The Talmud

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

A collection of rabbinical discussions of Jewish customs and theology. It is divided into the Mishnah (written about 200 AD), which is the first written collection of Jewish laws; and the Gemara (about 500 AD), which is a discussion of the Mishnah and Jewish works, including what Christians know as the Old Testament. Intellectual study and discussion of the Talmud has an important role among the customs and history of many Jews. If you have a story in which one of the characters is a rabbi, you can be fairly sure that they know a lot about the Talmud. And if you wish to debate them or hear them expound, you will get what you ask for.

The Mishnah is written in Hebrew, while the Gemara is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. The Talmud is about 2,800 pages long and is composed of six "orders", each of which is further comprised of several "tractates". The orders are:

  • Zeraim (Plants), relating to laws regarding growing things, like tithes and harvesting, or blessings in general.
  • Moed (Appointed Times), relating to various holidays like Sabbath, Rosh Hashana, Purim, Passover, etc. Chanukah is almost completely unmentioned in the Talmud, getting only a few pages' worth of material in Tractate Megillah, which deals with Purim.
  • Nashim (Women), relating to things like marriage and divorce as well as laws about vows.
  • Nezikin (Damages), relating to monetary laws and court procedures. This is the most popular order to learn in Orthodox yeshivas, as it provides a wealth of depth and logic.
  • Kodshim (Holy Things), which deals mainly with the laws of Temple sacrifices.
  • Taharos/Tohorot (Purities), which deals with the incredibly obscure laws of purity and impurity.

Nezikin, Moed, and Nashim, being the most practical of the three, are the most commonly studied; Kodshim is virtually useless, as there is no temple in Jerusalem right now, and much of Zeraim is considered to apply only to Eretz Yisrael and as such non-Israeli rabbis don't have much use for it (Israeli rabbis, on the other hand...). As for Tohorot...

Although there is only one Mishnah, there are technically two Gemaras: The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) and Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). Almost universally, whenever anyone talks about the Talmud, they are referring to the Talmud Bavli. Most of the Jewish scholars of the time were in Babylonia, and the vast majority of commentaries and places of study revolve around the Babylonian Talmud.

The Talmud is not simply a list of laws. It has an entirely unique style, being culled from notes and conversations spanning decades, and is an attempt at codifying the Oral Torah. There are plenty of arguments (most unresolved), much back-and-forth (you will probably need charts to keep track of some of it), many detours and anecdotes, a smattering of mysticism and a whole lot of stories that make practically no immediate sense, and to which commentators have devoted volumes to deciphering the deeper meaning. To give a secular comparison, the written Torah is like written statute law, while the Talmud is more like a collection of case law and law review articles; the comparison to The Common Law is apt, as the Oral Torah operates much like the American legal system in that precedent is usually followed unless there is a reason in the Torah to arrive at a different conclusion.

Oh, and did we mention that there are no vowels or punctuation in the classic text? (In fairness, that's a lot easier with Semitic languages; to this day, Arabs get by on just the long vowels and very sparse punctuation). New versions, like those printed by ArtScroll, provide them along with translations, though that's sometimes considered cheating by serious studiers.

While much of the text can be dry, every so often one will find unusually entertaining pieces where Talmudic rabbis creatively insult one another or tell wild stories. Even the basic text is practically built on irony and sarcasm, with some of the challenge being figuring out what's meant seriously ("b'nichusa") and what's being sarcastic ("bitmiya").

There are literally entire libraries dedicated to commenting on the Talmud, commenting on other commentators, etc. Some places of study can literally spend an entire semester studying a single page of Talmud. For those who want a broader perspective, the "Daf Yomi" movement is built to spend an hour a day studying two pages (an "amud" is what we call a page, while a "daf" means both sides of a page, i.e. two pages). Under this program, the entire Talmud is finished once every seven and a half years.

The existence of an "oral" Torah was a hotly contested issue before the Roman conquest of Judah; the Sadducees (an extinct political/religious entity tied to the priesthood and Hasamonean kings of Judah) vigorously denied any oral law. Their opponents, the Pharisees (the ancestors of modern-day rabbinical Judaism) accepted the oral law. Today, there are still groups of Jews (Karaites, and the dwindling Samaritan community) that reject the validity of the Talmud.

The Talmud was a frequent target of anti-Semitic pogroms in the European Middle Ages, due to its denial of Jesus' divinity and a possible claim that he was an illegitimate son of a Roman soldier.

Tropes used in The Talmud include:
  • Anachronic Order: Although Berachos is usually shown as the first tractate, every single tractate cross-references others. Often you will see tractate A assuming you are familiar with tractate B and vice versa. Even within single tractates (e.g. Makkot), sometimes the first part of a chapter will discuss minutiae of a law, while the law itself is not actually given until later on.
    • Some say this is why the first page of each tractate is page 2 (bet) rather than page 1 (alef). They say that the Talmud really has no beginning or end, so you need to keep that in mind before going in. Others simply say that page 1 is the cover page.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Jerusalem Talmud as compared to the Babylonian Talmud. Comparable stories are often more intense and explicit. Technically the Jerusalem Talmud predates the Babylonian Talmud, making the latter Lighter and Softer, but most people start studying with the Babylonian, and many never come to the Jerusalem.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: God desires this, believe it or not, in Tractate Sanhedrin. Narrowly averted when He catches sight of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah - the three righteous men from the Book of Daniel.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Known as "measure against measure", this crops up all over the place. A famous example is in Avot 2:7:

(Hillel) also saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it, "Because you drowned someone you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned."

  • Ho Yay: Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish in Bava Metzia 84a. Resh Lakish sees Rabbi Yohanan bathing in the Jordan, thinks he's a woman, and pole vaults the river on his lance. When he discovers his gender mistake, he says to Rabbi Yohanan, "Your beauty for women!". They become at the very least Heterosexual Life Partners, and brothers-in-law to boot, as Resh Lakish marries Rabbi Yohanan's sister.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Averted and inverted; none of the Talmud editions have much good to say about him, and some specifically say (in Gittin 57) that he's being punished in Hell for being an apostate.
  • Jews Love to Argue: The Talmud is arguably the reason for that trope.
  • The Judge : Much advice for arbitrating civil disputes between Jews is contained within.
  • Loophole Abuse: Defied. Some Talmudic arguments get into laws relating to cases which could never actually happen, in order to deduce the exact criteria and details of a particular ruling. However, as Technology Marches On, some of these rulings may actually become relevant later - the Talmud contains laws concerning situations which could be compared to in vitro fertilization and even artificial intelligence (arguably).
  • Old Master : a stereotyped master of Talmud is always old.
    • Subverted and played straight in the film A Stranger Among Us, and in the novel The Chosen. In A Stranger Among Us there is a young as well as an old Talmudic genius. In The Chosen, all the main characters, old and young are quite formidable with it.
    • Played with: When Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah is appointed as leader of all the Rabbis of Israel, he explains that he doesn't want the job because all of the other Rabbis will mock him for his young age. God steps in and makes him look like a seventy year old man.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. Because the Talmud includes rabbis from several generations, there are several rabbis who share names (like the various Rabbi Yose's and Rabbi Yehuda's) while others (like Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar) differ only by one letter. Often they are described as "Rabbi X son of Y"; sometimes they are given adjectives, like "Rabbi Yochanan the Shoemaker".
  • Revenge: A man invited his friend Kamtza to a feast, but his servant accidentally invited Bar Kamtza, a mortal enemy. Bar Kamtza thought that the other man wanted to make peace, and so came to the party, where he was ordered away. Trying to save himself from humiliation, he offered to pay, first for his own portion, then for two, and eventually for the entire party, but the host refused to listen and kicked Bar Kamtza out. Bar Kamtza therefore hatched a plot which ended in the enemy king coming to Jerusalem, the Temple being destroyed, and the Jews being sent into exile.
  • Revenge SVP: See the parable of Kamtza.
  • Strawman Political: The Talmud often gets cited by anti-Semites as the source of pretty much any crazy shit they want to make up about Jews and their beliefs (from medieval times to Yahoo! Answers), presumably because it's assumed not many non-Jews will have read it and are thus less likely to spot BS. Plus attacking the actual Torah would (or at least should) alienate Christians and Muslims.
  • The Storyteller: there are several parables contained inside.
  • Trickster Archetype: Yehudit. In b. Yemavot 65b, she doesn't wish to have any more children after a difficult birth, but knows that her husband, Rabbi Hiyya, is not thrilled with the idea. So she disguises herself and comes before Hiyya seeking legal advice. She asks if women are commanded in procreation. Hiyya answers that they are not, and so having received legal approval from her husband of all people, she drinks a sterilizing drug. Rabbi Hiyya is not amused.
  • Watering Down: It claims that in ancient Israel and Babylonia, wine was made so strong that it was actually undrinkable unless mixed with water in a ratio of about 2 parts water to 1 part wine.
  • What Do You Mean It's Not for Kids?: Though most of the Talmud is rated G, some areas are incredibly explicit, such as Kesubos, which has sections dealing with minute details of sex acts.
  • When You Snatch the Pebble: this book has often been used as a collection of pebbles to be snatched as in The Chosen. That is after all how young scholars are trained.
  • Wiki Walk: Due to the rather unusual set-up, these happen quite frequently. For example, Tractate Shabbos includes a discussion that starts with asking whether it is permissible to perform a circumcision on the Sabbath, and ends up discussing what to do if a baby is born with no anus.