותר מן גמרא“. הא גופא קשיא! אמרת בגמרא “אין לך מדה גדולה מזו” והדר אמרת “ולעולם הוי רץ למשנה יותר מן הגמרא“? אמר רבי יוחנן “בימי רבי נשנית משנה זו“, שבקו כולא עלמא מתניתין, ואזלו בתר תלמודא. הדר דרש להו: “ולעולם הוי רץ למשנה יותר מן התלמוד“.
Our Rabbi’s taught “Those who delve into the reading (a euphemism for the written Torah) (is a) measure and not a measure. In the Mishna (it is a) measure and you get rewarded for it. Gemara – there is no measure greater that this. And one should always run to the Mishna more than the Gemara”. This is, itself, contradictory! You (first) say concerning Gemara “there is no greater measure greater than this” and then you go on to say “and one should always run to the Mishna more that the Gemara” (which seems to imply that the Mishna is more important)? Said Rabbi Jochanan “This Mishna was written in the days of Rebbe”. When (the people heard that there is no greater measure than the Gemara) everyone left the Mishna alone and went after the Talmud. They then went back and taught them (the people during the public discourses) “and one should always run after the Mishna more than the Talmud”.
The reason for the new teaching “always run after the Mishna” was enacted in order to ensure that the Mishna of Rebbe would be accepted and standardized among the people of Israel. And it worked!
Getting back to the issue of Talmud.
Gemara, Talmud, had always existed among the people of Israel. As we mentioned in the previous blog, based on the Gemara in Tractate Berachos 5a, Moshe Rabbenu, Moses, received from Sinai the Torah, the Mishna, and the Gemara. But just what is Gemara? Rashi in Tractate Bava Metzia 33b tells us that the purpose of the Gemara has always been to add-on to the statements of the Mishna, which were always meant to be short and to the point (mostly) the reasoning, the ramifications, and the further depth which lay behind the words of every Mishna. We mentioned this above that in Rebbe’s time everyone was running after the Talmud until they started teaching “One should always run after the Mishna”. This is also clear from the words of the Gemara in several places which describe and ascribe to the generations preceding the Talmud with Talmud. For example, in Tractate Sukkah 28a the Gemara describes the students of Hillel, the elder. The “least of which” was none other than Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai. The Gemara describes him as follows:
אמרו עליו על רבן יוחנן בן זכאי שלא הניח מקרא ומשנה, תלמוד, הלכות ואגדות, דקדוקי תורה ודקדוקי סופרים, קלים וחמורים וגזרות שוות, תקופות וגימטריאות, שיחת מלאכי השרת ושיחת שדים ושיחת דקלים, משלות כובסין, משלות שועלים, דבר גדול ודבר קטן. דבר גדול – מעשה מרכבה, דבר קטן – הויות דאביי ורבא
“They said concerning Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai that he didn’t leave (unlearned) Mikra (“the verses” of the written Torah), Mishna, Talmud, Halachos and Aggados (legends), … a large thing and a small thing. A large thing (this refers to) Ma’aseh Merkava (the verses at the beginning of the book of Ezekiel). A small thing (this refers to) the back-and-forth of Abaye and Rava”.
Clearly, therefore, the Talmud did, indeed, exist before the writing of the Mishna of Rebbe.
So what WAS Talmud in the times before Rebbe?
Rashi, in his amazing explanation of the above piece of Talmud, tells us that “Gemara” is the following:
“גמרא – זו היא סברא, שהיו התנאים אחרונים מדקדקים בדברי הראשונים הסתומים לפרשם וליתן בהן טעם, כמו שעשו האמוראים אחר התנאים שפירשו דברי התנאים שלפניהן וקבעו בהן גמרא, ואותו דיוק שבימי התנאים נקרא תלמוד“.
Gemara is the sevara, (the logical contemplation of a teaching), it is what the later Tannaim (those great teachers who lived in the times of the Mishna) would didact from the sealed words of the first ones. (Meaning that as the teachings of the earlier generations were handed down in short teachings, many times a lot of study would be needed to explain the content and context of the statements), to explain them and give them reasoning. Just like the Amoraim (those who lived during the period in which the Talmud was written) did after the Tannaim, in that they explained the words of the Tannaim who came before them and they established by them Gemara. And the didactions that were done in the times of the Tannaim are called “Talmud”.
What this means to say is that the “Talmud”/“Gemara” were comprised of comparing and contrasting various oral traditions among themselves and in comparison to the words of the written Torah. It also involved the utilization of the “rules” of Talmud in the study of the written Torah in order to find both where in the relevant verses we can find an allusion to the teachings handed down in the oral Torah and also to “plumb the depths” of the verse by using the “13 rules by which the Torah is studied”. Inversely, if something was forgotten or confused these “rules” could also be used in order to reconstruct the halacha by proper utilization.
The Talmud also includes any and all takkanos miderabanan (enactments of our sages, ob”m, as safeguards to the laws of the holy Torah) their reasoning and their laws.
In addition when the Gemara above says that RYB”Z knew all of the havayot of Abaye and Rava, it means that all of the topics concerning which Abaye and Rava argue throughout the entire shas, (ש“ס Hebrew acronym for Shisha Sedarim, the six “orders” that comprise the entire Mishna and Talmud), were not the innovations of Abaye and Rava. They are issues which existed throughout time, from the giving of the Torah at Sinai. They are also the tie-in to the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
After the creation of the Mishna of Rebbe, (henceforth “the Mishna”, as there was/is no other), a new era descended on the Jewish people. One in which there was a standardized backbone upon which to build a new creation. Because the Mishna was now the standard every and all of the great sages of the generations after the Mishna focused everything that they said around the Mishna. Every word was scrutinized, every law was compared and contrasted, and the order and the logic of every statement were measured against each other.
However, because the Mishna was made to be short, full of content, and optimized for the sake of memorization, many times there was not sufficient information in the Mishna itself to make a ruling concerning certain sides of the law or the usage of words and phrases which had very specific meaning in the time of Rebbe, but whose meaning became confused to future generations. This, especially, is where the Talmud steps in to “translate” the information to the masses of Jews who lived in the times of the Talmud.
For several generations, after the writing of the Mishna, the explanations and exegesis of the Mishna were taught orally. Only the “most memorable” of the teachings were retained. Statements and arguments of the great Roshei haYeshivos, (the heads of the Houses of Study), questions that were asked on the Mishna, cross examinations with other Mishnayos and sources of Tannaic teachings, etc. All of this was taught orally for many generations. Again, in this regard, there was no standard given for what Talmud was.
That is until the times of Ravina and Rav Ashi.
The Gemara in Tractate Bava Metzia 86a teaches us that “Ravina and Rav Ashi are the end of hora’ah (lit. “teaching”)”. Although there is some argument among the Rishonim as to which Ravina this is referring to classically it is considered to be the Ravina, the talmid-chaver (=student and friend) of Rav Ashi. The reason for this is that of all of the generations listed in the Babylonian Talmud that Ravina is at the “bottom of the list”. What this means is that, like the Mishna, there was no one person who wrote and edited the entire thing. The majority of the work was done by Rav Ashi in the yeshiva in Matta Machsia, where Rav Ashi was the Rosh haYeshiva for nearly sixty years. During this time his yeshiva “finished shas” twice. This refers to the creation of two versions of the Talmud over the course of his nearly sixty years as THE Rosh haYeshiva. However, as the Talmud also includes teachings from the generation after Rav Ashi it is thought that the next generation, headed by Ravina and Mar bar Rav Ashi, were the final editors of the actual teachings of the new Talmud. This was the creation of a standardized Talmud. It was done for the same reason that the Mishna was, and it is by means of this creation that the teachings of the oral Torah throughout the Jewish world are relatively so unified today.