Traditionally, Judaism today is conceived as a timeless and ongoing conversation between the Jews and God, based on centuries of religious development and voluminous writings. These legal and interpretative texts, arguably the sum total of the discussion, argumentation, and writings of rabbis through the ages, is commonly called “rabbinic” literature. Rabbinic literature is a religious textual compendium developed over the history of the Jewish people, particularly in the Second Temple period and afterward.
The rabbis designated their literature the Oral Torah, as opposed to the finalized canon of the Written Torah. While the Torah refers mainly to the five books of Moses, it also refers more widely to all of Jewish sacred literature. To ensure the durability and relevance of the Biblical tradition, rabbis drew a distinction between the written Torah dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and the unwritten Torah dictated by God to Moses verbally. According to rabbinic tradition, this second tradition was passed down orally, eventually developed in writing by the rabbis of the third century CE in Palestine and becoming known as the Mishnah.
Thought to be modeled on the curriculum of the post-Temple yeshiva (a school for rabbinic study), the Mishnah is the basic code of post-biblical Jewish law. The text’s many sections concern the whole spectrum of individual and community life—laws of agriculture, prayers and benedictions, the observances of Sabbath and holidays, women and family law, property, inheritance, and criminal law, sacred things associated with the Temple, and ritual purity and impurity.
During the third to sixth centuries, the rabbis of the yeshivas in Palestine and Babylonia continued to study and debate the rulings of the Mishnah. Their deeply analytical discussions in the Aramaic vernacular of the day were preserved in the Gemarah (an elaboration of, or commentary on, the Mishnah). As a pair, the Mishnah and the Gemarah form the Talmud, of which there are two extant versions. The Palestinian Talmud was finished in the early fifth century; the lengthier and more authoritative Babylonian Talmud was completed by the beginning of the sixth.
In addition to the Mishnah and the Gemarah, the Talmud contains material that could better be called folklore, history, ethics and philosophy. This is collectively called aggadah (or haggadah), constituting approximately one-third of the Babylonian Talmud. The rabbis also wrote complete works of biblical interpretation called midrash. The whole of the Talmud (the Mishnah and the Gemarah, as well as all of the Talmud’s later appendices and elaborations) forms the bulk of rabbinic literature, or “oral Torah.” This living tradition of scripture guaranteed the permanent relevance of the Torah and preserved the importance of the rabbi’s role as scholar and interpreter of a living tradition for each generation. Rabbinic commentary on both the Torah and the Talmud continued throughout the centuries, and came to be incorporated into the study of the text.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the rabbis is the tradition of lifelong study. As the rabbis intended, the study of Torah and the Talmud are ongoing enterprises. Through study, debate, discussion, and appropriation by each generation, Judaism is indeed a living tradition.
Rabbi Capers Funnye, an African-American convert to Judaism, visits with Ethiopian Jewish children in Israel (2009), the Jewish Agency for Israel, Flickr Creative Commons.