Hebrew Language #8 Hebrew Literature #5 Talmud and Masorah

In the previous chapter we said that traditional teaching was not confined to halakhah, or the ordinances regulating religious observances. We saw that it was the duty of the teachers to show the connexion of practical rules with the written Law. And as such Midrash, exposition, from darash arised to “investigate” a scriptural passage and to bring continuous commentary on various books of the Bible.

Meanwhile, if agadic exegesis was popular in the centuries following the redaction of the Mishna, the study of halakhah was by no means neglected. As the discussion of the Law led up to the compilation of the Mishnah, so the Mishnah itself became in turn the subject of further discussion.


The material thus accumulated, both halakhic and agadic, forming a commentary on and amplification of the Mishnah, was eventually written down under the name of Gemara (from gemar, to learn completely), the two together forming the Talmud (properly “instruction”). The tradition, as in the case of the Targums, was again twofold; that which had grown up in the Palestinian Schools and that of Babylonia. The foundation, however, the Mishnah, was the same in both. Both works were due to the Amoraim and were completed by about C.E. 500, though the date at which they were actually committed to writing is very uncertain. It is probable that notes or selections were from time to time written down to help in teaching and learning the immense mass of material, in spite of the fact that even in Sherira’s time (11th century) such aids to memory were not officially recognized.

Both Talmuds are arranged according to the six orders of the Mishnah, but the discussion of the Mishnic text often wanders off into widely different topics. Neither is altogether complete. In the Palestinian Talmud (Yerushalmī) the gemara of the 5th order (Qodashīm) and of nearly all the 6th (Ṭohōrōth) is missing, besides smaller parts. In the Babylonian Talmud (Babhlī) there is no gemara to the smaller tractates of Order 1, and to parts of ii., iv., v., vi. The language of both gemaras is in the main the Aramaic vernacular (western Aramaic in Yerushalmī, eastern in Babhlī), but early halakhic traditions (e.g. of Tannaitic origin) are given in their original form, and the discussion of them is usually also in Hebrew. Babhlī is not only greater in bulk than Yerushalmī, but has also received far greater attention, so that the name Talmud alone is often used for it. As being a constant object of study numerous commentaries have been written on the Talmud from the earliest times till the present. The most important of them for the understanding of the gemara (Babhlī) is that of Rashi[In Hebrew רשי, from the initial letters of Rabbi Shelomoh Yiẓḥaqī, a convenient method used by Jewish writers in referring to well-known authors. The name Jarchi, formerly used for Rashi, rests on a misunderstanding.] (Solomon ben Isaac, d. 1104) with the Tōsafōth (additions, not to be confused with the Tosefta) chiefly by the French school of rabbis following Rashi. These are always printed in the editions on the same page as the Mishnah and Gemara, the whole, with various other matter, filling generally about 12 folio volumes.

Since the introduction of printing, the Talmud is always cited by the number of the leaf in the first edition (Venice, 1520, &c.), to which all subsequent editions conform.

Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia e2 149-0.jpg

Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi ha-Cohen, also known as the Alfasi (from Fez) or by his Hebrew acronym Rif (Rabbi Isaac al-Fasi) – Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia

In order to facilitate the practical study of the Talmud, it was natural that abridgements of it should be made. Two of these may be mentioned which are usually found in the larger editions: that by Isaac Alfasī (i.e. of Fez) in the 11th century, often cited in the Jewish manner as Rif; and that by Asher ben Yeḥīel (d. 1328) of Toledo, usually cited as Rabbenū Asher. The object of both was to collect all halakhōth having a practical importance, omitting all those which owing to circumstances no longer possess more than an academic interest, and excluding the discussions on them and all agada. Both add notes and explanations of their own, and both have in turn formed the text of commentaries.


With the Talmud, the anonymous period of Hebrew literature may be considered to end. Henceforward important works are produced not by schools but by particular teachers, who, however, no doubt often represent the opinions of a school. There are two branches of work which partake of both characters, the Masorah and the Liturgy. The name Masorah (Massorah) is usually derived from masar, to hand on, and explained as “tradition.” According to others[So Bacher in J.Q.R. iii. 785 sqq.] it is the word found in Ezek. xx. 37, meaning a “fetter.” Its object was to fix the biblical text unalterably. It is generally divided into the Great and the Small Masorah, forming together an apparatus criticus which grew up gradually in the course of centuries and now accompanies the text in most MSS. and printed editions to a greater or less extent. There are also separate masoretic treatises.

Some system of the kind was necessary to guard against corruptions of copyists, while the care bestowed upon it no doubt reacted so as to enhance the sanctity ascribed to the text. Many apparent puerilities, such as the counting of letters and the marking of the middle point of books, had a practical use in enabling copyists of MSS. to determine the amount of work done. The registration of anomalies, such as the suspended letters, inverted nūns and larger letters, enabled any one to test the accuracy of a copy. But the work of the Masoretes was much greater than this. Their long lists of the occurrences of words and forms fixed with accuracy the present (Masoretic) text, which they had produced, and were invaluable to subsequent lexicographers, while their system of vowel-points and accents not only gives us the pronunciation and manner of reading traditional about the 7th century C.E., but frequently serves also the purpose of an explanatory commentary. (See further under Bible.) Most of the Masorah is anonymous, including the Massekheth Sōferīm (of various dates from perhaps the 6th to the 9th century) and the Okhlah we-Okhlah, but when the period of anonymous literature ceases, there appear (in the 10th century) Ben Asher of Tiberias, the greatest authority on the subject, and his opponent Ben Naphthali. Later on, Jacob ben Ḥayyīm arranged the Masorah for the great Bomberg Bible of 1524. Elias Levita’s Massoreth ha-Massoreth (1538) and Buxtorf’s Tiberias (1620) are also important.

Hebrew Literature by Arthur Ernest Cowley


Gemara – Gemarah – Gemore,(from the Semitic root ג-מ-ר gamar, to finish or complete) a rabbinic commentary on and interpretation of the collection of Jewish law known as the Mishna. – Discussions were written down in a series of books that became the Gemara, which when combined with the Mishnah constituted the Talmud.

Solomon ben Isaac = Shlomo Yitzchaki = Salomon Isaacides = Salomon de Troyes = Rashi or Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaqi, renowned medieval French commentator on the Bible and the Talmud (the authoritative Jewish compendium of law, lore, and commentary). His comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and commentary on the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) remain a centrepiece of contemporary Jewish study.

Bomberg Bible of 1524: Bible with chapter and verse numbers, from the presses in Venice, of Daniel Bomberg. Bomberg employed some of Venice’s leading scholars and Rabbis in his publishing house. Besides Rabbi Chiya Meir b. David, rosh yeshiva and dayan in Venice, there were notable figures such as Rabbi Avraham de Balmes, Rabbi Chaim b. Rabbi Moshe Alton, and the Maharam Padua.
Prior to the printing of the Talmud, manuscripts had no standard page division, and the Talmud text usually did not appear on the same page as the commentaries, which were contained in separate codices. The standard page layout in use in all conventional editions of Talmud today (also the accepted method of citing a Talmudic reference) follows the pagination of Bomberg’s 1523 publication.



Hebrew Language #2 The name “Hebrew” and Speech of Canaan

Hebrew Language #3 Among Christian scholars

Hebrew Language #4 Hebrew Literature #1 Old Testament

Hebrew Language #5 Hebrew Literature #2 Torah, Apocryphal literature and Targum

Hebrew Language #6 Hebrew Literature #3 Halakhah

Hebrew Language #7 Hebrew Literature #4 Mishnah and Midrash




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