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Introduction to Rabbinic Literature

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General Terms


The Hebrew verb shanah means “to repeat, to study (something handed down orally), to teach.” The noun mishnah then means “study, oral lore (in contradistinction to mikra’ which is a “lection” or “reading.”

The oral lore, or the body of ancient Jewish traditional learning, falls into three general classes. There is Midrash, the exposition of Scripture; Halakoth, traditional statements of law in categorical form; and Haggadoth, Scriptural expositions of a non-halakic character, such as proverbs, parables, and narratives.

The term mishnah can refer to any single teaching or statement of law, in which sense the term halakah is also used, the sum of the teachings of any teacher in the Tannaitic period, the entire content of traditional law as it had been developed by the end of the second century A.D. (Also called C.E., the common era), or the classical collection of teachings made by Judah ha-Nasi (the prince), Rabbi, in the third century. This is the Mishnah, par excellence. In the form in which we have received the Mishnah, there are additions and modifications that were made later.


Of the same signification as the Hebrew mishnah is the Aramaic mathnitha, from teni, tena “to hand down orally, study, teach.” Frequently in the Mishnah we will see expressions like “our teachers have handed down” or “our teachers have taught.”

The word Tanna (plural Tannaim) stands for a Tannaite, a teacher mentioned in the Mishnah belonging to the earlier times (200 B.C. to 200 A.D.). Because they learned the teachings by repeating them and handing them down, they had memorized most of the text and the teachings.

The Amoraim were the teachers in the post-Tannaitic times. In the early periods they relied heavily on the Tannaites, men who transmitted orally the oral law and the teachings of the great teachers.


This word literally means “the extraneous one.” It is the generic term for all tannaitic teachings and dicta not included in the Mishnah of Rabbi. These are harder to deal with since we do not have a critically edited collection. But frequently reference will be made to such teachings.


The verb gemar means “to complete,” and later “to study.” The noun then means, “that which has been learned” or “knowledge acquired by learning.”

Gemara has become the term for the second constituent part of the Talmud, the collection of the discussions relative to the Mishnah at the hands of the Amoraim. There are different views on the way this is used, but the standard way is as stated here. The Talmud is arranged topically, and each topic will have first the paragraph from the Mishnah, and then the discussion from the Gemara. The Mishnah is in Hebrew, the Gemara in Aramaic; the selection from the Mishnah is written in a block in the middle of the page, the Gemara around it like a fence.


The Hebrew verb lamad means “to study, to learn,” and in the causative stem limmed it means, “to teach.” One derived noun talmid is a “disciple,” and talmud is “instruction” (especially concerning holy Scripture). So Talmud is the comprehensive term for the teachings of the Mishnah and the Aramaic discussions attached to each of them.

In its contents the Talmud includes both Halakah and Haggadah (see below).

There are two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud. The former is the standard Talmud most often used, and the latter is more concerned with the opinions and teachings of the teachers in Jerusalem.


The noun is from the verb darash, “to enquire, seek out, investigate, to expound.” The noun midrash then denotes such an investigation into Scripture for the purpose of expounding it. Hence, we have Bet Ha-Midrash, the House of Study where scholars devoted themselves to the study of the Bible.

But Midrash is the term for those literary works of their study, some quite ancient. Often the title of the individual collection uses this word in it.

There are two verbs that are used for the study and interpretation of Scripture that might help the understanding here. There is the peshat, the “simple” meaning, the straightforward literal reading of the text; and there is the derash, the derived exposition of the passage. As an exposition, the lateral is often an analogical application of the simple meaning of the text.


The verb is the simple verb halak, “to walk, go.” Figuratively, the noun “walking, going” refers to the teaching one follows. A passage that is “halakic” is one that provides the accepted ruling or guidance from the law. The plural halakoth refers to collections of legal precepts or statements of laws.

Something becomes halakah if it is held in acceptance for a long period of time, or when it is vouched for by a well-known authority, or when it is supported by an accepted proof from Scripture, or by a majority vote in the assembly. Once the body of teachings has become fixed, a teaching that does not harmonize with halakah will not be followed.


This noun comes from the verb nagad, or more accurately higgid in the precise form of the verb, which means, “to tell, narrate.” The Aramaic form of the noun is Aggadah. The title, whether Hebrew or Aramaic, denotes all teachings that are not halakic or legal. Biblical students search Scripture (derash), and the Scripture indicates to them (higgid) something that transcends the first impression from reading the text. We shall soon see how haggadic passages differ from halakic passages.

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