Oral Torah Over Time

Imagining A Jew

Five Generations

Oral torah has so far evolved through five generations: Midrash Halakaha, Mishna, Gemara, Responsa and Code. Mishna and Gemara are together called Talmud. Midrash, Mishna and Gemara all have both halakha and agada. Responsa and Code have halakha only. Agada is storytelling – it re-interprets the personalities of the Torah for each time and place. The storytelling tradition of the modern Hasidim greatly values agada.

The Oral Traditions

Agada occupies the same role as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain – it shines brightly on a time and place and interprets it to a contemporary audience. Agada continued the midrashic method even after halakha was no longer derived from it. Agada continues today. But we are focussed here on the development of law, not lore. Let’s look briefly at how halakha evolved from generation to generation.

Midrash is a hermeneutical tool. A hermeneutic is an interpretative method. Midrash sifts the Torah text for useful information. When this information uncovers law it is called halakha. When it uncovers lore it is called agada. Midrash halakha was collected by the schools of Rebbe Aqiva and Rebbe Ishmaél, whom we will meet below. Sifra, for example, discusses halakha derived from Vyíqra and Sifré discusses the halakha of Bamidbar and Dvarim. There are also other collections.

Midrash halakha is very flexible: A given imperative can be accomplished one way in Sepphoris and another way in Tiberias, but midrash halakha is not subject to standardisation. What happens if I move from Sepphoris to Tiberias? Do I keep my custom or follow the custom of the community in which I now reside? What if the matter involves a dispute between people in different communities? Furthermore, midrash halakha must be constantly transmitted: When the scholars who report it die, the tradition may well die with them.

Mishna is a classification tool. Mishna is standardised. The same halakha as applies in Yavneh applies in Bné Braq, Tiberias and Sepphoris. Like Midrash, Mishna was transmitted orally. Mishna was written down reluctantly to avoid the possibility of forgetting the tradition. Because it began as spoken tradition, Mishna is very brief. The mind of the scholar transmitting filled in the gaps from memory, something impossible to do in written form. Mishna has both halakha and agada.

The agada generally remains relevant to the legal discussion. The Mishna is also indexed by tosefta and barita: Mishna indexed from previous Rabbinic legislation is tosefta; barita is a variant mishna rejected as normative because its provenance is unproved. Tosefta and the Baritot are both inferior types of Mishna. They were rejected as normative by the Tanna’im, but not discarded. They are useful to track the social history of Jewish legal precedent. The Mishna was soon challenged by the social and political conditions inside and outside of Israel. It was for this reason that Gemara became necessary.

The Gemara

Gemara is an extensive commentary on the Mishna. It began in Israel when the Amora’im sough to clarify the Mishna. The Amora’im in Israel had their rulings taken to Bavel. Conditions in Bavel differed to the extent that a parallel Gemara was compiled there. It contains many of the same teachers but does not treat all the same topics. The Israel edition is called Talmud Yerushalmi.

The Bavel edition is Talmud Bavli. The Gemara was compiled in a time that historians once called the Dark Ages. This was a time of tremendous upheaval which accompanied the decline and eventual dissolution of the Roman Empire. There is very little information the Gemara does not claim to contain in one way or another. It follows the classification system of the Mishna both in terms of order and tractate. But the content of the Gemara discussion is discursive – a lot of information may not appear relevant to the discussion.

There are three types of discursive information: Tosefta, Barita, and Agada. We’ll learn more about this in the next section.